November and December Birding Tips

Birding Tips from Audubon North Carolina and from The Outdoor Bird Co.

Q. How can I keep birds from flying into my windows?

A. Sadly, we lose millions of birds to window strikes every year in North America. Birds fly into windows because they see reflections of trees and bushes, or simply because they don’t recognize windows as solid. On the outside of your house, you can make windows more visible by covering them with netting or applying ABC Bird Tape to the outside of the window to make vertical stripes four inches apart, or horizontal stripes 2 inches apart. A quick, cheap solution is to make stripes on the outside of the window using any white soap. You can also buy ultraviolet reflective decals, but one or two decals will not do the trick. For effective window-strike prevention, gaps between decals should be no more than four inches wide by two inches high – approximately the size and shape of a chickadee in flight.

Q. When should I start and stop feeding birds?

A. Seed-eating birds often gather their food from a variety of sources throughout the day, so they aren’t necessarily dependent on feeders. For this reason, it doesn’t matter when you stop and start feeding. The only exception is when there is a bad snow or ice storm and natural food is inaccessible. During these times, feeders can be life-saving. Birds that eat nectar, such as hummingbirds and orioles, begin migrating north from the tropics as early as January. Nectar feeders are helpful to these species when they are around. As they head south again later in the year, the birds farther north will stop at feeders along their way south. Hummingbird experts now recommend leaving hummingbird feeders up year-round in North Carolina because small numbers of Southwestern hummingbird species now spend the winter here.

Q. I found a live/dead bird with a band on it. Do I need to report it?

A. Always report banded birds when you can. Most banded birds have a plain metal band with an 8- or 9-digit code on it. Others will have multiple bands, sometimes colorful plastic ones. These plastic bands are intended to be read “in the field” when the bird is alive. The metal bands are generally only possible to read if the bird has been recaptured or found deceased. Observations of both are important. Make notes on the specifics of the band, from the color to the code. Taking pictures is helpful. To report any species of banded birds in the United States, visit the Bird Banding Laboratory website.

Q. I’ve heard I should keep fallen leaves in my backyard to help birds, is this true? 

A. Leaving some leaves on the ground can be a big benefit to wildlife and your garden. Many butterfly and moth species spend the winter as pupae in leaf litter. If you rake and throw away all of your leaves, you could be getting rid of these beneficial and beautiful insects. Butterfly and moth caterpillars are a critically important food source for birds in the spring when they are feeding their babies. If you do choose to get rid of fallen leaves, try to avoid leaf blowers. Using a rake will allow you to get some good exercise and hear the birds chirping around you.

Q: Should I leave my birdbath out as the weather gets colder?

A. If possible, we recommend winterizing bird baths for the colder months and leaving them out. Unfortunately, not all bird baths can make it through the winter. In general, solar, ceramic, and concrete bird baths as well as any baths with delicate glass styles or complicated mosaics should be put away during the winter. Plastic, fiberglass, and metal bird baths are usable year-round. To winterize your bird bath, first empty and clean it thoroughly. Next, move it to a sunny area so it will stay unfrozen for longer. You can then add a dark plastic plate or sheet of black, plastic trash bag to the bottom of the basin to help absorb more solar energy. You can also add a tennis ball to float in the bath, which helps break up the ice as it forms.

Q: How can I keep birds from flying into my windows?

A. In the right light, windows can turn into mirrors, reflecting the sky and vegetation. To keep birds from flying into your windows, hang blinds or curtains to let in light while breaking up the reflection, and move indoor plants away from problem windows. Outside, hang shiny objects in front of the window, or cover the window with netting or anything to make it visible. You can even buy decals with a special coating that reflects ultraviolet light, making it look blue to birds but clear to humans. Sometimes, birds hit windows as they flee from feeders when frightened. Moving feeders more than 25 feet from a window can often help in this situation.

Q. What bird caused the closings of areas on the Outer Banks?

A. New restrictions on vehicles and human use are designed to protect the piping plover. Some people who drive on the beach and use the area after dark are not happy with the rules. A permit is required to drive on the beach. Some restrictions include the closure of three ramps and the closing of beach access between 9pm and 7am. Park rangers post signs around nests until the eggs hatch and the babies are ready to fledge.

Q. How long do backyard birds live?

A. There are many factors that affect a bird’s life span. In most cases, larger birds like cardinals and blue jays live longer than smaller birds such as wrens and chickadees. Disease and viruses are more prevalent in certain species. If a bird lives in a suburban area, its life span will most likely be shorter because of predators such as cats. Non-native birds can destroy native birds’ nests and their young, decreasing populations. Researchers band birds to record the maximum life span of a species. The life span of a cardinal can be as long as fifteen years, but on average, three years is the norm. For a smaller species like a wren, the longest life span could be nine years but it is usually about two. The Cornell University Lab of Ornithology has a website about the lifespan of wild birds at www.birds.cornell.edu.

Q. How can I attract titmice to my feeder?

A. Titmice are not picky eaters. They like black oil sunflower seed and sunflower mixes. They are frequent visitors to suet feeders as well and seem to like peanut butter suet in my yard. Titmice are also attracted to an area that has a good source of shallow water for drinking and bathing.

Q. How can I help birds make it through the cold winter nights?

A. Birds need additional energy to make it through the cold winter nights. They also need to replenish their lost energy when they wake up in the morning. Be sure to keep your feeders full of energy-rich seed towards the end of the day and at daybreak to help birds endure the long winter nights and to fill those empty bellies in the morning.

Q. Should I put water out for the birds in the winter?

A. Water is at a premium in the winter because many natural sources dry up or freeze. Birds need to have a reliable source of drinking water in the winter just like humans to avoid dehydration. In addition, some birds need to bathe regularly to keep their feathers clean and well-groomed. A birdbath heater will keep the water from freezing. Plug the heater into an exterior outlet, lay it in your birdbath and cover with water. The heater is thermostatically controlled so that it comes on only when the temperature dips below freezing. Heated birdbaths work on the same principal and also need to be plugged into an outside outlet. Grounded extension cords may be used to reach your outlet.

Q. What suggestions do you have for good bird-related holiday gifts?

A. For small, edible seasonal items, birdseed balls, seed ornaments and wreaths make fun and practical gifts. Other favorites are squirrel-proof feeders, chimes, birdbaths, 100% cotton kitchen items including spiced mats, bluebird houses, gift certificates, and many more delightful options.

Q. Should I feed the birds when the weather gets cold?

A. Absolutely. Birdseed and suet are perfect winter food because they are high energy. This food is like a fuel that burns in their internal engines to stay warm. Bird activity at your feeder is a pretty accurate weather forecaster and with one drop of snow, you’ll likely witness a feeding frenzy.

Q. Do birds use birdhouses in the winter?

A. Yes they do. Many species of birds will go into a birdhouse to seek shelter from the cold. You may even observe more than one variety of birds simultaneously huddle together in the same house as they do not feel the need to be territorial when it is not the nesting season, which usually begins in February.

Q. What can I do to keep my birdbath from freezing?

A. Heated birdbaths are really an essential component to your winter habitat. Not all birds eat seed, but all birds need water to drink and to bathe in to clean their dirty feathers. Weather-hardy heaters can be inserted into the birdbath. There are also birdbaths with built-in heaters. The heaters are thermostatically controlled and only go on when the temperature dips below freezing.

Q. What is ‘caching’?

A. Caching is when birds take their food, hide it, and find and eat it at a later time. It’s common among jays, chickadees, nuthatches, and other clingers. Caching helps birds survive bad weather when food sources may become scarce. These birds can store hundreds of seeds per day and the birds are known to be able to find the seeds up to a month later after they are hidden.

Q. Why are goldfinches appearing at my feeder in an erratic manner?

A. First of all, remember that goldfinches are not sporting their yellow coloring at this time of the year. They molted over the last couple of months and are now khaki and black with no obvious black on their heads. Goldfinches roam in flocks during the colder fall and winter months and may cover a distance as far as four miles between feeding stations in a single day. Finches are social eaters and like to eat in large groups so be sure to have plenty of feeders available for their gathering. They love nyjer thistle and black oil sunflower seeds.

Q. What’s that cute little gray and white bird with the pink bill I just saw hopping on the ground near my feeder?

A. Likely, it’s one of winter’s most celebrated backyard birds, the Dark-eyed Junco. They live in the upper elevations of the western part of our state during the warm weather. Then, when food supplies begin to get sparse, they navigate east. They are primarily seed-eaters and will consume cracked corn and common bird seed mixes if placed on the ground or on low platform feeders. Juncos are well-mannered, quiet birds, which make winter a little more fun for us. When you see juncos feeding in your yard, note the time of day because they follow a routine and will likely return about the same time each day.

Q. Will different species of birds come to my feeder in the winter than we see during summer?

A. Probably so. Keep a look out for a greater variety of woodpeckers. In addition to regulars such as flickers, the downy, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers, you may get lucky and spot a red-headed woodpecker or a sapsucker. Along with white and red-breasted nuthatches, you may spot their cousins, the brown-headed nuthatch, or the brown creeper. And of course, there’s the possibility of many varieties of warblers showing up at your feeders. All of these birds love a good seed mix, especially one that contains nuts, energy-rich suets, or just plain peanuts.

Q. How many watts do I really need in a birdbath heater?

A. While there are heaters ranging from 80-250 watts, the lower wattage should adequately keep the water from freezing. Remember that these heaters activate only when the water temperature dips below 32 degrees. A reliable water source throughout the colder months is very important not only for birds to drink but also because it helps them maintain a proper metabolic function as well as a way to keep their feathers cleaned and groomed to enable them to ‘fluff out’ their feathers to trap body heat and stay warm.

Q. What gift suggestions do you have to help young children get interested in birds?

A. A good way to get children started in bird watching is to give them a small window feeder that suctions directly onto your window, along with a starter amount of quality birdseed and a beginning guide to birds. When filled with seed, a window feeder brings several bird varieties to your eye level where they can be easily seen. They can then be identified one at a time and before you know it, the child will become an expert in backyard birding.

Q. I had a flock of beautiful birds eat all of the berries on my bushes in one day and then they left. What could they be?

A. You probably had Cedar Waxwings. They are one of the most beautiful birds with sleek, blended colored feathers. This bird is most often seen in flocks that descend on berry bushes all at once, eat, and then leave. The bush will almost seem to come alive with Cedar Waxwings.

Q. Why don’t we see many Chimney Swifts anymore?

A. The population of Chimney Swifts is in a rapid decline due to the shortage of chimneys that are open for them to roost and nest. Modern populations of homeowners have caps on their chimneys or fireplaces that do not even need chimneys. This is bad because Chimney Swifts eat large numbers of insects. The Wake Audubon Society has partnered with Friends of the Museum to develop a Chimney Swift tower and viewing area at their Prairie Ridge Ecostation in west Raleigh. If you would like more information or to contribute, contact the NC Museum of Natural Science at 919-733-7450.

Q. What kind of predator bird is hunting the birds at my feeder?

A. This is probably the medium-sized Cooper’s hawk. Or it could be a Red-shouldered or Red-tailed hawk, both of which usually like larger prey but will eat birds as well. The Cooper’s hawk mainly feeds on birds and small mammals. They like to hide behind shrubbery near feeders so they can take the prey by surprise.

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