1-7 November 2004
Installment #245---Visitor #Apple Store

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Many folks feed wild birds year-round, but not until first frost does Hilton Pond Center begin getting calls and E-mails from novice nature lovers wanting suggestions on attracting backyard birds. As soon as the temperature drops, newcomers to bird feeding urgently want to know what kind of feeder works best, which seeds bring in the most birds, and--of course--what to do about marauding squirrels. Before we answer those kinds of questions, we always start our advice with "The most important thing you can do to attract birds at ANY time of the year is provide appropriate habitat." In the Carolina Piedmont--and anywhere else--that means two main things: 1) Planting a variety of trees, shrubs, and other flora; and, 2) providing a source of fresh water.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Hanging a feeder in the middle of an "environmental war zone"--i.e., an area with no significant vegetation or water elements--might attract a few birds, but they're likely to be that unholy trinity of European Starling, House Sparrow, and Rock Dove. These three invasive species could probably find some way to survive on a 10,000-acre asphalt parking lot in the middle of Manhattan, but we doubt our native sparrows, finches, and woodland birds would show up there. Even a vast expanse of lawn (heaven forbid!) is better than no vegetation at all; American Robins and Killdeer at least can find grubs and other invertebrates among the grass, so long as too many pesticides and other chemicals aren't applied.

'Twould be far better, of course, for a person trying to attract birds to maintain a good mix of trees and shrubs: hardwoods that produce berries and seeds, plus evergreens that give year-round shelter from predators and the elements. At Hilton Pond Center (top photo) we're fortunate to have a diverse complement of nut-bearing oaks, hickories, Pecans, and Black Walnuts; fruit-yielding Flowering Dogwoods, American Hollies, Common Persimmons, and Black Cherries; and seed-making Eastern Redbuds, Honeylocusts, and American Sycamores. A significant local stand of Eastern Red Cedars provides a ton of blue berries each winter (above right), all the while offering dense evergreen foliage in which birds can hide. Likewise, our pines--mainly Loblolly with a few Short-leaf and Virginia--have needle-bearing branches and cones containing nutritious seeds.

Many experienced bird feeders--ourselves included--claim potable water is a more precious commodity in nature than trees and shrubs, and that water often brings birds quicker than food itself. Hilton Pond is, of course, a terrific attractant for birds, and not just those that like to swim and dive. Some terrestrial birds dance along the pond's edge and take little sips of water, while others glide just above its surface and snatch insects in mid-flight. Many of our smaller birds are more prevalent at the Center's smaller water features, including a re-used metal bottom from an old shower stall (below), or two connected plastic pools livened up by moving water from a recirculating pump and miniature waterfall.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Although not every property owner who wants to feed wild birds has an 11-acre site like Hilton Pond Center and a pond to boot, virtually anyone can still attract birds and enjoy them this winter--and all year long. The first step is to heed our comment above: Provide water. Commercial bird baths on a pedestal are usually just the wrong thing to buy. For one, birds are used to bathing and drinking on the ground--not three feet up in the air--and the basins are much too deep. Terrestrial birds don't care to enter water that goes above their drumsticks, so keep the level in your bird bath no more than an inch and a half deep. A rough, flat rock in the middle of the bath helps provide stable footing on what might otherwise be a smooth and slippery surface. Some folks also have success with 12" plastic flower saucers that are easy to clean and freeze up more slowly than ceramic types.

In winter, you can keep your bird bath from freezing by inserting a submersible electric heater designed for that purpose; just because the ambient temperature is cold doesn't mean birds don't need water to drink--nor does it mean they don't have desire to bathe. If a bird's feathers get dirty, they quickly lose ability to insulate and shed precipitation, so keep that bird bath thawed as the thermometer drops. And speaking of dirty, make it a habit to replace water in a bird bath every other day, and vigorously scrub the whole thing at least weekly to get rid of droppings and bacterial build-up. (You wouldn't want to get YOUR drinking water from a tub in which dozens of people had been bathing and defecating, now would you?)

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

The easiest bird feeder to make--and one of the best at which to observe birds--is a simple platform feeder (above). This device--we recommend you make it from a 2' x 2' piece of 3/4" marine plywood--will be visited by everything from Eastern Tufted Titmice to Purple Finches and Blue Jays to Red-bellied Woodpeckers. We also suggest you add four 15" corner posts and a matching roof 2.5' x 2.5' square to keep rain (or snow) off the food you offer; a 1/2" strip of wood along all four sides of the bottom will keep seeds from spilling to the ground.

This open platform feeder allows unimpeded viewing of your avian visitors while providing excellent photographic opportunities. Interestingly, the openness of the platform seems to attract even birds that tend to be a little shy around feeders with lots of reflective plastic or metal, so don't be surprised in the Carolina Piedmont or Coastal Plain to see the likes of Brown-headed Nuthatches showing up to examine your home-made feeder and the bounty it contains. We advise you mount your platform feeder on a pole outside the kitchen window--set it just below shoulder height to make it easy to maintain--or nail it securely to a deck railing. If you have feral cats, Raccoons, or Opossums in your neighborhood, you'll want to install a predator guard on the post to protect the birds and all those seeds you're buying. At least twice a month, rid the platform of old seeds, hulls, and droppings by using a paint scraper and a whisk broom.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Now that your feeder is in place, the very best food to get the most birds is black--not striped!--sunflower seeds. These black seeds (above right), sometimes called "oilseeds," have a thin shell easily removed by even small seed-eaters such as American Goldfinches and Carolina Chickadees. The traditional striped sunflower seeds (above left) are larger than oilseeds but have very thick husks that are hard to open; in addition, the semi-porous shell doesn't adhere closely to the seed, meaning there's empty space within. In other words, your get more bang for your buck when you buy black oilseeds--plus the birds don't have to devote as much of their own precious energy to opening the shells. Just spread a few handsful of oilseeds on your platform feeder and wait for the birds to arrive. It won't take long.

We also offer black sunflower in tubular feeders from which birds remove the seeds just one at a time; winter finches--such as the six Purple Finches and lone male House Finch at right--like to sit and eat while on the tube feeder's perches. They still drop almost as many seeds as they consume, but the leftovers are soon grabbed by ground-eating species. A slightly different tube feeder with slit-like holes is a good way to offer awl-shaped seeds called "thistle" or "niger." These tiny seeds sometimes attract American Goldfinches and Pine Siskins when nothing else will. Thistle seed doesn't readily spoil or germinate when it gets wet--an important factor since it's a bit on the pricey side. (NOTE: Cup hooks under each corner of a pole-mounted platform feeder make great places from which to hang tube feeders or wire baskets containing suet.)

As might be expected, not every bird likes sunflower seeds or thistle, and not all birds will feed from a platform or hanging feeder. Thus, at the Center we provide for ground-foraging birds by placing small piles of our "Original Hilton Pond 3:2:1 Mix" directly on the substrate; that's three parts cracked corn, two parts white millet, and one part whole (shell) corn (left). Sometimes we throw in one part of black sunflower seed just for variety. White-throated Sparrows and Mourning Doves sort through the mix and tend to eat the cracked corn, Dark-eyed Juncos literally stuff their crops and bills with the tiny spherical millet seeds, and Common Grackles and Blue Jays like to chomp down on hard corn kernels. In appropriate locations, you can even grow your own shell corn, white millet, and sunflower and just let birds harvest the seeds as they ripen.

Specialty stores sometimes offer other useful feed for sale, particularly safflower (below)--a white, irregular tear-shaped seed for which Northern Cardinals and finches may acquire a taste but that sometimes gets ignored. And some folks save cantaloupe and watermelon seeds all summer just so they can put them out when their winter birds arrive. It's worth mentioning that cheap mixed bird seed sold in clear plastic bags at most grocery stores usually isn't worth buying. It may contain sparrow-pleasing white millet and a smattering of sunflower, but mostly it's just less-tasty red millet, milo, and wheat--three seeds that, in our experience, are preferred by relatively few bird species.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

So that's the basic story on how to start feeding winter birds. Provide some sort of water element year-round. Build a simple platform feeder and erect where it can be seen by you AND the birds. Buy money-saving 25- or 50-pound bags of black sunflower, white millet, cracked corn, and shell corn and make your own mix. Be careful to store unused seeds in tight containers that repel mice and insects. Grow your own sunflower plants in a plot viewable from your observation window and simply leave the sunflower heads to ripen on the stalk (above right). But, most importantly, try to do as we do at Hilton Pond Center: Devote less property to lawn and more to trees, shrubs, and other natural vegetation that bring a bevy of backyard birds in winter--and all year long.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

POSTSCRIPT: We almost forgot that question on how to handle marauding squirrels at your bird feeder. Our advice is "Do nothing." It's our belief that all squirrels are born with Ph.D.'s in engineering and sooner or later will figure out a way to defeat any "squirrel-proof" feeder invented by humans. So just sit back, relax, and feed the birds AND the squirrels. No sense getting an ulcer from worrying about "bushy-tailed tree rats" over which you ultimately have no real control . . . .

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NOTE: Be sure to scroll down for an account of all birds banded or recaptured during the week, as well as some other interesting nature notes.

"This Week at Hilton Pond" is written & photographed
by Bill Hilton Jr., executive director of
Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History.

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Oct 15 to Mar 15
Please report
your sightings of
Vagrant & Winter


1-7 November 2004

Tennessee Warbler--1
Eastern Phoebe--1
Yellow-rumped Warbler--1
Black-throated Blue Warbler--1
American Goldfinch--2
Song Sparrow--1
Solitary (Blue-headed) Warbler--1
House Finch--1
Tufted Titmouse--1
White-throated Sparrow--2
Amrican Robin--3

* = New species for 2004

11 species

64 species
1,843 individuals

(since 28 June 1982)
123 species
45,148 individuals

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

This Week at Hilton Pond
is part of the

Blue-headed Vireo
This species, formerly known as Solitary Vireo, is fairly cold-tolerant; some individuals even overwinter in southern coastal states rather than joining conspecifics in Central America. Although relatively common in te Carolina Piedmont, we've only banded 17 of them at Hilton Pond Center since 1982.


(with original banding date, sex, and current age)

Tufted Titmouse (1)
07/30/01--4th year female

--A good-sized juvenile Cooper's Hawk--likely a female--has been hanging around the feeders at the Center. Like all accipiters, it makes its living catching and consuming smaller birds. Although most winters we see--and band--Sharp-shinned Hawks, we rarely observe the larger, round-tailed Cooper's.

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