© Calvin May
Brandon Green, of Eugene, Oregon, talked to a local birder about keeping hummingbird feeders from freezing. The birder recommended a ThermaCare pad. Brandon sent us a picture of his prototype and wrote, “This is the first incarnation (I wrapped the next day’s feeder with two pads and a heavier layer of bubble wrap). It’s good for at least two hours at temperatures in the low 20’s, and then the uncovered bottom section will begin to freeze. (That’s enough time to get the hummers their “morning jolt” of energy. We usually repeat the process in the mid/late afternoon.)”
Calvin May, of Folsom, California, gets lots of hummingbirds in winter, and with temperatures often below freezing, he came up with a different strategy to keep the feeders above freezing (see images below). He wrote, “As you can see from the photos, I have four feeders, and I have placed heavy socks over them to keep them from freezing up.”
“To keep track of my bird counts, I bought a dry erase board (with a magnet back so it can stay on the fridge). Using a permanent marker, I made a list of my most commonly sighted species–with a separate line for temperature and precipitation. The permanent marker will not erase. I keep my totals on the board with a dry erase marker. It’s super easy to wipe off and change numbers. All I have to do is take the board to the computer after each set of count days to enter my data.” –Suzanne Kozloskie, Long Branch, New Jersey
John Wright wrote from Chesterfield, Missouri, to tell us how he distinguishes his Hairy Woodpeckers from his Downy Woodpeckers. “For the past 2 years, I have been trying to tell a Downy Woodpecker from a Hairy Woodpecker. They frequent a peanut feeder that is about fifty feet from my viewing point. Some birds seem larger than others, but I could never be sure–even when looking through binoculars. Finally I got smart. When I brought the feeder in to clean it, I wrapped two rings of bright green tape around it. One ring is exactly 6″ up from the bottom, and the second ring is 3″ above the first ring (see sketch). Now when the birds come to feed I can better estimate their size. For two years I have been reporting only Downys. Now, I know for sure there are also Hairys,” wrote John.
Cheryl Johnson of Campton, New Hampshire, decided to build a new feeding station to allow her to photograph birds in a natural-looking setting and was thrilled by some new visitors her creation attracted to her yard. Cheryl reported, “The feeder consists of chunks of logs, a section of hollow tree, dead branches, and a couple of evergreens, all tied around a pole set in the ground. I covered the whole thing with oak leaves, fir boughs, and branches from my rose bushes. I filled the crevices in the bark with melted suet and scattered seed all around. Within minutes of completing this project, two female cardinals arrived–a first for my yard!”
A short time later, much to Cheryl’s amazement, a Harris’s Sparrow (shown at left) showed up and posed in her new feeder “studio.” Harris’s Sparrows are rare in New Hampshire in winter. They normally winter in the central United States from Nebraska to Texas.
She doesn’t know when the sparrow arrived, but recalled, “I was playing with my new camera late in the afternoon on November 16 when I spotted a sparrow-like bird behind the evergreens that I couldn’t identify. When it finally came into view, there wasn’t much light left, but I managed to snap a blurry photo. I searched my field guides and tentatively identified it, then waited anxiously for the next morning. Not long after daybreak, the Harris’s returned and allowed me to get some nice shots. Not only that, but the bird was very cooperative for the dozens of other birders who came to see him.”
Tired of how quickly Black-billed Magpies devoured the suet she put out, Kathy Karjala, of Bozeman, Montana, created what she calls a “Magpie Foiler.” In describing the creative process, Kathy says, “First we turned our suet container upside down and left it in its plastic. That way the birds had to go upside down to get it.
The magpies had trouble with this set-up while the nuthatches, chickadees, and woodpeckers did fine. However, the magpies soon learned to cope with the new arrangement. So, we came up with the idea of hanging a piece of laminate (the foiler) underneath the suet.” The foiler, hung 4 inches below the upside-down suet, makes the space under the suet large enough only for the smaller birds. We started out hanging the foiler with wire, as shown in the picture, but eventually ended up suspending it with fishing line.”
The invention worked, and few magpies raided the suet with the foiler in place. However, a new problem arose that led to a fascinating observation. Snow started to build up on the foiler, blocking access for the woodpeckers. Kathy explained that upon noticing snow blocking the bottom of the suet, woodpeckers would go to the top of the feeder and brush away the snow. Then they went under the suet again only to find snow still in the way. They would then go back to the top and brush away more snow. Kathy said, “This routine repeated itself until I went out to clear the snow for them. It seems likely that they are used to brushing off snow, which may be covering a food source or a hole. But when the snow was underneath their food, they were flummoxed. Of course, I wouldn’t want to lean upside-down and stick my head in a snowdrift either!”
Fortunately, at least one woodpecker did eventually learn how to clear the snow off the foiler. As the photo at left shows, Kathy spotted a Hairy Woodpecker that went under the suet and brushed the snow off of the foiler with his head. The experience showed that “woodpeckers can,” as Kathy exclaimed, “learn new tricks!”
“One of the posts that holds feeders in my yard sports a Slinky™, which is the most effective squirrel guard that I have ever seen.” –E. F. Wood, Clifton, New Jersey
“We have a regular squirrel population. However, they only have access to the ground seed and one tube feeder. We were able to outwit them this season by attaching slinkies to two poles and suspending a thin wire between the poles (see diagram). It really worked. The squirrels are baffled by the slinky movement.” –Jessica Kaminsky, West Hempstead, New York
Karen Konicki wanted to feed birds from her apartment building fire escape in New York City. However, the neighbors complained about her tube feeder because they believed the falling seeds were attracting rats. It turned out that the rats weren’t being attracted by her feeder, but by the time her feeder was cleared of blame, she had created a new feeder that she liked better. She described her creative process as follows.
“I took a wooden foot stool, and turned it upside down. The underside was like a tray with which to hold the seeds. To keep the Mourning Doves and pigeons out, I put green fencing around the legs and over the top. Initially, I had pretty wide openings, and the Mourning Doves could easily get in. When I saw a starling sail right through the box, some additional “tweaking” with the makeshift feeder was required. I ran twine across the openings, making them smaller. An occasional Mourning Dove still sneaks in, but not often. I tied the feeder to the fire escape to secure it. It took some time for the birds to figure out the new feeder, hence I had a lower than normal bird count for awhile. But now they pretty much empty the tray of seeds everyday,” said Karen.
Ralph Guenther of Fairport, New York, wrote, “We had problems with raccoons getting into our feeders. Using a cone and cylinder baffle deterred squirrels, but a raccoon could bend down the edge of a cone and reach over it; he could work his way up a cylinder by hugging it. Placing a cone on top of a cylinder solved the problem.” Ralph thought his feeders were finally safe. However, he went on to say, “After many years without further intrusions, we once again noticed our feeders were being disturbed. We couldn’t understand how the ‘raccoons’ were defeating our baffle system. Late one evening in April, we happened to look out the window and our question was answered.”
An unruly flock of House Sparrows descends on your feeders. Other birds scatter to the sidelines while the sparrows feast. Switching to foods less desirable for House Sparrows such as Nyjer, suet, and fruit is one way to discourage them. However, by limiting available foods, you will also discourage birds that enjoy sunflower, peanuts, and other seeds.
An invasion of House Sparrows almost caused FeederWatcher Bill Kampen in Leavenworth, Washington, to stop feeding birds. A few sparrows appeared at Bill’s feeders one day, and soon there were so many House Sparrows that they crowded out other species. After some trial and error, Bill found a few effective strategies, which we shared on the FeederWatch blog and in the 2018–19 issue of Winter Bird Highlights.
One strategy Bill found to be helpful, which is described in the blog post, is a halo baffle. Participants Pat and Jim Updegraff of Springfield, Ohio, read a newsletter article by the Brome feeder company that described a similar strategy—hanging washers from feeder ports to deter House Sparrows. With flocks of upwards of 30 House Sparrows at their feeders, the couple decided to give it a try. Pat wrote, “The sparrows were doing 180s to get away from the feeder. I thought they would adjust when they realized there was no danger. However, we have not seen a House Sparrow at that feeder yet!” Pat and Jim noted that Blue Jays, Northern Cardinals, chickadees, woodpeckers, and nuthatches appeared unaffected by the dangling washers, and with less competition from the sparrows, the number of House Finches at the feeders increased.
If you have a hopper or platform feeder, try using a halo baffle. Another FeederWatch blog post about halo baffles provides more information about these baffles and includes additional instructions for making your own, as well as additional participant tips for deterring House Sparrows.