Bird Notes from West Houston

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Birdfeeding Tips - Squirrels

Squirrels. There are basically three attitudes people have about squirrels. They love them. They hate them. They say they hate them, but when it comes down to it, they don't mind them all that much. Whatever your attitude about squirrels is, you probably see them at your feeders if you live in a wooded habitat. When the squirrels are on the feeder, no birds are. So what can you do?

There are several ways to keep the squirrels off your feeders. The easiest way is to baffle your feeders. For any baffle to be effective, there needs to be an eight foot radius (sixteen foot diameter) around your feeders from which there is nothing a squirrel can jump sideways. Those things include your house, fence, trees, picnic table, patio furniture, birdbaths, bushes, etc., etc., etc. The average squirrel can jump 6 1/2 to 7 1/2 feet horizontally and four feet vertically. If you have the spacing, use a baffle. There are many varieties of baffles for both pole-mounted feeders and hanging feeders. The top of the baffle on pole-mounted feeders or the bottom of the feeders if the feeders are hung needs to be 4 1/2 feet off the ground to prevent squirrels from jumping from the ground and getting around the baffle.

If you do not have the spacing to baffle your feeders, don't give up hope! There are other options. One would be going with a squirrel-resistant feeder. There are many models on the market and some are more effective than others. The best one I know of is the Wild Birds Unlimited Eliminator. If it is hung at least 16 inches from a pole or tree, it has been the most effective feeder at keeping squirrels out. If you want some entertainment while befuddling the squirrels, you might consider The Yankee Flipper. The Flipper has a motorized perch that spins when the squirrel puts his weight on it. It can be hilarious to watch!

If you cannot baffle and do not like the squirrel-resistant feeders, there is always safflower. Safflower is a very nutritious seed for birds and is liked by cardinals, House Finches, chickadees, titmice, doves and others. Squirrels do not like the taste of safflower. Probably 90% of squirrels will leave it alone, especially if a squirrel feeder is provided for them. There have been those squirrels that seem to develop a taste for safflower, though.

Some people use capsicum powder to keep the squirrels out. While it may work, I cannot recommend it. The first reason is I've heard people say that their squirrels develop a taste for it eventually. The second reason is there is some debate on the effect of capsicum on the digestive system of birds. It has not been proven safe for birds. Thirdly, I am concerned about the powder being blown into the eyes of birds at the feeder by another bird flying in which would cause considerable irritation. Lastly, I knew a lady who put it in her seed and inhaled some of the dust even though she was wearing a mask. She spent nearly two weeks in the hospital with pneumonia brought on by breathing the dust. Even though capsicum might be effective, I would strongly caution anyone against using it.

Squirrels are interesting animals to watch. Their intelligence and creativity in figuring out how to get to feeders is astonishing sometimes. While they can be a nuisance sometimes, they are very interesting animals to have in your yard. Watch their behavior and enjoy their antics!

- Paul

Species Profile - Northern Cardinal

During the spring migration, excitement builds among birders because of the anticipation of seeing the brightly colored migrants such as the warblers, tanagers, vireos, orioles, buntings and grosbeaks. The colors of the birds are sometimes breathtaking. The migrants come and then the migrants go. Fortunately we have the Northern Cardinal to brighten our bird landscape when the others have moved on.

The Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis is one of the most popular feeder birds in the Houston area. People brighten up when talking about "their" cardinals. Those who move to new neighborhoods without appropriate cardinal habitat lament the absence of cardinals from their feeders. The Northern Cardinal (called "Northern" because there are other species of cardinals further south) is so popular that it has been named the state bird of seven states! That is more than any other bird.

The cardinal is 8 3/4 inches long with a wingspan of 12 inches. The male cardinal is brilliant red all over except for a black face. He sports a handsome red crest and a large, conical-shaped red bill. The female is mostly a warm brown with red highlights in her wings, crest and tail. She sports a bright orange bill. Juvenile cardinals look much the same as the female with less red, a black bill and lack the black face of the adults.

Cardinals begin establishing nesting territory in the late winter. There may have been a large flock of cardinals in backyards throughout the winter, but that will be reduced to a pair in the spring. Male cardinals aggressively defend their territory from intruders. They are known to attack their own reflections in windows and car mirrors. Occasionally females will be as aggressive with other female cardinals or her reflection. The male will begin courting the female after establishing his territory. He will sing softly to her and keep in constant contact with her through calls. Those with feeders have no doubt seen the male cardinal crack a sunflower seed and feed it to the female.

The female builds the nest from two to twelve feet, usually four to five feet, in thick shrubs, trees, vines or hedges. The nest is a loosely woven cup made of grasses, weeds, vines, leaves and small twigs. Anywhere from two to five eggs are laid, usually three. The eggs are off-white to bluish with dark brown splotches. The female incubates the eggs for twelve to thirteen days. When the young hatch, they are altricial. The female broods them constantly for the first two days. The young are in the nest from nine to ten days. When the young leave the nest, both parents bring them food unless the female is starting a second brood in which case the young are fed by the male. The young are under the parents' care for three to four weeks after leaving the nest.

At feeders, cardinals love to eat oil sunflower. They also eat safflower, striped sunflower, shelled peanuts, sunflower hearts and occasionally suet. Their favorite feeders are ones that are flat, open and stable. Tray feeders and tube feeders with trays are some of the favorites. Quite often, cardinals are the first birds seen at the feeders in the morning and last ones to be seen in the evening. Cardinals often give a short, metallic chip call at the feeders.

My favorite cardinal story is from a winter morning in my yard in Mansfield, TX. The leaves were off the mesquite trees giving no cover for the male cardinal that frequented my feeders. Suddenly, a Cooper's Hawk flew into the yard. The cardinal flew to the nearest tree and stayed as still as possible. The bright red plumage stood out brilliantly against the bland landscape. The Cooper's Hawk was 25 feet away keeping an eye on the situation. The cardinal did not move a muscle. After ten minutes, the hawk flew away. The cardinal remained motionless for two more minutes before moving his head to make sure the danger had passed. Then he flew to the feeder and resumed his breakfast, no doubt telling all his friends of the great hiding job he had done when the Cooper's Hawk flew into the yard!

- Paul

Great Backyard Bird Count Results

The tallies are not all in, but Texas is making a great showing in the GBBC again this year. As of Feb. 22, Texans had reported 337 species and 435,584 individual birds - good enough to put Texas in first place in each category. Texas is fifth on the total checklists submitted behind New York, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Virginia.

The Houston area is making a good showing as well. So far, Houstonians have reported 129 species from 112 checklists.

If you have not submitted your checklists, you have until Feb. 24 to do so.

Monitor the results of the GBBC at

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Great Backyard Bird Count

The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) is this weekend, February 17 - 20. The GBBC is a way that you can help scientist study bird populations throughout the United States. Since labs cannot have scientists everywhere, your help is needed to study any fluctations in bird populations. It is easy to participate. Simply count the birds in your yard, your favorite park or wherever you watch birds for at least 15 minutes (30 minutes is recommended). Then you send your daily count (send in separate counts for each day and each location) to The 2005 numbers are as follows:

U.S. checklists submitted: 52,265
U.S. total species observed: 612
U.S. total individual birds observed: 6,546,606
Texas checklists submitted: 376
Texas individual birds observed: 544,009
Houston checklists submitted: 79 (surely we can improve on that!)
Houston species observed: 106

There is a specific way to count the birds to make sure you count each individual bird only once. If you're watching your feeders and see two Blue Jays at a time, you would mark "2" on your tally list. Later you see four Blue Jays at a time, you mark "4" on your tally list. Later on you see three Blue Jays at a time, you mark "3" on your tally list. The number you would enter would be four because that is the highest number you saw at any given time.

Species Observed Number Seen Reported Count
Blue Jay 2, 4, 3 4

Do not add your counts together (you would not enter "9" as the number you saw). This way you know that you are not counting the same individual more than once. This is on the website to remind you as well.

The GBBC is an excellent way to involve you children in birding. My children enjoy participating with me each year. It's a wonderful way to introduce kids to birding and give them a purpose to participate.

Log onto the website and see the results from years past. It is interesting to see how bird populations fluctuate from year to year. It is interesting to notice irruptive years among some species. Join in with hundreds of others this year and submit your sightings this weekend. Good birding!