Hummers and Orioles

Non Birding Bill and I headed out to my favorite birding spot--Mr. Neil's yard for some hang out time and a bee check.  Since my travel schedule gets insane in spring Hans has taken over keeping the feeders full as he's taking care of the yard.  He does a great job, but sometimes the nectar and oriole feeders empty too fast for him to keep up.  When I was walking around the feeders, a ruby-throated hummingbird flew up to my head, buzzed around then flew away.  I went to the nectar feeder (we use the HummZinger)--empty.  I made some nectar and less then a minute from stepping away a hummingbird flew down.  I love how hummingbirds figure out how to get our attention when a food source is depleted.  I've known hummingbirds to flutter in front of windows when a feeder is empty too.  Heck, Lorraine said they had a hummer in the house last week...maybe the feeder was empty then?

Mr. Neil's cherry tree is bursting with cherries once again and unlike last year, NBB and I managed to get out and pick some cherries before the birds raided the tart fruit.  I noticed the orioles were going for the fruit and I refilled our grape jelly feeder.  Orioles tend to ignore the jelly feeder in June when bugs were out, but I figured if they were eating cherries, they would eat grape jelly.  I filled one cup with jelly and the other cup with cherries from the tree.  As soon as I put the feeder out, the oriole went from the cherries down to our feeder...and totally ignored the cherry dish and went right for the grape jelly.  The best part was that he flew off and a few moments later returned with a female.

She also chose the grape jelly over the cherries.  That's fine, more cherries for us!  I was glad to see the orioles, I've been so preoccupied with surveys and work that I did not get a chance to really enjoy orioles at the feeder in May.  Incidentally, we took our portion of the cherries (still leaving an ample supply for the birds on the upper parts of the cherry tree) and made a tart cherry crumble.  Many people know Mr. Neil for his writing and general Neilness but he has mad skillz in the kitchen, I've learned some of my best cooking from him.

Birds of Snowpocalypse

For those like my mother who lives in Indianapolis (who are getting Rainmageddon) and cannot experience the white Christmas we are enjoying in the Twin Cities, I thought I'd put out my Wingscapes cam to get some photos of birds and the falling snow. I forgot that I had it set to take video, so here is a cardinal in the snow:

I love the crow who seems to be on cue giving periodic two caws for ambient noise. Love the little dome over the tray to keep the seeds dry and uncovered.
Happy Holidays to everyone--however you celebrate it.
Thank you so much for taking the time to visit my blog throughout the year and a special thank you to everyone who sends to that read, "I've never really noticed birds before reading your blog, but..." and then you send me your bird story. That's what makes sharing my bird stuff so fun.

Growing Nyjer Thistle In North America

Last Saturday was the Minnesota Ornithologists' Union Paper Session (a boring term for annual gathering). One of the presentations was from John and Lisa Loegering about attempts to produce Nyjer in North America.


Let's get some basics down about this seed first, on the off chance that someone reading this doesn't know about the tiny seed for finches. Above is a picture of Nyjer also known as Niger and Thistle. Most of what you purchase for goldfinches at your local feed store comes from Singapore, Burma (I remember seeing that location frequently when I got in 50# bags at the bird store I managed), Ethiopia, and Myanmar. This is not a seed grown in North America. It is in no way related to the noxious weed thistle. It was originally called Niger but frequently got mispronounced as a racial slur. So many retailers referred to it as thistle. Since some got confused that it might be seeds of the noxious weed thistle, some cities tried to ban its sale. The Wild Bird Feeding Industry has pushed for the name to be changed to a phonetic spelling: Nyjer.

Confused yet? Basically at bird stores: Nyjer = Niger = Thistle, it is all the same seed. It's that tiny seed you put out for finches, siskins and redpolls and it's not grown in North America--one of the reasons it's one of the more expensive seeds.

According to the Loegerings, attempts have been made to grow a type of Nyjer in North America. A Niger Growers Group was even formed. By 2002, a plant had been developed and seeds were produced...and no bird would touch it. The group contacted the Loegerings and asked them to figure out why birds wouldn't eat the seeds. They set up 15 different feeding stations with the North American Nyjer in one feeder and Ethiopian Nyjer in the second. They measured the amount of seed put in the feeder, the amount the birds ate, the type of birds and the flock composition. The most common birds coming to the feeding stations were goldfinches and redpolls. Sure enough, if the birds had their choice, they ate the Ethiopian Nyjer more than the North American Nyjer.

thistle nyjer niger.jpg

Loegering wondered what was different. One of the first things that came to mind was that Ethiopian Nyjer is supposed to be heat treated to prevent it from germinating in North American soil (we all know how successful that is...not). So he got the directions for the exact process and heat treated the North American Nyjer and restarted the experiment. This time, the finches ate both types of Nyjer at the same rate. Now why would they prefer the heat treated seed? Does the heat remove the moisture to make the shell easier to crack? Does it make for a better tasting seed? Does it look different in the UV color spectrum? We don't know.

Now, this does not mean you will be finding locally grown Nyjer anytime soon. The Nyjer Growers Group has since disbanded. Part of the reason is that there is no farm equipment available to separate the tiny seeds from the chaff. Nyjer is all hand harvested overseas, think about that when you are pouring it into your feeder--that is a hand harvested seed. Kind of makes you wonder about the age of the harvesters and if they are paid a fair wage for harvesting that bird seed. Between that and tariffs, you can understand why it's an expensive feed to put out. The other reason was that when corn prices went crazy on all the ethanol speculation, many farmers gave up trying to grow bird food like Nyjer or sunflower (it's costly since you have to protect from the very creatures it is being grown for) in favor of growing corn. They also gave up some of their CRP land, so birds got a raw deal from bird can live in a corn field.

And now a few words from one of my site's sponsors:

Hey! While we're talking Nyjer and finches, you might need one and some are available at the Birdchick's OpenSky Store. One that is pictured quite a bit in my blog and used by thousands of finches is the Finch Flocker (a 36" feeder). There's also the Droll Yankee Clever Clean Series for finches too.

Remember that 20% of the profits of my store are donated to the ABA's kids programs.

Favorite Holiday Recipe

A friend and fellow blogger called Makeover Momma (wonder if I should have a bird makeover in the blog some day) asked for submissions for our favorite Holiday Recipes!  I think she was hoping for fudge and cookies and gingerbread, but of course, mine is a bird food recipe.  It's one many birders may be familiar with but the recipe always bears repeating.  It's the suet dough recipe that I learned from my favorite bird blogger, Julie Zickefoose.  I have adjusted the recipe a bit for the birds in my area and feel free to make adjustments as you see it.  The original recipe can be found at the Bird Watchers Digest site.

  • 1 cup melted lard or beef suet
  • 1 cup peanut butter
  • 2 cups quick oats
  • 2 cups yellow cornmeal
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • half cup sunflower hearts (unsalted)
  • half cup crushed pecans (unsalted)
  • half cup peanuts (unsalted)

Melt lard and peanut butter together on a low burner. Take off heat, and add remaining ingredients. Spread on a cookie sheet, and allow to cool in the refrigerator until the mixture is just hard enough to cut into pieces. Store in freezer bags and use as needed.

This is a great suet dough to spread into suet logs, spread on the sides of trees, use in the suet sandwich, a tray feeder or offer on a deck rail and dish like Julie does.

Remember, if you purchase items at my Birdchick's OpenSky Store 20% of the profits are donated to the American Birding Association's birding programs for kids. So you're not only getting products that I personally recommend and own (or have given to family and friends), your support helps grow cool birding opportunities for young birders.

The Crow: A Reappraisal

NBB's Guide to the Bird You Saw: Crows

Okay, so hopefully you've gotten the identification of Sparrow down pat. If not, there's no hope for you, and you're destined to lead a lonely, sheltered life, fearing the companionship of your fellow man. Which, ironically, makes you a perfect candidate to be a bird watcher. But I kid the birders.

Let us now move briskly on to the other type of bird you just saw, the Crow. In contrast to the Sparrow, which is vile, corrupt mockery of all that is righteous in the world but which is extremely popular—the Internet Explorer 6 of birds, if you will—the Crow is, in fact, a fairly awesome bird which people hate. People hate Crows so much you'd think they horked in the back of their car, or had a reality show.

This is not an unreasonable reaction. Crows have several things working against them, the first being is that while Crows are cool, they know it. Crows don't walk, they strut, making sure that you notice them without acting like they're making sure you notice them. I don't think that anyone would disagree that Crows have what Vice-Principals the world over would describe as "an attitude problem," before adding "Mister" with a very significant period at the end, because Crows are basically the teenagers of the bird world. You'll often find them hanging around behind feeders, sneaking a smoke. Chase them off and they'll simply fly off—slooooowly—to the nearest tree, glaring at you without looking like they're glaring at you. You can almost hear them mutter "bogus," and "whut-evah, grand-dad."


Yeah, I'll get right on that. Watch me go. Zoom.

I can hear my wife cringing from across town as I write this, because she can't stand anthropomorphization of animals. But it doesn't really apply to Crows, because I feel they are so very human, which is, again, part of the reason why people don't like them. They're cooperative, family-based, and part of the reason they've been so successful is that they've adapted to humanity, eating the roadkill (created by us) and garbage (likewise).

So, it can be easy to hate on Crows, but nonetheless I urge you take another look at them: I honestly really like them. Crows can be a lot of fun to watch, provided they don't know you're watching them: they play pass-the-stick and have this weird cartwheeling game they play in the park in the winter. And winter is the best time to watch crows, because that's when they lose some of their smugness and are, like the rest of us, just trying to get from A to B. Their strut becomes a trudge as they try to make their way through the snow, and they'll hang in the trees, wrapped in their feathers like trench coats. They hang out at my bus stop, probaby waiting for the cross-town to take them to the U. campus, where they are no-doubt studying Russian Formalism and smoking hand-rolled cigarettes. And as we stand there, both freezing our butts off, they'll shake off the snow with a shudder as if to say "this weather is b.s."

Yes, yes it is.

Sharon tells me that the Crows we have around our house are notoriously hard to take pictures of (again, like teenagers), so your best bet is try try and snap a picture with a motion-sensitive camera like the  Wingscapes Birdcam. Both items are available at the Birdchick’s OpenSky Store, and 20% of the profits are donated to the ABA’s kids programs.

As an added bonus, if you enter the coupon code Sharon1009, you’ll get an additional 10% off your OpenSky order.