Tag Archives: Feeding birds

Purple finches always welcome winter visitors when snow and cold drives them to feeders


Photo by Bryan Stevens • Purple finches are mainly winter visitors in the region, although they may make appearances during their fall and spring migrations. Although similar to house finches, purple finches have their own unique appearance once observers become familiar with them. The notched tail, evident in this bird, is a good way to distinguish purple finches from very similar house finches.

The region experienced its first brush with wintry weather with the snowstorm that arrived Dec. 8. With a few inches of snow on the ground, some birds that had been ignoring my feeders decided to give them a second look. American goldfinches, dark-eyed juncos and a red-bellied woodpecker made frequent visits to the feeders over the weekend as more snow and cold temperatures put a temporary stop to the mild start of the 2017-2018 winter season.

So far, the feathered clientele at my feeders are the expected visitors, including Carolina chickadees, downy woodpeckers, song sparrows and white-breasted nuthatches. Some birds, such as pine siskin and purple finch, which can make feeder watching an exciting winter pastime, have not yet made an appearance. Both these species belong to a group of birds known in birding circles as “Northern finches” that also includes species like red crossbill, evening grosbeak and common redpoll.


Photo by George Gentry/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A male evening grosbeak perches on the side of a sunflower-stocked feeder.

The purple finch, which is a winter visitor to northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia and western North Carolina is apparently not as common as in past years. Some experts have speculated that the decline in the numbers of purple finches each winter can be attributed, at least in part, to the closely related house finch. Today, the house finch is quite widespread, found across the United States. Originally, however, the house finch was a bird of the western part of the country, living in Mexico and the southwestern United States.

About 1940, the house finch became established in the eastern United States. In violation of federal law, these small finches were being sold in New York City as pet birds described as “Hollywood Finches.” To avoid trouble with authorities, vendors and even some owners released their “Hollywood Finches” into the wild. Finding the area around New York City to their liking, house finches spread. Within a few decades, they were common birds throughout the eastern United States, including Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina. The house finch had also been introduced into Hawaii about 1870, and is still present today, along with many other species of birds not native to the island.


Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male house finch perched on a cable. These finches are native to the western United States but became established in the eastern states thanks to the illicit pet trade.

As the house finch claimed a new range, they inevitably encountered the related purple finch. During the winter, both finches are often present at feeders in the region. When both are available for observation, bird enthusiasts should take advantage of the opportunity to compare and contrast these birds. Personally, I have never had any difficulty distinguishing a purple finch from a house finch. The two species, at least in my eyes, are easily recognized. I can understand why some people might have trouble separating the two birds. The late Roger Tory Peterson once described the purple finch as a bird “dipped in raspberry juice.” Think about that imagery for a moment and you’ve got a good start to distinguishing a male purple finch from a male house finch. Unfortunately, the description does nothing to distinguish females of the two species.

Let’s deal first with the males. Male purple finches are delicate pink-red (that raspberry coloration) on the head and breast, mixing with brown on the back and cloudy white on the belly. The red of a male purple finch is definitely a color I have not observed with many other birds. Even “red” birds such as male Northern cardinals and male scarlet tanagers do not show the same red color. Once you learn the way the red appears in the plumage of a male purple finch, you are on your way to telling this bird apart from its relative.


Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this depiction of purple finches.

The red in the plumage of male house finches is surprisingly variable. In most cases, the heads, necks and shoulders of male birds are reddish and the red at times extends to the stomach and between the wings on the bird’s back. The intensity of the red changes with the seasons and is also derived from the berries and fruits in the bird’s diet. Pale yellow and bright orange are alternatives to the typical red plumage.

Look closely at the photograph of the purple finches accompanying this column. There’s a distinctive facial pattern evident on the birds. The strong facial markings include a whitish eye stripe and a dark line down the side of the throat. This pattern simply doesn’t exist with the male house finch. When I make a snap identification of these two birds, I always look for the facial pattern even before I study any other aspects of the appearance of the bird. In addition, purple finches have powerful, conical beaks and a tail that appears short and is clearly notched at the tip. Rounding out the description of a male house finch is the fact that they have a long, square-tipped brown tail and are brown or dull-brown across the back with some shading into gray on the wing feathers. The breast and stomach feathers may be streaked.

Females of both house finches and purple finches are dull brown birds that could easily be mistaken for sparrows. Again, the facial pattern is much more apparent on a female purple finch than on the related female house finch. In addition, I have always noticed that female purple finches are usually a darker shade of brown than the dull brown female house finches. Both male and female house finches are more slender than their more chunky-bodied counterparts.


Photo by Bryan Stevens • A study of the facial pattern of a female purple finch helps contrast her from similar female house finches. Again, the notched tail is also a good indication of the bird’s identity.

In the United States, another close relative of the house finch and purple finch is the Cassin’s finch of the western United States. Together, the three species make up a classification known as the American rosefinches. Formerly placed in the genus Carpodacus, these three birds are now in the genus known as Haemorhous. The new classification separates them from the Eurasian rosefinches, which includes more than two dozen species including scarlet finch, great rosefinch and crimson-browed finch.

Purple finches occupy a variety of winter habitats, including fields and woodland edges, as well as yards and gardens. All it takes to lure these finches to your feeder is a plentiful offering of sunflower seeds. If you are lucky enough to have both of these finches visiting your feeders, take time to study the differences. It takes some practice, but they can be distinguished quite confidently.

Merry Christmas to all my fellow bird enthusiasts! 

Flicker, towhee among recent winter bird arrivals


Photo by Bryan Stevens • An Eastern towhee feeds on the ground beneath a feeder.

I’d almost given up on any new birds arriving to break the daily monotony of birds in my yard when two birds put in their first appearances of the year. An Eastern towhee and a Northern flicker both showed up simultaneously for the first time in 2017 on Jan. 13.

The towhee, a male, was feeding in the usual manner of its kind, scratching vigorously on the ground beneath my feeders. Towhees are quite ingenious at uncovering any seeds dropped by other birds.


Photo by Jean Potter • A Northern flicker perches on a staghorn sumac.

The flicker was calling from the upper branches of a very tall tree at the edge of a wood lot near my home. The ringing calls of the flicker carried quite clearly even from a distance. Most woodpeckers, including the Northern flicker, are enthusiastic performers. We often think of woodpeckers in association with loud, repetitive drumming with their beaks against the trunk of a tree. Flickers are also known for using other surfaces for drumming. I’ve observed flickers drumming agains metal utility poles and metal siding on homes. That’s really not so strange when you consider that the purpose of the drumming is to communicate with mates or to signal potential rivals that they’re getting a little too close.

Woodpeckers are also known for a variety of vocalizations, and the Northern flicker is no exception. In addition to drumming, the flicker also employs a variety of loud vocalizations that are fairly distinctive. A loud, repeated flicker, often translated as “wicka-wicka-wicka,” is similar to the cluck-like call of the larger pileated woodpecker. The flicker is also known for emitting a sharp, loud “kleeer” call can be heard from a considerable distance. It was this “kleer” call that first drew my attention to the presence of the flicker at my home on Jan. 13.

Flickers are probably most vocal during the spring months. They go quiet for a period during the summer nesting season but start to make themselves heard again during the fall months. A warm, sunny day during the winter is often motivational enough to convince flickers to vocalize.


Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A Northern flicker peers from a nesting cavity.

A lot of wildlife is probably getting mixed signals thanks to the extremely mild January temperatures. For instance, I’ve already had a few crocuses blooming in my gardens. Bees and other pollinators have also awoken from winter slumber to take advantage of the unseasonal blooms. If frigid weather does eventually arrive, I hope that these “early birds” suffer no ill effects.

The Northern flicker is the second-largest woodpecker in the region. The only bigger member of the family is the large and unmistakable pileated woodpecker. The flicker ranges across the United States and Canada. The flicker is also present in Central America, Cuba and the Cayman Islands. Known scientifically as Colaptes auratus, which can be roughly translated as the “golden woodpecker,” there are about a dozen species of flickers in North, Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean.


The Nothern flicker is the official state bird of Alabama, where the bird is known as “Yellowhammer.”

In the United States and Canada, flickers in the eastern half of the continent are known as “yellow-shafted” flickers. The phrase “yellow-shafted” describes the Eastern race of this woodpecker, which is replaced in the western United States by the “red-shafted” flicker. In reality, both the yellow and red-shafted birds are considered by experts to be the same species. The yellow feathers in Eastern birds are found under the wings and on the tail. The yellow, or red, sections of the wings are most visible when the bird is in flight. I’ve seen both forms of this woodpecker, observing the red-shafted form during trips to Utah in 2003 and 2006.

Although most people think of woodpeckers as spending most of their time clinging to the trunks of trees, the flicker actually has something in common with the Eastern towhee. Like the towhee, the flicker spends a lot of time on the ground hunting for its favorite food — ants. The flicker even has a special adaptation — a barbed tongue — that it uses to capture ants.


Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service • A Northern flicker, captured for a banding operation, has its wing extended to show the yellow feathers indicative of the eastern race of this species.

Flickers will come to feeders, but I’ve never had much luck attracting them. Perhaps I’ve not offered the right fare. The late John V. Dennis recommends “meat scraps, cracked walnuts and pecans, halved oranges and apples, and white bread” in his book, “A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding.” Even Dennis acknowledged that flickers are, at best, wary visitors to feeders. Not much has changed since Dennis wrote his book back in 1977. If any readers have had success luring flickers to their feeders, I’d love to hear their advice for attracting them.

The flicker has even been recognized as an official state bird by Alabama. Of course, Alabama officially bestowed the recognition on the “yellowhammer,” a nod to a nickname for both the flicker as well as Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. Even today, Alabama is still known as the Yellowhammer State. Somewhat surprisingly, the flicker is the only woodpecker that has received designation as a state bird.


To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Kinglets are energetic sprites among our feathered friends


Photo by Elizabeth McPherson • This Golden-crowned Kinglet recovered after striking a window.

There are many different ways to become more familiar with the backyard birds at your own home. I’m fond of keeping a year list of all the bird species that travel through the yard and garden at my home. Keeping such a list is a great way to document the seasonal comings and goings of the bird life in your own neighborhood. You may be surprised at what you see.

Patricia Werth, a resident of Abingdon, Virginia, sent me an email to share the results of her year of counting birds in her yard.

“I told you at the beginning of 2016 I was going to list all the birds that come to my feeder or are in our yard,” she wrote. “I counted 29, but I just saw a very small bird that resembled the goldfinch, except smaller and more greenish on the back. Was that a warbler? I am not very good differentiating between sparrows, either.”

She was pleased with her 2016 results, but she wanted some suggestions for identifying the unknown bird. Based on her description of the bird’s small size and greenish coloration on the back, I suggested she do some online research into kinglets.

I received a second email from Patricia thanking me for the suggestion. “After looking up the kinglets, I do believe it was the female golden-crowned kinglet,” she wrote, adding that she was certain that she had seen her before.


Photo by Jean Potter • This Golden-crowned Kinglet was captured and banded as part of an ornithological study.

The identification of the golden-crowned kinglet took her total to 30 species. “Seeing that they (kinglets) rarely eat seeds that was a real treat to have them visit,” Patricia wrote. “I believe I have heard them call, too, but thought it was a chickadee, as they are so vocal.”

Her year’s already off to a good start with goldfinches at her feeders. With the recent snowfall, she also saw her first dark-eyed junco of the year. When it comes to size, however, few of the birds that patronize our feeders are as diminutive in size as the kinglets.


Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/Donna Dewhurst • The ruby-crowned kinglet, pictured, and golden-crowned kinglet are among North America’s smallest birds. Both species are occasional winter visitors in the region. The birds are named for bright crown patches that contrast with their overall drab appearance.

As their name suggests, kinglets are tiny birds. In fact, about the only North American birds smaller than kinglets are some of the hummingbirds. The kinglets, known outside North America as “flamecrests” or “firecrests,” belong to the family, Regulidae, and the genus, Regulus. The family and genus names are derived from a Latin word, regulus, which means “rex,” or “king.” The name was apparently inspired by the colorful crown patches, often red, orange or gold, that resemble the royal “crowns” of kings. In addition to the two North American species, four other species of kinglets can be found in North Africa, Europe and Asia.


Early American naturalist and artist painted this pair of Ruby-crowned Kinglets.

Although similar in size and overall coloration, the ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets are easily distinguished from each other. Side by side, the two species of North American kinglets are easy to identify. The golden-crowned kinglet has a striped facial pattern formed by bold black and white stripes. The ruby-crowned kinglet, on the other hand, has a bold white eye ring but no striping. The golden-crowned kinglet has an orange crown patch, while the ruby-crowned kinglet has a red crown patch that is, more often than not, kept concealed. Both sexes of the golden-crowned kinglet possess a yellow crown patch, but only the male ruby-crowned kinglet boasts a scarlet patch of feathers atop the head. Observers can expend a lot of energy trying to get a look at the crown patches, which are typically only displayed when the bird is agitated.

Kinglets are very active birds. If warblers can be described as energetic, the kinglets are downright frenetic in their activities. The kinglets almost never pause for long, flitting from branch to branch in trees and shrubs as they constantly flick their wings over their backs.  These bursts of hyperactivity can make them difficult to observe. Although small in size, these birds more than compensate for it with a feisty spirit that does them well through the harsh winter months.


John James Audubon painted this depiction of a bird he referred to as Cuvier’s Kinglet in the early 1700s. No other person has ever encountered a bird matching this description.

Kinglets often join mixed flocks comprised of other species of birds, some of which are regular feeder visitors. Perhaps by observing their flock counterparts, some kinglets have learned to accept feeder fare such as suet, meal worms and chopped nuts. Away from feeders, kinglets mostly feed on a range of small insects and arachnids. These tiny birds will also consume some fruit, such as the berries of poison oaks and dogwoods.

Normally, kinglets have a rather fleeting lifespan. These tiny birds can be considered old if they live three or four years. There are always exceptions.  The oldest golden-crowned kinglet on record was six years and four months old. That individual, a male, was documented by a bird bander in 1976, according to the website All About Birds.

Overall, kinglets are trusting, tame birds and a welcome addition to any flocks visiting your yard and garden. These tiny feathered sprites are definitely worth getting to know.


The Bristol Bird Club will conduct a birding trip of Burke’s Garden, Virginia, on Saturday, Feb. 11. Red-headed woodpecker, a relative of the Northern flicker, is among the target birds. Other possible birds will include golden eagles, rough-legged hawks, horned larks and a pair of bald eagles on a nesting site located in the beautiful, bowl-like valley of Burke’s Garden.e80948b8-92fa-44d2-b107-d9223014aff0_d

Participants should plan to meet by 8 a.m. at the Hardee’s at 900 E. Fincastle St. in Tazewell, Virginia. Arrive early and enjoy breakfast. Attendees will carpool to Burke’s Garden. Those making the trip might also glimpse alpacas and a camel. Bring a bit of cash if you would like to enjoy a soup and sandwich lunch at the Amish Store. For more information on this trip, call Kevin Blaylock at (423) 943-5841.

I visited Burke’s Garden for the first time almost 20 years ago on one of these February field trips. It was quite the memorable birding experience and yielded me my first-ever sightings of rough-legged hawk and common goldeneye.

Practice of feeding birds a relatively recent development



Emily Dickinson


Henry David Thoreau

Some recent bouts of cold weather brought increased numbers of birds to my feeders. It’s easy to look at the birds flocking to feeders and think that this special relationship between them and their human hosts is a long-running one. However, the practice of tempting birds with food to invite them to take part in our daily lives is a fairly recent one. The concept of feeding the birds began to develop in the 19th century, motivated in part by some of the early naturalists and transcendental thinkers of New England.


A Northern Cardinal checks out a gravel drive for dropped seeds.

For instance, the 19th century writer Emily Dickinson described feeding birds in some of her poems. In addition, she wrote about hummingbirds attracted to the flowers in the gardens that she tended with her sister at their home in Amherst, Massachusetts. Dickinson’s fellow writer, Henry David Thoreau, fed birds at Walden Pond as early as 1845. He later wrote his pivotal work, “Walden,” based on his experiences living in his small cabin in the woods. The work is filled with his description of birds and other wildlife.


Florence Merriam Bailey

The late John V. Dennis, author of “The Complete Guide to Bird Feeding,” sketches out the history of feeding birds in his informative work. Dennis noted that early American naturalist and painter John James Audubon wrote in the 18th century about people from the old country (Europe) feeding birds during spells of bad weather. For a long time, Dennis noted in his book, feeding of birds remained rather sporadic. This began to change in the late 1800s. The evolution of bird feeding was documented by Florence Augusta Merriam Bailey, a 19th century ornithologist and naturalist.

Bailey wrote “Birds Through an Opera Glass” in 1889, becoming one of the first writers to write about birds for popular audiences without too much emphasis on the more scientific aspects of ornithology. She also wrote “Birds of Village and Field: A Bird Book for Beginners,” intended to foster an interest in birds and birding among the general public. Bailey even identified in her writings the first person — a Mrs. E. B. Davenport — to implement a winter-long, even year-long, practice of feeding birds. Another woman — Caroline Soule — developed the first hummingbird feeder back in 1900. She took a glass cylinder, filled it with a sugar water mixture and attached an handmade artificial flower to it. When she hung the feeder near a trumpet vine at her home, she reported that the hummingbirds readily fed from her feeder. Dennis noted that Soule’s basic feeder design has needed very little modification in the last century.


House Finches visit a feeder in suburban Atlanta, Ga.

Althea Sherman discovered that ruby-throated hummingbirds quickly learned to associate clear bottles filled with sugar water as a source of food. Her 1913 study of hummingbird feeding behavior also noted that hummingbirds remembered the locations of artificial feeders from a previous year and would hover at those precise spots when they returned each spring. So, in less than a century, humans have had a major influence on hummingbirds, helping them adapt to supplemental food sources provided by humans hoping to lure these tiny birds into their yards and gardens for extended stays.

Feeding of birds expanded rapidly in popularity. Today, some estimates indicate that as many as 55 million Americans regularly feed the birds in their yards and gardens. Bird feeding is second only to gardening as the most popular hobby in the United States. The two activities can also overlap. The month of February was named National Bird-Feeding Month by the U.S. Congress back in 1994.


A Tufted Titmouse and Downy Woodpecker visit a feeder for a chunk of suet.

Feeding the birds can be expensive, but all that money is, without a doubt, good for the economy. Americans spend about $3 billion a year on bird feed. Another $800 million goes to purchase bird feeders, baths and houses. The variety of food is quite extensive, but I generally offer black oil sunflower seeds and commercial mixtures of suet and peanut butter. I sometimes supplement my offerings to the birds with peanuts, nyjer thistle seed (a favorite of American goldfinches) and safflower seed. The latter is useful if you want to discourage squirrels. Unfortunately, the hard shells of safflower seeds also make them inaccessible to some smaller birds, but birds like tufted titmouse and Northern cardinal appear to have no difficulty with these seeds.

Some people have great luck feeding a wide range of birds, including Eastern bluebirds, Baltimore orioles and ruby-crowned kinglets. My bluebirds show an occasional interest in my feeders, but orioles and kinglets have largely ignored them. For bluebirds, mealworms, which can be purchased live or freeze-dried, are a very popular food.


Dark-eyed Junco visits a feeder during a snowstorm.

I’ve come a long way since my childhood when my grandmother would let me scatter crumbled cornbread on the ground for the dark-eyed juncos ahead of snowstorms. I also remember that the juncos, or snowbirds, would flock to the site where my grandfather dumped the ashes from his wood stove. I suspect the ash provided supplemental minerals and nutrients craved by the birds.

Some birds are quite adventurous in their tastes. On a whim, I once placed a stale McDonald’s apple pie on my front porch during a winter cold spell. A Carolina wren discovered the pastry and made frequent trips each day to feast on this unexpected bonanza. The wren whittled away at the pie, which soon disappeared. I suspected the wren probably advertised to friends, so other wrens may have helped in finishing off the pie.

Human generosity can help birds survive frigid cold snaps, but for the most part, they’re not dependent on humans for their food. The reason to feed birds is entirely a selfish one. We take immense pleasure in observing their antics as they interact with each other at our feeders. Experts have even shown that such activities as bird feeding can be therapeutic in reducing stress in human observers.

People can also choose to further the cause of science by taking part in studies such as Project FeederWatch, a nationwide survey of bird populations focused on birds coming to feeders maintained by project participants.

In the 2015-16 winter season, 1,373 individuals participated in Project FeederWatch in the southeastern United States. The most common birds reported by observers were Northern cardinal, Carolina chickadee, mourning dove, American goldfinch and tufted titmouse. Finishing out the Top 10 feeder birds in this section of the nation were Carolina wren, house finch, blue jay, red-bellied woodpecker and downy woodpecker. Almost 98 percent of participants reported Northern cardinals at their feeders, which means the cardinal has become an almost universal feeder visitor in the southeast.


The roots of Project FeederWatch extend back to 1976 Ontario, Canada, when Dr. Erica Dunn with Canada’s Long Point Bird Observatory established the Ontario Bird Feeder Survey. After a successful 10-year run, its organizers realized that only a continental survey could accurately monitor the large-scale movements of birds. Therefore, Long Point Bird Observatory decided to expand the survey to cover all of North America.

The expansion launched in the winter of 1987-88, when more than 4,000 people enrolled. FeederWatchers represented every state in the U.S. except Hawaii, as well as most Canadian provinces. Project FeederWatch continues to be a cooperative research project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada (formerly the Long Point Bird Observatory) on an annual basis. To learn more, visit http://feederwatch.org/
The Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society, based in Elizabethton, Tennessee, is once again offering for sale its annual calendar. All proceeds from sales of the 2017 calendar benefit the chapter’s work to promote birds and birding. This year’s calendar features nearly 100 full-color photographs. Calendars are $15 and can be obtained at the office of the Bristol Herald Courier, 320 Bob Morrison Blvd., Bristol, Virginia. To reserve a copy, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or message me on Facebook.


To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more.

Feeding the birds during year’s colder months offers pleasant pastime


A still shot from the Feeder Watch cam in Ontario showing Evening Grosbeaks and Pine Grosbeaks.

Patricia Werth, a resident of Abingdon, Virginia, shared with me in an email that that she has been enjoying watching birds visit feeders for snacks of sunflower seeds and other tidbits. The feeders, however, are not her own. She has been watching online a camera focused on a family’s backyard feeders in Ontario, Canada. A couple named Tammie and Ben Haché are identified on the webpage as the hosts for the camera.

She informed me that the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology placed the camera on the feeders. In similar projects, Cornell has also placed bird cams in positions that allow different moments of a bird’s life — such as hatching and fledging —to be shared with onlookers watching from the comfort of their living rooms or with the convenience of a smart phone.

“They have a flat tray as one of their feeders with shelled peanuts and sunflower seeds on it,” Patricia shared.


A pair of House Finches visit a feeder.

She noted that some of the birds at the feeders include a ruffed grouse. While the grouse was eating, a blue jay arrived and wanted the grouse to leave. In response, the grouse ruffled its neck feathers and spread its tail. “The blue jay decided to wait to eat,” she added.

Patricia has also enjoyed the habits of the crows and blue jays at the feeders, noting that a jay will pick up one shelled peanut and fly away but the crows won’t leave until they have at least three peanuts.

“Fun stuff to watch,” she said. Patricia has seen many species that don’t often reach Virginia and Tennessee, including birds like evening grosbeak and pine grosbeak.

Patricia also shared that she felt that others would like this site as much as she does. To observe the birds visiting the feeders in the yard in Ontario, Canada, just visit  http://cams.allaboutbirds.org/channel/38/Ontario_FeederWatch/

Patricia had also read my recent column on dark-eyed juncos. “I still haven’t seen any juncos yet, but I have been watching for them,” she shared.



American Goldfinch eating sunflower seeds at a feeder.

It’s simple and relatively inexpensive to feed the birds. While a wide range of feeders of all shapes and sizes can be purchased at gardening centers and most retail stores, something as simple as a clay saucer can function as a dispenser of seeds. Of course, seeds can even be scattered on the ground. In fact, this is the preferred method of foraging for many of our ground-dwelling birds.

I like to provide a mixed variety of foods during the winter months. My main offering include black oil sunflower seeds (and plenty of them), as well as suet cakes and shelled, unsalted peanuts.

Some of our more common feeder visitors include Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, blue jays, house finches, American goldfinches, as well as a variety of sparrows and woodpeckers. It’s still fairly early in the winter season, but it’s good to watch for more unexpected visitors such as purple finches, red-breasted nuthatches and evening grosbeaks.


Downy Woodpecker obtains suet from a feeder.

In urban or suburban settings, expect to entertain such birds as house sparrows, European starlings and rock pigeons at your feeders. These non-native species can quickly overwhelm some feeders and crowd out native birds.

Whether or not the show is televised, it’s always great fun to watch the antics of birds at our feeders during the winter months. Many of the other aspects of the natural world that we enjoy, from flowers and butterflies to gardening and dragonflies, are absent during the winter months. Curious chickadees, feisty finches and wily wrens can definitely lift one’s spirits on gloomy winter days.



A female Northern Cardinal perches on the side of a rustic feeder.

To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.


A White-breasted Nuthatch departs a feeder with a seed.

Weekly musing on birds reaches 20th anniversary milestone


Photo by Ken Thomas                                      The Dark-eyed Junco, also known by the affectionate name of “snow bird,” is a widespread winter resident in backyards offering feeding stations.

I wrote my first “Feathered Friends” column on Sunday, Nov. 5, 1995, which means this weekly column marked its 20th anniversary this past week.


This weekly column has appeared over the last 20 years in a total of six different newspapers.


“Feathered Friends” has been appearing in The Erwin Record since October of 2003. As “For the Birds,” the column has appeared in the Bristol Herald Courier since June of 2014. The column has also been a great conduit for getting to know other people interested in our “feathered friends.” I always enjoy hearing from readers, and I hope to continue to do so in the coming years as well.
That first column I wrote back in 1995 focused on one of the region’s most prevalent winter residents— the Dark-eyed Junco. Here, with some revisions I have made through the years, is that first column.


The book, “A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding,” is a classic for those interested in birds and advice on how to feed them and attract them to our yards.

Of all the birds associated with winter weather, few are as symbolic as the Dark-eyed Junco, or “snow bird.” The junco occurs in several geographic variations.
John V. Dennis, author of “A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding,” captures the essence of the junco in the following description: “Driving winds and swirling snow do not daunt this plucky bird. The coldest winter days see the junco as lively as ever and with a joie de vivre that bolsters our sagging spirits.” The Dark-eyed Junco’s scientific name, hyemalis, is New Latin for “wintry,” an apt description of this bird.


Photo by Ken Thomas Dark-eyed Juncos prefer to feed on the ground beneath feeders.

Most people look forward to the spring return of some of our brilliant birds — warblers, tanagers and orioles — and I must admit that I also enjoy the arrival of these birds. The junco, in comparison to some of these species, is not in the same league.


Nevertheless, the junco is handsome in its slate gray and white plumage, giving rise to the old saying “dark skies above, snow below.”
Just as neotropical migrants make long distance journeys twice a year, the junco is also a migrating species. But in Appalachia, the junco is a special type of migrant. Most people think of birds as “going south for the winter.” In a basic sense this is true. But some juncos do not undertake a long horizontal (the scientific term) migration from north to south. Instead, these birds merely move from high elevations, such as the spruce fir peaks, to the lower elevations. This type of migration is known as vertical migration. Other juncos, such as those that spend their breeding season in northern locales, do make a southern migration and, at times, even mix with the vertical migrants.
Juncos are usually in residence around my home by early November. Once they make themselves at home I can expect to play host to them until at least late April or early May of the following year. So, for at least six months, the snow bird is one of the most common and delightful feeder visitors a bird enthusiast could want.



John James Audubon, an early American naturalist and painter, painted these Dark-eyed Juncos.

Juncos flock to feeders where they are rather mild-mannered — except among themselves. There are definite pecking orders in a junco flock, and females are usually on the lower tiers of the hierarchy. Females can sometimes be distinguished from males because of their paler gray or even brown upper plumage.
Since juncos are primarily ground feeders they tend to shun hanging feeders. But one winter I observed a junco that had mastered perching on a hanging “pine cone” feeder to enjoy a suet and peanut butter mixture.
Dark-eyed Juncos often are content to glean the scraps other birds knock to the ground. Juncos are widespread. They visit feeders across North America. The junco is the most common species of bird to visit feeding stations. They will sample a variety of fare, but prefer such seeds as millet, cracked corn or black oil sunflower.
There’s something about winter that makes a junco’s dark and light garb an appropriate and even striking choice, particularly against a backdrop of newly fallen snow.

Bryan Junco

Photo by Bryan Stevens                          This Dark-eyed Junco arrived in Hampton, Tennessee, on Oct. 31, making it the first junco of the 2015-2016 winter season in the author’s yard.

Of course, the real entertainment from juncos come from their frequent visits to our backyard feeders. When these birds flock to a feeder and began a furious period of eating, I don’t even have to glance skyward or tune in the television weather forecast. I know what they know. Bad weather is on the way!


The first junco at my home this fall showed up this year on Halloween. Sheila Boyd, a Facebook friend who lives in Marion, North Carolina, sent me a message to let me know she saw her first juncos on Oct. 29.
My junco sighting on Oct. 31 followed observations earlier in the month of some other wintering sparrows.