Column: Now is the perfect time for bird watchingBy HASKEL BURNS,
So I’m pretty big into bird watching – what most people call a “birder,” although I never really cared for that term.
Unfortunately, I haven’t been as fervent with it in the last few years, because I stopped feeding and attracting birds to my place after a few stray cats took up residence in the neighborhood. I understand nature happens, but I didn’t want it happening at a birdfeeder three feet away from my living room window, if you know what I mean.
Nevertheless, now is the perfect time to indulge in the hobby. The weather is warm, food is plentiful, and birds are out and about for breeding season.
The great thing about bird watching is that you can spend as little or as much as you want on it. You can spend hundreds of dollars on fancy binoculars and luxurious birdhouses, or not spend a cent by just looking out your window.
But in my experience, the best bang for your buck is to simply buy some inexpensive bird seed and a couple of feeders, and you’ll have a show right in your back yard before you know it (provided you don’t have those aforementioned cats roaming around).
When it comes to seed, my advice is to stick with black oil sunflower seed. The millet – those “mixes” with the little round seeds – might be a couple dollars cheaper, but most of the birds here in the South will just rake it out of the feeder, with the exception of doves and the like.
Sunflower seeds will bring in birds like cardinals, buntings (in our area, mostly in the winter), chickadees, Blue Jays and nuthatches. My favorite birds to attract with sunflower seeds are Tufted Titmice, who will flutter in, take one seed at a time, crack it open on a branch and bring it to their hideaway before coming back for another one.
But not all birds dig on seeds, so you’ll need to offer a little more if you want to get a wider range of species. Suet, which is very inexpensive, attracts a plethora of birds like wrens, Brown Thrashers, some woodpeckers, catbirds and my all-time favorite bird, the Northern Mockingbird.
A word of advice on suet though: try to find the purest form of suet, which is made mostly of beef fat, and avoid the ones with all the extras like fruit.
If you want to venture out of your backyard in search for birds, you can check out some woods or fields for species like Pileated Woodpeckers, hawks, owls and warblers (who are much more easily seen than heard). If you have ponds or other small bodies of water, you’re also likely to see plovers like killdeer.
Speaking of Pileated Woodpeckers, although I rarely get to see them any more, I’ve got what I think is a pair that seem to come by every year or so. There’s a wooden bench on my porch that several carpenter bees have laid claim to, and when the pileateds think about it, they’ll do a quick fly-by to see if there are any larvae available for a snack.
I’ve always been amazed by those birds, and there’s no mistaking a pileated. They’re big – about the size of an American Crow, maybe a little bigger – with a dark black body and a vibrant red crest on their heads.
And even if you’ve never heard one in real life, you’re familiar with a pileated’s call. You know that “wuk wuk wuk” call that movies and TV shows use when they want to portray a “jungle bird” call? That’s a pileated.
By the way, you can tell the males apart from the females: the males have a bright red crest on their cheek, a feature lacking on the females.
At any rate, even if you can’t tell a hawk from a finch, now is a good time to get started. There are countless birding books at all the local libraries that will make it easy to identify birds you see, and The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website (www.allaboutbirds.org) is, in my opinion, the best place on the Internet for bird information.
So just put a few seeds on the windowsill and see what you get. Because it is breeding season, you might even get lucky and get some nests by your house – I’ve had Carolina Wrens nest under the awning on my porch and a Grey Catbird build her nest right outside my bedroom window.
Take it from me though: don’t get too close to a mockingbird’s nest if you can help it. They don’t take kindly to strangers.
Haskel and his fiancé, Heather, live in Oak Grove. They don’t believe the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker is extinct.