The best book to have at hand when you’re building a nest box for a bird always has been Carrol Henderson’s “Woodworking for Wildlife”. Now there is a new and expanded edition. First published 24 years ago and revised in 1992, it is the bible of backyard bird construction. Published by and available from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Henderson’s book gives you easy-to-follow instructions for construction of everything from nest boxes for owls to a toad cottage for your garden. Included is the famous one-board nest box that even I can build. This edition includes information on eliminating predation of birds using these nesting structures. The photos and text about bird nesting, eggs, incubation, and chicks make the book entertaining and valuable even if you never lift a hammer. There are 30 sets of plans here for structures accommodating 46 species of wildlife. This is the best-selling book the DNR ever has published, for obvious and good reasons. To buy one, to to www.minnesotabookstore.com or visit the DNR gift shop at 500 Lafayette Road in St. Paul. The price is $16.95. Royalties from sale of the book go fund to DNR non-game wildlife programs
The blackbird in the photo is chasing a Swainson’s Hawk from its nesting territory. The hawk was just doing a flyover, but the small bird was taking no chances. Raptors do take songbird eggs and nestlings, so an investment in caution is a good idea. Swainson’s eat insects for most of the year, hunting down small mammals, reptiles, and sometimes birds only during the nesting season. Swainson’s Hawks are mostly birds of prairies west of Minnesota, although the bird is routinely seen in our state. They winter in South America, moving south in September and October, sometimes many together. I’ve seen a hay field in South Dakota with more than 100 Swainson’s Hawks working the cut grass for grasshoppers, fattening themselves for the migration flight. These birds were photographed recently in North Dakota.
Hermit Thrushes are moving through the area now, among early migrants. This one was photographed at the Thomas Sadler Roberts Bird Sanctuary on the north side of Lake Harriet. It’s a fine place to bird, easy access, easy walking, good brushy habitat. Although I didn’t see it happen, these thrushes have a particular technique for finding the insects they eat. They’ll tap their feet in the leaf litter where they forage, hoping to drive insects into sight. Snowy Egrets do the same thing in shallow water, sticking their toes into tight places beneath log and rocks to flush hiding prey. You can see a neat video of an egret at http://web.mac.com/wingedthings
I had a very sick Common Redpoll at one of our feeders this morning, a situation being reported elsewhere as well. Cause is believed to be dirty feeders. Our damp, cold spring is part of the problem. Wet seed debris in feeder trays and spoiled seed provide places for growth of what is believed to be salmonella. Our bird sat quietly, feathers fluffed up, head tucked to the side. It allowed me to approach far closer than normal before it weakly flew into the brush. Our worst problem is with thistle seed. Much of it gets tossed into the tray by feeding birds. A little moisture and you have seed paste. I cleaned feeders last week, but the problem can return quickly. It’s a good idea to clean all of your feeders now even if you see no sick birds. Empty the feeders, soak and scrub them in soapy water. Disinfect them with a 10 percent bleach solution. Let them dry thoroughly before adding fresh seed and putting them back out. I’m going to clean ours again, and I’m taking the thistle feeder down until the redpolls and siskins move north into their summer territories. Oh: seed debris on the ground also can be a problem. I use a shop vac to remove it. The National Wildlife Health Center Web site has more information. Go to www.nwhc.usgs.gov
Scotts Miracle-Gro Co., the largest U.S. lawn and garden product maker, has recalled some of its five different varieties of wild bird food. They did so because of concerns that the products might contain salmonella-contaminated peanut meal. Wild birds can carry salmonella themselves, but not necessarily the strain causing the problem presently in the news. If peanut products you are feeding your birds contain that strain, they could be harmful to birds or mammals eating them. This information was received Wednesday afternoon in an email distributed on BirdChat, a national email message list. The products involved are: • Morning Song Nutty Safari Suet, 11 oz.• Morning Song Woodpecker Suet 3 pack, 1.78 lbs.• Royal Wing Raisin Suet, 11.75 oz.• Morning Melodies Variety Suet (3 count).• Morning Song Variety 15-pack suet, multi-pack with 15 suets and feeder.• Morning Song Nutty Safari Suet, 11 oz.
A friend and I spent Sunday in the Meadowland-Sax-Zim area, the wonderful birdy bog west of Highway 53 and north of Cloquet. Birding there is good naturally, particularly in winter for finches and owls. Residents of the area, however, have vastly improved your chances of seeing good birds by creating bird-feeding stations in their yards and inviting birders to stop and look. There even are feeders and feeding stations more or less in the middle of nowhere, tended by generous souls. The busiest of these consisted of portions of two deer carcasses smeared with peanut butter and fastened to a tree with bungie cords. Not fancy, but it certainly worked, offering us the best birding of the day. (This site is on Admiral Road four miles north of Sax Road (For directions and maps, see Hendrickson’s Web site, linked at right.) Overall, we found two Northern Hawk-Owls, dozens of Common Redpolls, with Hoary Redpolls mixed in the flocks, Gray Jays, Boreal and Black-capped Chickadees, Black-billed Magpies, ravens, Evening and Pine grosbeaks, and nuthatches of both flavors. The feeders are in place because of the work of Duluth birding guide Mike Hendrickson. He encouraged bog residents to welcome birders and the business they bring to the small community of Meadowland. A visit to the area would be a winter highlight for any birder. The birds are a Hoary Redpoll (I think), and a Gray Jay.
We’re feeding mealworms to our yard birds this winter. Well, to the chickadees. They find them first and clean the plate. I was curious about this. Why do the chickadees feed on the worms so intently? After much Googling I found a Web site entitled “British Garden Birds.” It offers a table listing energy values for foods you might offer birds. Topping the list is suet at 800 calories per 100 grams. Sunflower hearts are next at 600, then peanuts at 560, sunflower seeds (in the shell, I assume) at 500, Niger thistle seed at 480, with mealworms last at 150 calories per 100 grams. The text on this site said that sunflower seeds are high in oil, mealworms high in protein. Perhaps that explains the preference the chickadees show. The worms, by the way, quickly freeze solid in cold weather, but the birds don’t mind. (In the photo, a White-breasted Nuthatch that managed to get in the meal worm line.)
Many wild-bird supply stores offer dozens of different kinds and mixes of seed and other types of food for your backyard birds. When you make the purchase are you buying with birds or your own perceptions first in mind? What, exactly, do birds want? There is an ongoing study, in which you can participate, seeking to answer that question. The Wild Bird Research Foundation is collecting information on seed preference from people who feed birds. You can sign up and contribute, or simply take a look at information gathered in 2006 and 2007. The Web address is www.projectwildbird.org. (Photo: An American Goldfinch, molting into breeding plumage, at a feeder filled with black oil sunflower seeds.)
I’m convinced. Yesterday I wrote about a new variety of safflower seed called golden safflower. It has a thinner shell and is more nutritious. A friend tried it, telling me her birds strongly preferred it to ordinary safflower. I bought some golden safflower late yesterday. We have two small tray feeders attached to a patio door with suction cups. We fill the trays with sunflower chips (no shells). I put meal worms in one of the trays most mornings. The chickadees eat the meal worms first, then feed on sunflower seeds. This has been going on for months. Today I filled one tray with golden safflower. Take your choice: your familiar sunflower seeds on the right, golden safflower seeds you have never before seen (at least not here) on the left. When the chickadees arrived this morning they cleaned up the worms, and then immediately and without hesitation began taking golden safflower seeds, sometimes two at a time. Smart guys. We have one tube feeder filled with safflower hanging in the feeder array in the backyard. We have always used the white safflower. Cardinals eat it, but neither much nor quickly. That feeder now holds golden safflower. Let’s see what happens. The new safflower I bought, by the way, cost no more than the old: $21.99 for 20 pounds. (In the photo: regular safflower front left, golden safflower front right, sunflower chips to the rear.)
I’ve purchased five pounds of the new golden safflower. We’ll see if suburban birds find it as attractive as city birds do. I also bought five pounds of millet, a bird food I have ignored because of its appeal to sparrows. I don’t want House Sparrows at our feeders on a regular basis, another of my bird prejudices. But, we do get juncoes scrabbling for sunflower crumbs beneath the feeders attached to our patio door glass. Juncoes eat millet. Duh. So, I will see if they find my new scatterings appealing. I’m just sprinkling the millet on the deck boards, very close to the house where snow is less likely to bury it. The millet info came from a DVD produced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as part of its effort to improve birding opportunities on national wildlife refuges. This production goes into detail about bird feeders and bird food, including an endorsement for millet. There’s always something new to learn. That’s a junco in the photo, sitting on the railing of our deck.