That’s a lot of bird feeders and a
lot of bird food. No wonder a country
drive turns up more and more farm
fields with tall sunflowers waving in the
Why are bird watching and feeding so popular? I think there are several reasons. First, the birds are found
everywhere, from country woodlots to
urban streets. Second, they are easy to
attract. Third, and most important, you
don’t have to know a sparrow from an
eagle to gain enjoyment from the proximity to wild creatures that bird feeding provides.
This last was brought home to me
BY GERRY RISING
by a personal experience. My mother
never shared my interest in bird watch-
ing until, in her final years, she found
herself living in a retirement home.
While there, she told me about the
beautiful birds that came to her win-
dowsill when she set out a few crumbs.
Her description of those birds identified
them as house sparrows.
Over the years, I have noted a pro-
gression of interest among those who
feed birds. They begin knowing very lit-
tle about which species come to their
feeders, but soon they learn a few names
perhaps from neighbors or friends, or,
in a few cases, from the birds them-
selves: chickadees and jays announce
themselves each time they visit.
Wild WNY/Feeder birds
Feeding wildlife is a very popular activity. The preliminary
2016 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-
Associated Recreation National Overview reports that fifty-
nine million people participate in this activity, mostly feeding
birds. Over $3 billion is spent each year on bird food.
Then the brilliant cardinal shows
up and interest picks up. What is that
upside down bird? And that other bird
with a crest that calls, “Peter, Peter”
before it comes to feed?
Encouraged by their experiences,
these beginners now want a bird field
guide. (Several books with “feeder
birds” in their titles serve this purpose
admirably.) And that reference helps to
fill out the list of visitors. The upside-down birds are nuthatches and that
peter-bird turns out to be a titmouse.
Those drab yellowish birds are gold-finches in winter plumage, the black
and white birds woodpeckers, the softly striped reddish birds house finches.
And those mobs of short-tailed, big-billed, white-spotted black birds turn
out to be starlings.
This is when we experienced birders
begin to receive phone calls and email
messages that begin, “I have a strange
bird coming to my feeder.” Sometimes
responding can be easy: those tiny birds
are kinglets, that crow-sized woodpecker with the Woody Woodpecker red
crest is a pileated woodpecker, those
purple “sparrows” are purple finches,
and that brown woodpecker is a flicker.
But, sometimes these queries identify birds uncommon to this region,
which is always exciting to those who
keep records here. A “huge goldfinch”
that gobbles up sunflower seeds turns
into an evening grosbeak, once common here, but now rarely reported. A
bird that looks like a male house sparrow but whose black head markings are
different becomes a rare Harris’s sparrow. A bird whose beak is strangely
twisted is a crossbill. A robin-like bird
with a black bar across its throat is a
Many feeder watchers become
excellent observers. Some join the
Cornell Bird Laboratory Project Feeder Watch and contribute to ornithological science. Others report the birds
that appear at their feeders to regional Christmas Counts and the Buffalo
Ornithological Society April, May, and
October counts. But many are content
simply to enjoy avian visitors and complain about “them damned squirrels”
and the hawks that occasionally pick
off one of “my birds.”
Naturalist Gerry Rising is the author of Birds and
Try sunflower seeds to attract cardinals.