What I’m excited about right now: Backyard bird feeding and the fall migration

September 1, 2023

Rod Peck

Library Technician

I’ve always enjoyed bird watching, and when my wife and I bought a house with a bigger back yard, I was setting up bird feeders even before we had the furniture all arranged. While this has definitely been a fun and rewarding venture for us both, I have learned some lessons that I feel compelled to share at this time. 

While we have had many beauties like Northern Cardinals, Blue Jays, five different species of woodpeckers and numerous others, we haven’t had quite the variety of birds I expected. What we have had droves of are invasive species such as the English Sparrow and European Starling, both of whom are aggressive and tend to out-compete the native birds. The key issue has been how to deal with this situation so I’m not spending money on birds I don’t want to see. 

Starlings love to eat the suet I put out for woodpeckers. The solution is quite simple: upside-down suet feeders. Starlings are not agile enough to eat from them, and sparrows can, but it is difficult and if they have easier meal options, they’ll take them. 

I have also learned that striped sunflower seeds keep the starlings at bay and slow down the sparrows. These are bigger than the more common black-oil sunflower seeds and have a much harder shell which the starlings cannot crack open.

Another strategy is to go cheap on the feed. I have switched from high-end feed to a much cheaper chicken feed known as scratch grain, which usually contains corn, oats and barley. It keeps the sparrows and starlings mostly occupied, and a little goes a long way. Just spread it on the ground and let ’em have at it. 

Among the more attractive birds that will come readily to your yard are Blue Jays, and there is only one thing you need to know: in-shell peanuts. Put them in a box feeder with the str

iped sunflower seeds. Once the word gets out, you will have a veritable storm of Blue Jays coming to grab and go. I never fail to smile at seeing a greedy Blue Jay grab a peanut shell in its beak and quickly fly away.

Providing a water source also brings birds to the yard. I built a small (6×4 foot) pond for the birds that is a never-ending source of activity. Simply dig a 4- to 6-inch-deep rectangle, lay down some PVC or other waterproof tarp, fill in with sand and gravel for structure, and then you’re in business with a year-round water source for birds. The most rewarding time of year is in winter. Run an extension cord from your house to the pond, buy a relatively cheap de-icer, and this will attract many birds. You get the satisfaction of knowing that while birds can always scrounge something to eat, on cold days getting a drink is challenging. 

Another aspect of enjoyable backyard bird watching is planting native plants, trees and shrubs. I didn’t understand how important native species are to native birds until I began to investigate. Information is available at Iowa DNR and Iowa Native Plants.

There is a case to be made for each season of the year being the best for bird-watching. Spring would probably get the most votes because of winter’s end. It’s also the time when migratory birds arrive from the South – a herald of warmer temperatures. However, as someone who dislikes the hot, sweaty days of August, I look forward to fall and cooler temperatures. I also look forward to the challenges and thrills of continuing to attract birds to my yard during cooler weather.

“What I’m excited about right now” features one library employee at a time writing about their current favorites in books, magazines, music, TV series, movies, games or other materials or activities that inform or entertain. A shorter version of these columns appear in our monthly newsletter.

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