Bird of the Week #10: Turkey Vulture

I know what you’re thinking.

“Mr. Great Plains Bird Man, vultures are gross. You could have picked any raptor for the first Raptor Week raptor, but you chose the Turkey Vulture. Number one: ew. Number two: why?”

What I chose for the three raptors for this week was mostly dependent on what I could get good pictures of. My visit to Eagle Valley Raptor Center netted me some great shots, but three of the birds there stood out. The first is the Turkey Vulture, which was not my ideal first choice before I got to meet one. But after actually getting to interact with one, I’ve changed my mind and I am steadfast in my belief that these awesome birds are worthy of the spotlight.

All of the photographs in this article are of the same Turkey Vulture: Herman Munster. Herman, or Hermie, is a permanent resident at the Eagle Valley Raptor Center. I don’t recall what specific reason prohibits him from returning to the wild, but his trust of humans is almost reason enough. All of the permanent resident birds at EVRC are unable to survive in their natural habitats. And while that’s sad, Hermie does live a great life where he gets to eat lots and lots of mice.

Yummy mice!

By the way, I hope you’re not squeamish about dead mice because there’s dead mice in these pictures.

Anyway, let’s actually get down to talking about the Turkey Vulture.

The Turkey Vulture is a New World vulture found all over the Americas, save for the northern half of Canada and Alaska. Turkey Vultures are the most numerous vulture in the Americas, so a lot of the vultures you’ll see around are of the turkey variety. The name makes sense. Like turkeys, Turkey Vultures have bare red heads. This makes them look kind of gross.

The closer I got to Herman, though, the more I started to think they’re kind of cute in their own way. I know, I know, you probably think I’m a little crazy. But check out of some the pictures and look in particular at his eyes. They also have gorgeous plumage.

Like all vultures, Turkey Vultures are scavengers who forage for animal carcasses. They’ll eat other things if the opportunity presents itself, but these vultures especially suited for locating freshly killed animals. Unlike the whopping majority of birds, Turkey Vultures can hunt by smell. Their noses are specially tuned for detecting ethyl mercaptan, a type of gas emitted by fresh carcasses. Even other type of vultures lack this ability and the Turkey Vulture will often be followed by other species.

Turkey Vultures don’t seem to mind the company. They’re fairly social birds, preferring to roost in larger groups. Speaking of roosting, if you mess with  Turkey Vulture nest, they may barf on you to defend their young. Yes, barf. They also barf to feed their babies.

See! Herman’s kinda cute, right? Right?

Different vulture species depend on each other. Where other species will follow Turkey Vultures to food, sometimes the Turkey Vulture will be too weak to break the skin of certain animals. Fortunately, larger vultures such as condors or King Vultures are strong enough and these guys will just happen to be along for the ride. In this way, they work together.

I don’t know of anyone who will pick a vulture as their favorite bird. I mean, we use the word “vulture” in a negative sense to describe greedy people. They get a bad rap, but unfairly so. Vultures are a major part of nature’s cleanup crew, a necessary component of our ecosystem. The next time you see a vulture out and about, please consider how this guy takes care of a “dirty job” that no one else will do. After all, those dead animals aren’t gonna clean themselves.

Have I changed your mind about vultures? Maybe at least given you a bit a perspective? Let me know in the comments! And please, join me tomorrow for our discussion on the Harris’s Hawk!

Cornell Lab page for the Turkey Vulture

Audubon Society page for the Turkey Vulture

Raptor Week: Introduction to Raptors

The Discovery Channel gets to have Shark Week and I think the birds deserve to have Raptor Week! I’ve had the idea for Raptor Week since I came up with the idea for this website. I wanted to do a special week dedicated entirely to some of the most interesting, unique birds in the world. There will be this article, three different “birds of the week,” and a spotlight on the Eagle Valley Raptor Center right here in Kansas.

This article is just going to be an overview on the various raptors found in Kansas as well as the different types found around the world. Hopefully, you learn something from me or at least just find a discussion on these incredible birds interesting.

“Raptor” is an interchangeable term with “bird of prey.” Unlike most other birds, raptors primarily eat larger vertebrates, including other birds and rodents. Some raptors eat fish, which isn’t unique to raptors, but will also happily eat other larger foods. Raptors don’t eat birdseed could not care less about your birdfeeders outside of maybe wanting to snack on your backyard visitors.

This is Gracie, she is a Golden Eagle who currently lives at the Eagle Valley Raptor Center in Cheney, KS. On her right eye, Gracie has severe cataracts that make her effectively blind in one eye.

Owls, eagles, falcons, hawks, vultures, and ospreys are all generally considered raptors. They all fall in this category due to shared characteristics like sharp, hooked beaks, large, strong talons, and keen eyesight. But mostly what keeps these birds grouped together is their choice of food. They are carnivores and predators.

My favorite animal of all time is actually a raptor: the Peregrine Falcon. While falcons might look mostly like a hawk, they are actually more closely related to parrots. Falcons differentiate from hawks by generally by being smaller, with bodies built for speed and aerodynamics. Hawks tend to be larger, more muscularly built.

Falcons specialize in using their speed to their advantage. The Peregrine Falcon is the fastest animal in the world, with a top measured speed of 242 miles per hour! The peregrines achieve this by diving, taking full advantage of their aerodynamic frame. They use their dives to hunt by flying high above their prey and taking them by surprise from above. No bird can hope to escape a diving falcon, who won’t immediately snatch up their target, but rather will use its talons to stun its prey. This move may kill the prey, or simply break a few bones and disable it.

Also in the falcon family are kestrels, who are roughly robin-sized and absolutely adorable. Unlike other raptors, kestrels tend to favor large insects such as grasshoppers for their meals. Kestrels are remarkably small and I make sure to mention them here because I actually have a photo of one!

This is an American Kestrel. You’d be amazed how small these birds actually are! They are the cutest things!

Owls typically hunt mice and other small rodents by eating them whole. Owls have large specialized eyes, with many possessing excellent hearing to detect even the slightest movement on the ground. Their senses are incredibly keen, able to spot hidden prey over large distances. Add to that, owls are stealthy, with their flight purpose-built for quiet.

Hawks are larger than falcons, smaller than eagles. They are stockier and slower than falcons, preferring to eat animals from the ground like rodents, snakes, lizards, and the like. Typically they just eat whatever they can get their talons on. Some species will eat other birds, such as pigeons, but largely, hawks are not fast enough to catch up with most other birds. Like owls, hawks have incredible eyesight for spotting prey from high up in the air.

Eagles are the largest of the hunting raptors. They are not the largest. That honor belongs to the condor, specifically the Andean Condor, but condors don’t hunt. Condors are scavengers. Eagles, on the other hand, do. Eagles hunt the largest prey, with some even hunting animals as large as goats! Many eagles, however, to eat fish. Bald Eagles in particular love them some salmon.

Vultures, which includes the aforementioned condors, don’t hunt. Vultures are scavengers who search for dead animals to eat. Vultures are known to follow around other birds of prey, hoping to snack on their leftovers. They are an excellent cleanup crew, cleaning up dead bodies left behind everywhere. Vultures are typically seen as ugly beasts, but there’s a certain charm to them, I think. They play an important part in our ecosystem.

This fellow is a Great Horned Owl, who is due for release soon from the Raptor Center. He doesn’t much like humans, which is exactly how the Raptor Center wants their birds due to be released.

The last group I mentioned are the ospreys, who are kind of a category all on their own. Ospreys are most similar to hawks in their builds, but the big difference is that like to each fish. Their bodies are highly specialized specifically for catching fish, such as their more rounded talons and reversible outer toes. Both of these adaptations make grasping slippery fish easier.

This is only a very general overview of the various types of raptor. There hundreds of different species that fall into this category and all of them interesting, all with different adaptations making specifically suited for their roles. Raptors are endlessly fascinating, incredible to watch, and more than worth the extra effort I’m putting in to this week at my website.

What is your favorite bird of prey? Do you have any cool stories to share? I hope you are as excited about Raptor Week as I am! I am going to try my best to make this a special week for all of you.

Thanks for dropping by!

Feeder Update #11: Western Kingbird!

Western Kingbird Pair

This will be a quick update. I have had an extremely busy week, so I haven’t had much time to get ahead on the website. I’ve been trying to cram in as much bird-related activity as possible in the last few days to generate content. I do have some good news to share, though.

The first bit is that I’ve managed to photograph an entirely new species I haven’t seen in my yard before: the Western Kingbird. the kingbirds will never land in my bird feeders as their method for getting food is to fly around and catch flying insects. They’re always found high up in tree canopies, so they’re a little tough to get good pictures of. Nevertheless, I did the best I could with you’ll find the gallery below.

There’s also an okay photo of an American Robin, which I’ve never posted a picture of. They’re extremely common birds, but for some reason haven’t bothered with my yard.

Finally, I managed to get a clear picture of one of the Northern Bobwhites who stop by to eat the dried deer corn. They’re adorable little quail!

NOW! The big news!

Next week is RAPTOR WEEK! What does that even mean?

The Discovery Channel gets to to Shark Week every year, so I figured I could have a little fun and have Raptor Week instead. Instead of three posts next week, you’ll get five, one on each weekday. Instead of one Bird of the Week, you’ll get three! I’ll be covering the Turkey Vulture, the Harris’s Hawk, and the Bald Eagle. The reason I’ve chosen these three is because I have the best photos of them.

I haven’t made a final decision on what the other two posts will be about, so standby there. At least one will be akin to a feeder dump, but it will be MASSIVE and contain nothing but raptors.

Anyway, please enjoy the photos from this week. I’m still learning my new camera, so please be patient as I get better and better at taking quality bird photographs. Let me know what you think!

Bird of the Week #9: Grackles

Sinister Grackle

Once again, I’ve bumped a bird to make room for a different bird on Bird of the Week. For this week, we’ll actually be discussing two different species, both similar and found in Wichita: the Great-tailed Grackle and the Common Grackle. They’re very similar birds, with the most pronounced difference being their tails. Common Grackles have a more “common” short tail, while the great-tailed variety has larger tuft of feathers on its tail. I’m going to simply refer to grackles in this post and cover both species at once, as there really isn’t enough of a difference to merit two posts.

One time, before I was The Great Plains Bird Man, I accidentally dropped an Oreo in a QuikTrip parking lot. A curious grackle watched the food fall and waited for me to step away before rushing the sugary treat. I watched as it briefly examined the cookie and I wondered why it didn’t immediately eat it. It was a mini Oreo, so the grackle could easily have gobbled it up, but it didn’t. Instead, it used its beak to pry open the tasty snack and ate the cream filling first. It then ate the two cookies separately.

Brewer's Blackbird
Curious to see a grackle outside of his natural parking lot habitat!

There was obviously thought coming from that grackle as it ate the Oreo. The grackle eating the cream filling first made me think that this wasn’t that bird’s first Oreo, but also seems to indicate that grackles have preferences. This grackle didn’t just eat whatever food was in front of it, but it seemed to know where the best part was and how to get to it. It was at this point that I began to respect grackles because I realized I was looking at a bird with thought and simply a parking lot nuisance.

Anyway, let’s get something out of the way: when it comes to birdfeeders, grackles are often pests and generally considered unwelcome. The reason for this attitude is that grackles often show up in large groups, crowd out feeders, and can be mean to smaller birds. All of these reasons are true and I won’t deny them. However, unlike the complete roasting I did of the horrible European Starling, I plan to focus more on what makes grackles interesting.

The Kansas state bird is the Western Meadowlark, but if there was to be a city bird chosen for Wichita, it would have to be the grackle. There is not a single parking lot in Wichita lacking a grackle foraging for French fries. They don’t really seem to mind people all that much and will get fairly close to you if you let them. Grackles seem to understand that humans are ones dropping all those tasty scraps and so they seem to want to stay close to get first dibs.

This is excellent example of cause-and-effect thinking that serves as a building block for understanding animal intelligence. Dogs, for instance, are masters of cause-and-effect thinking. How do you teach a dog to sit? You give it a treat whenever it sits, repeating the command to sit until the dog associates that command and action with receiving food. We consider dogs to be fairly intelligent creatures, largely due to cause-and-effect understanding. grackles seem to illustrate this same type of thinking.

Unfortunately, the intelligence of grackles doesn’t seem to be as well-studied as for crows. I don’t think grackles are quite as intelligent crows, but this is coming from a non-ornithologist and his uneducated observations. My other non-educated observation is that grackles are not studied as much because they are not as culturally significant as ravens and crows. After all, Edgar Allen Poe probably understood that “Quoth the grackle ‘Nevermore’,” doesn’t quite the same ring to it.

Common Grackle in a Tree
The grackles love to loom in my trees

Although not a sure sign of intelligence, grackles have also proved to be exceptionally adaptable birds, with them benefitting strongly from living amongst humans. Grackles apparently have zero issues with foraging in parking lots, navigating dangerous cars and other hazards. Other birds share this adaptability, such as the Rock Pigeon, but I find it impressive nonetheless. I mean, just look at all the other birds that live among us who don’t share the same level of adaptation as the grackle. What’s more impressive, to me, is that the grackles I see don’t seem to have any issue switching between more natural environments and urban ones. They don’t seem to just adapt in an evolutionary sense, but also in a more spontaneous nature. Most other songbirds can’t say they have the same ability.

Most impressively, grackles can pass the Aesop’s Fable test. In short, the test is where a treat floats in in a beaker of water. The only way for the bird to get the treat is to raise the water level by dropping in weights. Crows are famous for passing this test, which requires reasoning and thinking with tools. Very few animals are known to pass this test.

Outside of formal research, you can observe grackle intelligence on your own. Just take a few minutes the next time you’re in a parking lot and just watch how the grackle interacts with its environment. Watch as the grackles watch you, hoping you’ll drop the next bit of food. Or watch as grackles inspect car grills, checking for insects. I’ve seen grackles check the insides of grocery bags, knowing that there’s sometimes something left behind.

Grackles are deceptively beautiful birds. At first, they might appear to simply be black, but closer examination reveals iridescent greens, blues, and purples in their feathers. They also have those sinister-looking yellow irises that make them look constantly up to no good. Their songs aren’t very pretty though, with nothing but raspy, chirpy calls.

I actually don’t mind it when the occasional grackle shows up at my feeder. A solo grackle is no more offensive to me than a Blue Jay, which is one of my favorite birds. Grackles become an issue when they show up in massive flocks that dominate my feeders. The smaller birds seem to be afraid for the grackles and will wait for them to leave.

There are two ways to keep grackles at bay. The first is to use caged squirrel-proof feeders. Grackles are too large for those, but so are Blue Jays. I’ve also not had much luck getting bluebirds or cardinals to go into my caged feeder. The second is to serve nothing but safflower in the feeders they can access. The grackles don’t seem to like it too much.

In Kansas, grackles are a fact of life. While you’ll hear no argument from me that they are pests at bird feeders, the grackles might be misunderstood and worth a second look. No, they are not the prettiest, but they’re actually quite interesting birds. I hope my article has helped you generate some respect for grackles, maybe even interest. Please, tell me what you think of grackles! Do you have any fun experiences with our misunderstood friends?

Further Reading:

Cornell Lab’s page about the Common Grackle and for the Great-tailed Grackle.

Audubon Society page about the Common Grackle and for the Great-tailed Grackle.

An excellent, recent article from Audubon about grackle intelligence.

And here is an article from National Geographic going into further detail about Aesop’s Fable test.

Why North American Birds?

The fact that I live here has little to do with my passion for the birds of North America.

I don’t find myself as interested in the vibrant, colorful parrots of South America, the awkward penguins of Antarctica, the unusual collection of birds in Oceania, or the really anywhere else. It’s not that I don’t care about them, but my true love is the bluebirds, the cardinals, the chickadees, and so on. I’ve been thinking about this post and how to articulate exactly why that is for a while now. I’m not even sure yet I’ve been successful, but wanted to share my heart with you anyway.

The first thing about North American birds that I like that I can name is the color palette. Some of our most colorful birds are the Painted Bunting, the Northern Cardinal, and the bluebird family, to name a few. Compare the colors of those birds to the Spangled Cotinga, found in the Amazon. The male Spangled Cotinga is a bright cyan with a purple throat. Or Central America’s Golden-headed Quetzal, brilliantly green bodied with a red belly and, obviously, a golden head. Undeniably, these birds are gorgeous and I love seeing them at the Sedgwick County Zoo.

The Spangled Cotinga, taken at the Sedgwick County Zoo

However, I don’t find their colors to be as aesthetically pleasing as the North American birds. There’s something relaxing about the more muted tones of even our most colorful birds. Compare the reds of our Northern Cardinal to the Scarlet Macaw. The difference in color hues is subtle, but the cardinal is darker, a little more subdued. I find the macaws exciting to look at, but the cardinals to be calming. This isn’t a scientific difference or me stating facts to you; this is simply how these birds make me feel.

Before anyone accuses me of preferring North American birds because I live in North America, I feel it’s important to state that I haven’t lived in the United States all of my life. I actually spent a significant portion of my upbringing in Brazil. I’ve seen a lot of the birds I’m talking about in the wild. Though I can’t say I ever did any bird feeding in Brazil, I can say that my experience with our southern friends is firsthand.

One of my first experiences with birds was actually with Scarlet Macaws, Hyacinth Macaws, and peacocks at a park in the middle of a Brazilian city called Aracaju. They had this massive aviary where you see all these beautiful birds. I’m partial to the macaws because of that. They are special birds. But they never came to my back yard. They never sang for me as I did yard work or grilled up some steaks.

The birds of North America are special too. To us, they might be a little ordinary compared to the exotic birds from elsewhere, but have you considered that our birds are exotic to the rest of the world? Even in California and the far western United States, the Northern Cardinal is exotic! Can you imagine seeing a cardinal for the first time?

Golden-headed Quetzal, also from the Sedgwick County Zoo

Or shoot, just read the Bird of the Week posts on this website! Every single bird I talk about has something that makes them unique or special. North American birds are incredible! I started this website largely because the more I learned about the birds I see almost every day, the more interesting they became. I can’t imagine living anymore where birds are just part of the background.

I can’t help anymore but recognize a Blue Jay calling and want to point it out, no matter what I’m doing. I can’t help but want to find the bird making that noise and see it. The same goes whenever I hear a cardinal making laser sounds. Speaking of, cardinals are absolutely trying to make laser gun noises when they sing. Next time you hear one, you won’t be able to unhear it!

Alright, that’s enough gushing about the birds I love. All birds are amazing creatures, but the ones we have right in our backyards are and always will be my favorites. What are your favorites? Leave a note!

Feeder Update #10: Hope You Like Bluebirds

Eastern Bluebird

This week was a little slow. I didn’t have quite the volume of visitors that I like to see, but I think you’ll find that pictures I did get more than made for it. Specifically, the best Eastern Bluebird pictures I’ve ever taken are to be found here.

Last week, I brought you a few shots of Mrs. Bluebird, but this week, the only visitor was Mr. Bluebird. I suspect that the Bluebird couple has a nest nearby and one of them is sitting with the young while the other fetches food. I’ve tried to add a little extra mealworms to the seed rotation to help out. I hope I can show you some fledglings soon!

A big surprise visitor was the Pine Siskin, who usually only visits Kansas during the cold winter months. I saw two visiting my feeders, traveling closely with my ever-present House Finches. I had heard this year was a population explosion for siskins, so perhaps them still being in Kansas is part of that. Either, I’m glad they’re around and let me get some good photos.

Speaking of, the Pine Siskin and female House Finch can be difficult to differentiate, especially at a distance. Both are small brown-streaked birds that tend to hang out together and eat largely the same things. So how do you tell them apart?

Pine Siskin

This is a Pine Siskin. Notice it has a small, thin beak. It’s also tough to see on this picture, but the siskins have a yellow stripe on the lower part of their folded wing.

And this is a female House Finch. Notice her beak is much thicker! She also lacks the yellow on the wing present on the siskin.

I also observed a few birds I haven’t seen before, but wasn’t able to photograph. The first was a flock of migrating seagulls flying overhead. I couldn’t get a good enough to tell what kind.

I saw a sparrow of some kind with white stripes on its head. I couldn’t get close enough to adequately ID it, but my first thought was a White-crowned Sparrow. Hopefully soon I can know more.

Third, I saw a Great-crested Flycatcher up in the trees. I wasn’t able to get any pictures of it, but so cool to know they’re around.

Finally, one of my favorite birds, the Barn Swallow was around. There were several of them, flying around like F-16 fighter jets trying to capture bugs in flight. I’m happy they’re around and hope they’ll help out with the wasps when it gets warmer. The Barn Swallow will definitely get a shout out as a bird of the week at some point. They are very cool birds!

Anyway, please enjoy the photos and tell me what you think!

Species Pictured:

  • Eastern Bluebird
  • House Finch
  • Pine Siskin
  • Red-winged Blackbird

Bird of the Week #8: Blue Jay

Blue Jay

This week was supposed to be the Baltimore Oriole, as I was hoping to have some of the special little guys visit my oriole feeder, but it’s now been over a month and not a single one has dropped by. If they start coming by, I will absolutely add them back to the schedule as they are beautiful, unique, and interesting birds.

But this week we are going to visit the Blue Jay, one of my favorite birds and an interesting critter all on its own. I am actually quite excited to have Blue Jays as they were not originally on the schedule because I had no pictures of them. I was so happy a few weeks ago when a Blue Jay finally stopped by to munch and even more excited when a Blue Jay was the first bird to pose for my new camera.

Anyway, enough about me. Let’s talk about the birds!

The most surprising fact you’ll learn about Blue Jays is that they are corvids, meaning they are in the same family as crows and ravens. People don’t typically think of Blue Jays as being related to crows, as they’re usually bunched in with other more typical songbirds, but once you really start to look, you’ll understand why they’re definitely related to crows.

Blue Jay Makes a Face
Blue Jays are some of the most intelligent birds to visit your feeders!

For one, Blue Jays are highly intelligent birds. Studies on Blue Jay intelligence haven’t been done quite as extensively as on crows, but these birds have been observed using tools in captivity, which is a trait generally associated with smarter animals. They also have a diverse range of communication, much of which is not fully understood. In addition, young Blue Jays have been observed picking shiny things and playing with them like they’re toys. Since there’s really no benefit to the Jays doing this, it shows an advanced form of emotional intelligence in that the bird is seemingly doing it just for fun.

Blue Jays have extremely diverse diets, though large seed and nuts seem to be their favorite. Their favorite seed seems to be shelled peanuts, so offering peanuts is the easiest way to get them to drop by. When Blue Jays drop by, I usually observe them stuffing their bills full of peanuts and then flying off to eat them in the safety of a nearby tree. This is another behavior that I believe speaks to their intelligence, as they seem to have the ability to plan ahead.

Besides seed, Blue Jays will eat practically anything else. They’ll eat small rodents, garbage, fruits, and very rarely other birds. Blue Jays reportedly can be aggressive toward other birds at feeders and have a bad reputation among some birders. I have not observed Blue Jays exhibiting bad behaviors and I have yet to find a reason to see them as unwanted. In fact, I see quite the opposite as they’re highly entertaining birds to watch.

I mentioned Blue Jay communication earlier and while they aren’t particularly pretty singers, their communication is interesting nonetheless. The most common call you’ll hear is a shrill “Hey! Hey!” that almost seems like it was made to announce that they’re coming. Another one you might see is a whooping call where they bounce up and down while they do it. You only see multiple jays doing it in groups and no one is quite sure why they do it. If you get a chance to see it, it’s quite funny to watch.

They’ve also been observed imitating hawk calls to scare other birds away from food. I have yet to see them do this personally, but it doesn’t surprise me. Blue Jays are so clever!

Speaking of funny, when Blue Jays go through their annual molts, they’ll often lose all the feathers on their heads. So if you see a bald Blue Jay flying around, don’t worry about it, it’s fine.

Blue Jay with a mouth full of food
Blue Jays are absolute gluttons for peanuts

Blue Jays won’t use your bird houses and instead use bowl-style nests in trees. They typically lay between three and six eggs, with only the female sitting on them. The male will take care of bringing food to the female as she broods. Blue Jays mate for life.

Blue Jays are well-known birds, as they’re quite pretty and frequent visitors to back yards and parks all over the central and eastern United States. Despite this, no US states have made the Blue Jay their state bird. I find this perplexing as the Northern Cardinal gets seven states calling it their state bird. Cardinals are great, but they should share!

I already touched on Blue Jay diet, but if you’re wanting to attract them, I’ll repeat that Blue Jays seem to prefer peanuts over other seeds. The best way to attract them is with a platform feeder, as they’re larger birds and might have a tougher time accessing tube feeders or feeder made for smaller birds. If you’re sitting outside birdwatching, you will hear the Blue Jay before you see them as they will make that signature “hey!” call to announce themselves.

I love Blue Jays, do you? Tell me about your experience with them!

The Official Bird Seed Tier List

Eastern Bluebird Eating a Worm

You show up at your local outdoor store, Lowe’s, grocery store, Atwood’s, what have you, and finally get to the bird feeding aisle. And you find dozens and dozens of different options, all promising to attract all the most desirable songbirds. What do you choose?

Or maybe you’ve been feeding birds for a while now and you’d like to up your game just a bit, maybe treat your birds to something special.

In this article, I’m going to cover the “default” seed blend. That is, I’m not going to touch on any specialized individual seed bags, but rather I want to discuss the sort of thing most people put into their “main” or only bird feeder.

There are a few caveats I’d like to get out of the way first.

For one, I can only speak in general and from my own experiences. Some people have different luck with different seed blends because the birds in their area are different. Just as an example, I’ve never seen safflower seeds advertised for House Finches, but mine are positively addicted to safflower.

For two, I’m still adamant that black oil sunflower seeds alone are the best bang for your buck you can get. Unless you’re willing to shell out for a seed bag that has some more “premium” ingredients, I highly recommend sticking with straight sunflower. That being said, I don’t deny the allure and fun of serving lots of different kinds of food for your birds. I’m with you!

I think the best way to do this article is actually to rank the various possible ingredients in a bird seed blend in a tier list. If you’re unfamiliar with a tier list, you’ll quickly pick up on how it goes as I type this out for you.

In ranking these, I factor in a few things: Number of birds that eat it, how much birds seem to like it, if it attracts anything besides birds, and my general observations. I will go Let’s get into it!

THE QUICK VERSION:

S-TIER: Black oil sunflower seeds

A-TIER: Sunflower chips, shelled peanuts, tree nuts, safflower seeds, mealworms

B-TIER: White millet, peanuts with shells, black stripe sunflower seeds

C-TIER: Dried fruit, pumpkin seed

D-TIER: Cracked corn, shelled corn, nyjer

F-TIER: Milo, oats, wheat, buckwheat, rapeseed, pretty much anything except for what’s listed above

THE LONG VERSION:

S-TIER:

  • Black oil sunflower seeds are the only seed to make the S-tier. They are absolutely essential in any bird seed blend. They are nutritious for birds, pretty much every bird that will eat seeds loves sunflower, and it’s generally inexpensive. The only downside I can see is that sunflower seeds can leave behind a mess from their shells. If mess is a concern, you can still reap the benefits with the A-tier seeds.

A-TIER:

  • Sunflower chips are just black oil sunflower seeds with no hull. The only reason chips didn’t make the A-tier was because the chips way too easily attract starlings and other undesirables.
  • Shelled peanuts are beloved by a lot of bigger birds like Blue Jays, but are also adored by nuthatches, titmice, and chickadees. I also find that peanuts produce a smell that attracts birds. The downside is that grackles are peanut lovers. Also, peanuts do not quite attract the wide array that sunflower attracts.
  • Tree nuts (hazelnuts, cashews, etc.) all have the same advantages and problems that peanuts do.
  • Safflower seeds are my go-to starling and squirrel repellant. Plenty of “good” birds love safflower, but starlings hate the shells and squirrels hate the taste. Like peanuts, safflower isn’t beloved by quite as many birds as sunflower. Still, it deserves an A-tier spot.
  • I struggled with whether or not to include mealworms, but ultimately decided that since some blends include mealworms, I’ll add them too. Mealworms attract insect-eating birds like bluebirds, but have the negative effect of also attracting starlings who may gobble it up before the more timid bluebird has a chance. Even so, you can just watch the birds go crazy when they realize you have worms in there.

B-TIER:

  • White millet can easily be mistaken for the horrible milo. Smaller birds really like millet, but I find it’s appeal limited to the really little guys. You can just fine without it, but don’t discount a blend just because it has millet.
  • Peanuts in shells are often eaten by nuthatches and titmice, but also eaten by bigger nuisance birds and squirrels. Peanuts without shells are a little more versatile and the birds will appreciate not having to put in so much effort.
  • Black stripe sunflower seeds are the larger cousin of the black oil sunflower seeds. These have less fat content, making them less nutritious for birds, and they are also larger and harder to open. The only reason to substitute in stripes would be if starlings are giving you issues with your black oil seeds. They are not able to crack open black stripe.

C-TIER:

  • Dried fruit, such as raisins or dehydrated cranberries, can be a good treat for certain fruit eating birds like cardinals or possibly bluebirds, but it can be expensive and I don’t find that setting it out really increases visits.
  • Pumpkin seed occasionally shows up in blends and I don’t see that it has any advantage over any other seed. Sometimes it’s sold as a premium addition to a blend, but birds don’t naturally eat pumpkin seeds. They might eat it if it’s there, but it’s like most other seeds you’ll find in bird seed bags where the birds might find it in the wild.

D-TIER:

  • Corn just straight-up sucks. Nobody except grackles, ducks, squirrels, and doves really care for it. Corn is generally a filler and should be avoided.
  • Nyjer is a specialty seed that finches like, but it generally doesn’t belong in a blend. Nyjer goes bad quickly and everything except finches will ignore it. Plus, it’s been my experience that finches prefer sunflower anyway.

F-TIER:

  • Everything about milo is bad. Most birds hate it and it’s just a cheap filler for “economy” blends. If a blend has milo in it, don’t buy it. It’s a waste of money. Same goes for literally all the other things listed.
American Goldfinch and House Finch at feeder
Two different finches just finished up grabbing a meal from a nut-heavy seed blend without nyjer, illustrating there really is no point in buying nyjer seed to attract finches!

Next time you go buy a bird seed blend, I hope that consulting my tier list will help you choose a great blend. Sadly, there are far too many blends out there for me to review each one individually, so for now I’ll have to do it this way.

I’ll have individual articles about different seeds and their benefits, but the tier list is designed to be a way to figure out the quality of a seed blend at a glance.

This list is not definitive, nor does it cover all options for feeding birds. There are still many other ways like setting out fresh fruit or using all manner of suet. In addition, your particular birds will have different tastes. I encourage you to experiment and see where your sweet spot is.

I did some poking around on Amazon and I found a two seed blends that I think score well using the tier list. I have not tried these blends, but I would purchase them myself based on their ingredients:

Wagner’s Songbird Banquet – Contains: black oil sunflower (S), stripe sunflower (B), shelled peanuts (A), safflower (A), and tree nuts (A). As you can see, this blend incorporates only one B-tier seed, the rest are A-tier and S-tier. If you have a squirrel problem, this won’t solve it, but there is zero junk in this blend.

Cole’s Nutberry Suet BlendContains: sunflower chips (A), shelled peanuts (A), tree nuts (A), berry and insect kibble (A and C-tier), other fruits (C-tier). This is a more expensive blend and the cost seems to come from the high amount of dried fruit. If you have a lot of fruit-eaters, this is a great blend.

Try using the tier list for yourself the next time you shop! Don’t discount a blend just because it has a C-tier ingredient. Those C-tier ingredients might be one of your backyard friend’s favorite foods!

Let me know what you think! Am I wrong about something? Is this helpful? What blends do you use?

Feeder Update #9: New Camera

Lady Bluebird

I could not be more excited right now! I’ve finally upgrade my camera set up to something actually usable for good bird photography. I am now shooting with a Nikon D5600, which is basically their advanced entry-level camera. It has a lot of great features and does exactly what I’m wanting to do with this blog, for now.

I only have a standard lens for it right now and I’ll be getting a nice telephoto lens for it in the future so I can take it out and get some pictures out in the wild. But for now, I actually managed to get some cool photos at my feeders thanks to its remote control features. You download an app on your phone and you can take pictures from anywhere. So, all I did was put the camera on a tripod, set it to where I wanted, and then I could get some awesome close up shots.

Fun enough, the first bird photographed was a Blue Jay! I actually saw two of them out at the feeders today, which pleases me since they aren’t typically frequent visitors. I also managed to snag pictures of both a male and female Red-Winged Blackbird, which I’ve never gotten good pictures of before.

And what album of mine would be complete without the bluebirds?

I don’t have much else to add. I’m ridiculously busy with work right now. Unfortunately, I still haven’t gotten oriole visitors and the little guys are probably getting bumped from Bird of the Week for now. We’ll see how it goes. Next week, we’ll be covering the House Finch, which is a very welcome visitor!

Anyway, let me know what you think of the photos!

Bird of the Week #7: House Finch

Male House Finch in tree

Besides maybe the grackles, the most numerous bird to visit my feeders is the House Finch. Now, you may be thinking that the House Finch is a very ordinary bird and you’re probably right, but like pretty much every single bird I’ve researched for this website, I’ve found that the House Finch is also surprisingly interesting and worth taking a look at.

The House Finch is a surprisingly recent addition to Kansas, with it not being seen in the state until the 1990s. Today, the House Finch is a prolific bird, seen all across the United States in great numbers. Originally, the House Finch was limited in range to Mexico and the southwestern United States, but was imported to the eastern United States as a pet. When the Migratory Bird Treat Act of 1918 was passed, these pet finches were released into the wild and spread from there. They have even been brought over to Hawaii where they also thrive.

Male and female House Finches are easily distinguished. The female is brown and tan streaked all over while the male looks like a version of the female with a red head. The males’ red heads look almost like the bird was dipped in red paint. This red color is caused by diet, with it being possible that the red features will turn yellow.

House finches are also avid singers, with their calls being the one I hear the most. Their song is cheerful, warbly, and can sometimes by chirpy.

House Finches are also very social birds and you will seldom find one alone. I always see them visiting my feeders in groups, usually of about a half dozen. They get along well with other birds and only seem to quarrel over food among themselves. And even then, I have only ever witnessed minor quibbles rather than outright fights. They also don’t seem to mind grouping up with other birds and I’ll often see them stop by with goldfinches or Pine Siskins.

They are probably some of the easiest birds to attract. They love seeds. House Finches will eat just about any seed you put out, barring anything large such as peanuts in shell or black stripe sunflower seeds. They love black oil sunflower seeds, though. They will eat nyjer from nyjer socks or finch feeders, but I find that they’d rather eat sunflower. So, if you have a finch feeder, I’d suggest loading it with fine sunflower seed and just skip the nyjer altogether.

Various finches feed

And seemingly against convention, my House Finches are addicted to safflower seeds. Most of the seed packages I see tell me that safflower is not for finches, but mine goes positively crazy for it. I’ll set out sunflower in one platform feeder, safflower in the other. The safflower platform will be full of House Finches. I’m not sure why they decided safflower is their favorite, maybe there’s some nutritional value they appreciate, but hey, I’m not complaining. Safflower is an awesome bird food.

I specifically use Nutrasaff from Song of America, which they claim is a newer variety. I’ve covered how Song of America isn’t available online, but I’ve found a few different brands on Amazon that seem to sell the same seed. Most other brands seem to call it golden safflower. I’ll have a full article about safflower seeds and their benefits in the near future, but for now, I’ve been impressed with it.

We’re here to talk about the House Finch, right?

Back to it!

House Finches nest in cup-style nests, so you won’t have them breeding in your bird houses. They aren’t terribly picky about where they place their nests, so you might have them building one on your house, which is fun until you have to clean up all their doodoo.

The one problem with having House Finches at your feeders is that they are prone to disease. Specifically, House Finches can catch a disease called House Finch Eye Disease, which you can easily recognize by crusty, inflamed eyes on House Finches that may even render the poor bird blind. This disease has been seen spreading across species, so if you spot a House Finch with a swollen eye, it’s probably a good idea to take down your feeders for a few weeks. I know that’s rough, but it’s for the birds.

Find more information about Finch Eye Disease here.

On a more cheerful note, I love my House Finches. They’re pretty, cheerful, and happy-go-lucky little birds that cause me no issues. Hopefully you’ve had great experiences with these little guys too.

How do you attract House Finches?