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Observing Bird Behaviors at Feeders (What Time is it in Nature)

November 28, 2015

We have a bird feeding station at Prairie Ridge just down the hill from the Outdoor Classroom that we keep stocked year round.  It’s a great place to watch birds and many people come to Prairie Ridge specifically to count, watch, and/or document the birds visiting the grounds.  If you find yourself with some time one day, try finding a place near the bird feeders and stand very still.  After the birds get used to your being there, you’re likely to start seeing some interesting interactions!

While all the feeders attract birds of various types, the peanut feeder is my favorite one to watch.  Peanuts are full of proteins and fats and are very popular with the birds at Prairie Ridge.  Some birds probably wouldn’t visit the feeders at all if it weren’t for the peanuts!  Watch long enough and you’ll start to see some interesting patterns among the species that visit.

Some birds like to hop onto the Prairie Ridge peanut feeder and stay in place until a more aggressive bird chases them off.  The House Finches are a great example of this:

House Finch

House Finch. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Both male and female House Finches will feed at the peanut feeder, though the males tend to leave when the females come in to eat.  Both sexes of finches cling to the feeder wire with their feet and use their heavy, thick beaks to pick apart the nuts.  They rarely get a whole nut meat out of the feeder and instead take small bites through the wire.  You’re also likely to see multiple House Finches at the feeder at one time, something you won’t see many other bird species do at our feeder.

House Finches generally stay on the peanut feeder for several minutes, but they are often chased away by other birds.  For example, they’ll almost always give way to the non-native European Starlings:

European starling

European Starling. Photo by Chris Goforth.

I rarely see more than two European Starlings at the peanut feeder at a time, but you may see many more on the ground under the feeder.  Starlings have long, thin beaks and can pick larger peanut pieces out of the feeder than the House Finches, but they are fairly messy eaters.  They drop lots of peanut pieces on the ground, where other Starlings are often waiting to take advantage of them.  While you may not see many Starlings on the feeder at one time, they form very large groups.  They are also aggressive and will actively chase away most other birds at the feeding station.  This aggressions makes them unpopular with a lot of bird watchers, especially because they’re not native to the US.

House Finches and Starlings tend to sit at the feeder and eat as many peanuts as they can.  Many other birds grab a peanut and immediately fly away to eat it elsewhere.  The Tufted Titmouse is one great example:

Tufted Titmouse

Tufted Titmouse. Photo by Chris Goforth.

These birds are easily chased away by most of the other birds that make use of the peanut feeder.  You’ll often spot them hopping around in the Viburnum bush behind the feeding station, waiting for an opening before they swoop in, grab a peanut through the wire, and fly off to a tree nearby to break it apart and eat it.  It may go back for another peanut as soon as it finishes, but it won’t sit on the feeder and gorge itself the way some of the other peanut feeder visitors will.

Most birds, including the Starlings, will fly away from the feeder if a Red-bellied Woodpecker arrives:

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker. Photo by Chris Goforth.

These woodpeckers are relatively large, but like the Tufted Titmouse, they’ll take just one peanut at a time and then fly off to a tree to eat it.  They land high in the trees and take their time going back for seconds, thirds, fourths, or more.  The time between feeder visits is relatively high as well, but you can tell when a Red-bellied Woodpecker in inbound!  All of the other birds on the feeder scatter and the woodpecker will land on the feeder moments later.

Winter is a great time to see birds at the Prairie Ridge bird feeders.  We keep them stocked through the winter months, so they attract many species of birds and are heavily visited.  Consider a visit soon and see which birds – and which fascinating behaviors – you can see at our feeders!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Museum’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge EcostationFind out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive.

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