Archive for the ‘Bird Feed’ Category

Great Scientific Discovery!

May 9, 2010

Western Tanager Watching Female Bullock's Oriole

In our times, it is not often that a lay person gets to add to the total sum of scientific knowledge. Once a “Renaissance” man might hope to do so, but those days are gone; now science advances mainly through the hard, painstaking work of real scientists, published in peer-reviewed journals. This is as true of ornithology as of any other science, although lay people do still help out with Christmas bird counts, ecological vacations, and simple observations.

So it is an exciting day when we here at the Fat Finch make a scientific discovery.

Western Tanager at the Grape Jelly

Normally, of course, we would follow the scientific method and submit our discovery to a peer-reviewed journal.  But, we’d rather share it first with you, our faithful readers. And, because we have photographic evidence to prove our discovery, we see no reason to wait to announce our discovery to the world. Here is a photo of a Western Tanager eating grape jelly. Taken yesterday, it shows a Western Tanager dipping into some grape jelly. We’ve seen both the male and the female eating the grape jelly.  (That is a White-winged Dove observing. As we’ve noted before, White-winged Doves spend their days trying to evolve. I suppose that is another of our discoveries. I don’t recall ever reading anything in a peer-reviewed journal demonstrating that some species actually attempt conscious evolution, but White-winged Doves do. This one is attempting to learn how to eat grape jelly.)

So here is our Scientific Discovery:

Orange birds love purple food.

We await the call from the Nobel Committee.


May 5, 2010

Each year, about this time, an oriole flies over our house, minding its own business, on its way somewhere when suddenly, out of the corner of its eye, it sees a bird feeder below, stuffed with grape jelly.

As we’ve told you before, orioles get whiplash when they see grape jelly. It reminds me of the very first Calvin and Hobbes cartoon strip. Calvin tells his dad, “So long, Pop. I’m off to check my tiger trap.” Calvin is sure he’ll have trapped a tiger because he rigged the trap with a tuna fish sandwich and tells his dad, “Tigers will do anything for a tuna fish sandwich.” The last frame shows Hobbes the tiger upside down; dangling from the trap; eating the tuna fish sandwich and saying, “We’re kind of stupid that way.”

Orioles are the same way about grape jelly.

House Finch Spring

May 1, 2010

As you can tell, the male House Finches in our vicinity are wearing their spring finery. The red comes from their food supply. Females choose males with the most and brightest red, presumably because the reddest males will supply the most food to the female and the nestlings. (Except in Hawaii, where they have been introduced, but display no red, probably because the food supply there is different from the mainland – they love papaya.) Native to the Western United States and Canada, they spread throughout the eastern U.S. and Canada after several were released on Long Island in 1940. As many as one and half billion may live in North America now. Seed eaters, they flock to bird feeders where they prefer black oil sunflower seeds over striped sunflower seeds, milo, and millet. If you watch them closely, you’ll discover they are messy eaters, dropping many seeds on the ground, which both pigeons and Border Collies love.

Spring Cleaning is for the Birds

March 9, 2010

Hurtling through space in its unceasing orbit around the sun, tilting on its axis, the earth approaches another change of season. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere spring arrives it in fits and spurts and the birds begin to migrate once more.

Which means it’s a good time to clean house, both yours and your birdhouses and bird feeders. According to no lesser an authority that Wikipedia, the practice of house cleaning in March in North America and Europe began because it was warm enough to open the windows for dusting. Remember, vacuum cleaners had yet to be invented.

Spring cleaning as a rite began earlier. The Persian New Year corresponded with the first day of Spring and Persians “shook” their houses in preparation. Since ancient times observant Jews clean house before the beginning of Passover to rid it of chametz. (leavened bread crumbs)

While keeping bird feeders and bird baths clean is a year-round chore, this is a good time to do a thorough job because the migrants are on the way. Birds can get bacterial and fungal diseases from contaminated bird feeders and water sources. Avian diseases can spread rapidly because they eat communally.

Many non-toxic solutions and techniques make this chore easy and safe for the birds and the environment.

Find a tub big enough to hold your bird feeder(s), get a scrub brush (long brushes sold at birding stores are effective), a pair of gloves, some scent-free mild liquid soap or detergent, and white distilled vinegar.Put the feeders in the tub and fill it with warm water and a squirt of liquid soap or detergent. Wearing gloves, scrub the parts of the feeders you can reach, then rinse thoroughly. Empty the tub, fill it with clean water, and add four cups of vinegar. Let the feeders soak for an hour. Rinse thoroughly.

Nectar feeders for hummingbirds and orioles often develop mold. Hydrogen peroxide is an effective cleaning agent for that. Spray the peroxide directly into the feeder, let sit for an hour or so, then rinse thoroughly and dry.

Don’t forget to wash your hands after you finish.

Fill the clean feeders with fresh food. Throw away old or moldy seed. Birds don’t mind a few bugs in their seed, but they dislike old, stale seed as much as we dislike stale bread.


The “Blue Marble” photo of the earth is the most detailed true-color image of the earth yet made. Here is an animated version. (No sound)

Photo Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Image by Reto Stöckli (land surface, shallow water, clouds). Enhancements by Robert Simmon (ocean color, compositing, 3D globes, animation). Data and technical support: MODIS Land Group; MODIS Science Data Support Team; MODIS Atmosphere Group; MODIS Ocean Group Additional data: USGS EROS Data Center (topography); USGS Terrestrial Remote Sensing Flagstaff Field Center (Antarctica); Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (city lights).

Cats, Birds, and Bird Feeding

November 12, 2009

Recently, we had two customers in the store who are cat lovers.  Seeing the cat bib we sell, designed to passively interfere with cats’ hunting, one of them seemed offended that someone would put that on a cat and she remarked, “ Cats kill birds, it’s nature!”


Egyptian Cat Mummy

That’s wrong, at least in all the world except North Africa and the Near East.  Cats are indigenous there but nowhere else. In North Africa and the Near East birds have been evolving defenses against cat predation since the Pleistocene. Elsewhere though, cats are newcomers, brought by humans; instead of having hundreds of centuries to evolve defenses, birds have had only a few hundred years. Birds in places like North America have not had time to develop defenses against cats’ deadly effective hunting skills.

So, it is not “nature” nor is it “natural” for cats to be killing birds in North America, South America or Europe. Humans interfered with nature when we brought the cats.

And have we brought cats.  In the United States alone more than   150 million cats are alive as you read this, their ancestors brought here by humans. More than 82 million are kept as pets and the number of feral cats probably exceeds 70 million. And all of them are killing birds whenever they get the chance.

Here is the grim fact:  Cats kill millions of birds every year.  Pet cats don’t kill them for food, they kill them because cats are hunters.  Their hunting instinct is independent of their urge to eat and they hunt whether they are hungry or not. Feral cats kill many more.


Kitten Eating a Rabbit

We’ve written in this space before about the well-intentioned efforts of cat lovers to trap, neuter, and return feral cats.  (TNR) Now comes yet another piece of scientific evidence that it doesn’t work.  Biologists recently studied a feral cat colony in Tucson, Arizona, and discovered that local coyotes were eating them. And, another anecdotal piece of evidence arrived in our in-box:  At one feral cat colony in Southern California, coyotes discovered the cats and killed most of them.  Then, the coyotes kept coming back to eat the cat food set out by the people maintaining the colony.

We doubt that our customer who thinks that cats are just being true to nature when they kill birds would be as blase if a coyote kills one of their pet cats.  But, just as cats hunt birds, coyotes hunt small mammals. And the coyotes are indigenous.

cat bib-1

Bird-Saving Cat Bib

Because this slaughter of birds by cats is human-caused, we ought to do as much as we can to lessen the impact on wild bird populations.  Here are some suggestions:

1.  Keep your cats indoors.  This is the most humane solution, indoor cats lead longer and healthier lives.

2. Hang birdfeeders out in the open and far enough away from trees so that cats can’t hunt them from underneath or inside  a tree.

3. If you live where cactus grows, surround the birdfeeding station with cactus.

2.    The best recent invention we’ve seen for preventing cats from killing birds is a catbib.  Invented by a backyard, bird-feeding, cat lover, the CatBib (a thin neoprene bib) disrupts the cat’s hunting skills, without interfering with any other kitty activities. It acts as a barrier between cat and prey by getting in the way just as the cat strikes out for the bird. Because birds see in color, it also functions as a colorful visual warning to the birds. Birds can see the cat coming. The best part about the catbib is that it doesn’t interfere with the cat’s ability to eat, drink, run, etc. and enjoy being outdoors. Cat owners who have used it report great success. (By the way, bells on cat collars don’t work. Cats can creep along stealthily and hunt without the bell ever ringing. Like we said, they are great hunters.)

And everybody should neuter their pet cats. Over time, that would even help reduce the number of feral cats.

Waldo-1Full Disclosure: Until a few weeks ago, when his time to die finally came, we had shared fifteen years of our life with a cat.  Waldo wasn’t much of a hunter in his final years because his eyesight faded and he was content, as an old cat should be, to sleep in warm places. And we had him pretty well trained to stay in the front yard and out of the back yard where the bird feeders are.  But he no doubt killed many birds in his younger days and we didn’t always follow our own advice of keeping him indoors.  We miss him, but we’ve decided to forego further cats. Responsibility for ameliorating this human-caused slaughter of birds starts at home. Besides, our next door neighbor has upwards of ten cats so, anytime we want to hold a purring cat, we can go to her house.

The latest TNR study, Observation of Coyote-Cat Interactions” by Grubbs and Krausman is in the July 2009 issue of the Journal of Wildlife Mangement.

The number of pet cats in the U.S. comes from  “Market research statistics – U.S. pet ownership“. American Veterinary Medical Association. Last visited November 10, 2009.

For more on feral cats see,  Mott, Maryann (2004-09-07). “U.S. Faces Growing Feral Cat Problem“. National Geographic News, Last visited November 10, 2009.

The photo of a feral kitten eating a rabbit is by Jake Berzon and the Egyptian cat mummy photo was taken by E. Michael Smith.

Interspecies Symphony

June 28, 2009

We haven’t forgotten you and will be back later this week.  In the meantime, the birds of our yard all seem to have fledglings and they are eating us out of house and home.

And, as you can see, no interspecies rivalries are allowed to interfere with feeding time.  This particular symphony began with a grosbeak playing the melody, the House Finches doing harmony, and the goldfinches on the flutes.

bird symphony (1 of 4)

Not for nothing are they called grosbeaks.

bird symphony (2 of 4)

The grosbeak was soon replaced by the Ladderback Woodpecker and the White-wing Dove.

bird symphony (4 of 4)

The Ladderback came back for a curtain call.  (The Hummingbirds were supposed to be playing the trumpets in the background but they were on strike at the time.)

bird symphony (3 of 4)

What Happens if You Forget to Feed the Birds

April 24, 2009

We are often asked if forgetting to fill your bird feeders matters to the birds who frequent the feeders at your residence.

This cannot happen at our house; the Border Collies won’t allow it. Feeding the birds at our house requires coordinated teamwork.  A minimum of one human and three Border Collies is necessary,

Border Collies Feeding the Birds

Border Collies Feeding the Birds

As far as we are able to tell, it is the job of the first Border Collie to see to it that the human who actually fills the feeders goes to the appropriate places in the correct order with the right seed for each feeder.  The second Border Collie herds the first to insure that he makes no mistakes herding the human.  The third is a general purpose back-up in case of mistake.  Mostly though, her job is to herd the second Border Collie; Border Collies seldom make mistakes.  All three remind us daily to feed the birds, so we never forget.

Apparently, the job of bird feeding is more complicated than letting the chickens out of their coop each morning.  Only one Border Collie is required to oversee that job.  And, at the same time, he checks the property to insure that no cats have snuck onto the property during the night.  In this way the dogs minimize the risk to the birds of domestic cat attacks, one of the leading causes of song-bird death.

The breeder who sends us our Border Collies is either a Border Collie in disguise or the world’s greatest expert about dogs. As she teaches, “Border Collies know 150 separate commands and they make you perform each perfectly.”  She also interprets their behavior and empathizes with them.  It must not be easy, she says, to have to live with such dimwitted beings as humans who have to think before they do anything.  Always thinking; seldom acting: That’s how dogs see us.

So, for us, it is a hypothetical question of what happens to the local birds if we fail to fill the feeders; as we said, the dogs won’t allow it. But not everyone has a team of dogs to remind them.  What happens if you forget?

No one knows for sure, but the answer is probably not much — at least during times of good weather.  The birds who frequent your feeders are opportunistic feeders and feed on a wide variety of plants, seeds, and bugs and will survive without your feeders, especially if there are other feeders in the neighborhood.  If you forget one day or are gone for awhile, they’ll be fine and will return to your feeders as soon as they notice they are filled again.

rubythroathummer65That is not always true during times of harsh weather.  Mounting evidence indicates that some bird species are not migrating because of the availability of human supplied food during winter and the shoulder seasons of early spring and late autumn.  Significant numbers of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, for instance, no longer migrate to Central America, but remain in the Gulf Coast region of the United States during winter.  There is no doubt that supplemental food helps non-migratory birds survive winters.  And, as we always remind people, providing fresh water is at least as important as the food you put out.

But how you are going to feed your birds without a team of Border Collies is simply beyond our power to imagine.


April 22, 2009

Reading around in The New Yorker this week, we discovered a recent article about the late novelist David Foster Wallace who is quoted in the article as believing that true freedom, “means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to.”

Bullock's Oriole

Bullock's Oriole

That seems like pretty good advice.  So this morning we chose to pay attention to the year’s first oriole arrival.  Orioles get whiplash when they fly over anything containing grape jelly which is why we keep two feeders stocked with grape jelly.  Only grape jelly please, orioles don’t care about other flavors.  They don’t mind if a fresh orange is available to but it is the grape jelly that halts them in their tracks.

The orioles are following Joseph Campbell’s advice which was to “follow your bliss.”  But “bliss” is an awfully abstract noun upon which to base a life or a philosophy.  There is not much meat on that bone. We may know what it means to an oriole eating grape jelly, but it is more difficult to translate into living a meaningful, fulfilled human life.

But Wallace had something to say about that too. He came up with a pretty good definition of bliss; writing, “Bliss — a-second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious.” For Wallace, that was what lay on the other side of “crushing, crushing boredom.”

You can’t be bored while watching an oriole gobble down your grape jelly; if you are truly paying attention while you watch, you’ll know a moment of bliss.

Besides, you can follow up with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for yourself.


Today marks the 39th Earth Day.  Here’s a reminder from an unknown Native American, “Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children.”

Pigeons at Your Bird Feeders – 4 Things to Do

January 4, 2009


If you build it, they will come.

By “it” we mean a bird feeding station.  By “they” we mean pigeons.  Rock Pigeons to be precise. “Rats with wings” according to Woody Allen and the prosecutors.

Feral pigeons are synanthropic, a big word meaning that pigeons follow humans around like thunder follows lightning.  If you live in a town or city, you can’t get rid of them, but you can learn to live with them.

Here are a few suggestions:

1.  Buy bird feeders designed to defeat squirrels.  Like squirrels, pigeons are heavier than the song birds that visit your feeders.  Some bird feeders have spring-loaded perches that tilt downward if anything heavier than a song bird lands on one. The pigeon or the squirrel slides off the perch.  Sometimes.  We have seen pigeons and White-wing Doves hang on by flapping their wings but they soon tire of that.

2. Another kind of feeder shuts the feeding ports when a heavier bird or a squirrel lands on the feeder. Here is a photo.  It too operates with springs.


3.  Here is a handy little feeder that defeats pigeons every time.  Called “The Clinger,” the ledge is too close to the body of the feeder for a pigeon to get a grip.

4.  Pigeons are ground feeders, designed by Mother Nature to hunt and peck.  As you can see from the photo at the top, taken in our backyard, pigeons prefer to clean up the seed dropped from the feeders by the song birds. Pigeons don’t like eating directly from your feeders anymore than you like them doing it.  They would prefer to be on the ground.

And, as you can tell from the photo, allowing the pigeons to do janitorial work enables the song birds to eat even while the pigeons are feeding, thus eliminating the common problem of pigeons scaring away desirable backyard birds.

We’ll be back soon to mount a defense on behalf of these much maligned birds. In the meantime, we hope these suggestions will keep them off your feeders and on the ground where they belong.


Unsurprisingly, we sell these feeders at our store.

Winter Bird-Feeding

December 9, 2008
House Sparrow

House Sparrow

The clouds are “low’r’d upon our house” today and not “In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.” Low gray clouds sit over us and bring to mind Shakespeare’s opening lines of Richard III, “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York.”  Or, as we once saw in a humorous sale advertisement for a tent, “Now is the winter of our discount tent.”

But it is hard to be discontent on a cold, gray winter’s day if you have a flock of House Sparrows entertaining you at the feeders. A few House Finches are out there too but mainly we have sparrows today.  Often we get out the binoculars in the hope of spotting a native sparrow but House Sparrows are usually about all we see in our backyard.  House Sparrows are not native to North America but they compete for food and space quite well.  Too well in some instances. They are known, for example, to boot bluebirds out of their homes.  Many attempts have been and are being made to design a bluebird birdhouse that defeats the ubiquitous House Sparrow and some of those tries will be the subject of a later post.

But House Sparrows need to eat too and today they are hard at it, providing fine entertainment not only to the humans but also to the Border Collies who love to pick up after them, much to the distress of the Rock Pigeons who prefer to do the job.

House Sparrows are non-migrants around here which brings us to the subject of humans feeding wintertime non-migrants.

Non-migratory birds can use extra help during winter from non-migratory  humans.  Providing food and water contributes to birds’ health and survival during the cold time.  A  recent study in England of the English Blue Tit (no jokes please, this is British science we’re talking about) found that non-migratory birds for which humans supply seed during the cold of winter do better than those which lack supplemental food.  (Stay tuned for more about the long-term ec ological impace of humans feeding birds.)

During winter, the abundance of berries, fruits, and insects upon which birds rely dwindles to the point where their diets depend on seeds to survive.

Black oil sunflower seed or a premium seed blend containing primarily black oil sunflower seed are the best winter-time food to use in your feeders. High in protein and fat content, black oil sunflower has twice the calories per pound of striped sunflower seed.  Its thinner shells  make it easier for smaller birds to open.  A seed blend containing other smaller seeds also helps ground feeding birds which will clean up the seeds dropped from your feeders.

Another favorite wintertime food for birds is suet.  It too is packed with calories and can be bought in small blocks which contain seeds and fruits mixed into the suet.  Nuthatches and woodpeckers are attracted by suet.

Peanuts, shelled and unshelled, are useful, especially if you have jays visiting your yard. Be sure to purchase peanuts specifically processed for birds.  Don’t feed salty peanuts or those from the grocery store.

Finally and most importantly, put out water for your birds.  Birds’ summertime sources of water may be frozen or non-existent.  A daily supply of fresh, unfrozen water will bring birds to your yard faster than anything else you can do.

Which means that you’ll have sprightly House Sparrows for entertainment even if you don’t get more interesting birds to watch.

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