The Joy of Backyard Birding

By: Erin Korsmo

April 27, 2020

Category: Nature Notes

It had been weeks since I’d seen a bird at any of my four feeders, and I was starting to get worried. 

I searched the Internet and asked naturalist colleagues what might have happened. There may be predators in the area, some thought. Come to think of it, I had seen Cooper’s hawks nearby before. 

One search suggested that a neighbor might have better seed than I was offering. I added a heated bird bath to my yard.

Still nothing.

The following Saturday morning, I opened the blinds to the windows overlooking my feeders, hoping to see some visitors, but no one was there. As I poured my coffee, however, something outside caught my eye. 

A chickadee! There was a chickadee at my feeder! Two! I felt relief and excitement to see a couple of my feathered friends back in my yard. 

Now, I wondered, will the others return, too?

WORRYING FOR THE BIRDS

This is where I’ve found myself after a few years of birdwatching and maintaining feeders at home. 

I worry about the birds, and I’m excited when I see them. I pace in front of the windows hoping and waiting for them to stop by. I keep a camera on my kitchen table for quick access. 

Keeping bird feeders is a remarkably rewarding hobby. It injects purpose, curiosity and entertainment into my day-to-day life.

A small dark gray bird with black markings sits on a tree branch.
Dark-eyed junco. Photo courtesy of Erin Korsmo.

Some days I feel like a mother making sure her children are safe and well-fed. Other times I feel like a scientist while observing the behaviors of these small creatures and recording data for Project FeederWatch and iNaturalist. Other days, I’m a nature photographer, firing off frames with the hope of having a few crisp images. 

And still, I’m mostly just excited to see who decides to show up on any given day.

pine siskin on a feeder
Pine siskin. Image courtesy of Erin Korsmo.

WHY KEEP BIRD FEEDERS?

Feeders give our year-round friends like chickadees, nuthatches and cardinals extra help, especially in the depths of winter when bugs and other naturally occurring food can be hard to come by. They can also be welcome respites for long-distance travelers in the midst of migration. 

Naturally, many birds feed on fruits and seeds during the winter. While feeders are not essential for their survival (birds have been surviving in Minnesota for thousands of years without our help), they provide supplemental sustenance and make it easier to observe bird behavior.

white breasted nuthatch on a feeder
White-breasted nuthatch. Image courtesy of Erin Korsmo.

WHAT BIRD FOOD SHOULD YOU USE?

I keep four mixes of seed at my feeder station. Most of it is based on what the folks at the birding stores recommend. Currently, I have the following:

  • A mix of black-oil sunflower seeds, striped sunflower seeds and safflower seeds
  • A mix of cracked corn, black-oil sunflower seeds, safflower seeds and millet
  • A suet block laced with cayenne pepper to keep the squirrels away
  • Thistle seed
four bird feeders near a tree and bird bath
Feeder setup. Photo courtesy of Erin Korsmo.

The preferred mix of my feeder friends seems to be whichever is heaviest on black-oil sunflower seeds. I find myself replenishing that one most frequently. The suet is a favorite of the woodpeckers, but the nuthatches and chickadees like it, too. Finches like the thistle, but I didn’t see many of them this winter. 

There are plenty of other options depending on what species you’re interested in attracting.

male downy woodpecker eating from a suet block
Male downy woodpecker. Image courtesy of Erin Korsmo.

LEARNING ABOUT BIRDS

Feeder watching has also taught me an immense amount about the birds I share my yard with. Even without doing any research, there’s much to be learned by simply paying attention. 

Chickadees, for example, like to take their food to go – quickly grabbing seeds from a feeder and flying up to higher branches where they use their whole bodies to hammer them open and eat them. They are also relatively comfortable around humans; I can open a window just a few feet away to take a picture and they don’t mind.

chickadee on a branch
Black-capped chickadee. Image courtesy of Erin Korsmo.

On the other hand, the house finches and goldfinches sit quietly but nervously on the feeder perches as they eat, their eyes seemingly peeled for any looming threats. If I walk too quickly past the window or accidentally tap the glass, they scatter. 

pair of house finches on a branch
A pair of house finches. Image courtesy of Erin Korsmo.

The northern cardinals prefer to eat on the ground, letting out punchy “CHIRPS!” as they do.

male cardinal on the ground
Male northern cardinal. Image courtesy of Erin Korsmo.

The house sparrows can be real bullies, swarming the feeders like little gluttons and boxing out any others that try to grab a bite. According to The Genius of Birds, they’re the most widely dispersed bird on the planet, which says quite a bit about their resourcefulness and adaptability. However, they are not native to Minnesota and are considered an invasive species that competes with native cavity-nesting birds like chickadees and bluebirds. 

sparrow visiting a caged feeder
Female house sparrow. Image courtesy of Erin Korsmo.

Keeping a feeder can also give you a better chance of seeing migrators who are simply stopping on their way through. 

Last year, a group of 10 common redpolls suddenly appeared during a snowstorm. They’re beautiful little puffballs of snow-white feathers with black specks and a distinct red splotch on their heads. They fed for a few hours and were gone. I had never seen them before and haven’t seen them since.

common redpoll sits on a branch
Common redpoll. Image courtesy of Erin Korsmo.

CONNECTING TO NATURE AT HOME

Keeping bird feeders is a rewarding experience. To get started, FeederWatch.org has great information, including types of feeders and feed as well as suggestions for protecting against critters like squirrels.

In the weeks following the return of the chickadees, others started to come back, too. A pair of house finches, a few nuthatches, a sparrow. 

As I write this, I can hear the cardinals singing their spring song. I hope they stop by soon, too. 

About the Author

A woman in a black jacket smiles.

Erin Korsmo is the Web Coordinator at Three Rivers Park District. Her background is in journalism and content strategy. Erin has a longstanding passion for the outdoors. As a child, she went camping every summer and volunteered to count loons for the DNR with her family. Erin is a Minnesota Master Naturalist in the deciduous forest and prairie biomes. Outside of work, she enjoys hiking, kayaking, identifying and photographing plants and wildlife, crafting, and spending time with her husband and cat.

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