Vic MacBournie Vic MacBournie

A weekend of warblers in the woodland garden

It was an unforgettable weekend of warblers in the woodland garden. Here’s how it happened and how it can happen to you if you create the right habitat.

Cape May warbler on bird bath.

A Cape May warbler stopping by in the garden to feast on insects and my selection of reliable water sources.

How to attract warblers, even for a weekend

It was an unforgettable Mother’s Day weekend of warblers in our woodland garden.

It started with a quick glimpse of what appeared to be a Blackburnian warbler flitting about in the blooms of our yellow magnolia tree capturing insects, and ended with me sitting in my Tragopan photo blind photographing warblers from a few feet away as they came down for a drink in one of our many bird baths. The bird bath that seemed to attract them most happened to be directly under a flowering dogwood in full bloom.

Some non-birders (my wife included) might say “so what, they’re just birds.”

To that I say: “No, warblers aren’t just any birds. They’re special, and these species don’t normally hang out in gardens. At least not where I live in Southern Ontario.”

We had Blackburnians, Cape May and Yellow-Rumped warblers… and that’s just the ones I saw.

In fact, most birders know full well that the annual pilgrimage to Pt. Pelee’s Festival of Birds, on Canada’s southern most tip, is really one of the only ways to catch a glimpse and hopefully a photograph one or two of some of these more rare warblers that are all filtered to the tiny spit of sandy forest on Lake Erie. Most of the birds are so exhausted from flying over the lake that they take refuge at the Point of land and, in many situations, allow a close approach.

Birders come from around the world just to catch a glimpse of some of these rare warblers and other migratory birds.

So, to have a few drop down into our little woodland during their migration to more northern locations, is an honour I don’t take lightly.

In fact, for a brief second or two, I had two Cape May warblers (see image below) drinking from the bird bath at one time.

This Yellow Rumped warbler was one of several warblers that dropped down into our garden for the weekend.

How many warbler species worldwide, in North America?

Warblers are one of the most common types of birds, and, hence, they have a wide distribution, covering Africa, Europe, North and South America, Australia, Asia, the Pacific islands, and the subarctic region.

I read recently that Old World (Europe) warblers are in the family called Sylviidae and comprise close to 350 species. In Europe they are related to the thrushes and the flycatchers.

Although warblers look similar and are often mistaken for finches, wrens, or sparrows, they are not related songbirds.

Here, in what is considered the New World (North America), there are 52 species of warbler. In North America, Warblers are members of the wood-warbler family (Parulidae). Worldwide, there are 13 families called warblers.

That’s a lot of warblers worldwide.

But, I would bet that most people (outside of birders) have either never seen a warbler, or would not be able to identify one even if they did.

Warblers are a group of small birds that are also known as perching birds. Their plumage can range from drab colours like gray and brown to bright colours like vibrant red, blue, and yellow.

They might be best know for their trilling and quavering songs, which is actually how they earned their name. Their songs range from rather dull to loud and piercing mating calls in spring.

The name warbler actually comes from an Old French word “werbler,” which means to sing in trills.

How far do warblers migrate?

Identifying their calls might be the easiest way to know they are in the garden.

Their beautiful, almost tropical-sounding songs, are a reminder of how far they’ve migrated to get to our gardens. Many are travelling from Central and south America to far reaches of northern Canada to breed.

Are warblers common in the garden?

One of the reasons more gardeners are not familiar with these birds is because they are not common backyard birds.

The warblers that do visit backyards are elusive and most often spend their time higher up in the tree canopy where they have access to more insects, caterpillars etc.

So, even the more common warblers like the Yellow warbler, often go unnoticed by most casual gardeners who may mistake the flash of yellow for a Goldfinch or even a female oriole.

The Cornell lab or Ornithology is an excellent place to go for help identifying these birds or to get more information.

Can you attract warblers with typical birdfeeders?

Your typical birdfeeder full of sunflower, millet and other goodies is not going to bring warblers into the yard.

You need insects, caterpillars and other creepy crawlies to attract these primarily insect-eating little beauties.

And, for so many gardeners, that’s the problem.

An unusual imge of two Cape May warblers at a bird bath.

Two Cape May warblers enjoying one of our bird baths. To capture a single Cape May warbler is thrilling enough, but to get two in one frame was a real thrill.

One only needs to go on any of the garden forums on Facebook to read about the insect carnage.

In fact, I am finding it extremely difficult these days to follow garden groups on Facebook when every second question is about how to kill insects and caterpillars in the garden.

Let me scream it from the tree tops: “It’s natural to have insects, caterpillars and other creepy crawlies in your garden. Let Mother Nature take care of them the way she has for thousands of years. This IS birdfood.

Okay, sorry for the rant.

And, I’m not saying there are not situations where action needs to be taken to deal with a major infestation, but it should be rare rather than a daily occurrence in the garden.

How can we attract warblers?

But, back to weekend warblers in the woodland garden.

I am convinced – or at least I’m going to try to convince myself – that one of the reasons the warblers chose our garden to spend a few days is the availability of insect life, and reliable sources of water in several areas of the garden.

Without these, the warblers would have had no reason to drop down preferring to continue on their way to better locations.

Black and White warblers are less colourful than most but are beautiful in their own simplicity.

To make the weekend of warblers even more special for me, is the fact that we are surrounded by acres of wild forest that I’m sure would have been an excellent source of food for these warblers.

But, by intensifying the availability of insects through a variety of native plants, shrubs and trees, our gardens can become magnets for migrating birds in need of quick hits of energy via insects and caterpillars. Also, I witnessed a number of the warblers rooting around in the fallen leaves for insects.

Some, like Indigo Buntings and Orioles, (links to my posts) might stick around and call our garden home for the summer. If so, they, along with more common backyard birds who depend on an abundance of insects and caterpillars in spring to feed their offspring, will help to keep any outbreak in check while they bring life, colour and their sweet songs to our gardens.

So, if you hope to attract warblers to your garden, even for just a short period during migration, you need to ensure the following:

  • Reliable sources of fresh water preferably in a variety of birdbaths and natural looking ponds including patio container ponds and on-ground baths. A natural pond with easy access to shallow areas is excellent for all wildlife.

  • Native plants, shrubs and trees that in turn attract plenty of insects, spiders, caterpillars and other creepy crawlies. Oaks, willows and birch trees are good starters but our warblers seemed to be drawn to our flowering yellow magnolia and dogwoods, which no doubt were attracting insects to the garden.

  • Leave your fallen leaves. I noticed that the warblers were often on the ground rooting through the fallen leaves from the previous fall, which never really get “cleaned up” in our gardens. Most of the leaves stay where they fall and are just moved off walkways onto the gardens where the spring flowers force their way up through them.

  • Do not use any insecticides in the garden. Learn to live with the odd outbreak and let Mother Nature do her job to keep the garden in a natural, balanced state.

A Cape May warbler at the bird bath.

Interesting facts about warblers

• Warbler migration begins in April from South and Central America making their way down to Canada and the United States. Some, such as the Tennessee warbler and Magnolia warbler, fly farther north to breed in Canada’s boreal forest as well as a few small areas in the United States.

• The more common yellow warbler and yellow throat are seen throughout parts of Canada and the United States.

A beautiful but more common Yellow warbler searches the grasses for insects. Yellow warblers are more common in woodland gardens, especially those that have extensive forests or woodlots nearby and are hosts to native plants, shrubs and trees that attract insects and caterpillars.

• Warblers tend to have thin bills, which enable them to pick up and hold on to insects and caterpillars.

• Because of their colour and active lifestyle, they are often referred to as the butterflies of the bird world.

• Warblers are fast-flyers and can reach impressive speeds of up to 25 mph or (more than 40 kilometers per hour.)

• They can fly long distances: For example the Canada warbler travels more than 3,000 miles during migration

• Warblers songs: Warbler songs are used not only to attract mates, they’re also used to communicate with one another. Warbler mates have even been known to sing duets together.

A more rare Northern Parula warbler photographed at Pt. Pelee National Park. These birds breed in eastern North America from southern Canada to Florida.

• Suet feeders likely play a role in helping these birds survive the worst winters. So, it is a good idea to keep suet out all winter for the birds and to keep an eye out for special visitors. Who knows, you might be lucky enough to be one of the few who can say they saw a warbler in the cold of winter.

• Warblers depend on the boreal forest. In fact, more than half of the warblers breed in the boreal forest which stretches from Alaska into Newfoundland.

• What do warblers eat most? Warblers mainly eat insects, spiders, caterpillars and mosquito larvae.

• Although most warblers are solitary birds, they can be seen at different times of the year in solitary pairs, small groups and in small families.

• Why are they called warblers? Warblers picked up their names from the trills of their songs.

• What is the biggest threat to warblers: Warblers obviously face many threats during migration from hitting high-rise buildings to being caught up in dangerous storms and not being able to find enough food to survive migration. Other threats include parasitism and, of course, the actions of humans through the use of herbicides and pesticides. Climate change also poses risks to these small birds either from sudden extreme weather conditions to changes that affect the availability of sufficient insects at crucial times of the year.

• Warblers build a variety of nests mostly in trees, but also can be found in tall grasses. These nests can range from typical small cup-like structures typical of most nests, to domes in grasses, in bushes, or even hidden inside the ground. Typical construction material ranges from whatever might be available to them including hair (human or animal), long grasses, spider webs, and soft mosses and lichens.

• Warblers generally have an incubation time of about 12 days. The females have an average clutch of 2. The baby birds fledge after about ten days and are independent of their parents after as little as 2-3 weeks.

In conclusion

Normally we don’t attract warblers to our gardens. Instead, they decide to grace us with their presence in our gardens. We can, however, create habitat that is inviting to warblers and hope that they recognize our efforts, even if it’s just for a weekend.

That same habitat will be an invitation, not only to warblers, but to a host of birds, butterflies, mammals and reptiles.

A healthy garden will be attractive to a greater variety of wildlife than we can even imagine. The results are dependent so much on the location and the environment where the garden exists. All we can do is our best to create a welcoming habitat and hope for the best.

Cape May warbler on bird bath taken from inside my Tragopan photo blind.

Photographing backyard Warblers, Robins and Blue Jays

For those interested in garden and wildlife photography, I thought I would give you a little background. While photographing warblers, I was also able to capture a robin and blue jay so I have included some of those images as well to illustrate the lens and camera capabilities.

My intro to bird photography

I’ll never forget my first introduction to serious bird photography.

It was at Pt. Pelee National Park during the Migratory Bird Festival when birders and bird photographers from around the world gather in great numbers to see and capture images of these tiny birds.

Let’s just say there were days when the photographers and birders outnumbered the birds 20:1. But it was certainly an eye-opening experience.

The bird photographers gear made the photojournalists at sporting events look like they were carrying point-and-shoot cameras and lenses compared to the monster lenses at the national park.

I can safely conclude that, judging from the size and quality of the lenses, many of the beautiful images you see of warblers come at a very hefty price tag.

Serious bird photography can be extremely expensive. Big, fast lenses can cost as much as a small used car. Not to mention the latest cameras, tripods and tripod heads. Add in the cost of overnight stays and travel to birding hot spots and you can imagine how the costs add up.

Robin taken with the Olympus OM10 and the Pentax 300mm with converter.

American Robin taken with Olympus EM-10 and Pentax 300mm F4.5 * lens with converter.

So, that makes stepping out into your backyard and catching a few shots of warblers almost priceless.

I was lucky enough to capture our weekend warblers with two very old cameras and a couple of vintage lenses: including a 20-year-old, 6 megapixel, Pentax istD and an 8-year-old Olympus OM-D E-M10 (link to my post) together with my favourite wildlife lens the 36-year-old Pentax 300mm F* f4.5 (link to my post) and the kit Olympus 40-150mm zoom lens.

Blue Jay in dogwood

Blue jay photographed with the Olympus EM10 and 40-150mm lens.

The crop factor on the 300mm with the Pentax istD gives me the approximate equivalent of a 420mm lens. I also used a converter on the Olympus that allowed me to attach the 300mm lens to the Olympus with a crop factor of two creating the equivalent of a 600mm lens.

The converter does not transmit any information to the camera and turns the lens from autofocus to manual focus. The Olympus, like many micro4/3 cameras have features that make using manual focus lenses much easier to use.

All this being said, capturing images of these tiny birds would not have been easy without my secret weapon.

The secret weapon for me is the Tragopan photographic blind that allowed me to get in very close to the birds. Once I recognized that the birds were regularly frequenting one of our bird baths, it was a simple matter to set up the blind near the birdbath and wait them out.

Blue Jay on birdbath

Blue Jay at bird bath taken with the Olympus EM-10 and 40-150mm at 150mm (equivalent to 300mm).

My goal was to capture an image of a warbler in the flowering dogwood. Unfortunately, I was unable to capture that shot, but I did manage to get them on the bird bath. During the process, I was able to capture a blue jay in the dogwood tree and on the birdbath. (see above).

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Vic MacBournie Vic MacBournie

Wildscape: Learning to embrace our gardens

Learning to embrace nature in our gardens is an important step to discovering the beauty of our gardens and the wildlife that call it home.

Author urges gardeners to stay in touch with nature, our gardens and wildlife

Touch may seem a little strange in a gardening sense. We can all relate to scent, sound and visual senses in the garden and the wildlife that call it home, but touch, well, that’s not something we focus on in quite the same way.

The other senses in the garden come to us – whether we choose to or not, we smell the flowers, hear the birds, and admire our little friends from near and far.

The sense of touch, however, requires us to reach out and experience it. Many times that ability to touch something in our gardens is out of reach – the bird in the tree, the doe with her fawn.

What we may overlook, however, is the way our gardens reach out to us for an embrace.

For Nancy Lawson, the author of Wildscape: Trilling Chipmunks, Beckoning Blooms, Salty Butterflies, and other Sensory Wonders of Nature  (PA Press, Princeton Architectural Press, New York) touch is rooted in memories of her late father and the special relationship between them.

She tackles the sense of touch in the fourth chapter of her five-chapter exploration of garden senses in her newest book following the highly successful book The Humane Gardener.

For more on Nancy’s newest book, check out the four other posts beginning with How senses play a key role in our gardens.

Embrace the spirit of the garden

The sense of touch in the garden begins by allowing it to embrace the spirit in you.

If The Humane Gardener, was a plea for respect and compassion toward all species and a call for gardeners to welcome all wildlife to our backyards, Wildscape is a call to action for gardeners to recognize the problems humans are creating and how our actions are, in many cases, forcing garden wildlife to change natural behaviours to survive.

How our gardens helped us survive the Covid lockdown

In the second chapter of Wildscape, Nancy brings us back to the summer of 2020 when the world was in the throes of the COVID lockdown.

It was a time when touch, at least between humans, was difficult at best. A time of seclusion, of feeling lonely and out of sync with the world around us as most of us remained locked in our very small worlds restricted to our apartments, homes and, for the lucky ones among us, our gardens.

For the author, it was the sighting of a secretive bird in her garden and the long awaited summer rains that opened a floodgate of memories and emotions.

“I’m transported to a distant forest of long ago, where I zigzag on toddler legs with my father across a trail, seeking refuge under the dense canopy when drizzle turns to deluge,” Lawson writes.

“We dash beneath the tallest tree to plot our next move. The sky booms. My dad squeezes my hand, and I look up to see if he shares my sense of foreboding. But he is smiling at me, his eyes twinkling. He says something funny, and we start laughing. I feel happy. Hand in hand, we make a break for it, dodging the downpour with the help of our tree friends, even though we are already dripping wet,” Lawson writes.

Junco clings to a grass left standing through the winter.

This Dark eyed Junco clings to a grass left standing through the winter. Embracing nature and our gardens is an important step to creating a positive environment for wildlife.

“This is my first memory of being alive, in late July 1972, two months shy of my third birthday and exactly forty-eight years before I would meet the yellow-billed cuckoo,” writes the author upon seeing the rather rare and secretive bird fly into the tulip tree.

“Decades later, that rain soaked hike remains foundational to my worldview. The trees took care of me on that day, and so did my dad. It only makes sense that I’ve spent the rest of my life loving them back. Even on the worst of days, as the trees begin to outlive my human family, I take comfort and joy in their embrace.”

And it’s that embrace from the garden – in the heart of the Covid shutdown – that helped so many of us get through the challenging time.

How Covid impacted fauna in our gardens

I remember hours out in the garden watching the birds, the chipmunks and the deer going on about their business completely unaware that a deadly virus was wiping out millions of people around the world.

In our gardens, life went on as usual except for the new-found serenity that enveloped neighbourhoods. To our feathered and furry friends in the garden, the earth was finally taking a break. The constant drone of cars, trucks and airplanes quieted. The normal hustle, bustle and inherent dangers that kept the neighbourhood fox from venturing out during daylight hours were nowhere to be seen.

Black eyed susans and blue lobelia

Embracing nature in the garden begins with planting more native plants.

Animals not normally seen were out walking the streets in some areas. Birds could hear their mates calling out and chipmunks’ danger warnings were heard loud and clear.

The birds filled the air with songs. Bees buzzed, frogs croaked, coyotes howled and fawns cried out for their mothers.

And, our gardens embraced us at a time we needed it most.

Of course, Nancy goes well beyond the garden embrace in her entire chapter on the sense of touch in the garden.

Do trees and plants need a sense of community?

She writes of how so many gardeners and landscapers are overlooking the importance of touch among plants, trees and shrubs in the garden.

Peter Wohlleben has written an entire book The Hidden Life of Trees on how important it is for the roots of trees to feel part of a community as they do in a forest or woodland setting.

If you want to know more about Peter’s book, check out my comprehensive post on The Hidden Life of Trees here.

Red squirrel in the garden.

We need to embrace the wildlife like this red squirrel who choose to make our gardens their homes.

Our garden plants, trees and shrubs also need to embrace in our garden community.

Nancy writes about how gardeners “plant specimens” in order to prevent disease from spreading. But these specimens are left orphaned, not just for a couple of weeks or years, but for a lifetime.

“Our culture inflicts this kind of social distancing on other living organisms even in the outdoors – to the point of allowing plants to grow near each other and animals to touch them has become a radical act. Landscapers and gardeners talk of “specimen” trees and “ornamental” shrubs and flowers as if they were inanimate objects made only for our own needs and pleasures, and in treating them this way we deprive the whole community, human and nonhuman alike,” she writes.

It’s considered normal to force trees to stand lonely in mowed lawns or in thick layers of the shredded carcasses of their friends. Shrubs trying to reach out to others don’t get very far before their arms are cut off with pruning shears.”

Lawson’s message is clear: If we learned anything during the multi-year Covid shutdown, it was that sense of community is important to our health. That same sense of community is important to the health of our gardens and the creatures big and small that live there.

It’s time for us to embrace that sense of community in our gardens, but we can only accomplish that by stepping back from our controlling ways and giving our gardens the opportunity to create that community naturally. A community we all benefit from nurturing.

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Vic MacBournie Vic MacBournie

Wildscape: Acquiring a taste for our gardens

In her book Wildscape, Nancy Lawson explores the sense of taste and how it shapes the flora and fauna in the garden.

A battle of epic proportions rages on in our gardens

When it comes to gardens, taste is not really about style, at least not in the world of Wildscape author Nancy Lawson.

Her definition of garden taste is more about a constant struggle between life and death. And, whether you know it or not, it plays out every day, every hour, probably every minute on your property.

The deer are looking for some tasty hostas to munch on, while the bees are craving pollen, the ants are looking to harvest the sugars provided by the aphids, and the snake would be happy to get a taste of that little frog tucked under the old stump. Meanwhile, those who are on the menu are combining a smorgasbord of senses to fool and create foul – even poison – signals to those who want to eat them.

Wildscape: Acquiring a taste for the garden

It’s a battle even our garden plants have joined in on with their own defences.

In her latest book, Wildscape: Trilling Chipmunks, Beckoning Blooms, Salty Butterflies, and other Sensory Wonders of Nature  (PA Press, Princeton Architectural Press, New York) Lawson explores – in five chapters – the sensory wonders of nature and the incredible adaptations insects, mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians are sometimes forced to make to survive and prosper in our gardens.

For more on Nancy Lawson’s latest book Wildscape: check out my post on How senses play a role in our garden.

A little sweat is better than you may think

In chapter two, Lawson explores Tastescape in our gardens with the introduction of the relationship between salts from her own sweat and the diminutive blue azure butterfly.

“To this diminutive blue butterfly, the flowers bursting forth all over the gardens hold little allure right now,” Lawson writes. “The birdbath is where it’s at: prime beachfront property with a salty private sea lapping at its ceramic orange shoreline. He’s taking in not just water but whatever invisible bits of myself I’ve shed while rinsing out the dish. As far as I’m aware, I’ve left only fingerprints, but to the butterfly, the residues of my sweat might be a lifeline. And soon enough word travels fast among the azure’s cousins, because that evening as I settle into a chair on the patio with my books and a glass of water, an Eastern-tailed blue butterfly … lands on my big toe.”

It’s a dog-eat-dog world in our gardens where insects, caterpillars and other herbivores look for sustenance in our prized plants while predators big and small look to herbivores for many of their meals.

If The Humane Gardener, Nancy Lawson’s first book, was a plea for respect and compassion toward all species and a call for gardeners to welcome all wildlife to our backyards, Wildscape is a call to action for gardeners to recognize the problems humans are creating and how our actions are, in many cases, forcing garden wildlife to change natural behaviours to survive.

When it comes to taste, we gardeners may not realize our influences in the garden. Lawson’s small lesson in the importance of her own sweat did not go unnoticed.

Macro image showing prey and predators in the garden.

This image shows the battles that go on every day in our gardens between prey and predators.

“Animals rely on sodium for a number of physiological processes, including neuromuscular function, fluid regulation, digestion and excretion,” she writes. “From butterflies and bees to moose and squirrels, they seek natural salt licks to supplement their diets.”

Of course, the struggle to obtain sufficient amounts of salt in their diets is only a small part of the chapter on taste. Lawson’s exploration of how butterflies and a host of insects use other senses, including smell and sight to escape becoming a tasty treat is a fascinating study in itself.

“It’s hard to tell where other senses end and taste begins. Touch, smell, sound, and sight all play a role in locating food and avoiding becoming food yourself,” she writes. “The tastescape is a sensory feast filled with moments of sweetness: a tired papa cardinal teaches his fledglings to forage among flowerpots while taking frequent breaks to feed them; a mother deer and her fawn reunite in the evening for a nursing session. But it is also treacherous place, with the need to feed starting more wars among the plants and animals in one backyard than among people around the world throughout human history. From the gangs of tufted titmice mobbing a black rat snake trying to grab a stealthy meal to the frogs diving under the water lily refuges….

“In the battle of the appetites, plants can not only use their own senses to “taste” who’s eating them and shore up their defenses as necessary, but also offer sweet rewards to a mercenary army of anthropods,” explains Lawson.

A log planter is the perfect addition to any wildlife garden.

A simple log planter can be an outstanding addition to any garden attracting both prey and predators.

How the tiniest of ants help shape our gardens

You may ask the very valid question: Why should we as gardeners care about the daily battles for food that go on in our gardens?

Lawson tackles these questions as well as offering advice on how we can create a more natural balance in our gardens where nature can take over from chemicals to keep everything in check.

“Even in the altered suburban landscape,” Lawson writes, “It’s not hard to observe the positive effects of leaving stumps, lining paths with logs, and creating brush piles. When neighbors cut trees, we place pieces of the trunk around our garden, making lemons from lemonade and even attracting ants who emit a lemony scent from glands near their mandibles when disturbed. The compound, called citronellal, acts as an alarm call to ants, who rush to defend the colony.”

Lawson explains the importance of ants – those same ants many gardeners look to exterminate – in our gardens.

“Watch ants in your garden, and it won’t take long to understand how profoundly they shape their surroundings and are shaped by them in turn. In our habitat they haul seeds, bits of wood, butterfly wings, and any other organic objects they can lift or drag….

From the smallest to the largest of living things our gardens are shaped and reshaped.

As Lawson concludes: “We are their allies, ensuring they have what they need to regenerate: the starter logs and starter leaves of a new, ant-filled, bee-buzzing, hummingbird-lit forest.”

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Vic MacBournie Vic MacBournie

Wildscape: Cultivate a vision all your own

Cultivating your own vision of beauty in your garden should include a focus on wildlife.

Author encourages readers to include wildlife in their garden vision

If you are looking for gardening advice about how to pretty up your front or back garden, Nancy Lawson’s newest book, Wildscape, is probably not for you.

But, if you are a wildlife gardener and are in need of inspiration with a very strong hit of validation, you need to get your hands on this little book packed with incredible insights, fascinating tales and love stories. And nothing better illustrates Nancy’s love for gardening and the creatures that call it home than the final chapter of her book.

It’s the culmination of a love story about her father who recently passed away, her sister and her family who fought their HOA for the right to enjoy their vision of natural beauty and, finally, it’s a passionate plea for the wildlife that face daily battles to survive in an ever changing environment.

Creating a garden vision with a focus on wildlife

In her book, Wildscape, Nancy Lawson encourages readers to create their own vision of a garden that incorporates wildlife at the centre.

If The Humane Gardener, Nancy Lawson’s first book, was a plea for respect and compassion toward all species and a call for gardeners to welcome all wildlife to our backyards, Wildscape is a call to action for gardeners to recognize the problems humans are creating and how our actions are, in many cases, forcing garden wildlife to change natural behaviours to survive.

In her latest book, Wildscape: Trilling Chipmunks, Beckoning Blooms, Salty Butterflies, and other Sensory Wonders of Nature  (PA Press, Princeton Architectural Press, New York) Lawson explores – in five chapters – the sensory wonders of nature and the incredible adaptations insects, mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians are sometimes forced to make to survive and prosper in our gardens.

Ferns & Feathers recognizes the value and importance the book Wildscape brings to gardeners and has decided to dedicate separate posts to each chapter of this valuable book.

For more on Wildscape, check out my reviews on

How sounds influence our gardens

Scent in the garden.

A front garden showing a combination of native plants and trees.

Cultivating your own personal vision of beauty does not have to correspond to a neighbour’s idea of conforming to the neighbourhood’s idea of beauty.

A vision for a new approach to gardening

The fifth and final chapter – entitled The Sightscape – turns its focus on vision. Vision – in the sense of the outright appearance of our gardens as well as our vision for the future – both in our gardens and the natural world.

The final chapter is about our interpretation of natural beauty. It tells the tale of her sister’s family and their battle fighting an HOA whose idea of the perfect landscape is acres of monoculture turf grass kept alive with pesticides, herbicides and an army of landscapers attacking neighbourhoods with a barrage of obnoxious weapons stripping the landscape of the very life that is waiting and eager to rise up to fill the neighbourhood with bird song, crickets and the sounds of life.

This chapter is about winning the small battles as a first step in coming out victorious in the war against people and an HOA. It’s about turning the tide of what is no longer acceptable for the future of our children and the wildlife we share our gardens and the earth with.

Nancy is able to accomplish this in a convincingly quiet manner using nature as her guide.

The Carolina wren needs insects, caterpillars and a more natural landscape to feel at home. It’s song in Nancy’s sister’s garden was a welcome celebration of the garden’s success.

Small victories in a bigger battle

It opens with the song of the Carolina wren singing in her sister’s unconventional butterfly garden celebrating a small victory for nature.

“From our chairs on the driveway, my sister, Janet, and I reveled in his territorial music, a kind of victory song for us too. The day before, the Maryland legislature had codified her right – and the right of people across the state – to grow gardens for bees, butterflies, birds and other wildlife. Her four-year battle with her homeowners association had planted the seed for a much larger fight, and now it was time to celebrate the new law of the land.”

The battle between the family’s vision of a garden and the HOA’s is one that goes on in many neighbourhoods in states, provinces and countries in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and other countries around the world struggling to recognize the value of native plants and a new way to garden.

The wren, celebrating spring in the garden, asked for little, Lawson explains.

“But if my sister’s neighbour had gotten his way, most of the wrens’ housing construction materials would have disappeared, and their grocery shelves would be empty. Despite the low demands and helpful ways of these hardworking birds, they were once unwelcome in Janet’s community, where one resident took it upon himself to declare turfgrass the only acceptable plant and to decry the presence of animals as verboten.”

Nancy goes on to explain how this one man influenced the HOA to spend “about a hundred thousand dollars of the community’s money” trying to destroy her sister’s garden.

“In a series of bullying letters, the HOA’s contracted law firm wrote that a garden ‘without the use of pesticides in which they have maintained ‘native plants’ to provide food for the birds, bees, and other insects and animals’ is “completely contrary to the overall design scheme for the Association, which is a planned development. Lots within the Association are intended to be uniform in design and character with manicured yards and green grass for lawns.”

Nancy’s conclusion is all we need to recognize that the battle is an ongoing one that needs our attention, and the attention of progressive thinkers who recognize that we are slowly becoming the voice of wildlife.

Finding your own vision of beauty in the garden is important.

“For the sake of a fake aesthetic – a collective conformity manufactured in the minds of corporate lawn and pesticide marketers – our culture has sacrificed birds and their soulful songs bees and the fruits of their buzzing labors, mikweeds and their heady perfumes, and rocks and branches and leaves and all the frogs, salamanders, beetles, and other hidden treasures underneath. We’ve given up the scentscape, the soundscape, the tastescape, and the touchscape in the name of an arbitrary sightscape that’s dead boring at best and most often just plain deadening. In the dominant paradigm, there is virtually no sightscaping at all, nothing for people to look at and no place for animals to hide and perch and take in the view. There is no color but uniform green, subsuming the splash and the flash that butterflies, fireflies, birds, bees, wasps, and so many other animals bring to a more natural garden…”

Pretty pink Planthoppers, Katydids and evolution

And then there is her fascinating story about the pretty pink planthopper she discovered in her garden. And, like the new YouTube watcher who discovers the bounty of garden videos, leads her down a path of discovery about Katydids, pink colorations and the possible evolution of these largely unstudied little sap suckers.

Equally fascinating are the caterpillars who use bits of flowers and lichen to visually camouflage themselves from predators, or the “color shifting” spiders who take on the yellows and purple flowers they lie in wait on to nab their next meal.

Our gardens play out visually in so many more ways than we ever really think about.

There is the grey tree frog that takes on the look of mortar when its tucked away in a crevice around the bricks of our home, but is just at home wearing its bright green outfit while hanging out on a similarly colored leaf.

And don’t forget about the fireflies that greet us with their delicate dances of light in our yards if, and only if, we put away the pesticides, lawnmowers and grow native plants.

But there is also the light pollution our neighbours inflict on us and the wildlife to light up their homes for all to see complete with massive windows that create illusions of wide open spaces that only end in the tragic deaths of countless birds.

A fern garden in spring with dogwoods and eastern redbuds.

Creating beauty does not have to mean conforming to the neighbourhood. Here, a large fern glen in our garden with dogwoods and redbuds replaces turfgrass.

A vision all your own

In conclusion Lawson writes: “For animals and plants, blending in and standing out in the landscape is a matter of survival. For humans, it’s a choice, and many people choose to blend into blandness, wearing the mask of the responsible neighbor who mows his lawn once a week, or the tidy homeowner who leaf-blows and stump-grinds away the understory, or the well-off family who can afford to hire a company to do all that for them. But far from protecting anyone, our forms of crypsis (crypsis: the ability of an animal or a plant to avoid observation or detection by other animals) are pretenses that banish other lives from the premises and impoverish our own in the process. Instead of blending into the barrenscape next door, why not try blending into nature, turning the trees and their leaves and the colourful cast of wild character they shelter into sparkling centerpieces of the neighbourhood?”

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Vic MacBournie Vic MacBournie

Wildscape: How the sense of smell influences life in our gardens

The importance of scent in the garden is critical for the survival of many insects, mammals and other garden critters.

Scent can be a matter of survival in our woodland gardens

The smell of a spring rain, or the scent of jasmine wafting over us is a memory often ingrained in our minds. They bring us back to our youth or perhaps happier times on a vacation, or spending time with friends.

To the butterfly, however, fluttering over our heads or the fox stealthily roaming the back of the garden, these pleasant smells that awaken our senses, are nothing compared to the really enticing smells of pheromones gently spreading out over the garden.

Wildscape: How scent works in our garden

Nancy Lawson’s book Wildscape explores the senses in the garden including how scent plays a role for animals, insects and other garden inhabitants.

We really have no idea what the gentle breezes are bringing to our garden inhabitants, from the tiniest of insects to the largest of mammals.

Wildscape is a follow-up book to Nancy Lawson’s highly acclaimed book The Humane Gardener.

In her latest book, Wildscape (PA Press, Princeton Architectural Press, New York) Lawson explores the sensory wonders of nature and the incredible adaptations insects, mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians are sometimes forced to make to survive and prosper in our gardens.

For more on Wildscape, check out my reviews on

How sounds influence our gardens

Cultivating a garden vision

Take a moment to check out my comprehensive review of  The Humane Gardener.

If The Humane Gardener, was a plea for respect and compassion toward all species and a call for gardeners to welcome all wildlife to our backyards, Wildscape is a call to action for gardeners to recognize the problems humans are creating and how our actions are, in many cases, forcing garden wildlife to change natural behaviours to survive.

Nancy Lawson, in her book Wildscape, Trilling Chipmunks, Beckoning Blooms, Salty Butterflies and other Sensory Wonders of Nature, brings it all into perspective in the opening chapter of her book.

How animals, insects and reptiles use scent in our garden?

“Of all the sensory inputs experienced by our wild neighbours, their olfactory world may be the hardest to grasp, reliant as it is on the ever-changing conditions that are largely amorphous. It’s difficult enough to comprehend that the world is full of colours outside our visual spectrum and sounds too high for us to hear. But many odours are so fleeting and so malleable, constantly mixing together and dissipating, that understanding and describing their structures is even harder than catching sand in a cracking bucket; you might grab some momentarily but lose others, never quantifying how a given scent compound runs its course in the natural environment, let alone all the organisms catching its drift.”

Lawson goes on to explain how useless the human olafactory systems are in detecting “unseen and unheard communications.”

So, all this unheard communication is going on in our backyards and, unless we know what to look for, we’re missing it all.

“As mammals, we can sense fear and anxiety through our scent receptors. Odours lure us to mates and warn us of spoiled food and impending calamity. But it’s possible to lose our sense of smell and still survive,” Lawson writes.

Humans’ dependence on sight and sound, Lawson explains, has diminished our ability to both smell and, to a lesser extent, recognize how much better the animal world’s olfactory operates in comparison to ours.

Lawson explains that it was only in the last 50 years that researches recognized that more than a handful of birds could even smell. Frogs too were thought to lack olfactory abilities.

“Only recently have researchers begun to understand the social and scent-based dynamics of creatures like snakes, discovering that they too commune with friends, defend young, and babysit for one another.”

Obviously, scent plays an important role in our gardens when it comes to finding mates, but it can also be crucial when it comes to staying alive in a very dangerous environment.

Lawson uses the example of a variegated fritillary caterpillar “shooting poop” as a means of not giving away its position to predators. That same defensive practice can be seen with parental birds who fly their nestling’s poop far away from the nest.

Bee balm is known to emit odours to keep insets and mammals from eating it.

Studies show that bee balm emits odours to keep insects and mammals from eating it.

Do plants use the sense of smell for survival?

It’s easy to think that only insects, mammals and other creepy crawlies use scent to survive.

But you would be very wrong. The plants that we all love so much in our gardens depend on scent for survival.

Lawson tells the story about a researcher from the University of Wisconsin who discovered how bee balm used odour to fend off an attack by one-spotted tortoise beetles to the point where he was almost overwhelmed with scent when he walked into a field of it in the mountains.

That scent that the plants released, the researcher later confirmed, “when he found that chewed-on wild bergamot leaves released twelve times more volatile compounds than those left intact. As members of the mint family, wild bergamot and other bee balms release strong monoterpenes, the compounds that give essential oils their aroma and flavour, in tiny sacs on their leaves and flowers called trichomes. Just rubbing a leaf is enough to create a powerful scent that keeps most other herbivorous insects and mammals at bay.”

How do we affect scent in our gardens

It’s not enough to know the importance of scent in our gardens. More important is how odour pollution is interfering with our garden’s ability to function properly.

Lawson explains the problems bees and other insects face because of general air pollution and the fact that ozone is pulling odours out of the air into the upper atmosphere. But, our gardens are more affected by local odours that work to Jam our garden inhabitant’s ability to take in the smells they need to survive.

She cites a 2013 UK study that showed that when floral chemicals were exposed to diesel exhaust, the scents were so altered that few honeybees could recognize them anymore.

Studies also showed that the presence of fungicide confused bumblebees, increasing the time it took for them to find flowers. “When given the choice, they also showed a significant preference for fresh-air pathways over those contaminated by common lawn fertilizer.”

Need we say more? Yes.

To wrap up the chapter on scent, Lawson raises an important argument for leaving our gardens to die naturally, to decompose on their own and to send out that scent of decay that is so important to so many of our garden inhabitants.

“Though I have been leaving fallen logs and leaves and leftover stalks for years in my wildlife habitat, I was just as surprised as Brice (a young boy she was communicating with) to learn of even more ways that butterflies and bees could use such detritus too. Nature has shown us both that there is more life after death than we could have imagined – including on decaying and broken wildflowers still standing and still sending their invisible scents into the aerosphere, a final gift to animals during their descent back into the earth.”

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Vic MacBournie Vic MacBournie

Wildscape: Exploring the senses to live in peace in our gardens

Nancy Lawson, author of The Humane Gardener, explores how the senses come to life in our gardens both through our plants and wildlife.

Let natural sounds dominate our gardens

Nancy Lawson’s latest book, Wildscape, follows her highly acclaimed book The Humane Gardener building on the cornerstones of compassion and love for the fauna that make our gardens home.

If The Humane Gardener, was a plea for respect and compassion toward all species and a call for gardeners to welcome all wildlife to our backyards, Wildscape is a call to action for gardeners to recognize the problems humans are creating and how our actions are, in many cases, forcing garden wildlife to change natural behaviours to survive.

Wildscapes by Author Nancy Lawson

Wildscape, by Nancy Lawson the author of The Humane Gardener, explores the senses and how fauna depend on and use them in our gardens.

In her latest book, Wildscape (PA Press, Princeton Architectural Press, New York) Lawson explores the sensory wonders of nature and the incredible adaptations insects, mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians are sometimes forced to make to survive and prosper in our gardens.

Take a moment to check out my comprehensive review of The Humane Gardener.

Lawson’s love and compassion for wildlife comes from a lifetime of helping wildlife. As a gardener and editor with the Humane Society for many years, her extensive knowledge of the relationship between fauna and plants in the garden comes honestly.

The 284-page book explores the senses of the garden donating a chapter to each sense. Beginning with scent in the garden and moving through the remaining senses from The Soundscape, The Tastescape, the Touchscape and wrapping up with the garden Sightscape.

For more on Wildscape, check out my reviews on:

Cultivate your own vision of beauty.

Scent in the garden.

The chapters are packed not only with her own fascinating observations from a lifetime of studying her own garden, but backed with extensive scientific evidence found through her wide-ranging knowledge and research into scientific and academic studies.

The results are not always encouraging. In fact, they can be downright depressing for those of us who care about the future of the world as well as the life in our gardens, the forests and woodlands around us.

The results, however, are certainly not surprising to anyone who is paying attention.

Nancy Lawson, author, Wildscape...Sensory Wonders of Nature

Nancy Lawson, author, Wildscape...Sensory Wonders of Nature.


(Rather than write a single book review, I have decided that Nancy’s work is too important to not dive fully into each chapter. We’ll begin by focusing on Chapter 2 – the one that I think most gardeners fear the most. – The Soundscape.

How excessive noise affects our garden wildlife?

If you are one of the millions of people who, like me, are almost afraid to step outside in spring, summer and fall for fear of screaming, obnoxious, gas-powered leaf blowers, lawnmowers, grass edgers and the like, this book will help put your fears and frustrations into perspective.

In short, you have plenty to fear from your neighbour’s obsessive compulsion for the perfect lawn, the perfectly manicured edges and reliance on non-native flowers, shrubs and trees.

Unfortunately, those unnecessary gas-powered machines are not only destroying your summers, they are a direct attack on the survival of birds, animals and a host of fauna that are trying to survive in our gardens.

In her book Wildscapes, Trilling Chimunks, Beckoning Blooms, Salty Butterflies and other Sensory Wonders of Nature, Lawson doesn’t just write about the annoying noises, she documents how these loud, unnatural sounds in our gardens are disturbing the natural lives, reproduction and survival of our garden inhabitants.

How wildlife use sound to communicate in our gardens

Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom.

Lawson begins the chapter pointing out how being in the garden and recognizing the chorus of songs – from the smallest peeps of tree frogs to the sexual calls of insects helps bring the garden to life. She talks about how her own lack of hearing has forced her to listen more intently.

Chipmunk at pond

Chipmunks use a range of vocal sounds to communicate especially when it comes to warning family members about possible dangers.

She also points out how many animals – chipmunks for example – depend on warning calls to keep the family safe. Lawson writes about frogs and toads communicating in through vocal calls and how insects depend on sound to communicate. The importance of sound – the ability to hear and communicate with it – is of vital importance in our gardens, as is the inability to hear it because other sounds such as machinery are masking the natural sounds.

Learning to listen to our garden visitors

Lawson writes about learning to listen to these sounds.

“The bench on the edge of our pond marks a border between two worlds. In front of me is a forest in the making, where brown thrashers churn the leaves, Carolina wrens snatch moths from midair, and red-shouldered hawks perch on tulip trees, waiting for their moment. Behind me is a land bereft, a carnage of stumps where, one after the other, nesting sites for bluebirds and owls have met their doom in the yards of neighbours who expand their own houses, but declare war on leafy green homes they’ve deemed too tall or too disruptive of their acres of turf.”

Wildscape (PA Press, Princeton Architectural Press, New York) explores the Sensory Wonders of Nature in our gardens.

“Eventually they’ll call in the hitmen to take out the last of the stumps too, leaving little left for the woodpeckers who feast on insects in dead wood and sending everyone else fleeing from the deafening roar of life being ground up. Noise often begets noise, and as trees disappear, so do nature’s buffers.”

Lawson goes on to explain that as the trees are removed, the sounds from distant highways begin spread over barren backyards, void of all but the smallest of ornamental trees and shrubs. She cites a study from the University of Georgia that showed Monarch caterpillars living beside busy roads became unusually stressed to the point that these docile beings actually became extremely aggressive due to the stress caused by the noise of traffic. Once it was removed, the stress levels returned to normal.

“I’ve often wondered how animals outside can get any good shut-eye at all,” Lawson writes before going on to write about a study in Belgium that showed traffic noise has significant negative effects on European songbirds, reducing how long they sleep and prompting them to leave their nest boxes earlier in the morning.

All troubling for the future of wildlife.

Gas-powered garden tools masking natural sounds

But nothing more troubling than the constant barrage of neighbourhood noise from gas-powered mowers, blowers and trimmers.

“Like physical illness, noise falls into two general categories: chronic and episodic. Noise pollution research has typically focused on the chronic variety, partly because it’s easier to study and partly because it’s so ubiquitous; most places in the United States are less than a mile from the road. As noise from other sources grows in volume and duration, with more homeowners hiring landscaping companies that deploy large crews of mower cowboys and leaf-blowing soldiers with machines strapped to their backs, the question becomes; at what point does the episodic become chronic, adding yet another layer of aural harm?”

Images of nature help to tell the story of how the senses play an important role in our gardens.

Images of nature help to tell the story of how the senses play an important role in our gardens.

Little to no research exists on the effects of acute landscaping noises on our wild neighbours. But as Davis notes, if the occasional passing car emitting a seventy-five-decibel sound stresses out a monarch caterpillar, ‘It really makes you think: How many other stressors, are we exposing these caterpillars to in our daily lives?’

Lawson points out that, according to global analysis, migratory birds are now avoiding noisy areas.

“But what about the animals who must stay, with no other home to go to? Though wild birds can technically fly away, that’s not an option for nesting parents who can’t leave their young. I can afford noise-cancelling headphones, which help me work while neighbours saw down trees along the road and replace them with “This is Birdland” decorative flags to celebrate the Baltimore Orioles baseball team….”

“Just as noise begets noise, the songs of birds, frogs, crickets and grasshoppers can build on themselves too, drawing more wildlife back home. Together with a smattering of neighbours who also have started to hear the call of the wild and nurture habitat for them, we will try to turn this community into a real birdland – and a land for chipmunks, spiders, bees, trees, and peace-loving people too.”

What can we do to reduce noise in our gardens?

You can’t control your neighbours’ obsessive compulsive behaviours when it comes to creating obnoxious noise throughout the neighbourhood. You can’t do too much about them starting their gas-powered mowers and snowblowers as the sun is rising. They obviously don’t care about your feelings or the problems they may be causing to local wildlife. If they are waking you up, chances are they are waking the wildlife as well.

You can, however, do everything in your power to set a good example.



Invest in electric or battery-powered garden equipment and ditch the obnoxious, outdated gas-powered equipment. Eliminate as much grass as possible so that you can easily cut your grass with a much quieter electric or battery-powered mower. I often joke that I could cut my grass at 2 am and my neighbours would never know because my battery-powered Ryobi mower is so quiet.

Check out my comprehensive post on battery-powered lawn equipment.

After seeing and hearing my mower, my thoughtful neighbour purchased a battery-powered mower, and leaf blower. Now, I have to listen intently just to hear the whirring of the electric mower. I’m still waiting for our other neighbours to follow suit.

Respecting your neighbours goes beyond the human inhabitants – it should also extend to the wildlife.

Try to be a part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

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Vic MacBournie Vic MacBournie

How to attract the Mourning Cloak butterfly

The Mourning Cloak butterfly may look a little drab in its rough coat of brown and yellow, but it’s the butterfly’s ability to blend in with nature that helps to make it successful.

Host plants and ability to hide in plain sight is butterfly’s secret to success

It’s easy to overlook a mourning cloak butterfly. After all, it lacks the elegance of our swallowtails and the bright, colourful markings of our monarchs.

But don’t sell the Mourning Cloak short. Not only are they a tough, long-lived species, they can take the cold of even a severe winter and emerge the following spring.

The Mourning Cloak’s (Nymphalis antiopa) and the Camberwell Beauty’s (Britain), drab looks might just be the reason you are seeing it. In fact, it just might help these butterflies hide in plain sight.

They are often cited as the first butterflies of spring because rather than migrating like monarchs, these tough little guys do not participate in long-distance migration. Instead of migrating, research suggests that the mourning cloak butterflies overwinter in place.

Where does a Mourning Cloak overwinter?

If you are looking for another reason not to rake up your leaves and remove every fallen branch from the ground, look no further than the Mourning Cloaks. These butterflies rely on “antifreeze” chemicals in their blood to survive winter in cold climates, while they hide under bark, in woodpiles, under leaves and in rock crevices.

These butterflies are mid-size – smaller than monarch’s and swallowtails, but certainly larger than skippers and sulphurs. Although they are relatively common in most areas of North American and Europe, don’t be surprised if you are thinking that you don’t recall ever seeing one.

Unless you are paying attention to your butterflies, these ones can quickly disappear into nature once they land. Often mistaken for an old leaf, these guys are masters of disguise.

I have come across them in the garden and the only way I notice them is when I, by accident, scare one up into flight.

Where are Mourning Cloaks found?

This butterfly is native to North American and Eurasia. It has earned a reputation as a strong flyer and is often found during migration far from its more common range.

Not only is this butterfly present in abundance throughout all of the United States except Florida, its range extends up into the northern regions of Canada.

The Mourning Cloak is found in most environments including gardens, open woodlands, forest borders near streams and ponds.

For more on our native butterflies, check out my post on How to attract the Giant Swallowtail.

How long does the Mourning Cloak usually live?

There are lots of reasons for the butterfly’s success, not the least that it boasts one of the longest lifespans for any butterfly at an impressive 11 to 12 months.

In caterpillar form, you might know it as the spiny elm caterpillar.

What are the Mourning Cloak’s host plants?

Part of its success lies with the fact that, unlike monarchs and other butterflies that rely on a very narrow number of host plants, the Mourning Cloak is happy to use a large number of host plants to lay their eggs and raise their young in the form of caterpillars (bird food).

The growing importance and awareness of native plants in our landscapes has never been a more persuasive influence on what we should be planting. More gardeners are recognizing that butterflies need more than flowers to feed on to survive as a species. Equally important are the plants that the larvae need to live on before they emerge as adult butterflies.

Here is a list of host plants for the Mourning Cloak butterfly.

• Weeping Willow (Salix babylonica)

• White Poplar (Populus alba)

• Cottonwood (Populus deltoides)

• Black Poplar (Populas nigras)

• Alder (Alnus serrulata)

• Ironwood (Ostrya virginiana)

• Various Maple trees (Acer spp.)

• Sugar Hackberry (Celtis laevigata var. reticulata)

• Common Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis)

• American Elm (Ulmus Americana)

• Siberian Elm (ulmus pumila)

• Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra)

• Hops (Humulus lupulus)

• Red Mulberry (Morus rubra)

• White Ash (Fraxinus americana)

• Common Pear (Pyrus communis)

• Carolina Basswood (Tilia americana)

• Sheep Sorrel (Rumex acetosella)

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Vic MacBournie Vic MacBournie

Why use a hanging bird bath?

A hanging bird bath is the perfect way to attract songbirds to your your garden by providing them a safe, discrete area to get a drink or a quick bath.

Do birds like to use a hanging bird bath?

A hanging bird bath can quickly become a favourite go-to spot for weary songbirds looking for a quiet secluded place to bathe or get a drink.

The very nature of the hanging bird bath provides some immediate protection for birds. It’s usually mounted high off the ground a safer distance from predators like cats or even foxes and coyotes.

The trick is deciding the best location to hang the birdbath.

The chickadee was captured on the hanging bird bath just as the sun was rising creating a lovely rim light on the bird.

Where should you put a hanging bird bath?

Unlike a typical bird bath, hanging bird baths can be tucked away in the foliage of a favourite tree or large shrub where the birds feel more safe and are able to fly to a taller branch for a quick getaway from most predators.

A hanging bird bath in a tree can also help protect songbirds from aerial attacks from predators such as hawks or owls who don’t see them hidden in the thick foliage or are unable to easily navigate through the tangle of branches to strike the songbirds.

But, for me, the greatest asset to using hanging birdbaths in the garden is the magic they create when hung in a tree beside my favourite sitting place.

I love being able to watch the birds fly onto a branch, make their way to the birdbath and either steal a quick drink or a bath all the while tucked away among the tree’s foliage.

Cardinals, Chickadees, the Tufted Titmouse, and Nuthatches are all regulars to the hanging birdbath. Our resident chipmunks sometimes sneak a drink as well.

Imagine what the birds are thinking when they first discover a puddle of water floating in their favourite tree, tucked away maybe even hidden in the tree’s foliage. It’s almost like they have found their own secret little garden oasis.

I like to put a small, fly-through bird feeder nearby or even floating above the bird bath to complete the perfect secret hideout for the birds.

Our hanging bird bath is tucked away inside the open branches of our mature yellow magnolia tree that overlooks the patio and is in line with my view into the garden. The bird bath sits beside a rustic birdhouse mounted to the tree’s trunk and a small fly-through ceramic bird feeder where they can stop for a sunflower seed or two before making their way to the birdbath.

Hanging bird bath graphic

Adding a hanging bird bath to your backyard is a great way to bring birds in close. You can either buy one or take the challenge and create your own. Using an existing hanging basket is a great way to easily create a DIY bird bath.


In that small area is everything a songbird could ever want.

In fact, one of my fondest memories last year was watching a family of chickadees visiting the birdbath early in the morning as the sun rose behind them. The warm, rim light caught them perched on the edge of the birdbath taking turns drinking and bathing.

At the time, however, I did not have the camera by my side and missed the fleeting shot. The next morning I was ready with the camera and, sure enough, the chickadees returned for their morning baths providing me with a few minutes to capture them backlighted and celebrating a new day breaking in their secret garden.

Sitting and just observing the birds opens up a world of photographic possibilities. As the birds become accustomed to your presence, images like these become much easier and even predictable.

For more on adding bird baths to your yard, be sure to check out my other posts:

Adding water to the garden

Best bird bath for the garden

What are the best hanging birdbaths?

The best hanging bird baths are shallow enough to entice our smaller songbirds, with a rough enough surface to ensure they can get in and out easily and large enough to accommodate a couple of birds at a time.

Larger birds, such as Blue Jays, Mourning doves and Robins, tend to use the traditionally sized bird baths that are deeper, but will still come to hanging bird baths.

Also, larger birds tend to cause the hanging bird baths to swing more when they come in for a landing making them an uncomfortable spot for these birds when the more traditional bird baths are available. It’s always a good idea to have several different bird baths available to accommodate a variety of needs.

Our hanging bird bath is made from terracotta with a blue glazed ceramic bottom that prevents water from seeping through the terracotta base. The entire birdbath can be easily lifted off of the metal holder for quick cleaning. Three chains clip on to the metal holder and a large hook allows you to attach it to a branch or metal hanger.

The terracotta rim gives the birds a solid footing on landing, but the slippery glazed ceramic presents some challenges for birds who, I think, find the footing a little precarious at times. I like to put a small flat stone in the water to provide a comfortable spot for the birds to drink from.

Buy a hanging bird bath or make your own?

There are several commercial hanging bird baths to choose from. Look for ones that are easily tucked away in a tree or can be hung from a hook and would not break if battered around. This hammered copper hanging bird bath available at is an excellent choice. Besides looking great and aging beautifully, a copper bird bath has inherent anti-bacterial properties that helps to keep the water clean.

Other, less expensive examples include this simple terracotta coloured plastic tray also from Amazon. By adding a handful of pea gravel in the bottom smaller birds can feel safe.

This metal hanging bird bath is deep enough to double as a bird feeder say, during winter months.

If you are looking to add a beautiful piece of art to your yard, you might be interested in Evergreen’s beautiful Dragon fly motif glass handing bird bath. Evergreen on-line retailer of garden items, carries several different glass bird baths with various designs.

Dragon fly hanging bird bath

This Dragon fly, glass hanging bird bath that can double as a bird feeder, would make an elegant addition to any garden.


The dragonfly design features two light blue dragonflies making a whimsical statement against a green, yellow, and orange patterned background. This colorful hanging bowl, that can hold up to 3 cups of birdseed, can be used as either a birdbath or bird feeder. The bowl hangs from a metal chains that have a weather-resistant finish eliminating any worry about rust. The high-quality glass design, means it can be rinsed off for easy cleaning. Each bowl is approximately 14 inches in diameter and holds up to 32 ounces of liquid.

If you would prefer not to use glass in the garden, these elegant ceramic hanging bird baths from on-line retailer Vivaterra might interest you. Available in both Green and Blue, these unique ceramic hanging bird baths are embossed with a bird pattern giving it a charming detailed accent to your garden. The hanging baths provide the necessary depth for birds to bathe and relax comfortably.

These ceramic bird baths add an elegant touch to any garden.

These ceramic bird baths will add an elegant touch to any garden.


Hanging bird bath is simple DIY project

Making your own is also not difficult. You can create a hanging bird bath as simple as drilling three holes into a plastic bowl and using copper wire and a hook to attach it to a branch, or tackle a more elaborate set up by creating a more natural bird bath decorated on the outside with branches and moss.

Another idea is to use an existing hanging basket. Plant up the edges of the hanging basket with lots of spillers, but leave the center open to insert a plastic bowl for the birds. The flowers should eventually hide the bowl from site. The combination is not only attractive, but it will create a potentially terrific outdoor photo studio where you can capture the birds bathing among the flowers and foliage.

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Vic MacBournie Vic MacBournie

Best Oriole bird feeders

Attracting orioles to your yard starts with having a high quality feeder that includes the ability to feed nectar, oranges and grape jelly.

Look for a high quality all-in-one feeder

Attracting Orioles to your backyard starts with giving these colourful birds a proper feeder that provides them with a variety of their favourite foods, including oranges, grape jelly and, of course, sugar water or nectar.

The best feeders provide areas for all three food sources, but there may be reasons to provide feeders that focus on one or two of the food sources at different times of the year.


Oriole feeder with spikes to hold oranges and built-in containers for jelly as well as the reservoir for the home made nectar.


In our yard, I use a number of different feeders – ranging from a simple nectar feeder similar to a hummingbird feeder, to DIY Jelly feeders and orange-half holders, to commercially bought Oriole feeders that hold nectar and a half orange to one that holds all three.

If you are buying a new feeder, I would probably aim for a feeder that holds all three – nectar, oranges and grape jelly.

However, this page of Oriole feeders from Amazon is a clear indication of how many styles of feeders are available.

These oriole feeders from Etsy show how many varieties are available and how easy some styles are to create as a DIY project.

These Oriole feeders from Maine-based Gardener’s supply are good choices as are these high quality Oriole feeders from the Canadian and American based Wild Birds Unlimited.

Closer view of the spikes to hold orange halves and built-in containers to hold grape jelly.

Close-up details of the Oriole feeder complete with spikes to hold orange halves and built-in containers for grape jelly. This includes a dome to help keep squirrels away and the jelly from getting wet and spilling all over the feeder in a rain storm.


Where to locate oriole feeders

However, a feeder that provides all three of these foods might not necessarily prove to be very successful at attracting or encouraging the birds to return to the yard. Where the feeder is located in the yard, and how accessible it is to the birds can play an important role in the success of attracting orioles and keeping them coming back to your yard.

When you first put up the feeder, make sure that birds flying over head can see it. Tucking it away in a tree might seem like a great idea, but many of the migrating orioles will likely miss it and fly on by.

Hanging the feeder from a hook out in plain site is a good idea. You can hang it on your main bird feeding station, but Orioles generally prefer a quieter area, so finding a spot away from the busiest area of the garden is preferred.

More on attracting Orioles to your yard, on my earlier comprehensive post.

Baltimore Orioles feeding on oranges at bird feeding station

A group of five Baltimore Orioles feed on orange halves, nectar and jelly inside DIY containers at our busy bird feeding station. Notice the Oriole nectar feeder hanging off the steel branch feeder arm that is also ideal for stuffing orange halves into the stylized leaves. For more on the feeder arm go here.

Once the birds find the feeder(s) however, I have found that they feel comfortable feeding with other birds around them. At this point, I might put up a feeder or start feeding oranges on my main feeding station in addition to the original feeder location.

I have had as many as 12 Orioles see image above) on our main feeding station working oranges, and grape jelly among the seed-eating birds like Blue Jays and Cardinals. The stylized steel branch is the perfect spot to hang additional feeders and the wire leaves is a perfect spot to stuff orange halves into for the Orioles.

Keeping them around and where do Orioles nest?

Orioles can be a little picky when it comes to setting up their summer homes. Remember, these are nest-dwelling birds that do not use bird houses or tree cavities. They create hanging nests fairly high in trees where they are safe from most predators. We had a pair nesting in a mature maple in our front yard one year. If you do not have tall trees nearby, you might have some difficulties keeping the birds around all summer.

Informational graphic on how to attract Orioles

Attracting orioles to your backyard starts with using oranges to entice migrating orioles to your yard and then keeping them there with grape jelly, nectar and finally lots of insects for the Orioles to feed their young.

Insects are key to keeping Orioles all summer

It’s also important to remember that orioles are primarily insect-eating birds. They are attracted to your yard with the oranges and grape jelly as a quick energy hit after a long migration, but will only stick around if there is an abundance of insects to feed their young.

With that in mind, you might also want to set out a dish of meal worms near their feeder to attract them and keep them around longer.

Your best chance to attract Orioles is spring migration

But that’s not to say that you can’t attract them to your yard during spring migration with orange halves, nectar and jelly.

If the feeding stations fail to provide the Orioles with what they need, they will often simply stop off for a quick meal and move on. And that’s okay too. Having these bright colourful birds around for just a few days in spring is still a joy.

That stay could just be for a few minutes to an afternoon or even a couple of days, but many of the birds will eventually move on.

If they do move on, don’t take it personally. It may not mean your feeding setup was not to their liking, but that their nesting site is traditionally farther north in their annual migration.

The key is to make your yard so enticing, that first-time nesting pairs and others choose your yard to set up their homes.

A male and female oriole work the orange halve and nectar at the commercial feeder.

Oranges are your first line of enticement

In my years of attracting Baltimore Orioles to our garden, I have found that oranges are the best first impression to provide the birds to encourage them to your yard. After spending the winter in Florida and other warm climates where oranges are common food sources, it’s understandable why Orioles would recognize the orange halves at our feeders.

My first feeder did not come with a specific holder for an orange half. Instead, I simply insert the orange half over the steel rod that the feeder hangs from. This allows the Orioles to grip the rod and feed at the same time. Changing the orange halves to keep a fresh supply is easily done.

Many of the new feeders have spikes where the orange halves can be positioned. If you are buying a new feeder, make sure it has a location to display either orange halves, or orange quarters.

Don’t forget to stock up on grape jelly

If oranges are what attracts the Orioles to your yard, it’s grape jelly that keeps them coming back.

Our Orioles just love their grape jelly mixed with a little water. Our newest feeder even has three small reservoirs that are perfect locations to add a spoonful of grape jelly.

In the past, I created my own DIY grape jelly containers out of orange plastic caps from a food container that I hung near the main nectar feeders.

I soon realized, however, that the spent orange halves were also good containers to fill with grape jelly once the Orioles had finished with the oranges. The pulp in the oranges however, does absorb the jelly water making the halves short lived as an ideal feeder.

A small glass dish filled with grape jelly mixed in a little water is a favourite for our Orioles and it is easy to clean an refill on a daily basis.

One of our resident chipmunks took a liking to the nectar in the Oriole feeder this past summer.

Nectar is good for a burst of high-energy

One of the first feeders I purchased was a nectar feeder that looked like an orange-coloured hummingbird feeder. It has never performed that well for us in attracting Orioles, but one of our resident chipmunks sure took a liking to it last year. Everyday, the chipmunk would come and get its hit of sugar water from the feeder.

It enjoyed the nectar so much that it wouldn’t stop drinking no matter how close I got to it to get a picture.

Oriole nectar should be mixed the same as hummingbird nectar. Do not buy the store-bought nectar packages with the orange food colouring. Just mix 1 part sugar with 4 parts of water to create the nectar. I like to boil the water before using it to clear out any impurities in the water. I also find it stays clear longer if it is boiled.

There are lots of high quality Oriole nectar feeders that are available. This plastic feeder from Home Hardware is an excellent choice. Don’t be surprised if it also attracts hummingbirds.

Best Oriole feeder conclusion

There are so many high quality Oriole feeders available today that it is difficult to recommend one brand or style. In fact, if you are like me you probably have Orioles visiting your hummingbird feeders more than your actual Oriole nectar feeders. I believe that this is because the Orioles are more accustomed to seeing the red hummingbird feeders and know there is a treat waiting for them inside.

The fact that Orioles are attracted to our DIY feeders as they are the commercial varieties also says a lot about how picky they are or are not when it comes to their favourite food.

But providing them with oranges, jelly and nectar in one convenient spot is your best chance at making a first impression with these wonderful birds. If a combination feeder can get their attention, you can use more dedicated style feeders to keep them coming back.

There are feeders that take an entire jar of grape jelly that some have reported are excellent magnets for the orioles. I can’t help but think these also attract their share of bees and wasps to the sugary jelly. They may even get moldy if the jelly is not eaten quickly enough.

I have also seen beautiful handmade Oriole feeders available on Etsy that would make a lovely addition to your garden. Most of these are excellent secondary feeders that could be added once you have success attracting and keeping the orioles around all summer.

One last thing to remember, Orioles enjoy a dependable source of water as well. Don’t forget to ensure water is available.

One of my favourite series of images I was able to capture was a female Oriole bringing her entire brood of babies down to our on-ground bird bath for most likely their first bath. That was a frenzy of excitement for both the birds and the photographer (image above) and a reminder of why it’s worth the effort to attract these beautiful birds to your yard.

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Bird feeders for sale: Cashing in on Kijiji and other on-line sellers

These bird feeders from Wild Birds Unlimited are a good example of the new recycled resin feeders available at a number of locations.

Nuthatch on Wild Birds Unlimited feeder.

Nuthatch on Wild Birds Unlimited feeder.

When it comes to bird feeders for sale, my best deals have come courtesy of on-line purchases.

Sure, there are some good buys from on-line sellers like Amazon, Wayfair and Gardener’s Supply Co., but my best buys are local purchases courtesy of Kijiji, Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace and other local on-line garage sale type sites.

It may take a little more effort to find these items on places like Kijiji and Craigslist and arrange for pickup, but anyone who is starting out in backyard bird feeding and are looking to save a lot of money getting started, would benefit from spending time regularly checking for items on Kijiji, Craigslist, other on-line garage sales and even local thrift stores.

It’s not unlike creating a woodland garden, time and patience is key to your success.

(For more on creating a budget-friendly garden check out my story here.)

If you are looking to set up a bird-feeding station, be sure to check out Setting up a Bird Feeding Station.

My latest Kijiji purchases are two excellent bird feeders – one a top-of-the-line Wild Birds Unlimited recycled plastic hopper feeder in perfect condition and the other a brand new three-tube copper-look feeder still in its original box. Both set me back less than $35 Cdn. – $19 for the Wild Birds Unlimited hopper and $15 for the copper feeder.

New from nature stores or birding stores, these feeders are double and triple the costs you pay on these on-line sites. I’ve even seen entire bird feeding stations with poles, hooks and feeders sell on these on-line sites for pennies on the dollar. I suspect it’s the result of people who try feeding the birds only to find that they are not interested or that the seed on the ground is attracting unwanted critters.

But we know how to deal with that problem. Check out my post for more on keeping mice and rats away from your feeders.

If you are looking to add to your arsenal of bird feeders on a budget, be sure to check out sites like Kijiji and Craig’s List regularly. These on-line sites are to birders, what thrift stores are to home decorators.

The Wild Birds’ Feeder alone, which has a lifetime guarantee, is more than $120 Cdn. brand new and worth every penny.

These are just the latest of a wealth of bird feeders, bird houses and other bird related products available on sites like kijiji that discerning shoppers can purchase at a fraction of the cost of buying new.

This rustic bird house and feeder is one of my favourite purchases on Kijiji

A Carolina wren on top of one of my favourite Kijiji purchases, a rustic bird house and feeder.

I strongly recommend purchasing the recycled resin bird feeders rather than wood ones. Take a moment to check out my full post on Why we should buy recycled resin feeders.

Kijiji, Facebook marketplace and Craigslist are really just on-line garage sales people use to sell items they no longer have a use for anymore. There are others as well. Many neighbourhoods have their own on-line marketplace where similar deals can be found. Local thrift stores are also good places to visit regularly to pick up garden and bird products on a budget.

These are perfect places to cash in on homeowners who, for some reason, have decided that feeding the birds is no longer something they are interested in continuing.

Maybe it’s the mess that bird feeding can create, the critters it may attract, or the expense of purchasing food that mostly goes to feed the local squirrel population that makes the sellers decide that this bird feeding hobby is not for them. Whatever it is, if you are willing to wait and check the listings regularly, there are often lots of choice available for those of us who have committed to feeding the birds.

In just the last year, I have purchased two bird feeders, two screech owl houses, a rustic bird house/feeder and three bird baths from sellers on Kijiji. I could have bought a lot more if I really wanted, but that’s a pretty impressive haul as it is.

In fact, these on-line garage sales are the first place I go whenever I’m looking to make a purchase. Although birding supplies seem to be in abundance, I have picked up everything from a large water pond container, and complete bubbling rock system (including the bubbling rock), to a nice little native White Pine tree from sellers.

Outside of gardening circles, other purchases include ipods, audio equipment, cameras, camera equipment, car parts and a truckload of square-cut blue flagstone that became an integral part of our garden structure.

A woodpecker at the Wild Birds Unlimited recycled plastic feeder.

A woodpecker at the Wild Birds Unlimited recycled plastic feeder.

A WBU classic hopper bird feeder for under $20

Back to my latest buy. If you are not familiar with Wild Birds Unlimited recycled plastic hopper feeders, you should definitely check them out. They are among the best feeders you can purchase and there were actually two of these feeders available on Kijiji recently when I looked.

These high-end feeders and similar ones are not impossible to find because of what I wrote earlier about new birding enthusiasts who lose their enthusiasm for one reason or another.

There are many reasons people decide to no longer feed birds. The couple I bought the feeder from told me they were moving and would not have a yard to feed birds any longer.

Without a doubt Wild Birds Unlimited products are among the best available. Products from nature and bird stores tend to be top notch but good buys are available on home made bird houses and bird feeders as well.

To make it even better, the heavy-duty, high-quality feeders made from recycled plastic are actually helping the environment by recycling plastic bottles.

In the words of Wild Birds Unlimited: “Imagine a wood-free bird feeder that actually looks like wood! Our EcoTough® Classic won’t crack, fade or rot and has a lifetime guarantee. The Classic has curved ends so you can see birds feeding on both sides at the same time. Perch drains allow seed to drop out of the feeder for ground-feeding birds to eat, and angled perches let empty seed hulls be blown away by the wind. The removable screen bottom is treated with EcoClean® Antimicrobial Product Protection, providing 24/7 product protection. EcoTough® feeders and houses are environmentally friendly, high quality products that are made from recycled plastic milk jugs. These feeders and houses prevent used milk jugs from making their way into our landfills.

To check out Wild Birds Unlimited feeders go to their website here.


Triple-tube feeder delivers for a variety of birds

Anyone who is a regular Costco shopper knows to grab the deal while you can because it will not likely be there on your next visit.

That’s exactly what happened to me when I passed on a beautiful triple feeder several years ago. On my next visit to Costco, I strolled through the doors – cash in hand and eager to buy – only to discover that model was sold out and replaced by a similar looking feeder, but one that sported only a large, single feeder tube. I bought that one and have used it for years. Unfortunately, it’s beginning to show its age and it’s almost time for a replacement.

So, when I saw the triple tube feeder, still in the original box for a fraction of the cost of the original, I snapped it up.

Who says you can never get a second chance?

The triple-tube feeder really delivers when it comes to attracting a variety of birds.

Unlike the single-tube feeder that can deliver only a single food source, the triple tube can provide, for example, a finch blend, a tube of highly desirable black-oil sunflower and maybe a general no-mess blend. The mix can change depending on the season and, of course, during migration when white prosso millet can be offered in one of the tubes to attract Indigo Buntings.

The result is a greater variety of backyard garden birds.

And isn’t that what it’s all about.

While I get great enjoyment from my bird feeding stations, providing natural food sources to our feathered friends is always the goal we should aspire to in our gardens. I have written a comprehensive post on feeding birds naturally. You can read about it here.

More gardening on a budget links

DIY moss garden

Proven Winners Idea Book

Ten money-saving tips for the weekend gardener

Window boxes on a budget

DIY Bark Butter feeder for Woodpeckers

DIY reflection pond for photography

Click & Grow is ideal for Native Plants from seed

Nature’s DIY garden art

DIY solar drip for bird bath

Remove your turf and save money

DIY succulent planter

Hiring students to get your garden in shape

• As an affiliate marketer with Amazon or other marketing companies, I earn money from qualifying purchases.

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Vic MacBournie Vic MacBournie

Bird seed: Complete guide to attracting favourite backyard birds

Choosing the best bird seed to attract specific birds to your garden starts with knowing what seed they like and using the proper feeder. Black oil sunflower seeds are a great start but other seeds will ensure you attract the greatest variety.

How to choose the best seed to attract a variety of birds

If you are looking to attract specific birds to your backyard, providing them with their favourite bird seed will go a long way toward your success.

First, it’s important to learn what seed your favourite birds prefer in your area and then find a good reliable source of fresh seed to provide them.

When in doubt, use straight black oil sunflower seed. It is by far the best overall seed to feed backyard birds. But you may miss out on some of the best birds if you stick to straight black oil sunflower seed.

Info graphic on using black oil sunflower seed

Black oil sunflower seed is the best all round seed to use in your feeder.

Don’t make the mistake of using a general, inexpensive bird seed mix from your local department store – many of these blends are full of filler that birds will only spill to the ground.

Milo – a small, round whitish grain – is most often used as filler in inexpensive mixes.

There is nothing wrong with milo. It will not harm birds, but it is not their preferred choice and often ends up on the ground. If you either see a lot of milo in the seed mix, or it is listed as one of the primary additions in the mix, it’s probably best to avoid that seed mix.

The result of too much filler is, at best, a mess under the feeders, and, at worst, an invasion of mice and rats filling up on the discarded feed. (More on keeping mice and rats out of the garden.)

Woodpecker at hopper feeder

Woodpecker feeding on no-mess mixed bird seed at our recycled resin hopper feeder.

Millet is a good choice for ground foragers

Don’t mistake milo for millet. They look similar, but millet in small quantities is favoured by ground-foraging birds like Juncos, sparrows and mourning doves. It’s still probably best to leave it out of the feeders, but throwing a handful on the ground or in a platform feeder is a good idea.

By keeping the above tips in mind, there are blends at your local department stores that are good, but just recognize they come at a higher cost than the cheap mixes.

You are better off feeding the birds less with a high quality seed mix than filling the feeders with a low quality mix that results in problems and eventually stops you from getting the full enjoyment out of feeding your backyard birds.

It’s also important to realize that birds do not count on our seed to survive. They are quite capable of looking after themselves and their families.

Studies have shown, however, that birds – especially chickadees and other regular visitors to our feeders – do better if supplemental bird food is available.


The above graphic shows various bird seed and some of the birds that are attracted to those seed mixtures.


It is our responsibility to ensure that feeding the birds in our yards is not detrimental to their health. Keeping the feed fresh and the feeders clean should be a top priority.

More reading: Why recycled resin feeders are better than wood feeders.

Black oil sunflower: The best all-round choice

If in doubt, a good quality black oil sunflower seed is an excellent all-round choice that the majority of birds will readily eat.

Black oil sunflower is favoured by most birds because the seeds – in comparison to the common striped sunflower seeds – have a higher oil content, are easier for small birds to handle and are more nutritional for backyard birds. The black oil sunflower seed is extremely high in protein, as well as fiber, calcium, vitamin b-complex, vitamin e, potassium and iron.

They are favoured by our colourful Northern Cardinals, Evening grosbeaks, Blue Jays and House finches, in addition to chickadees, nuthatches, Tufted titmice, Mourning doves, grackles, Gray catbirds, Pine siskins and a host of others.

How to attract Cardinals to your feeders

Most birders enjoy seeing both male and female cardinals at our feeders.

If you are looking to attract these colourful but somewhat shy birds to your backyard, consider providing them with a large hopper feeder filled with a combination of safflower and black oil sunflower seed both in an out of the hull.

By leaning more heavily on the safflower seed, other birds will focus on a feeder filled with black oil sunflower and leave the safflower for the cardinals.

Safflower is a top seed choice for attracting cardinals. One of its other benefits is that it discourages squirrels, grackles and even sparrows from feeders because they dislike safflower seeds.

The small white thin-shelled seed is readily eaten by cardinals, nuthatches and chickadees.

A good mix will attract the greatest variety of birds

Feeding only the small black oil sunflower will limit the type of birds that are regulars at your feeders.

It’s important to offer a variety of seeds to attract the greatest variety of birds.

Compressed seed cylinders have always been a popular choice in our yard. They are available in a number of different mixes including ones that have meal worms compressed in with the seed mixture. Check out my full story on compressed seed cylinders.

Specialized bird or nature stores will even create specialized mixes for different times of the year (winter, summer, spring and fall), for different habitats (woodland, rural, urban, town and country.)

If done well, these mixes can be especially helpful to attract the birds that are in your area either year round or seasonally.

Wild Birds Unlimited, with stores across the United States and Canada, offer seven primary blends ranging from No-mess blends, to a deluxe blend, supreme blend, tree nut blend, finch and wildlife blends. Individual stores may offer further blends developed for birds in a particular geographic area.

Canada’s Urban Nature Store (link to store website) ( link) also offers a host of blends as well as straight seed.

The Kaytee brand of wild bird seed available at Amazon and elsewhere also offer a high quality seed and variety of quality mixes.

Nyjer or thistle seed is a favourite of Goldfinches

There is no question that Goldfinches are attracted to Nyjer or thistle seed, but only if it is fresh and of high quality. Nyjer/thistle seed that is past its prime, or worse, beginning to get mold growing on it, will be ignored by the birds.

But that may not be the only reason the birds are ignoring your thistle or nyjer seed.

Nyjer/thistle seed can be tricky. The seed actually comes from India and is part of their thistle plants. Before the seed can be imported into North America or parts of Europe, the seed must be cooked. Over cooking the seed removes the protein and makes them useless for birds.

If you notice that the finches are not eating your Nyjer seed, chances are it’s either well past its prime, going moldy or was over cooked in the factory prior to packaging.

If you notice the birds are not eating your Nyjer seed, don’t waste your time, purchase a new supply of Nyjer for your feeder.

You are much better off buying smaller amounts of nyjer seed and using it as quickly as possible rather than buying a large bag and storing it for prolonged periods of time.

It is important, therefore, to ensure you buy seed from a reputable seller that moves a lot of stock. Purchasing Nyjer at your local department store may not be the best idea. The seed may have been sitting on the shelves for months before you purchased it.

No-mess mixed seed is a solid choice

I have found that using a no-mess mix heavily weighted with shell-less sunflower seeds is the best choice as the primary food source for birds in the backyard.

It’s expensive, yes. But it has so many benefits that overpower any negative factors around price that it is my go-to seed choice for our recycled resin hopper feeders.

By using less food, and the fact that none is wasted and left on the ground, I feel it is the best value in the long run.

Consider adding in a couple handfuls of shelled black-oil sunflower to make the no-mess seed stretch further.

Birds will most likely store the shelled sunflower seeds in tree bark away from the feeder so it is unlikely to build up on the ground below feeders.

Final thoughts on best bird seed

First, let’s agree that feeding birds can be expensive. It gets even more expensive when most of that seed goes to feeding squirrels, raccoons, mice and rats.

Preventing animals from getting up to the feeders and the feed from getting down to the ground is critical to keeping costs down and deterring these animals.

Using a high quality food that birds will not waste or throw to the ground is an investment worth making. A no-mess mix is an excellent choice and by adding black oil sunflower seeds to your liking you can reduce the overall cost.

Most important, the high quality seed will attract the birds you are trying to bring into the garden and add to the joy and excitement you were hoping for in the first place.

Take the time to find a good source for seed and don’t over feed them to the point that the seed sits for long periods in the elements.

The best and most economical way to feed birds is the natural way through properly landscaping your yard using native flowers, shrubs and trees that include seed, berries, fruits and nuts.

If you are interested in moving in this direction, check out my comprehensive post on using native plants to feed birds.

Over time you can use bird feeders as nothing more than a supplemental feeding station to attract very specific birds.

Happy birding.

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Vic MacBournie Vic MacBournie

How to attract Red-bellied woodpeckers to your woodland garden

Red-bellied woodpeckers are woodland birds that have made their way into backyards across the south and into northeastern United States up into Canada.

Identifying Red-bellied woodpeckers can be tricky

The Red-bellied woodpecker is a regular at our bird feeders thanks to one special food source and a delivery system that keeps it coming back throughout spring, summer, fall and, especially, winter.

This woodland species is an attractive, medium-sized, black-and-white barred woodpecker with a name that might suggest a bright red belly shining for all to see but, in reality, the red on the belly is a barely perceptible hint of reddish orange tucked closer to the bird’s rump than its belly.

Given that the splash of red on the birds’ belly is barely perceptible, you could be forgiven if you wonder how this bird even got its name.

This hidden patch of red on its belly is the primary reason the bird is often misidentified in the field by new birders expecting to see a big bright red belly similar to that of an American Robin.

Even trying to identify the males from the females is quite difficult.

The main difference is that the males have a red crown and nape on their heads, while the females only have the red nape and lack the red crown. (In other words, only the males have the bright red head patch from their foreheads to the base of their neck. Females have red only on their neck. See images below to see the differences between both male and female Red-bellied woodpeckers.)

A male Red-bellied woodpecker grabs a treat from a small feeder on the bird-feeding station. Notice the full red cap on its head that extends from its forehead to its zebra-like black and white feathers on its back.

A male Red-bellied woodpecker grabs a treat from a small feeder on the bird-feeding station. Notice the full red cap on its head that extends from its forehead to its zebra-like black and white feathers on its back.

Red-headed vs Red-bellied woodpeckers

This flashy red on the Red-bellied woodpeckers’ rounded heads often leads to a further misidentification with the Red-headed woodpecker.

The vibrancy of the Red-bellied woodpecker’s head may have originally resulted in them taking the name “red-headed” if it was not already taken by its fellow, even more impressive, red-headed cousin.

The red-headed woodpecker is actually quite rare in comparison and sports a complete, almost blood-red head and solid black body with white tail feathers and a bright white breast.

The red-bellied woodpecker is also easily mistaken for a Hairy Woodpecker, which is about the same size.

For more on identifying different woodpeckers, check out my earlier post here.

How big is the Red-bellied woodpecker?

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describe the Red-bellied woodpecker’s size as somewhere between an American robin and a common crow.

The Northern Flicker, which share some of the same characteristics but is more buff in colour, is slightly larger than the Red-bellied woodpecker.

Both the male and female red-bellied woodpecker measure about 9.5 inches (24 cm) long, and weigh in at between 2.0-3.2 oz (56-91 g). Their wingspan stretches out to between 13.0 and 16.5 inches (33-42 cm).

This image shows the small marking on the bird's belly that earned it the name Red-bellied woodpecker.

This image shows a part of the small marking on the bird's belly that earned it the name Red-bellied woodpecker. The red continues farther up the belly but does not extend to the bird’s breast, so it is easily overlooked.

Red-bellied woodpeckers are happy to feed from the common hopper-style feeders, but they much prefer the large seed cyclinders of compressed peanuts and sunflower seeds that sit on top of our bird-feeding station.

How to identify Red-bellied woodpeckers

When trying to identify these birds, it is probably better to focus on the banded, zebra-like pattern on their back, instead of looking for their faint reddish splash of colour on their bellies.

Both the male and female have sturdy, thick black bills that are excellent for drilling for food in the bark of hardwood trees. Their legs and feet are gray.

A male Red-bellied woodpecker working at a DIY suet feeder filled with bark butter.

A male Red-bellied woodpecker working at a DIY suet feeder filled with bark butter.

What is the range of the Red-bellied woodpecker?

These birds may be common in the eastern woodlands but they are actually birds of the southeast regions stretching down as far south as Florida. According to studies, in the first half of the 20th century, this bird was declining in its more northern limits.

More recently, however, the Red-bellied woodpecker is actually expanding its numbers farther into the north reaching the southern limit of eastern Canada including Quebec and even Newfoundland, where they are more rare.

Backyard bird feeders are often cited as a main reason for this expansion northward.

Red-bellied woodpeckers numbers are reported as stable and in the range of about 10 million breeding birds.

These birds are more or less resident birds that do no not migrate any great distances. Reports show that some birds may move to a more northerly location in fall and remain through winter.

This female Red-bellied woodpecker works a seed cylinder. Notice the red cap does not extend down to the birds forehead, unlike the male.

What is the oldest Red-bellied woodpecker identified?

The oldest known woodpecker was a male found in Georgia where its band indicated it was more than 12 years old.

Most of the woodpeckers, however, do not live more than 11 years with a range of between 4-11 years depending on the type and their range.

Most of the Red-bellied diet consists of insects and spiders, but when insects are more rare, they are also happy to dine on other foods, including seeds, berries and fruit. In fact, during some seasons they eat up to 50 per cent seeds (including pine cones and acorns in the wild).


In the fall and winter they will also eat plenty of fruit such as wild grapes and other berries that remain on the trees and shrubs throughout the winter.

It’s always a good idea to include berry- and fruit-producing trees and shrubs to provide natural food for backyard wildlife.

(Be sure to check out my complete post on using native flowers, shrubs trees and vines to feed birds and other wildlife.)

What do Red-bellied woodpeckers eat in our backyards?

In our backyard, the Red-bellied woodpeckers are quick to come to the feeders to fill up on sunflower seeds and peanuts.

Red-bellied woodpeckers are happy to feed from the common hopper-style feeders, but they much prefer the large seed cyclinders of compressed peanuts and sunflower seeds that sit on top of our bird-feeding station.

I purchase the cylinder specifically labelled for woodpeckers and they seem to do the trick.

A dish of dried or live meal worms will certainly help get their attention and compressed seed cyclinders that include meal worms, berries, nuts and sunflower seeds are always welcomed by these noisey birds.

These large cylinders are by far their favourite, not only for their easy source of seeds, but for the ease that the birds can get at the food.

The cylinders provide a very natural perch for the woodpeckers to take advantage of their large beaks to extract the seeds.

woodpecker and blue jay at a seed cyclinder.

An immature woodpecker without head feathers and a blue jay work the compressed seed cylinder at the bird feeding station.

Sitting in my Tragopan photographic blind watching the woodpeckers working the seed cylinder is fascinating with bits of seed flying in all directions. The cylinders keep the birds at the location for a number of minutes, making viewing and photographing them a real joy.

(Be sure to check out my comprehensive post of Using seed cylinders in the garden. Not only are they a great food source for birds, but because they hold the seed better than hopper feeders, they help to deter mice and rats from eating seeds that are thrown to the ground by Jays and other picky birds.)

As winter progresses, I like to add more high-protein suet to their diet.

Suet bricks are popular and easy to add to the specially made cage feeders, but don’t overlook DIY suet logs that are easy to make from an old branch. Just drill some holes in it and pack the holes with suet for a more natural feeder that works particularly well if you are trying to photograph the birds in a more natural setting.

I like to use a product called bark butter to work into the holes. It is particularly attractive to a host of backyard birds.

Hopper-style feeders are great for small birds but can be awkward for larger birds like woodpeckers who prefer the compressed seed cylinder (above) and natural feeders log a suet log or the larger suet feeders with a tail prop.

Hopper-style feeders are great for small birds but can be awkward for larger birds like woodpeckers who prefer the compressed seed cylinder (above) and natural feeders log a suet log or the larger suet feeders with a tail prop.

(Check out my separate post on the benefit of Using bark butter to attract woodpeckers.)

Because they are quite large woodpeckers, the suet feeders with the tail prop work extremely well and are highly recommended. The recycled resin feeders, while they are more expensive, are easier to clean and will last a lifetime. This Songbird Essential suet feeder from Amazon combines the recycled plastic with a large tail prop for larger woodpeckers including The Pileated woodpeckers. Gardener’s Supply Company has their own take on the suet feeder with prop also in a recycled resin.

Image of a suet feeder with a tail prop for larger woodpeckers.

Here is a recycled plastic suet feeder complete with a tail prop for larger woodpeckers.


In addition, suet feeders that force the birds to hang upsidedown while they are feeding also work well and they are particularly good if squirrels regularly feed on your suet.

(Check out my post on why Modern resin bird feeders are a better choice than wood feeders.)

And, don’t be surprised to see a Red-bellied woodpecker on one of your hummingbird or a Baltimore Oriole feeders during the summer.

Not only will they help themselves to orange slices and the grape jelly set out for the Orioles, these woodpeckers have discovered the sweet nectar in the feeders and will help themselves to the instant source of energy. They may also be attracted to insects that are constantly around the feeders.

(Check out my earlier post on attracting Baltimore Orioles and another post on attracting hummingbirds to your garden.)

A snag or old dying tree creates an ideal habitat for woodpeckers and other tree-dwelling birds.

A snag or old dying tree creates an ideal habitat for woodpeckers and other tree-dwelling birds.

Dead trees (snags) are important habitat for Red-bellied woodpeckers

Woodpeckers are tree-cavity nesters, so it’s important to leave dead trees (snags) in your garden for them.

In a natural setting, these birds will typically nest in a dead tree or, in more suburban areas where dead trees are harder to come by, in a rotting fencepost or even in the side of a wood-sided home if given the opportunity.

They like to nest less than 50 feet above ground but have been known to nest more than 100 feet above ground.

They have also been known to use larger nest boxes in more urban settings and some specialty bird stores sell size-appropriate boxes.

The importance of leaving dead trees in the yard cannot be underestimated. Not only may you discover a pair nesting in the tree, but the dead tree offers hiding places for a host of insects the woodpeckers will feed on with their long, sticky, forked tongue that can actually protrude as much as 2 inches into crevices to pull out insects and beetle larvae hiding in the snags.

In addition, woodpeckers, along with other birds like Chickadees and Nuthatches, also store food in the crevices of tree bark and snags to snack on later when food is more scarce.

(Be sure to check out my comprehensive post on why we should leave dead trees in our yards.)

Do Red-bellied woodpeckers mate for life?

Unlike blue jays and other birds, Red-bellied woodpeckers do not mate for life, but they are monogamous during a mating season. They usually pair up in late winter and remain together during the nesting season. They will find a new mate the following year.

The Red-bellied woodpecker breeds once per year, usually in March or April, when the female lays an average of 4 eggs. About 12 days later the babies begin to emerge and have fledged the nest within about 27 days. They remain around their parents for between 2 and 10 weeks before going out on their own entirely.

Red-belly woodpecker wrap up

Attracting Red-belly woodpeckers is not really difficult if you are lucky enough to live in their range. It helps if you are also lucky enough to live near a forested area or have created a large woodland-style garden where these birds can feel at home.

Include large snags, berry and fruit trees and vines, a reliable source of water and good quality sunflower and nuts at your bird-feeding station. A large seed cylinder and suet placed into a resin feeder with a tail prop will go a long way to attract these very vocal and fun birds to your yard.

And, while they are setting up residence, don’t forget that their voracious appetites for insects and spiders will help to keep their numbers down.

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backyard birds Vic MacBournie backyard birds Vic MacBournie

American Robins: How to attract them to our yards

The American robin has always been a mainstay in our backyard whether they are eating crabapples or enjoying themselves in the bird bath.

More of these spring harbingers are remaining all winter

Most of us remember the first sign of spring involved an orange breasted bird and a worm.

Once we saw our first Robin pulling a worm out of the grass it was officially spring. Today, many of those same orange breasted birds are sticking around all winter living off berries, bugs, larvae and anything else they can scrounge to get them through our winters.

Milder winters resulting from climate change are certainly playing a role in more American Robins remaining in their northerly limits, but the threat of sudden and prolonged periods of freezing temperatures combined with heavy snow fall can certainly put the birds in severe danger.

It’s another good reason to ensure we do our best to supplement our bird feeders with more natural food for the birds – berries, fruit and even meal worms – especially during the winter.

Be sure to check out my comprehensive post on the best plants to feed birds naturally and save money.

An American Robin sits atop a rustic bird house in spring.

Robins are regulars in our backyard

Throughout most of the winter, I watch a small flock of American Robins feeding off of our two crabapple trees in the back of the yard. I suspect it is an important food source for the resident Robins, when other food supplies in the area are scarce.

The American Robin is probably one of the most familiar birds in North America. In fact, it is actually the state bird of three northeastern states – Connecticut, Michigan and Wisconsin.

American Robins love their bird baths. Be sure to add a couple of large bird baths to keep the robins returning to your yard.

Where did the American Robin gets its name?

The American Robin got its name from European settlers who named it after the more diminutive and cheerful European Robin, which sports an equally impressive red breast and is often referred to as “Robin Redbreast.”

Although it is easy to see that the colouring of the two birds resulted in the identical names, the similarities more or less end there.

The American robin is actually a member of the thrush family and is much larger than its European namesake. Those who have studied the history, say that the two birds were given the same name as much for their character as their colourings. Both birds readily adapt to urban areas and are happy to live among humans, in fact, they eagerly stay close by to benefit from potential insects we sometimes stir up in the garden.

The water in this DIY bird bath is kept warm enough for the birds to use even in the coldest months of the year.

The water in this DIY bird bath is kept warm enough for the birds to use even in the coldest months of the year.

Whether you are in England digging a new garden bed or New York, chances are a robin is nearby watching your every move. And, don’t be surprised if they come right down to your feet to nab an unearthed worm or other insect.

It turns out the European settlers didn’t stop giving North American birds the Robin moniker after bestowing it upon the American Robin. Apparently, even our beloved bluebirds were tagged with the name robin. That’s understandable since the Eastern bluebird sports a lovely orange breast and reflects many of the traits of the European robin when it comes to size and characteristics.

But that didn’t end the Europeans obsession with naming our birds after their beloved robins. Towhees originally earned the name ground robin and Baltimore Orioles were called the Golden Robin.

This American Robin was attracted by the sound of water spilling from the solar-powered dripper.

This American Robin was attracted by the sound of water spilling from the solar-powered dripper.

Obviously all four sport red-orange breasts that undoubtedly played a role in being compared to the friendly European robin, a mainstay in any British garden.

In fact, the American robin in all but colouring, is more related and shares more things in common to the Eurasian blackbird. Other than its colouring –which is all black – the blackbird is also in the thrush family and sports similarly to the American robin, a yellow beak and white around its eye.

Early Americans also called the bird the wandering thrush, which seems a more accurate description.

Robins love a good bath

If there is one thing in our garden that the robins love most, it’s our many bird baths sprinkled about. if you are looking to attract Robins to your yard, a couple of good, solid, large bird baths are essential. You will be amply rewarded, if you can keep a good reliable source of water for them throughout the winter.

Be sure to check out my article on creating a DIY heated bird bath for the winter.

American Robin is actually a woodland bird

Although the birds are a common sight in residential yards and parks, this wasn’t always the case. American Robins are actually woodland or forest dwelling birds that have learned to adapt to the abundance of food – primarily worms in grass – in surburban landscapes.

Many of our American Robins end up returning to woodlands and more “wild” areas in the winter,where they can more easily find food – in an abundance of berries and other fruit as well as overwintering insects and larvae.

Creating a more natural yard, by planting plenty of native berries as well as leaving leaf litter for overwintering insects and larvae, will help to attract these wonderful birds throughout the winter.

Creating this natural food source in your woodland/wildlife garden will also go a long way to ensure the survival of the American Robin in your neighbourhood.

Robins love their bird baths. Be sure to ad a birdbath or small pond to attract these members of the Thrush family.

Robins love their bird baths. Be sure to ad a birdbath or small pond to attract these members of the Thrush family.

How do Robins survive winter?

During the winter, it is common to see the Robins travelling in large flocks where they work together to find natural food sources. Winter roosts can be huge with some estimates reaching more than two hundred thousand birds.

But, just because you see flocks of Robins in your area one year, does not mean they will necessarily return the following year.

Robins tend to be nomadic birds that don’t follow the typical north to south migration route. Individual Robins get around and may winter in completely different geographic areas from one winter to another. They have been known to travel long distances between states following the abundance of food in any given year.

Each spring, however, Robins return to their original nesting area and have even been known to use the previous year’s nest – with some modern improvements of course – if it proved successful the previous year.

A few facts about Robins

• In more northern regions of Ontario for example, Robins continue to be known as the harbingers of spring. They tend to show up around the end of March through early April as the warmer weather thaws the ground making worms and other insects more accessible.

• Worms only make up 15-20 per cent of the Robin’s summer diet. The rest is made up of other insects, fruits and berries.

•Robins tend to eat more earth worms in the early morning when they are more visible and closer to the surface, and turn to fruit later in the day.

• Robins belong to the Thrush family – family of birds known for their beautiful songs. Because Robins tend to hang out in neighbourhoods and around other human-dominated habitats, their spring songs are very familiar to most of us wheter we know it or not. Their rich, cheerful songs fill our neighbourhood each spring when they are particularly vocal announcing the arrival of spring and their readiness to mate and get on with building their families. Robins are known to sing their songs throughout the day and even will after sunset.

• Because Robins are comfortable in our gardens and around humans, it is not uncommon to have a pair nesting close to our homes and high-traffic areas such as on top of exterior lights, in hanging baskets on garden ornaments or just about anywhere the pair can find a good sturdy structure to build their nest. Last year, our neighbours had a pair nesting in a wreath near their front door, seemingly oblivious to all the comings and goings.

The birds’ ease around us often provides excellent opportunities to observe the family as they grow up in front of our eyes.

They can be the perfect opportunity for children to be exposed to the beauty of nature as they watch the parents on the nest, feeding the young and eventually watch as the fledglings leave the nest.

If you have children or grandchildren who express an interest in nature, be sure to check out my comprehensive post about why children need more nature in their lives.

Robins can nest up to three times in a breeding season, often using the same nest. However only about 40 per cent of the nests produce young and only about 25 per cent of those young Robins survive through fall to take on the winter. About half of the Robins that go into winter survive to mate the following spring.

Given those statistics, it’s not surprising that American Robins have an average lifespan of about 1.5 to two years, but they can live longer if given the right environment. For example, the longest lived American Robin recorded in the wild was almost 14 years old.

How to identify the American Robin

The American Robin is one of the easiest birds to identify with their rusty red belly against a greyish-black upper body, a bright yellow beak and white markings around their eyes.

These rather large birds measure around 25 centimeters long and weigh in at 77 grams, making them the largest thrush in North America.

The can be found right across North America from the farthest reaches of Alaska in the north, across to Canada’s Newfoundland and down south from Florida across to California.

Are American Robins threatened?

Robins face a hose of deadly foes around our residential gardens from the over use of insecticides especially on turf grass where they feed on worms and other insects, to the presence of unnatural predators such as cats, and collisions with windows.

Be sure to check out my two earlier posts on protecting birds from stray cats and how to protect birds from window strikes.

A more serious threat that has recently attacked American Robins is the mosquito-born virus West Nile that has killed a stunning number of both Robins and Blue Jays.

Be sure to check out this link for my comprehensive post on Blue Jays and West Nile.

Despite these challenges, the good news is that studies are showing that the American robin populations over the past 40 years have slowly increased. This increase is thought to be related to their ability to adapt their lifestyle to live comfortably in our suburban neighbourhoods.

The combination of a more readily accessible food source (worms), safe nesting places (unnatural as many of them are) and milder winters have no doubt combined to provide American robins with a fabourable environment despite the many threats they face in the suburban landscape.

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Vic MacBournie Vic MacBournie

What’s the best Blue Jay feeder?

Here are two bird feeders you will want to check out that are magnets for our noisy blue jays.

Two of the best feeders to attract Blue Jays

Attracting Blue Jays to your yard begins with having the right bird feeders to deliver their favourite food.

In our yard, there are two feeders that do an excellent job attracting our northern blue jays year round.

The best Blue Jay feeders are both simple and inexpensive, and deliver Blue Jays’ their favourite foods in a convenient way that allows them to perch comfortably while feeding. A seed cylinder spike, and a wreath-style whole peanut feeder are two of the best feeders for blue jays.

If you follow this website, you’ll know that my all-round favourite bird feeder is a simple attachment to the Wild Birds Unlimited Advanced Pole system. It involves nothing but a spike that sits on top of the pole and holds a variety of compressed seed cyclinders.

Blue jays flock to a compressed seed feeder at the backyard bird feeding station.

Blue jays flock to a compressed seed feeder at the backyard bird feeding station.

This is a very simple system that works for me and the birds. The one problem I have is that the seed cyclinder is directly open to the elements. This allows the Jays and other birds to have easy access to the sides as well as the top of the seed cyclinders, but it also allows water to eventually get into the seed and begin to break down the “glue” (it’s actually a gelatin that works like glue), leading to the enventual early demise of the seed cyclinder.

Information graphic shows blue jays favourite foods

Peanuts as well as compressed seed cyclinders are among the favourite food sources of our blue jays.

There are seed cylinder feeders that include toppers to help protect the cyclinders from being totally exposed to the elements. I think they are certainly worth considering, especially if you live in a particularly rainy or snowy environment.

The spike is simply the delivery system for the seed cyclinders, so it’s paricularly important to provide the Blue Jays with their favourite foods in the cyclinders. Look for compressed seed cylinders high in their favourite foods – black oil sunflower seeds, regular sunflower seeds and unshelled peanuts.

Compressed seed feeder and wreath peanut feeder is the perfect combination to attract blue jays.

A peanut wreath feeder and a compressed seed cylinder feeder is the idea combination to attract blue jays.


One of the main reasons the cylinders are so attractive to blue jays and less attractive to some other backyard birds, is the fact that blue jays have very strong beaks that allow them to pound at the cyclinders to get the seeds they want. Our cyclinders are most visited by blue jays and woodpeckers. Other, smaller birds, are left to pick up the pieces of seed that fall off when the jays and woodpeckers attack the cylinders.

If you are interested in more information on attracting Blue Jays to your backyard, check out my post on Blue Jays and West Nile.

The spiked bird feeder that holds the compressed seed cyclinders doesn’t have to go on the top of a pole. Attachments are available to use a spike and seed cyclinder attachment as an accessory on other parts of either the WBU Advanced Pole System or other bird feeding station. Some spike-style accessories can be hung on feeders after inserting the seed cylinder, so there is no excuse for not adding one to your bird feeding station.

The wreath style bird feeder is particularly attractive to blue jays lookingfor their favourite food source – unshelled peanuts.

Blue jays love a wreath-style feeder that holds one of their favourite foods – unshelled peanuts.

Blue jays flock to the Wreath feeder for peanuts

While the seed cyclinder feeders are excellent for attracting blue jays to your yard, I think the wreath feeder filled with shelled peanuts is the best feeder to attract the birds.

The main reason for the success of the wreath feeder is what we will them with – shelled peanuts. I think shelled peanuts are blue jays’ favourite food. And, because the shells are difficult for smaller birds to penetrate, you can count on your blue jays to get most if not all of the peanuts. The wreath feeder can accommodate a number of blue jays at one time and provides them a good perch to remove the whole peanuts from the cyclinder.

Woodpeckers also enjoy whole peanuts in the wreath, but they primarily peck away at the peanuts rather than remove them to eat elsewhere like blue jays do.

The only problem I have with a wreath-style feeder is loading it with peanutes. While it’s not particularly difficult, I find loading them by hand can be a little bit tedious. I’m sure there are better ways to load peanuts into the feeder, but so far I have not discovered it.

The wreath feeders are a particularly effective way of delivering whole peanuts, but there are several other ways to deliver whole peanuts that can also work.

The Urban Nature Store in Canada actually groups their feeders according to what feeders are best for specific birds. Check out their list of best blue jay bird feeders just to get a feel for what feeders are best.

Check out your local bird store for other peanut feeders.

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Vic MacBournie Vic MacBournie

Rick Sammon: How to photograph backyard birds

Rick Sammon, often referred to as the “Godfather of Photography,” puts both his photography skills and love for teaching together at KelbyOne with his course on photographing Birds in the backyard and beyond.

KelbyOne course: Tips to turn anyone into a backyard bird photographer

Rick Sammon knows photography and he’s looking to share what he knows – especially when it comes to Backyard bird photography.

Whether it’s capturing a colourful cardinal, documenting his latest travel adventure, or nailing a backyard bird in flight, Rick is more than willing to share his expertise and practical how-to advice after more than 40 years of photography.

That includes, at last count, more than 50 books on photography, regular monthly articles in Outdoor Photography and an envious portfolio of more than 25 instructional courses on KelbyOne, The Ultimate Source for Photography Education. In fact, Photographing Backyard Birds is his 25th course offered on KelbyOne.

For more on photographing backyard birds, check out my many articles on this website, including: Using props to photograph backyard birds; Beginners Guide to backyard bird photography; Building a backyard reflection pond and using the Tragopan blind to get up close to birds. If you are setting up feeders, check out my post on why we should be using recycle resin feeders.

KelbyOne. Get better at landscape photography.

The award-winning photographer is a Canon Explorer of Light and an inspirational image-maker that is known in photographic circles as “The Godfather of Photography.”

Click on the link if you want more on KelbyOne on-line photographic courses.

Along with Rick’s books and how-to videos, throw in his blog, iPhone and iPad apps, a podcast and an expanding following on social media. He has accumulated nearly 800,000 Google+ followers, and he has been recognized as one of the top photographers to follow on Google+.

Rick Sammon in his studio during KelbyOne photo course.

Screen shot of Rick Sammon in his studio during KelbyOne photo course.

Rick doesn’t hesitate for a minute to impart his knowledge to other photographers. Each year, between photo assignments, Rick gives more than a dozen photography workshops (including private workshops) and presentations around the world.

KelbyOne. Learn Lightroom

Rick admits that he does not want to fit into any one style of photography. “I’m an A-to-Z type of photographer. I do it all – and I enjoy the freedom of not specializing,” he told Canon in an interview.

“When you are through changing, you are through,” he adds.

But, we are here to focus on Rick’s KelbyOne presentation of Backyard Bird Photography and Beyond.

This Rick Sammon image of a cardinal shows movement in the wings while they eye is tack sharp.

This screen shot of a Rick Sammon image shows a cardinal with movement in the wings while the eye is tack sharp, illustrates the importance of choosing the right shutter speed.

A review of Photographing Backyard Birds on-line course

I was lucky enough to take Rick’s one-hour course and am happy to give readers a taste of what they can expect after signing up.

The one-hour course features a total of 250 slides to help illustrate his talks and keep viewers focused on capturing great photographs. Many of the images include tips on post processing in both Lightroom and Photoshop, including examples of images that many of us would discard. Rick shows how most can be saved through post processing.

Rick starts with the basics and progresses through photographing around garden ponds and lakes. He offers tips on ISO settings, anticipating action, creating controlled backyard sessions, and tips to learn from your mistakes.

He kicks off the video with 11 tips every bird photographer needs to know. The tips provide an ideal starting point for viewers.

Rick starts with probably the most important tip – the need for patience. When it comes to capturing images of birds, there is no denying the need for patience, whether it’s sitting in a blind beside your feeders, tracking more elusive warblers, or capturing waterfowl on a backyard pond.

Rick Sammon is quick to share the lenses he uses to capture his backyard bird shots.

Rick Sammon is quick to share the lenses he uses to capture his backyard bird shots.

Rick doesn’t hesitate to share information on the lenses he uses expounding on the benefits of long zoom lenses and the use of teleconverters.

Along the way he talks about dealing with different lighting conditions, the importance of catch lights in the eye, and using fast shutter speeds to stop motion and keep the subjects sharp.

Rick combines the necessary technical information along with practical information about attracting and feeding birds. He even touches on the best feeders and bird feed to use to get the results you are after.

Online photoshop, Lightroom and Photography Training KelbyOne

For someone just starting out in backyard bird photography, the tips alone would provide enough valuable information to make the course worthwhile, but Rick is just getting started.

In the remaining episodes, rick explores bird and wildlife photography around garden ponds and larger bodies of water as well as travelling to nearby wildlife parks where photographers can capture birds of prey that would be almost impossible to get in the wild. Rick shows how backgrounds, lighting and manipulating the image in post processing is as important for captive subjects as it is for wild ones in a natural setting.

an example of the information Rick Sammon hares in his KelbyOne course.

This screen capture is an example of the information Rick Sammon shares in his KelbyOne course.

Who should take this backyard bird photography course?

I recognize not everyone is as excited about sitting in a blind in a forest for several hours to capture a single image of a common woodpecker. Not everyone is interested or capable of investing in expensive lenses and travelling to the world’s birding hot spots to capture images.

But capturing bird images in the comfort of your backyard is another thing all together. It takes minimal effort to set up a feeder and put out an interesting perch for them to land on while you enjoy your morning coffee.

Rick’s course is a gateway into the world of backyard bird photography and is aimed at those of us who are happy to create an environment to bring birds to us rather than go to them. For beginner bird photographers, it will provide you with the building blocks to success. For more advanced photographers it should help take your work to a higher level and provide ideas that you may not have considered in the past.

Even if you are familiar with most of the tips Rick provides, seeing them put together in a focused, professional presentation complete with powerful illustrations will inspire you to get out in the garden at all times of the year and capture images of our feathered friends.

For those of us who enjoy improving the images on the computer in Lightroom and Photoshop, Rick’s course will inspire you to revisit many of the images you might have given up on in the past and revive them.

Photographing Birds in the Backyard and Beyond is simple enough for the beginner, but detailed enough to keep experienced bird photographers interested. It’s also inspiring enough to encourage non-birders to give the art of bird photography a try. Afterall, they are waiting for you just outside your back door.

Rick Sammon shares how he uses fill flash to bring out the best image of this backyard owl.

Rick Sammon shares how he uses fill flash to bring out the best image of this backyard owl.

What is the KelbyOne on-line photography program?

Before I explain the KelbyOne on-line photography program, let’s take a look at the founder of the program, Scott Kelby. I was introduced to his work many years ago when I purchased one of his incredibly informative Photoshop books from my local Costco. Since then, he has gone on to write a plethora of books and articles on everything from Lightroom and Photoshop to getting the most out of your iphone camera.

KelbyOne. Unleash your inner photography

Scott is the brains behind KelbyOne, the extensive on-line photography educational program boasting more than 100 of the world’s best and most entertaining photographers sharing their knowledge and expertise with the photographic community and anyone looking to expand their knowledge about their hobby or their chosen profession. It’s all online and can be accessed from your computer, tablet or even from your phone. There is no need to leave the comfort of your home to gain a wealth of knowledge.

Courses on everything from travel photography, to portraiture, to creative landscapes and Black & White photography are just a few of the more than 900 on-line courses available.

Students can purchase courses individually for as low as $9.95 or by monthly subscriptions for less than $20.00. There is also a yearly membership for those looking for the ultimate learning experience. The courses offer something for everyone whether your are a beginner, hobby photographer, or a seasoned professional.

“Our goal here is to make learning something that you look forward to. This way you, our community of photographers, can move past the hurdles and bring to life the images that are stuck inside of you. We feel like the content has to be fun, cinematic, and inspiring, and taught by the most personable and experienced photographers in the industry,” states the KelbyOne site.

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Vic MacBournie Vic MacBournie

Carolina wren: How to attract this spunky little insectivore

Attracting Carolina Wrens begins with creating a habitat to attract insects to your yard. Insects account for close to 95 percent of their diet, but they will come to bird feeders in winter, especially those with suet and peanuts.

Rewild your yard to attract Carolina Wrens

The Carolina wren is a noisey, spunky little bird that is, at least from a distance, easily mistaken for a sparrow.

But up close, there is no mistaking these little guys.

If you are looking to attract Carolina Wrens to your yard, you will have to create habitat that encourages an abundance of insects in your yard. If your backyard is a typical neat and tidy suburban yard with few native flowers, shrubs and trees, you will need to get to work rewilding the space.

It goes without saying that pesticides have no place in the garden. Native trees, shrubs and plants are vital to attract insects along with brush piles and more natural areas in the garden that will be attractive to insects. A pond is also an attractive place for all types of birds and wildlife including insect life.

The Carolina wren is a small, sometimes elusive bird that makes its presence known, especially in spring when its song fills woodlands and backyards.

In our yard, the Carolina wrens are often seen on the ground checking out the leaf litter in search of insects. In spring they are busy checking out trees and shrubs for caterpillars and small insects.

Although Carolina Wrens are primary insectivores, they will readily come to backyard feeders, especially in winter where they will feed on suet, peanuts and sunflower seeds.

How large are Carolina wrens?

Although it is the second largest wren in the United States – just behind the cactus wren – it measures only about five and a half-inches (12.5 to 14 cm) in length, with an 11-inch (29 cm) wing span.

They can be quite shy and difficult to see in the woodlands and forests where they are common in the southeastern United States and up into southern parts of Canada. Once on the nest, however, they become quite active and vocal little visitors.

If you are trying to identify the sexes, all the chattering is coming from the females while the male likes to sing.

Carolina Wren in a natural area with a seed in its mouth.

A Carolina Wren searches through debris for food in early fall.

Carolina Wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) make their living in open woodlands and are regulars in naturalized yards where they can be seen working brush piles and tangles looking for their primary food source – insects.

For more on using native plants to attract birds and other wildlife, be sure to check out my article on Using native plants to attract birds. If you are using feeders, take a moment to check out my article on using recycled resin feeders rather than wood ones.

Other birds, such as American Robins and Indigo Buntings are primarily insect-eating birds and can be difficult to attract to your yard with just bird feeders.

For years, we’ve had these fiesty birds nesting outside our bedroom window in spring. A word of caution, if you don’t like getting up early in the morning, don’t hang a nesting box outside your window. These little guys are a lot noisier than you my think given their size. To hear their song check out the CornellLab audio recording.

How can you identify Carolina Wrens?

Carolina Wrens have reddish/cinnamon plumage on their backs and buff-coloured undersides. They weigh in at only 18 to 23 g (0.63 to 0.81 oz), and are easy to identify with their white throats and eyebrow stripe, and long, upward-cocked tail.

Carolina Wren drying off after a good soaking in the birdbath.

This image helps to show the diminutive size of the Carolina Wren while it dries off after a good soaking in the birdbath.

Climate plays a major factor in this wren’s range

Although the Carolina wren is common enough throughout the southeastern United States up through southern Ontario, the birds’ northern range varies depending on the severity of the winter.

Climate change is likely playing a role in this bird making its way farther north and remaining in more northern areas throughout the winter.

The birds’ numbers expand into more northern ranges in mild winters, only to shrink back during more severe winters.

Bird feeders can play important role in Carolina Wren survival

According to a 2011 study in Michigan, bird feeders with suet and peanuts play an important role in survival rates of these birds during harsh winter months.

The CornellLab posted an interesting article stemming from Project FeederWatch that focused on Carolina Wrens and bird feeders during winter months. Carolina Wrens’ diets, is known to be only about five per cent seeds and other vegetable matter with the remaining 95 per cent being insects.

Using a recycled plastic suet feeder like the one below, is a good way to provide a food source for woodpeckers, Carolina Wrens and other insect-eating birds. The benefits of using the recycled plastic feeders vs wood feeders is spelled out in one of my earlier posts.

Wild Birds Unlimited sells a number of the recycled plastic suet feeders that are worth checking out.

In winter, they struggle to survive during periods of high snow cover where insects are difficult to find.

In the Michigan study, three different habitats were monitored from city parks, residential areas as well as rural areas. The study showed that the wrens abandoned these sites when there were no feeders available.

The conclusion: When Carolina Wrens’ food supply is limited by heavy snow and cold temperatures, bird feeders play a critical role to their survival.

Their study also concluded that Carolina Wrens prefer suet and peanuts and that “one peanut alone can provide more than a third of their daily metabolic need!”

Carolina Wren on rustic bird house

Carolina Wren surveying the area and considering its potential new home in this rustic bird house.

In Conclusion: Carolina Wrens need our help

It’s easy to think our bird feeders are vital to keeping backyard birds healthy. Just look out the window after a snowstorm and you’ll wonder how these birds could survive without us. But they do. And what many of us fail to realize is that many of the birds in our neighbourhood don’t even, or rarely, eat seeds.

In fact, most birds, even those that appear at our feeders, depend on insects for their survival and the survival of their offspring.

Attracting these birds requires more than putting out feeders. Creating habitat for both the birds and, more importantly, insects is the key to these birds’ survival.

Let parts of your yard go a little wild. Build a brush pile and include some form of water in your yard and chances are you will begin to see more insect-eating birds like the Carolina Wren.

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Monarda and Cardinal flowers: Native reds Hummingbirds can’t resist

Monarda and Cardinal flower are two native reds Hummingbirds can’t resist. Both have similar tube-like flowers that are perfect for hummingbirds and other pollinators.

Hummingbird working Bee Balm.

A female Ruby-throated Hummingbird works the bright red Bee Balm.

Add these two fine reds to your garden and enjoy the pollinator party

Hummingbirds love reds and the combination of Monarda and Cardinal flowers prove just too irrisistable for them.

You could almost say these native red flowers combine the natural sweet flavours that keep our hummingbirds, bees and butterflies drunk with excitement over the natural abundance of their favourite food. But, that might be pushing the whole red wine thing a little too far.

In our garden, the Monarda begins to bloom in early July and the hummingbirds quickly add them to their daily feeding rounds. I notice, however, that the Cardinal flowers – growing just a few feet away – are not far behind the Monarda. Within weeks the area beside our patio will be a haven for hummingbirds looking to fill up on the sweet natural nectar that these two native reds provide.

If you are looking for more information on growing native flowers, you might be interested in going to my comprehensive article: Why we should use native plants in our gardens.

Our feeders, too, are nearby but given the choice, Hummers will prefer to visit the more natural nectar sources. It’s a good idea to keep this in mind when you are trying to attract hummingbirds and other garden pollinators. Provide their natural food and chances are they’ll visit more often and stay longer.

If using native plants to feed birds and pollinators in your garden interests you, you might want to check out this post on feeding birds on a budget.

Create a natural stage for Garden photography

In addition, the more natural stage for the hummingbirds and butterflies will turn you into a master when in comes to garden photography. There’s nothing like the male Ruby-throated Hummingbird, with its red throat, working the bright red Monarda and scarlet Cardinal flowers. Set up your camera and telephoto lens nearby, grab a glass of your own favourite “red” and just wait for the hummingbirds to arrive. It shouldn’t take long before you are rewarded with some great photographs.

How to grow Bee Balm (Monarda)

Monarda (Monarda didyma) often referred to as Bee Balm is a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae). It joins Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), that features light lavender to pinkish-white flowers, in the Lamiaceae family that counts 16 species native to North America.

(Go here for my full story on Wild Bergamot )

Monarda can really put on a show. Blooming for up to 6 weeks through mid summer to early fall on tall (up to 4 feet), sturdy square and hollow stems, these attractive perennials have deep roots with shallow rhizomes that account for its spreading habit. It can form large drifts in your garden creating a magnet for hummingbirds and other pollinators including those cool Clearwing hummingbird moths, native bees including bumblebees and, of course, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.

Like it’s sister, Wild Bergamot, the Monarda flower is actually a cluster of 20 or more flowers (fistulosa) arranged in a round head. The fistulosa (tubular or pipe shapes) make them ideal for long-tongued insects, bees, moths and butterflies to feed on. The plants’ nectar is so sought after by insects that you may notice holes carved out of the flower stems where “tongue-challenged” insects have bore through to get at the nectar.

The plants easily take to a garden and are at home growing along other garden plants, in a sunny meadow-style planting or as specimens in sun, part-shade. Bee balm actually prefers average soil (too rich and you are liable to have tall, lanky plants that don’t hold up well on their own.) Powdery mildew can be a problem if the plants are grown in a wet, humid area without good airflow.

Keep the plants watered but not wet and you’ll be blessed with a great show all summer.

• If you are considering creating a meadow in your front or backyard, be sure to check out The Making of a Meadow post for a landscape designer’s take on making a meadow in her own front yard.

How to grow Cardinal flowers

Cardinal flowers prefer a more wet environment than Monarda so growing them side-by-side will be difficult. Ours grow several feet apart and through hand watering I am able to keep the Cardinal flowers’ feet in more moist soil. Our Cardinal flowers have found a home on the outside edge of a yellow magnolia so also get get less sun than the Monarda plants.

Take a moment to check out my full feature on growing the native Cardinal flower.

Cardinal flowers are considered short-lived perennial but by spreading the seed in your garden, you can enjoy the flowers for years to come. Try placing the spent flower heads atop the soil in a moist part of the garden and you should be blessed with more and more flowers each year. They grow on long spires that can reach up to 4 feet. The flowers bloom as they make their way up the stalk.

In conclusion: Two reds can make a right

Planning your patio should involve more than where the best seating options are, unless, of course, you’re planning the seating options around the best wildlife viewing spots. By making an effort to plant attractive native plants such as Cardinal flower and Bee balm that attract hummingbirds, butterflies and birds, your patio or deck transforms from just a place to sit and entertain, into a place to be entertained.

As summer heats up, I can’t imagine a better time than being outdoors on the patio or deck with my favourite red and a couple of feathered friends dropping by on regular visits.

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backyard birds Vic MacBournie backyard birds Vic MacBournie

Attract Juncos: Habitat might convince Snowbirds to stay all year

Dark-eyed Juncos are common visitors to our gardens, especially in winter when these sparrow-sized birds are scene looking for seed on the ground beneath our feeders.

You have to admire the Slate-coloured, Dark-Eyed Junco. While many of our backyard birds are flying south to the Southern United States, Mexico and Central America, these spunky little birds think -15C (5F) and three feet of snow is paradise.

Compared to their traditional breeding grounds in the deep Boreal forests of northern Canada where a high percentage of them spend their spring and summer breeding months, I guess the freezing temperatures and blizzards of Southern Ontario and north-eastern United States feel quite balmy to them.

These hardy, ground-feeding members of the sparrow family, with a slate-coloured top and white undersides, seem happy enough to scrounge on the ground under our bird feeders for scraps left behind by Cardinals, Blue Jays, Woodpeckers and a host of other more fussy birds that unwittingly share their discarded seed with the Juncos at our our feeders.

And if you provide the right habitat, including their favourite native plants, roosting locations, a fresh source of water and a good source of food, you may be able to convince these little guys to stick around your woodland year round.

How long do Juncos live

No one said their lives were easy, but they have been known to survive in these harsh conditions for up to 11 years of age. Experts predict a life span of between 3-11 years depending on climate conditions, predation and other factors.

Digital painting shows a male Slate-coloured, Dark-eyed Junco perched on a branch during a snowstorm.

How did Juncos get their name?

Their name is derived from the Latin word juncus which is Spanish for “rush.” The dark-eyed junco’s latin name (Junco hymelalis) actually means winter junco from the Latin work hyemalis which translates “of the winter.”

Juncos are ground feeders so leave your leaves

In the fall and especially the spring, you’ll most often see these ground-feeders rooting through the fallen leaves looking for insects to feed nestlings. Leaving your fallen leaves is critical for ground-feeding birds like Juncos. Here is an earlier article on why we should be leaving our leaves where they fall.

Actually these birds are quite widespread and are found throughout the north America from Alaska to Mexico, California to New York and from one end of Canada to the other. You can expect to find them in coniferous and mixed forests, but they are just as happy in scrub land along rural roadways and, of course, flitting about in the lower shrubbery of our woodland gardens.

They certainly are not flashy birds and often go unnoticed in the garden accept when they briefly flash their white outer tail feathers thought to confuse predators during an aerial attack.

How did Juncos earn the name: Snowbirds?

Juncos, are also lovingly known by many as snowbirds, since they seem to appear along with the first snowfall of the season. Apparently, even famed birder John James Audubon called them the snowbird.

I like to think that they earned their name before the term “snowbirds” was popularized by Canadian seniors heading south in winter. I think their colouring earned them the name “Snowbirds.” The Junco’s slate-coloured plummage on their backs (the males are darker than the females) and white undersides are often associated with the leaden stormy skies of winter above and fresh snow below. That’s a much nicer interpretation than a bunch of us old Canadians heading to Florida, considering few Juncos even make it that far during migration.

While these hardy little birds are more than willing to take on our frigid temperatures than most birds, not all dark-eyed Juncos arrive from the depths of the Canadian northern forests. In some areas they are year-round residents.

In fact, in our Southern Ontario woodland, Juncos are year-round visitors. Although some of them choose to stay year-round, there certainly is an influx in fall as winter approaches. They are also more noticeable as their activity picks up during or immediately after a snowstorm.

This little female Junco searches for seeds under native Northern Sea Oat grasses. These little birds will even spend the night tucked into the grasses to escape cold winds.

In the more northern areas of the U.S. in New England and Minnesota, for example, early migrants start arriving as early as August but the more northerly birds don’t start their overnight migrations until late October and November. By December the migration is completed but some birds who migrated into parts of Ontario and the northern states may move farther north in particularly bad winters.

At our hopper feeders and tray feeder, Juncos tend to go after the black-oil sunflower, that are easily cracked with their stout, light pink bills. If given the chance, though, they are not opposed to stealing suet from the larger woodpeckers and blue jays if the suet feeders are left unattended.

In our neck of the woods, the slate,dark-eyed Junco dominates, but you may not know that there are actually two species of Juncos in North America and seven sub-species. The two species are the Slate-coloured, dark-eyed that make up about 99 per cent of the birds in North America, with a small number of yellow-eyed Juncos taking up residence in South-East Arizona. the Oregon dark-eyed Junco is the other dominant sub-species found mostly in Western United States. It sports a dark hood, a brown back and rufous flanks. Others include the Pink-Sided Junco and the White-Winged dark eye junco.

Junco on a pine branch in mid summer. Although many migrate farther north for summer, a percentage of them stick around if they can find good habitat in our woodland gardens.

In our garden, the Juncos like to hang out in groups of anywhere from a few individuals to as many as 30. these groupings or small flocks feed over a territory of about 10 acres in the wild, a smaller area if food is abundant at backyard feeders.

This winter I have noticed that the Juncos are particularly attracted to our DIY heated bird bath. Without a doubt they are the most regular visitors to the bird bath – either coming down to get a drink of water or occasionally stopping by for a quick bath. My DIY heated bird bath was a simple and inexpensive project that has not only improved habitat for our local birds, but also helped to bring them in close to our home and provided me with opportunities to photograph the birds up close.

Every flock has a dominance hierachy with adult males at the top, followed by juvenile males, adult females followed by young females. Although this sounds potentially cruel, male juncos tend to stay in more northern areas to stay close to their traditional mating territories, while females migrate further south for better food sources. Females also don’t need to return to defend the breeding rounds until later in the spring so, can afford to migrate further south.

And, no need to feel sorry for the males having to tough out the colder temperatures. Juncos have their own way to deal with the cold by adding close to 30 per cent more feather weight to prepare for winter. These members of the sparrow family are between 5-6 inches and way in at about 1/2 an ounce to 1 ounce. They will also team up with flock mates in particularly harsh temperatures, seeking cover in thick evergreens, tucked into tall grasses or brush piles to get protection from the winds.

I often see them going into our cedar hedge throughout the day and into the evening. Lately, during a heavy cold spell and high snow cover, I’ve noticed them hanging out in our wood pile that has a nice layer of fall leaves providing a solid roof covering in some areas. During heavy snow, Juncos will often tuck into the small chambers formed inside tall ornamental grasses. Just another good reason to leave your ornamental grasses standing throughout the winter, waiting until later in the spring to cut them down.

Where do Juncos nest?

As spring rolls around, males begin attracting a mate with their calls – a musical trilling of between 7-23 notes that lasts a couple of seconds at a time and is repeated over and over for up to half an our, often from a high branch.

The pairs are monogomous for that breeding period, but females will pick a new mae each breeding season. The female chooses the nest site and constructs it over a period of three to seven days, before laying 3-6 eggs. In woodlands, nests are typically either on the ground or near the ground, on a rockface or possibly in cavities of an uprooted tree. In more urban areas, Juncos may choose to build their nest in hanging baskets, on light fixtures, in the eves of buildings or on window ledges.

Incubation takes about two weeks and both parents feed the babies for about 14 days in the nest and several weeks after they fledge. Male Juncos will aggressively defend the nest against marauding birds during this time. Their alarm call sounds more like a scene out of star wars, with a buzzy Que, que que que call. In flight, you might pick up a soft, buzzing trill.

Presently, it is believed that their are 200 million breeding birds with roughly 80 per cent breeding within the boreal forest. Although, like all songbirds, their numbers are in decline, they are not listed as a conservation concern.

Nevertheless, it is imperative that gardeners continue to restore the native habitat for Juncos and other native birds.

Although Juncos are primarily seed eaters, about 75 per cent of their diet consists of seed either wild or provided in our feeders, they will shift their diets primarily to insects (beetles, moths, caterpillars etc) during the breeding and nest-rearing periods.

If you are looking to plant native to provide them with a natural seed sources, consider Goldenrod, chickweed, sorrel and lambs quarter.

Looking to attract more backyard birds?

How to attract the Tufted Titmouse

How to attract Goldfinches and other cool facts

Three common woodpeckers and how to tell them apart

How to attract Nuthatches

Attracting colourful birds to your feeders

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birds, backyard birds, attracting birds Vic MacBournie birds, backyard birds, attracting birds Vic MacBournie

How do our bright yellow Goldfinches get their colour

The stunning colour changes of the American Goldfinch is unmatched by most backyard birds. These changes can be traced, in part, to its almost entirely vegetarian diet of seeds, most notably the seeds of thistle, sunflower and milkweed.

A digital watercolour image of an American Goldfinch sitting out a winter storm.

Bright yellow bird’s colour change and the common thistle

The story of the American Goldfinch’s bright yellow colour and why it changes from a drab greyish brown in winter to a stunning bright yellow in early spring really begins with, and is tied to, its diet of almost entirely seeds – primarily seeds from its favourite food, the thistle plant.

If you want these colourful “wild canaries” in your woodland garden, let the thistles grow in a corner of your yard or, if you want to watch these beautiful little finches attack your thistles, plant them near your favourite sitting area or a window. Be sure to include sunflowers and milkweed as well for some spectacular late summer entertainment.

What you will notice is that later in summer these thistles and other native plants will begin to flower and put out seed just in time for the Goldfinches to take advantage of this abundance of seed to feed their, most likely, one and only brood of nestlings.

Okay, so what does this have to do with the male Goldfinch taking on its bright yellow spring colour and the female’s subtle soft yellow coat?

It is thought that the timing of the moult and the transformation into its beautiful yellow plumage in spring is related, at least in part, to natural seed production. The Goldfinch’s late winter/spring moult is unusual because most birds can’t use up that much energy in spring when they are trying to raise their nestlings, but because Goldfinches depend almost entirely on the consumption of seed, they are able to nest later in the season following a spring moult.

American Goldfinches are unusual among goldfinches in moulting their body feathers twice a year, once in late winter and again in late summer. The late summer moult takes place after the nestlings are born and are more independent of their parents.

Of course, the male’s bright colour relates to the mating season, but unlike most birds that begin nesting in early spring timed in part to the explosion of insect and larvae life that feeds their nestlings, Goldfinches breed later and feed its nestlings almost entirely seeds.

Check this link for more on the American Goldfinch and attracting colourful birds to your yard

A female American Goldfinch waits for its turn at the Nyjer seed feeder during a winter storm.

An American Goldfinch quietly waiting for its turn at the Nyjer bird feeder during an early winter snowstorm that helps explain the bird’s still-vibrant plumage colours.

When do Goldfinches begin nest building?

Goldfinches don’t begin their mating ritual and nest building until later in the summer – June and July in the eastern part of their range and as early as May and June in their western ranges. By this later date, the transformation from drab, easily overlooked birds to the stunning yellow plumage of the males and more subtle yellow of the females is usually completed. In fact, by late April the moult is usually complete and the birds can begin building back any energy lost as a result of the moult.

The birds’ almost entire dependency on small seeds also mean they don’t need to rely on insects. This is particularly helpful during winter months when insects are in short supply and helps explain the fact that few of the birds migrate far distances if at all.

Moving water proves too much of an attraction for these male and female American Goldfinches. The male can be seen with its black cap waiting for its turn in the bird bath.

Cool facts about the Goldfinch

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, in their informative website, provided some of the following facts:

  • Goldfinches incorporate the fibrous seeds of thistle and milkweed, which they also use to feed their young, into their nests.

  • Goldfinches begin moulting in September, and continue for six to eight weeks During this time they molt all of their feathers, ending up with a completely new set of drab-coloured feathers heading into winter.

  • In the spring, as new body feathers are grown, the males especially transform into bright yellow breeding plumage, but the wing and tail feathers remain from the previous fall.

  • American Goldfinches are among the strictest vegetarians in the bird world, only inadvertently swallowing an occasional insect.

  • American Goldfinch nestlings usually leave the nest two weeks after hatching but continue to be fed by the parents for a period of time.

  • Although American Goldfinches traditionally only have one brood, an experienced couple may have a second brood. In this case the female builds the new nest while the male continues to feed the first brood.

  • Brown-headed Cowbirds that lay eggs in an American Goldfinch nest can’t survive on the all-seed diet and perish quickly.

  • The oldest known American Goldfinch was 10 years 9 months old when it was recaptured and rereleased during a banding operation in Maryland.

An American Goldfinch sits atop a seedhead in the woodland wildlife garden.

A Golfinch looks for seed in the Woodland Wildlife garden where it feeds almost entirely on the seed of native plants and trees.

Where do Goldfinches get this bright yellow colour

This cheerful bright yellow plumage of the male Goldfinch and to a lesser degree the females comes from carotenoids in the plants and plant seeds that they ingest.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology explains in their article on How Birds Make Colourful Feathers that: “Carotenoids are responsible for the bright yellows seen in goldfinches and Yellow Warblers as well as the brilliant orangish yellow of the male Blackburnian Warbler. Carotenoids can interact with melanins to produce colours like the olive-green of the female Scarlet Tanager.”

Some bird species, whose feathers remain the same colour year round, such as the Cardinal, Blue Jay or Chickadee, the annual moult serves to simply refresh their plumage. Others, like the Goldfinch, use the moult as an opportunity to change their colours from vibrant breeding ones to those that help to camouflage them from predators. The bright yellow plumage of the Goldfinch would do little to hide them in the stark winter landscape. For American goldfinch, that means going through a second moult in the spring, to regain their bright breeding colours.

What other natural seeds do Goldfinches eat?

Thistles are not the only seeds eaten by these small birds. Their strong beaks allow them to open an assortment of seeds including another one of their favourites – sunflower seeds. They also eat seeds from asters, wild grasses and several trees including alder, birch, western red cedar and elm.

Most of us are familiar with the popular (but expensive to purchase) Nyjer seed which is used almost exclusively in special feeders to attract these birds. Although most people think Nyjer seed is the seed of the thistle plant, it is actually the similarly small, thin, black seed from the African yellow daisy (Guizotia abyssinica). Though unrelated to the thistle plant, it is high in oil and a popular source of food for the Goldfinch.

What to do if Goldfinches are not eating your Nyjer seed

Nyjer seed should always be purchased from a reputable seller preferably one that has a high seed turnover because older seed quickly dries out and loses its nutritional benefits. If you notice that finches stop eating from your feeder despite the fact it is full of Nyjer seed you may have just recently put out for them, it is likely that the oil in the seed has dried out and it is no longer useful. At that point it is best to dispose of it and purchase new, fresh seed.

In addition, Nyjer seed is easily spoiled when it gets wet. Even condensation building up at the bottom of the tube feeder can cause the seed to go rancid. Replace and clean the feeders on a regular basis to keep the Goldfinches coming back regularly.

If American Goldfinches are coming regularly to your feeder, September and October is a good time to pay particular attention to them. It is at this time of year that they transition from their stunning golden colour to gray.

Once the transformation is complete the Goldfinches can still be identified by their wings which are mostly black with a thick, buffy bar and white edging during flight.

In conclusion

As Woodland Wildlife gardeners we are often told about the importance of using native plants in our gardens to not only help protect these often threatened species, but to provide birds, pollinators and other predators with a critical food source – either pollen and nectar or the protein provided by insects and caterpillars who live off of them.

The American Goldfinch provides the perfect example of how these native plants provide an important source of food in the form of seeds. In fact, the entire life cycle, mating, giving birth, even moulting is dependent in some way on the production of seeds from a specific group of plants and trees.

For the ill informed, these critical plants, namely thistle and milkweed, are not often desirable plants to have in our gardens and are shunned by many traditional “tidy up” gardeners.

Maybe these gardeners would prefer to pay for an endless supply of Nyjer seed to feed the few Goldfinches that are passing through rather than let the birds natural food source grow in a corner of their yard.

Never has it been more important to embrace native plants and because of the dwindling supply of natural seeds you may be doubly rewarded for your efforts to grow these critically important native plants.

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backyard birds, attracting birds Vic MacBournie backyard birds, attracting birds Vic MacBournie

Three common woodpeckers and how to tell them apart

Woodpeckers are common visitors to our feeders in winter and summer. telling them apart can be a problem considering they share some of the same characteristics – especially the Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers. The Red-Bellied Woodpecker can be confusing to some because it’s not easy to see the subtle red on its belly.

Downy, Hairy and Red-Bellied Woodpeckers: What they eat

Woodpeckers are probably the most common bird at our feeders most winter days.

Between the Downy, Hairy and Red-Bellied there always seems to be at least a couple working the seed cylinder that sits atop our feeder pole, or one of the many suet feeders that provide them with a high-fat source of food when the weather turns colder. It’s also common to see them flitting about searching out the Bark Butter and DIY feeders I leave on home-made snags that have been set up around the feeders. They will also readily take the black-oil sunflower seed in the feeders.

Although they are among the most frequent visitors to our feeders, their primary food source is without a doubt insects and larvae of all kinds. In fact, even in winter when insects are sparse, these woodpeckers keep busy using their long beaks to probe under or between bark in search of insects.

For more on feeding backyard birds check out these articles on The Tufted Titmouse, Seed cyclinders, Attracting Orioles, attracting Indigo Buntings.

Red-Bellied woodpecker feeding on seed at feeder showing its red hed and zebra-patterned back feathers.

The vibrant red head of the Red-Bellied Woodpecker complete with its zebra-like plummage across its back helps to give it a very distinguished look.

How woodpeckers catch insects

All woodpeckers share a number of special anatomical features that allow them to dig or violently carve holes in wood. Their chisel-shaped bills are constructed of strong bone overlaid with a hard covering that broadens toward the birds’ heads helping to spread the force of the birds’ heavy pecking. Woodpeckers even have a covering of feathers over their nostrils to help filter out wood splinters and dust that is generated during their aggressive pounding on trees.
Woodpeckers also boast long, barbed tongues that includes a sticky substance that enables them to search crevices and cracks for insects and larvae.

How to identify woodpeckers at the feeder

It’s easy to mistake one woodpecker from another considering all three are primarily black and white birds with similarly longish beaks. Their size and a few specific identification markings will help you identify these three birds at your feeder. Distinguishing between the Downy (actually the smallest woodpecker in North America) and the Hairy is difficult at times but with a little practise the differences become more obvious.

Red-Bellied Woodpecker working a log showing off ifs bright red head and just a hint of its red belly.

The Red-Bellied Woodpecker with just a hint of the red belly showing here.

Identifying the Red-Bellied Woodpecker

It’s not too difficult to identify the Red-bellied Woodpecker from its Downy and Hairy counterparts, but don’t look for a bright red belly to easily identify this larger woodpecker.

These birds do sport a spot of red on their belly but the marking is so subtle that it is easily missed unless you have a clear view of the birds’ underside.

Probably the easiest way to identify the Red-Bellied Woodpecker is its sheer size, in comparison to many other woodpeckers. Look for a black and white clear zebra-like pattern that runs down their backs with the male displaying red on its forehead, crown, and nape while the female only has red on her nape with a grey forehead and crown.


Red-bellied vs Red Headed woodpecker

Although the Red-Bellied Woodpecker might be mistaken for the Hairy Woodpecker, at least when comparing the size of the birds, a better comparison is probably made with the more elusive Red-headed Woodpecker. Size wise they are similar, but unlike the Red-Bellied Woodpeckers’ zebra-like pattern on its back, the Red-Headed Woodpecker has a solid black back with large white wing patches (not unlike the larger Pileated Woodpecker). Of course, the entirely red heads of both male and female Red-Headed Woodpeckers are easy distinquishing marks compared to Red-bellied woodpeckers’ where the male sports a large partial red cap.

Downy Woodpecker on branch showing its zebra pattern back feathers and a hint of the black markings on its tail feathers.

A Downy Woodpecker identified by its smaller beak and the spotted outward tail feathers.

Comparing the Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers

There is no doubt that in the world of woodpeckers, distinguishing between the Downy and Hairy woodpeckers is the most difficult. The two main differences between the two is size and their tail markings, with size being the easiest distinguishing factor of the two.

Both sport primarily black and white zebra-style feathers down their backs (not unlike the Red-bellied Woodpecker) with a white stripe down the back from the shoulders to their rump, white bellies and flanks, and black eye patches. So, at first glance, they look very much like the same birds.

Besides the size difference – the Downy is considerably smaller measuring in at about six inches compared to the much larger Robin-sized Hairy that stands about 50 per cent taller than the Downy – pay attention to the birds’ bills. The Downy’s bill is delicate and smaller – about a third the size of the Hairy’s much stronger, stout bill.

Hairy Woodpecker with bits of Bark Butter in its long solid beak.

The larger Hairy Woodpecker sporting a larger beak and clear white outward tail feathers.

Finally, if all the above fails to convince you of what you are seeing, the Downy woodpecker’s outer tail feathers are barred with black, while the Hairy sports all-white outer tail feathers.

Most important, is how to remember the names of the two similar looking Woodpeckers. I use a word association that has never failed me – The Downy is the Diminutive one. In other words, the Downy is always the smaller and more Delicate of the two woodpeckers.

Where do these woodpeckers live?

Downy Woodpecker looking for a snack among the lichen growing on the branch.

Downy woodpecker at home in wooded areas

The diminutive Downy Woodpecker Picoides pubescens lives year-round across much of North America and is considered the most common woodpecker in eastern North America where it can be found nesting in holes in trees.

It is at home in a variety of wooded areas, including northern mixed forests and in the deciduous forests to the south. It’s equally at home in smaller urban woodlots and parklands, in orchards and in backyards with appropriate tree cover.

In its westerly range, the birds can be found in alder and willows.

Hairy Woodpecker’s beak catches the light. Notice the feathers just in front of its eyes that help to filter wood splinters as well as wood dust from getting into the bird’s lungs.

The Hairy Woodpecker likes more mature forests

The larger Hairy Woodpeckers are more often found in more mature forests across North America. Although the Hairy and Downy woodpeckers share many of the same habitat, the Hairy woodpeckers need larger trees to live and successfully breed. It’s for this reasons that their numbers are thought to be declining in many areas where they are forced to compete with Starlings and House Sparrows.

Hairy woodpeckers will accept a wide variety of habitats from woodlands to river groves, they need large trees in deciduous, coniferous and mixed forest locations.

Although they can be found almost all over North America even up into Alaska and down through the southern states, some birds from the northern edge of their range may move well south in winter, while some who spend summers in the higher elevations of the Rocky Mountains will readily move to lower elevations.

The Red-Bellied woodpecker is expanding its range

The Red-Bellied Woodpecker is a positive story in a long list of negative ones when it comes to its numbers and habitat range. This large woodpecker, whose numbers are stable or even appear to be increasing slightly, has actually been extending its range to the north – possibly along with climate change.

Originally a bird that inhabited the southeastern parts of North America, this omnivorous woodpecker has adjusted to habitat requirements and now can be found in suburbs and urban parks as well as smaller woodlots and woodland gardens.

These cavity nesters make their homes in dead wood located usually less than 50 feet above ground. The male does most of the excavating for new tree cavities, but a nesting pair is not above using existing tree cavities whether they are natural or abandoned by other woodpeckers.

In conclusion

Identifying woodpeckers in your woodland garden can be daunting at first, but, eventually, you will begin to recognize their various characteristics including their often loud and rambunctious calls. They are quite friendly birds especially the Downy that will, with a little practise, readily eat out of your hand if tempted with high-quality black-oil sunflower seed.

Some homeowners may worry when they see a woodpecker banging away at one of their favourite backyard trees. I wouldn’t worry too much unless the woodpeckers are tearing apart the tree. But don’t blame them for the possible death of the tree. These important predators in our garden do much more good for our trees routing out problematic borers and other insects attacking the tree. If woodpeckers are tearing apart the tree, it’s likely because the tree is already fatally infested with borers.

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