Backyard Birding [Part 2 of 2]

Make a Fine Feathered Friend

Feed the Birds (tuppence a bag)

You can attract more birds to your yard if you offer them a food source, especially in winter. Some people wonder if it’s bad for humans to feed birds because they might become reliant on an artificial food source, or too used to humans, which could put them at risk. But most bird experts agree that it’s okay to feed birds if we take some care about when and how we do it.

Birds don’t hibernate and they have high metabolisms, so they have to stay active and search for food even in the coldest months. In summer there are plenty of bugs and berries for the birds, but in winter there is less food available and high need. This is when they can use our help. Setting up a safe bird feeder is a great way to help resident birds through the leaner months.

When setting up a feeder, which birds you attract depends on where you put the feeder and what food you offer. Here are some different feeder heights for attracting different visitors:

  • Ground level: mourning doves, sparrows, towhees, juncos
  • Table level: cardinals, finches, jays
  • Hanging feeders: titmice, goldfinches, chickadees
  • Tree trunks: woodpeckers, nuthatches, wrens
Here are Some Basic Bird Feeding Do's and Don’ts
  • DO feed birds in the winter when they can use the help. Be consistent. If you are gone for a few days, they will find food at other feeders or from natural sources. But it can be stressful for them if you are inconsistent with winter feeding.
  • DON’T feed birds in the summer. Now and then is okay, but there’s plenty of food to be found in summer, and it’s important for young birds to learn how to find food on their own, from natural sources. Two exceptions are hummingbirds and goldfinches, whose higher metabolisms can use a boost year-round.
  • DO place feeders in a good location.
    • 12 feet away from evergreen trees or bushes. Birds can quickly fly this distance and reach safe cover, but predators can’t use it to hide in striking range of the feeder. Place thorny branches around ground-level feeders.
    • Closer than 3 feet from a window or 30 feet away. That is the optimal distance to avoid accidental bird crashes.
  • DON’T let your feeder get too dirty. Bird feeders need to be cleaned out regularly (old food and bird droppings), or bacteria will build-up, and they will become a health risk to birds. If you notice large amounts of seeds are left uneaten, put out a smaller amount.
  • DO use wild bird seed, which is better for birds and the environment. These seeds are the best high-energy snacks:
    • Black-oil sunflower seed
    • Nyjer seed
    • Cracked corn (medium-sized is best)
    • Suet cakes
  • DON’T feed birds human foods or table scraps, especially:
    • Bread has no nutritional value, and moldy bread can harm them.
    • Salted foods, margarine, and vegetable oil are all bad for birds.
    • Dairy is not digestible.
    • Chocolate is toxic to birds.
    • Food scraps are probably not safe in general and will definitely attract rats!
  • DO make your backyard into a bird sanctuary by offering food, water, and shelter. And protection from toxic sprays and hungry pets.
Make or Modify a Backyard Bird Feeder

Make: Setting up a bird feeder in your yard will give your kids a great place to observe and identify different birds and to record their observations.  Here are some environmentally friendly DIY birdfeeders from our friends at Cornell University.

Modify: Or you can buy an inexpensive suet cage and make suet with your kids. Suet is a great energy source for birds in the winter. Plus, it’s easy and fun to make! Here’s a simple recipe:

What you need:

  • 1½ cups lard or shortening (avoid palm oil)
  • ¾ cup nut butter (any kind)
  • 3½ cups wild bird seed
  • 1 cup oatmeal (unflavored)
  • ½ cup cornmeal
  • Ice cube tray

What you do:

  1. Mix together the seed, oatmeal, and cornmeal.
  2. Melt and stir together the lard/shortening and nut butter in a separate bowl.
  3. Mix the dry and melted ingredients together.
  4. Spoon into the squares of the ice cube tray.
  5. Freeze for 1-2 hours.
  6. Remove cubes and place them in your suet cage, as needed. Best in winter (not recommended in temps over 50 degrees).
Credit: Misty Ladd (Unsplash)

What are Whiskers?

It’s best to observe birds using your wide-angle vision—what we at Trackers call your Whiskers. To see with your Whiskers, put both hands in front of your face, then pull them apart until you can barely see them at the far edges of your vision. Animals, including birds, can see and sense when you are focused directly on them. It makes them nervous because that’s what predators do. When you observe birds using your Whiskers, you don’t look directly at them, so they relax and let you get closer. It’s more than just what your eyes are doing. The bird will watch your body language and know when you are overly focused on them (like they’re reading your mind). If you use all your senses and your Whiskers while observing animals, the animal will be more relaxed, you’ll take in more of your environment, and you’ll better understand how the animal relates to its surroundings. It’s a great skill to develop!

Closing the Gap

Learning to get close to wildlife is a dynamic mix of how you move, how quiet you are, and how accustomed the wildlife is to you. At Trackers, we call all these skills Closing the Gap. With any wild animal, including birds, Closing the Gap is about exploring the relationship between you, the animal, and the environment. 

Mission: Challenge your kids to see how close they can get to a bird or group of birds. It will probably take a while to gain a bird’s trust—which means more time outside! Kids can spend an hour a day following these steps:

Part 1

  • Before starting this mission, lock all cats and dogs inside so they don’t scare birds away (or eat them). In fact, if you have a cat, consider using a bird safe collar all the time. In America cats kill billions of wild birds every year!
  • Set up a feeder so birds are sure to come by. 
  • Start out sitting far from the birds’ eating spot. Let the birds get used to you. You’ll know they’re used to you when they don’t fly off or hide when you arrive. 
Credit: John Duncan (Unsplash)

Part 2

  • Once a bird is used to you, it’s time to play Red Light-Green Light. Notice the bird’s body language so you can Close the Gap. When a bird is feeding or singing, it’s comfortable. That’s a Green Light to move closer. When it stops feeding or singing or stiffens its posture, that’s a Red Light and you should freeze. Try acting like a deer and pretend to munch on some grass.
  • As you move closer, continue watching the bird with your Whiskers. Don’t walk straight towards it either—that’s more predator behavior. Instead, circle around it. You should wander toward the bird gently and with patience, not barge straight through.  

Part 3

  • Continue playing Red Light-Green Light as you move closer and closer to the bird. See how close you can get to its foraging spot or perch while respecting what it’s telling you with its body language. Pay Attention to the birds—stop where they tell you to stop. This game is about exploring your relationship with an animal. 
Credit: Hessey Sossah (Unsplash)

More Resources

If your child enjoys these birding activities, here are some additional resources to check out for more family birding fun:

I’m really excited about this last series because it’s specific to the Pacific NW, written for kids, and has fun birding activities. Plus the author is a former Trackers writer.

Winter is a fantastic time for kids to see and interact with birds. Not only are they one of the most common and easiest animals to see, in the wild or in your yard. So arm your kids with some guidebooks or an app, set up a feeder, and get them outside bonding with the fun birds.