Posts Tagged ‘Songbirds’

This was a great winter for bird watching. The snow cover brought the birds out in droves and the white curtain made them stand out for easy viewing.

The more I watched the birds over the winter the more I wondered what they do when they weren’t eating at our feeders.


I want to encourage birds into my garden because they are not only pretty to look at and delightful to listen to, they eat lots of bad bugs. Even the seedeaters collect bugs in spring to feed to their young.  So having them around can put a serious dent in the pest population.

If you’ve ever listened to a bird singing atop a tree and wondered what he or she was chirping about The Singing Life of Birds (Houghton, Mifflin $28.00) is the book for you.

For centuries man has questioned why birds sing and what they are saying and in this book, author, scientist and renowned ornithologist Donald Crossman takes his readers on a listening adventure to help us understand the living dramas going on in our backyards. He puts his reader inside the mind of singing birds, exploring not only how and why they sing, but also how we can better understand them through their songs.


Some birds sing in dialects while other have a single song. Some sing during the day, but others chirp only at night. And, why is birdsong sung mostly by the males of the specie?

Kroodsma, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts shares the answers to these and other burning questions from information garnered over more than three decades of recording and analyzing the songs of bird in this intriguing instructional book.

Included is a high quality CD featuring birdsongs taped at both normal speeds and slowed to 1/2 and 1/4 speeds allowing listeners to pick up discreet sounds that help with interpretation.

House Wren

Are you a baffled bird watcher, always struggling to put names to the feathered friends that inhabit the neighborhood and hang out at the cottage? Having trouble telling the difference between a purple finch and a house finch or a wren from a sparrow?   Not to worry. Identify Yourself: The 50 Most Common Bird Identification Challenges  (Houghton Mifflin $19.95) by Bill Thomas III and the editors of Bird Watchers Digest (800) 879-2473, www.birdwatchersdigest.com, may just change your life and turn you into a bird watching whiz.

Offering tips, techniques and tricks that make bird identification both easy and fun, this informative book chronicles the subtle differences one must look for when looking at a hard to distinguish bird. Its garnered rave reviews from professionals and hobbyists alike.

The Best Gift for Gardening Moms

Mother’s Day is coming soon but if the special lady on your gift list is a gardener, there’s no need to panic. Gardeners are a snap to shop for especially at this time of year. Gift certificates may be considered impersonal for some but to a gardener, a pre-paid shopping spree at a garden center at planting time is “the best.”

If mom is an avid plant collector or loves to shop for yard art and pottery, consider a chauffeured mystery trip to some top-notch garden centers Mom has never shopped.


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Mulch and the Soil Food Web

Puttering In The Potager – Week 6 of 2010

(Week 6 isFeb 8th to the 14th)

Mulch has critical function in the ‘soil food web’

Homestyle columnist Nancy Szerlag gets eight or more gardening magazines each month, and both of us get many newly published gardening books from publishers hoping we will give them a review in our columns. That’s a fair amount of information piling up on our desks. The question is whether there is really anything new offered in all that paper. The answer is usually yes, but you have to plow through a bunch of old information to find the kernels of new data.

One problem that surfaces and is sometimes serious is that there is not always agreement among the garden writing world concerning the need and use of compost, humus and organic material. We still find confusion among published works that often leads to bad advice. Yardeners don’t have to get down to the little gritty scientific details in this issue, but making sure you are not using bad advice is a good thing.

In the 1990s, soil scientists, discovered the “soil food web,” which I’ve discussed many times over the years. The function of all the different denizens of the soil from the earthworms down to the beneficial microbes had not been clearly understood, especially the fact that all those billions of critters make up a connected network; what one bacteria does affects what happens to another microbe next door.

When we began to truly understand the “soil food web,” we began to really appreciate the critical function of what we all call “mulch” or organic materials of some kind that we layer over the surface of the soil where we are growing plants.

We believed mulch was primarily valuable because it kept down weeds, kept the water stored in the soil from evaporating as quickly, and cooled the soil in the summer. What we now know is the most important role of mulch is to provide food for the critters making up the “soil food web.” That mulch disappears. It is pulled down into the soil and eaten sometimes many times as the soil food web creates from that organic material food for the plants, disease prevention and a general environment in which a plant can thrive. After that organic matter has been munched, the black residue is called “humus.” This humus is not food but it does important things. It is able to store lots of water for later use by the plants. It has chemicals in it that help plants maintain a comfortable pH in their root system. Humus does good stuff.

Humus is essentially the same as compost. Both are the residue of the decomposition of organic material. The big question, therefore, is if we use lots of organic material on our property in the form of mulch, does that mean we no longer need to use compost? The answer is yes and no. Compost can be a very helpful soil additive but it is not fertilizer; it does not feed the soil food web. Next week I offer new views on using compost.

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Puttering In The Potager – Week 1 of 2010

(Week 1 is January 4 to the 11th)

It’s the middle of winter and there is not much yardening to do outside except to keep the bird feeders filled.  With the recent snow and ice, it is really important to keep those feeders going once you have started the cafeteria for your songbirds.

Except for Cardinals, we have the usual band of highwaymen hustling sunflower seed and black thistle seed like professional thieves.  The main crew includes chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, finches (goldfinch and house finch), and the woodpeckers (Hairy, Downy, and Red Bellied).  While the House Finches will move back up north come late spring, the rest of that crew are year round managers of pest insect eggs left in the crevices of tree bark.  Just because you feed them doesn’t mean they stop their daily hunt for insect eggs.  By feeding them you just have a higher number of birds working the tree trunks on your property.

You all might be surprised to know we have no sparrows and no starlings raiding our bird feeders here in the boonies.  We live in the middle of the woods, and those two gangsters are definitely city and suburban dwellers. To be perfectly truthful, I don’t really miss them all that much.

In the spring the other regulars in the pest insect platoon come back with sun tans.  The Robins, House Wrens, and Catbirds swing in to begin yet another season of raising kids and eating bugs.  We also get a pair or two of Flycatchers which are not so often spotted in the burbs.


Last week we had an unwanted visitor to our bird feeding station and it wasn’t a squirrel.  I work in front of second story window overlooking the bird feeding area, and my eye caught some movement that was not normal. I looked up and darned if there was not some kind of a hawk going after the songbirds around the feeder.  It was an amazing display of aerial prowess.  What turned out to be an American kestral or Sparrow Hawk, it was almost able to make turns in the air as tight as the chickadees.  He didn’t get any lunch that day, but he has returned a few times when I was watching and has snagged one of our fuzzy beauties a few times.

I never considered having to worry about a hawk threatening my bird feeder visitors, but this ace is definitely a threat.  Now the population of songbirds visiting the feeders are aware of the hawk’s existence, so they seem to be much quicker in evacuating down low to the ground when it shows up.  The American Kestral is about the size of a Blue Jay and works the edge of fields and woods.  In the summer, it eats mostly insects, but in the winter it will go after songbirds as well.  It is able to hover in the air giving it even more tools to secure its prey.

Squirrel Stopper Support For Bird Feeders

Those other rogues, the squirrels, are no longer a problem for our bird feeders since we installed the “Squirrel Stopper” bird feeder post assembly (www.squirrelstopper.net).  The Squirrel Stopper is easy to set up and holds four bird feeders up five or six feet off the ground.  The secret to foiling the squirrels is an elongated bell that is suspended on the main post with springs.  We’ve watched squirrels try all kinds of tricks and they can’t beat that bell system.  The rig costs about $125 and is made with extremely high quality materials.  It should last for decades.  You can buy one online from Duncraft (www.duncraft.com) or check them out in the Detroit area at Wild Birds Unlimited in Grosse Pointe Woods ((313) 881-1410).

Winter is the time when access to fresh water can be a very difficult challenge for these very same songbirds.  Puddles, small ponds and streams, and bird baths are often frozen over completely.  Getting water from eating snow takes enormous amounts of their energy reserves.  Check out the many different bird bath heaters available from Duncraft on the web or around the city at one of the six Wild Birds Unlimited Stores (www.wbu.com).

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For those of you who like to wait until the last minute to do your holiday shopping, here are some great gift ideas for the green thumbs on your list.

• If any of the folks on your list feed the birds, the Squirrel Stopper Universal Baffle, with a suggested retail price $49.99, is the perfect gift. It fits any round or square pole from one-half to 2 inches in diameter and is guaranteed to keep squirrels from raiding the feeding station. The Squirrel Stopper Baffle comes in two halves so the feeding station need not be dismantled to install it. The bullet-shaped stopper baffle floats on three springs and is made of ABS plastic so it won’t rust.

This baffle utilizes the same technology as the Squirrel Stopper pole system, which has sold more than 16,500 units and not one squirrel has beaten it. Jeff and I have had our Squirrel Stopper up for almost three years and no squirrel or raccoon has been able steal our seed. Wow, what a money saver.

It’s available at Wild Birds Unlimited in Royal Oak, English Gardens in West Bloomfield Township and Back Yard Birds in Plymouth. It can also be purchased online at www.worksgreat.net where you can check out other Squirrel Stopper systems.

• For the older gardener or the extremely busy gardener, help with spring cleanup is always welcome.

“A gift certificate for a spring cleanup is great for any homeowner,” says Julia Dingle, owner of the Garden Company, a professional landscape design and maintenance firm based in Rochester, (248) 388-8581.

“It’s such a relief to have the job done in one day and the home gardener is ready to hit the ground running when planting time arrives.” Dingle’s company also specializes in all manor of outdoor decorating, including spectacular container gardens.

• Gift certificates are also a great way to give a special gift and support your favorite independent garden center. There is nothing better when spring shopping than to be able to buy that plant, container or statue you lust for but is a stretch for your budget. Package the certificate up with a boxed Amaryllis or some paperwhite bulbs, and the green thumb on your list will love watching them grow and burst into bloom in the next few weeks. This is truly a gift that keeps on giving.

• An invite on a mystery trip on a cold winter’s day will warm the heart of any green thumb. Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids, www.meijergarden.org, sponsors special events throughout the year. In Ann Arbor, the Matthaei Botanical Gardens Conservatory, www.mbgna.umich.edu, is open year-round.

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Next week is when all the final preparations are made for all those wonderful meals we expect to enjoy on Christmas and the days that follow. I’m suggesting now is a good time to start accumulating the kinds of leftovers that songbirds will just love after the excitement of our own holiday season.

Set aside a good-size plastic container which can store stale fruitcake, crumbled cookies, shriveled cranberries, busted pinecones and that one handful of nuts at the bottom of the can after the party is over. These tidbits make wonderful treats for your bird buddies at a time when the access to food in the frozen snow covered outside might be limited. Store the treats with no cover so they dry out.

Chickadee devours cookie crumbs

After New Year’s, set up the old dried-out Christmas tree outdoors and get the kids to string cranberries and popcorn into edible garlands for snacking. Apples and oranges that are a bit past their prime are also good choices. Cut them in slices and string them with a needle and thread. The Christmas tree will serve as shelter for the birds as well as a fancy feeding station.

Old pinecones slathered in cheap peanut butter and rolled in birdseed make tasty treats for our fine-feathered friends. To keep things tidy, remember to tie on the attaching ribbon before you add the peanut butter.

Cardinals are the last to leave the feeder

The live berries from Christmas greens, including holly, juniper, bittersweet and rose hips, are a big treat for city birds. Layer the berry-covered greens atop a small pile of brush or tie bunches together and hang them from a tree or on a fence.

Old fruitcake makes a great snack for birds. Set it out on a feeder tray or tie it up with a ribbon in mesh feeder bags. Cookies and crackers are also appreciated.

Bacon grease is another treat that larger birds enjoy. After cooking the bacon, pour the liquid into an empty tuna can and place it in the refrigerator to harden. Before you fill the can with grease, punch a hole in the sidewall with a nail. When the grease has solidified, thread a piece of wire through the hole and make a loop for hanging.

When putting out birdseed, don’t forget to include crushed eggshells. The birds need calcium as much as we do. But the crushed shells also act as grit that help the birds digest their food.

In some ways suet is a more important addition to the bird’s lunch counter, promising instant energy in cold windy days. Having more than one suet holder and bird feeder will help to share the wealth of holiday treats.

Be sure to place your feeding stations in accessible locations. If you have to trudge through snow banks to make refills, you will soon lose interest and stop filling the feeders.

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I wrote this note two years ago when we had a pile of snow in early December.

To Decorate a Christmas Tree to Feed the Birds

Dip pinecones in peanut butter and roll in birdseed.

String pop corn and cranberries to make edible garlands

Mix peanut butter, warm bacon grease and birdseed and spread in a cake pan.

When cool, cut out shapes with cookie cutters. Make hole with an awl and add string to tie on tree.

Fill half an orange rind with shelled peanuts or birdseed

Fill small plastic mesh bags with suet and tie off the top with a bow.


Male Turkey from Songbirdgarden.com

This week a huge Tom turkey visited the freshly shoveled parking area in front of my country cottage in hopes of finding something to eat. Deep snow has buried much of the berries and seeds turkeys and other birds feed in winter. After several minutes of scratching the Tom found nothing but gravel and flew off into the woods.


Female wild turkeys often come around to forage for food, but this is the first time a Tom has visited. And he reminded me that, due to the deep snow, many of our feathered friends are having a tough time finding food, so it’s time to feed the birds.

If you’re putting out a feeder for the first time, scatter some seed on the snow beneath the feeder to help attract the birds to the area.

To make a quick snack bar for the birds, nail half an apple or half an orange to an 18 inch square board by driving long nails through the back of the board and impaling the fruit on the exposed sharp pointed end. Add a plastic pocket for suet by stapling a piece of material cut from a plastic mesh onion along side the fruit. Be sure to leave enough slack so you can fill it.

Stale bread, bagels and unsweetened cereals also make nice treats for birds. Bread or bagels can be hung from a nail on the snack bar.

Hang the snack bar from the branch of a tree using picture wire threaded through two screw eyes attached to the top of the board.

“The Backyard Bird Feeder’s Bible: The A to Z Guide to Feeders, Seed Mixes, Projects and Treats” by Sally Roth (Rodale Press $29.95) has dozens of money saving tips and easy DIY projects for feeding the birds. And most are made by recycling materials you have around the house. If you have children to entertain over the holidays, this book has lots of fun activities to keep them busy.

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Excerpt from our website http://yardener.com. For additional information on chickadees, click here.

Chickadees are the friendliest birds in the backyard. They can even be trained to eat from your hand, that is, if one has the patience to sit quietly while they are being encouraged.




Chickadees are common throughout the US. Although there are three different types of this charming bird, they vary only slightly in appearance and are easily recognized anywhere. They frequent residential yards and gardens, devouring insects and visiting feeders. All the while these cute little perky and bright creatures liven up the neighborhood with their antics and their distinctive chick-a-dee-dee-dee call.

Unlike many bird species where the male and female are easily distinguished by different colored plumage and the male does most of the singing, male and female chickadees look alike and sing alike. Chickadees are one of the quickest birds in the air, able to change directions in a lightning fast 3/100 of a second. Nine times out of ten, they are the first visitors to a brand new birdfeeder, having an unerring ability to find their favorite sunflower seeds. They are fearless and can even be trained to eat out of the hand of a patient yardener.

Chickadees Eat Bad Bugs
Because all chickadees are year-round insectivores as well as seed eaters, they are part of the natural pest control system in your yard. Those that live in and around the property patrol it regularly in their search for protein, dispatching all kinds of pest insects that are also resident in the yard. In the summer they can be depended upon to eat:
Lunch for Chickadees
many weevils
Colorado potato beetles
flea beetles
tree hoppers
moths and moth eggs
plant lice
scale insects
true bugs

In the winter chickadees scour tree bark for eggs and pupae of various moths, spiders, katydids and other insects that winterover as eggs. They habitually feed from the ground to about five feet from the ground. When gleaning the bark of tall trees they will feed higher, but the bulk of their feeding is low to the ground.


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