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Evan Hazard: A tale of two feeders: Less is more, more or less

I’ve done intensive birding when teaching ornithology at BSU, and occasionally with friends more into the hobby, but otherwise, I’m just a casual birder. Mostly I note sightings from my dining nook window, from various hosts’ windows, on walks between home and Sanford Health and while driving. (Fear not, I concentrate on driving, but remember if I’ve seen obvious crows, grackles, rock doves, and the occasional eagle, swan or vulture.)

My two feeders hang from a double-hooked wrought iron post.

Each is a vertical clear plastic cylinder, one 2.5 inches wide, the other 5 inches wide, but their designs differ. The narrow cylinder has tiny feeding holes, two high and two low, with a plastic perch by each (one perch now broken off). It delivers only small seeds, thistle or bird seed, meant to attract goldfinches, siskins, redpolls and such.

The wide cylinder has eight larger feeding holes, four high and four low, which deliver mixed seeds from millet- to sunflower-sized. The holes have no attached perches, but an outer cylinder of inch-wire mesh encloses the plastic cylinder, allowing several birds to perch. The larger cylinder also has a basal shelf where seeds collect.

Unfortunately, gray squirrels and deer also fed there, concentrating on the mixed seed feeder.

I could frustrate squirrels by smearing Vaseline on the post, but that worked only in summer.

The best defense against deer was to bring the large feeder in at night, but deer have jostled it and fed on the fallen seeds near sundown while I was inside supping five feet away.

The commonest birds at the feeders in summer 2012 were house finches, the species whose nest gave me bird mites. Chipping sparrows may have been just as common, but seldom stayed at the feeders when the larger house finches were around. And I saw no chickadees or other species at the feeders well into the summer.

Also, gray squirrels were getting much of my mixed bird seed, and spilling it on the ground.

So, I changed things. On July 24, a male goldfinch had fed briefly at the small feeder, so the next day I emptied the mixed seed from the large feeder and filled it with seeds.

This reduced the variety of food, but goldfinches might come more often, and I might have less trouble with squirrels and deer.

House finches still visited both feeders. They could still feed at the large feeder, but are ill-suited to the small one; their stout bills fit the holes badly.

They could get seeds, one at a time, if they were careful but most were not. Sometimes they arrived singly or in pairs.

But some (likely parents plus sub-adults from earlier broods) came in mobs of six or more. (House finches can fledge three broods a summer in Bemidji.) That they got less food for their efforts may have decreased the attraction of the feeders, but they still often scared off goldfinches and chipping sparrows.

Goldfinches began to show up regularly: males, females and sub-adults. They and chippies did well at both feeders, and tolerated each other well.

Other species visited occasionally: a hermit thrush, occasional song sparrows, one female house sparrow and a spunky female purple finch that held off five larger house finches and left presumably when her crop was full.

In sum, just as many species came to the feeders, house finches ceased to monopolize them, and squirrel and deer problems ceased.

Some birds don’t do seed feeders, but I often luck out and see something noteworthy.

 Kingbirds are large flycatchers that regularly perch atop the spruces on the berm and hunt insects nearby.

Tree swallows abound, hunting insects higher up. Ring-billed gulls, especially in late summer, behave much like the tree swallows, circling and suddenly veering this way and that.

My guess is they are hunting the dragonflies that are hunting smaller insects.

On July 23, a confused sub-adult cowbird flew and hopped about aimlessly, looking lost.

Its hoodwinked foster parents probably figured this big kid was now old enough to fend for itself. Some birds, particularly western meadowlarks, I heard often and saw occasionally. A female hairy woodpecker actually fed at the large feeder briefly, and attacked its reflection in the window. A dark phase savannah sparrow visited Sept. 13.

Ring-billed gulls are the common gulls near Bemidji. They are omnivorous, like crows, but don’t congregate in the hospital area until midsummer, which is when I saw them hawking dragonflies.

Canada geese also graze nearby in late summer. They generally head south before the gulls, the last of which leave when snow covers the ground.


— Evan Hazard is a retired BSU biology professor. He also writes “Northland Stargazing” the fourth Friday of each month.