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Feed the Birds

This morning, after watching the cardinals, chickadees, titmice, house sparrows, white-throated sparrows, juncos, house finches, downy woodpecker and mourning doves jostling over my various feeders, I went upstairs to my office, turned on my computer and found news from New Jersey Audubon.

February is National Bird-Feeding Month.

You don’t say. According to the NJ Audubon press release, “In 1994, Congress passed a thoughtful resolution recognizing this month as one of the most difficult months in the U.S. for wild birds.”

male cardinal That’s because February is generally the coldest month of the North American winter, a time when those birds that don’t migrate south need the most help in finding food, water and shelter, preferably out of the icy wind. Although it is only a month before spring, when things start growing again, for a bird that wait can be a long time and a matter of life and death.

I somehow missed that resolution of 1994so last century – but I can say I’ve been feeding birds with my assorted feeders for years before then…and I didn’t need a congressional resolution!

Putting out feeders makes sense. If you like to go out in the field and look at birds or drive long distances to find a rarity to add to your Life List, you already have fond feelings for our feathered friends. So we should be trying to help as many birds as possible with feeders. Charity begins at home.

There is a minor character in Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House” who travels the country in support of feeding starving children in foreign nations while she neglects her own children. Don’t be that character!

My bird-watching hobby began innocently enough when my husband and I moved into our New Jersey home and my sister-in-law gave us a feeder (pictured above) as a house-warming present. I put in seed – since I didn’t know any better it was likely millet, which was cheap at the grocery store – and hung it in a tree. Within a day it was visited by a downy woodpecker and a titmouse. It was also hit by the squirrels.

Thus began my fascination with birds and my long-running battle with sciurus carolinenis.

But you learn, quickly, that location is everything. Put your feeder on a freestanding pole, far enough away from trees and other places from which a squirrel can jump, and use a baffle – an old wok cover will do when altered properly – to keep it from climbing to the feeders. If you want to draw birds other than house sparrows, ditch the millet and shell out a little more for black sunflower seeds, which provide a lot of fat to a bird in winter. seed

You learn that different feeders draw different birds. If you want woodpeckers, put out suet – but use a feeder that hangs in such a way that a bird coming to eat must hang under a cover. Woodpeckers don’t mind hanging underneath but without that cover you’ll draw grackles and starlings, birds I’d rather not have since in winter they’ll arrive in bulk and keep eating until there’s nothing left for the other birds.

That house feeder is the only one I have that can accommodate cardinals since it provides a nice, big seating area instead of a small perch. It is enjoyable to watch a cardinal at the feeder at dusk or dawn. I have drawn as many as three pairs of cardinals during the winter. I’m happy to do my bit.

Sometimes this open feeder draws the pleasantly unexpected, such as a Carolina wren. But more often it draws other birds that don’t want to work at getting food by sitting on a perch or clinging to the side of a caged, squirrel-proof feeder. Others may like them but to me these lazy birds include house finches, house sparrows and a bird whose population has exploded in New Jersey, the mourning dove.

A few years ago I noticed one female dove sitting on the roof of the house feeder, trying to figure out a way down to the perch to eat. Eventually, through a lot of trial and error and fluttering wings, she did find a way down.Then she somehow imparted what she learned to her friends and offspring and now there is a large flock of mourning doves that fly between the feeder and the ground and between my feeders and those of my neighbors.

Scherman Hoffman’s feeders draw a lot of feedersbirds because the center has quite a lot of different kinds of feeders, as you can see at left. As I’ve said, different feeders with different food draw different birds. If you are part of New Jersey Audubon, that’s what you want to do.

The center’s feeders, like mine, are located near some shrubs, which provide the birds with cover. There is a good supply of water and the feeders are sheltered from strong winds. The feeders, in front of the education center, are also in a location where anyone standing either in the store or at a distance outside can watch the birds without spooking them away. What good is having bird feeders unless you can see what comes to feed?

The center conveniently sells different types of feeders and different types of bird food. I buy a 50-pound bag of black sunflower seed and some winters even that is not enough. The suet cakes have drawn red-bellied, hairy and downy woodpeckers. Thistle seems to be preferred by juncos and goldfinches.

Of course, all this birding activity may also bring things that feed on the birds that come to your feeder: sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper’s hawk and the occasional red-tailed hawk.

You never know what else you might draw. I looked out one morning a few years ago to see what I thought was a very large Cooper’s sitting in one of my trees. With my binoculars I realized by its prominent “eyebrow” it was a juvenile northern goshawk!

When I see these raptors I tend to take pictures from my porch and then walk outside. Eventually, they leave. My husband reminds me they’ve got to eat, too, and I respect that.

Just not in my yard.

Heard But Not Seen (Usually)

By Margo D. Beller

There’s luck, and there’s listening.

The average person walking down the street may be mildly curious why crows are in a tree cawing wildly, or flying around and making dives. That’s presuming that person isn’t plugged into music or on the phone.

A birder knows better. Those American crows are alerting you to the presence of something they don’t want around but you’ll likely want to see.

Most of the time, when they’re not chasing off a rival flock of crows, that something is a red-tailed hawk or other raptor taking a rest from flying and hunting. But sometimes it’s much more interesting.

During the last week of January sanctuary director Mike Anderson was at the Scherman Hoffman education center when he heard those screaming crows. He started looking for the cause of their anger. He found this great horned owl. Great Hornerd Owl at SHS DSC_2474_1307

GHOs, like most owls, sleep during the day and fly out at dusk to hunt through the night, going back to a tree to roost at dawn. Most of the time owls are very hard to see during the day unless you have a lot of luck or hear a mob of crows or other alarmed birds.

(I was once directed to an area where a barred owl had been seen at Great Swamp. I looked a good 10 minutes until it got tired of the staring contest and flew off. I had had no idea where it was - which was almost directly in front of me. That’s how good they can hide in plain sight.)

This GHO was in a tree 175 yards from the education center, Mike said, but was too far for him to take a good picture with his camera. Luckily, Joe Pescatore came over with his spotting scope and his camera and got the picture using a process called digiscoping that gave his camera the equivalent of a much longer lens.

“It's a method I have sort of perfected over the past few years but I still consider myself an amateur,” said Pescatore, whose photos will be on display at Scherman Hoffman in March.

GHOs are found in all 50 states. When someone thinks of a “hoot” owl it is, more likely than not, a great horned owl. It is one of the most common owls in New Jersey and can be found from High Point in the north to Cape May to the south. That wasn’t always the case.

According to the 1999 edition of New Jersey Audubon’s Birds of New Jersey, the most recent census of the state’s population of birds, GHOs “made a remarkable recovery” in the state during the 20th century after years of  “persecution as a ‘pest’ species.”

I can’t imagine how a great horned owl can be considered a pest. According to a little book I have called Owls: A Wildlife Handbook (Johnson Books, 1998) by Kim Long, GHOs will eat rodents and other small animals. Thanks to having no sense of smell, it can hunt skunk. How is that a pest?

Mike said this GHO was the first he’s seen in daylight at the center although he’s seen them, he reckons,15 times and heard them much more often. (A GHO was one of the first birds the Big Stay team heard at Scherman Hoffman during the most recent World Series of Birding.)

It is part of birder etiquette not to disclose exactly where a roosting owl is found so it isn’t stressed by the dozens of people who will converge on it with cameras. So it is safe to say that by the time you read this, the owl will likely have moved on to a more secluded area. In January GHOs would have been calling to each other at night, setting up and defending territories, mating and then kicking redtails or squirrels or crows out of their nests to start their brood. (Owls don’t build nests but take over whatever’s around - another reason for crows to dislike them.)

Mike said he’s never seen a great horned owl nest on the property but that doesn‘t mean they aren‘t there. As the photographed GHO shows, owls can be nearly invisible when they want to be.

There are many places to learn about the cool things that make owls different from other raptors besides their night hunting, advanced hearing and ability to swivel their heads nearly 360 degrees.

For general information, including sound, there is the website of the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, one of my favorite sites.

For more specific information on how to find an owl in the field -- and what to do when you find it – one of the best resources I’ve found is How to Spot an Owl by Patricia and Clay Sutton.

Or you can take your child to Scherman Hoffman for a program on owls taking place on Saturday, Feb. 9, from 2-3:30pm. Call the center for details.

So unplug the music, put down the phone and look carefully the next time you’re walking and a murder of crows starts screaming overhead. You might be amazed.