Backyard bird feeders

Backyard bird feeders can attract a variety of species, making them both fun and educational for everyone. Spring is especially a good time to put out feed because species are returning from their winter migration.

You have tried to entertain the kids with jigsaw puzzles, making cookies, helping with their homework and even allowing a soccer game in the hall. Now you are losing your mind trying to think up something else to grab their attention and keep them from destroying the house faster than a tornado

How about looking out the window or sitting on the porch and watching birds? With a little effort any yard or patio can become a bird watching spot. The last couple of years I have had a feeder outside my front window and check what is using it every time I walk past.

I also built a bluebird box and placed it on the side of the house. Last year it produced three nests and there are already fledglings in there this year.

Brent Smith has been watching birds in his backyard, parks and the woods around East Texas his entire life. He came by it naturally. His late father, Gerald, a former teacher at Robert E. Lee High School, was an avid birdwatcher and one of the founders of the local Audubon chapter.

Living adjacent to Mud Creek in South Tyler, Smith has multiple feeders out year-round, and is in the process of adding seasonal hummingbird feeders. At some point this summer he will have upwards of 20 hummingbird feeders, having to refill some of those with sugar water daily.

“Right now is the prime time. They are starting to migrate back in, and will continue to through April and into May,” said Smith, who has the feeders set up in view of his home office.

Smith said birds that went south like warblers, indigo buntings, painted buntings, various sparrows and humming birds are starting to show back up at the feeders. This means each day can bring something new, along with the cardinals, doves, mockingbirds, blue jays, robins and woodpeckers that have been around.

Having lived at his current residence since 2005 Smith said he has recorded 126 different species either coming to the feeders, flying overhead or like mallards and wood ducks seen flying the creek channel.

“You can get birds just about anywhere you live in town,” Smith said. Of course different types of yards, dense vs. open, often attract different birds because of their preferred habitat.

Having a feeder is not necessary, but putting out feed can attract birds closer and for longer. Smith puts sunflowers in feeders, but pours birdseed made of chopped corn, milo and other small grains on the ground. This method allows more birds to feed at once and allows larger birds that would not be able to use a feeder to feed. I use a mix of all in the feeder, with the bigger birds getting the scraps that fall to the ground.

The downside is that the scattered feed will attract squirrels. Some may enjoy their antics, others not so much and can easily discourage them by opening the door.

A bigger issue is feral cats. Experts estimate that cats kill anywhere from 1.5 to 3.5 billion birds a year. Birds eating feed on the ground can be like a buffet to the cats, but again by constantly chasing them away can help discourage them from lingering.

Along with commercial feed Smith also uses peanut butter that attracts chickadees, orange crowned warblers, kinglets and more.

He has made a feeder for it using a board with larger holes drilled into it for the peanut butter and smaller holes with pieces of dowel attached for perches. Sometimes he will make a similar feeder using a two-inch diameter limb with holes drilled for the peanut butter and perches added.

There are a number of bird feeder plans available online, some are simple using standard household goods, while others are more complex. There are also bird feeder kits that can be ordered and put together.

Along with learning about Nature, bird watching can include math, science geography, reading and the arts.

The math and science comes from keeping a log of what birds show up. List how many are males versus females and at what time of day they arrive. Include weather conditions such as temperature and wind direction. Smith uses an online spreadsheet, but a dedicated notebook works just as well.

“I have records I keep for every month of every year and go back and see what was here at the same time last year,” Smith said.

To identify the birds Smith uses Kenn Kaufman’s Field Guide to Birds of North America. I use Stan Tekiela Birds of Texas Field Guide. Of course there are also identification sources on the Internet with the best possibly being Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website ( It provides pictures of the birds, along with information on size, habitat, and natural range, along with the calls the birds make in many cases.

If the feeder is close enough and you have a camera, let them take pictures. If they get birds in flight or doing something unexpected it can add to the fun.

Those with art skills might want to do drawings of the various species.

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