For the Birds Radio Program: Attracting Birds

Original Air Date: Jan. 23, 1989

Laura has hints for attracting birds at feeders.

Audio missing


(Recording of a Red-bellied Woodpecker)

Last week I heard from Steve Denker, our 1987 winner of “For the Birds’“ “Last Robin of Winter” contest. Steve’s been getting a male cardinal at his Cornucopia, Wisconsin, feeder since October. This bird is a welcome guest for more than just his beauty and rarity—he’s also feisty enough to chase away jays. The Port Wing Blue Jay Haters are hoping that this cardinal will pass his genes on to a whole new breed of Northland birds.

Steve also said that a couple of weeks ago, he spotted a Red-bellied Woodpecker in Port Wing. This southeastern bird, like the cardinal, has been steadily extending its range northward. This year there have been quite a few showing up in the Northland—including one the day of Duluth’s Christmas Bird Count. So it looks like we can look forward to two new additions to our feeders very soon.

Bird feeders are largely responsible for the range expansions of both Red-bellied Woodpeckers and cardinals. When individuals of either species are spotted north of their current range, it’s virtually always at a feeder.

But not all feeders attract rare birds. If you’d like to attract more interesting species, you have to work at it. First of all, you have to provide suitable habitat. Yards with shrubbery and spruce trees for cover get a bigger variety of birds than bare yards in new developments. If your feeders are set about 5-10 feet from cover, the birds will feel much safer than if the feeders are out in the open, with no escape from shrikes and hawks. But cover also provides hiding places for house cats. It’s wrong to attract birds to your yard if you don’t also plan to keep cats away.

Plants also provide natural food. Flocks of Evening Grosbeaks or redpolls passing over are more likely to notice box elder trees than inconspicuous bird feeders. Once they drop down to feed on the box elder seeds, though, they quickly notice feeders and become regular visitors. Mountain ash and crab apples attract Pine Grosbeaks, Bohemian Waxwings, and robins. Just about every time a mockingbird turns up north of its range, it’s feeding on rose hips—seven years ago one was seen on Duluth’s Christmas Bird Count right across the street from my house—and, sure enough, it was in my neighbor’s rose bush. White-winged Crossbills don’t come to feeders very often at all, but they do come to spruce trees.

Providing a variety of high quality food also helps attract a variety of birds. Sunflower is the best single food for attracting a good variety, but if you put out other seeds as well, you’ll increase your flock. Mixed bird seed set on the ground or on a low platform feeder is excellent for juncoes, sparrows, and Mourning Doves. Plain suet is fine for woodpeckers, nuthatches, and chickadees, but if you render the suet and mix it with peanut butter, crushed egg shell, corn meal, and other nutritious ingredients, you’ll not only increase the number of birds, you’ll also increase the amount of time that they spend at your window. Cracked corn is excellent for jays, crows, ravens, and, in the country, for ruffed grouse. And niger or thistle seed is an almost sure bet for attracting siskins, redpolls, and other northern finches, although this year there just aren’t many of them around anywhere in the Northland.

But whether it’s cardinals and Red-bellied Woodpeckers you want, or just lots of good old traditional Northland birds, improving your feeding station is the ticket.

(Recording of a Red-bellied Woodpecker)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”