bird watching

Why Aren’t There any Birds at my Feeder?

We get this question A LOT at this time of year. There’s no need to worry however. The cardinals and chickadees and all the others will be back—right after they strip the land around us of every berry and seed they can find. It’s all ripening right now, and even our best supreme blend cannot compete. Some autumns our feathered friends abandon us for only a week or so. Other years it seems they’ll never come back—but they always do. How long we’ll have to wait depends on the season’s bounty. Until then keep your feeders clean, but don’t fill them. There’s no point in having a lot of seed go stale. Just keep enough on offer so the birds will not find empty feeders when they do return.

And cheer up—the silver lining to this cloud is right around the corner. We’re heading into the best season for backyard birding in Tallahassee. Just a few of the many migrating species you can hope to see are Yellow-rumped Warblers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, American Goldfinch and Chipping Sparrows. You’ll want to stock up on white proso millet, thistle and our home-made suet cakes for these winter guests. So come see us at the nursery, and we’ll help you plan the party.

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds Return

Every spring I look forward to the return of the Ruby-throated Hummingbird from its usual winter range in Central America and Mexico. Many congregate on the Yucatan Peninsula, using it as the jumping off point for a 500 mile, eighteen hour, non-stop flight across the Gulf of Mexico. Hoping to ride a tailwind, some instead meet adverse winds and use up their small energy supply of stored fat before they reach our coast and fall into the Gulf. For those that make it, it is an amazing feat of endurance and navigation. The first arrivals in our area show up around March 15th.

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds breed in the eastern United States from the Gulf coast of Texas, almost due north through Minnesota, into southern Canada and eastward from Lake Okeechobee to Nova Scotia. Many of the hummingbirds you see in your yard are passing through on their way to their breeding grounds farther north. Some will stop in north Florida to find mates and raise young. After mating, the female goes to her preferred nesting habitat, often near a woodland stream, river or swamp. She builds the nest and raises the two babies with no help from the male.

After hatching, the young stay in the nest about three weeks. Mom feeds them by ramming a regurgitated mixture of insects down their throats. For this reason, native trees and shrubs are very important to the survival of hummers. These plants are preferred by native insects that hummers consume by the thousands. Insects provide all the protein, vitamins, minerals and fats hummers need for a balanced diet and are critical for feeding the baby hummingbirds. These insects are found almost exclusively on American native plants. Ornamental plants from other parts of the world, such as camellias, loropetalum, azaleas, ligustrum, crape myrtle or Chinese elm are mostly useless for providing hummingbirds with insects.

The best way to attract hummers is to plant a wide variety of nectar producing plants. Try to use natives like red buckeye, wild azaleas, coral honeysuckle, firebush, columbine, red swamp mallow and silverbell. Non-natives like pentas, perennial salvias, shrimp plant and cardinal guard are good choices also.

Feeders are another way to attract hummingbirds. Use only white sugar. Mix with water at a ratio of four parts water to one part sugar, or one cup of water to ¼ cup sugar. Commercial nectar mixtures containing added vitamin, protein or flavors are not recommended. Red food coloring is not necessary and may be harmful. Never use honey since it carries a fungus that is fatal to hummers.

By mid-July, northern hummers are already migrating south, mostly males at first. From April through September, the bird visiting your feeder, the bird you call ‘your hummer’, is probably a different bird every day. Fred Dietrich, a certified hummingbird bander, caught seventy-two birds in his yard during this period. Only three of them were recaptures. The latest you’ll see a Ruby-throated Hummingbird in your yard is around mid-October. They have probably doubled their weight for fuel to make the dangerous Gulf crossing.

We never fail to be amazed by these feisty little animals. Imagine the spunk, courage and drive it would take for us to leave dry land and fly five hundred miles non-stop over water without a GPS, a phone to call for help or any food and water. Amazing!

Pine Siskins

Photos by Fred Dietrich

Photos by Fred Dietrich

Have you been wondering what that other bird on your thistle feeder is? If you look up Pine Siskin in your bird book, you’ll find it there. Pine Siskins (Carduelis pinus) are small, dark, heavily streaked finches with deeply notched tails and sharply pointed bills. You may also see a touch of yellow on their wings and at the base of their tails. We do not often see them this far south, however seed crop failures in their usual winter range to the north sometimes push them into our area.

They breed from portions of Alaska and Canada, south to northern Baja California, central highlands of Mexico, Kansas, Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey. They are found in forests and woodlands and in the parks, gardens and yards of suburban areas. Their diet consists of seed and insects. As you’ve probably noticed, in the fall and winter they travel in flocks (often 50 to 200 birds).

More than one customer has commented that Pine Siskins are not shy. They’re surprised by how close they can get to the feeder before the feisty little birds fly off. They’re not shy about eating either. Between them and the goldfinch, it is not easy to keep those thistle feeders full.

Pine Siskins 3.jpg

Enjoy their presence at your feeders now. Unfortunately we probably will not see them next year.

Some information for this blog post came from the following sources –

Peterson Field Guides – Eastern Birds