Providing Shelter Near the Feeder to bring in more birds


By Benjamin P. Burtt

TOPIC: Increasing the number of birds at your Feeder by providing shelter

This column contains all the material that was published in the Post Standard in Syracuse on the above date PLUS lots of additional information about the role of shelter in helping make your yard attractive to birds.

When you are finished with your Christmas tree, don't throw it away, but save it for the birds. Collect a few more from neighbors and use three or four to make a shelter near your feeder as described below.

Shelter is important for birds in winter. Feeders that have shelter nearby attract more birds than a feeder in the open.

A thicket of dense shrubbery about six feet from the feeder would provide a resting spot out of the cold wind. It would also provide a spot where they can hide from hawks. Birds are reluctant to visit a feeder that is out in the open.

If you do not have such natural protection near your feeder, plan to do something about it next spring. Planting evergreens in a cluster is one simple idea. Bushes and shrubs that form a thick or dense cluster of branches can help too, even though the leaves drop off in the fall.

In the meantime you can make an artificial shelter. Discarded Christmas trees work nicely. Tie several together at the top to make a tepee-like structure as in Sketch A. below. Add some other evergreen boughs if the cluster is not dense enough.

CAPTION: To provide extra shelter near your regular feeder, tie three or four Christmas trees together (A). Food can also be scattered on the ground underneath. Sketch B is a cat-proof enclosure where seed can be put if cats are a problem. Birds can go in and out, but cats can not. Sketch C is a wind-proof, cat-proof feeding area covered with evergreens. Sketch D is the frame for a hillside shelter that is covered with evergreen boughs so that birds can feed on the ground without the seed becoming covered with snow.

Put the tepee between 6 and 10 feet from the feeder. If it is farther away, birds will still be a bit timid about using the nearby feeder. If it is closer to the feeder, cats may hide beneath the branches and pounce on birds feeding on spilled seed below the feeder.

Such a shelter is especially important to wild birds because it provides protection when they are frightened. Sometimes it is a hawk or a noise or sudden movement that startles them. They stop feeding and dive into the nearby shelter until the coast is clear.

The Christmas trees could also be tied to a tree trunk, a clothes pole, a trellis or to lawn furniture or a backyard picnic table. If you have a feeder on your deck, the railing there is another place to put your shelter.

Protection from the wind

Next to food, adequate shelter is important in helping birds survive the cold weather. The heat produced by the food must be at least as great as the heat lost to the surroundings.

Normally, there is a layer of warm air near the birds body. When the wind blows this away, more heat must be provided by the bird. In weather terminology this is referred to as "wind chill".

When the bird can perch in an evergreen and out of the wind, the food it has eaten will go farther in providing warmth.

Shelter during the night

Birds must find shelter at night. In Central New York, they have a period of about 15 hours when it is too dark to find food. This means they only have 9 hours in which to find food to see them through. If there is proper shelter, they can make it.

Chickadees, wrens and woodpeckers often roost out of the wind in natural holes in trees or in nest boxes. Other species must seek cover where they can find it. Dense evergreens in a sheltered spot meet their needs.

Building a Tree

Instead of tying a few evergreens together, a wooden frame can be used to which many Christmas trees can be fastened with rope or wire.

When my house was new and before my shrubs and trees were grown, I constructed a shelter of this sort that was about 10 feet high and about eight feet in diameter. Through the winter, it looked like an evergreen tree and the birds didn't know the difference. It was placed in a spot sheltered by the house and about 10 feet from my big feeder. Many birds roost there and some nests are put there in the summer.

I have since planted a hemlock in its place. Each year while the hemlock was small, I carefully constructed this "tree" over the area until the hemlock grew up enough to do the job without my help. Some pruning may need to be done so that there will be more little side branches to fill in the gaps.

Feeding Birds on the Ground

If cats are not a problem, you can scatter food on the ground beneath the tepee. If there are cats, then the birds that feed beneath the shelter will need some protection. For this you can construct a box-like structure as in sketch B above. The 2 x 4 inch wire mesh keeps out cats, but birds up to the size of a jay can go in and out of the wire fabric enclosure to eat.

If you wish to put seed on the ground in the open, such a cage
can be put up against the lee side of an evergreen shrub and the top and two sides covered by evergreen branches. The structure can be put in the open and covered on all sides but one, (see sketch C above ). This keeps the wind off and cats cannot pounce on a bird feeding there.

Another way to feed birds on the ground without having the seed covered by snow is to make a lean-to and put the seed under that. Make it from long poles covered with brush and evergreens ( see sketch D above). This will be open on three sides, but if it faces away from the prevailing wind, many birds will be able use it. This lean-to protects the seed from the snow and gives some protection from the wind.

Making a Brush Pile

You may also wish to construct a brush pile for the winter. If you plan ahead during the warmer parts of the year, when you are trimming, save the large branches and cuttings for a winter brush pile.

This pile can be permanent if you have lots of space and don't mind the appearance of it, or it can be just for the winter. Whenever it is there it will help bring more birds to your yard.

A brush pile can be just a heap of brush, but it will be of value to other animals as well if you construct a substantial foundation. There should be a number of tunnels through this pile at the ground level. This allows places for creatures to hide and gain shelter from the weather extremes.

Lay four logs six feet long and four to eight inches in diameter on the ground to form the first layer. Then place four more logs of the same kind at right angles and on top of the ones resting on the ground. Then pile large limbs on top and eventually smaller and smaller branches further up.

The branches should be crisscrossed so that there are plenty of open spaces in between where birds can perch. Lay some evergreen cuttings on top to make a roof. This will provide a relatively dry and safe retreat where the birds can rest in the daytime or roost at night.

An alternative foundation can be constructed from large rocks that are placed on the ground with some space around each rock. You can lay limbs over this foundation. Again, tunnels and crevices and places for the animals to hide will become available. Place another layer of smaller limbs on top the the logs, but at right angles. The pile should be several feet high. Birds will roost in the upper parts of this and go there to rest during the day or when they spot a hawk.

If you do collect a number of Christmas trees, you can lay them on the foundation as well, or cut the branches to lay on the top.

Linda Quackenbush of Waterloo usually reports a very long list of species on the feeder survey. In October she tallied 44 and 34 in November. How does she do it? For one thing, she does have thick shrubbery, evergreens and brush piles. There are lots of trees along the edges of her property.

So, think about how you can provide more shelter for the birds in your yard. Try some of these ideas, and more birds will come there to add to your pleasure.

NOTICE: The January Feeder Survey starts next Sunday, January 2.

Results of the November Feeder Survey


By Benjamin P. Burtt

TOPIC: The Results of the November Feeder Survey.

A shorter version of this column appeared in the Post Standard in Syracuse on the above date.
However the version here contains additional details on the birds seen at feeders throughout Central New York. Learn what birds appear at most feeders, which species have above normal numbers, which species are scarce, find out if birds from the north are coming south in normal numbers. There is a complete list of the species seen as well as the numbers of each species per 100 reports.

The November Feeder Survey Results

Readers counted the birds in their yard several times each day during the first week of November. At the end of the week, they sent me a list showing for each species the largest number they saw at any one time during that week.

Most people listed about 14 species. There were 69 species reported on the combined lists. We tallied 88 in October, but many have migrated since then.

Here are the species on the typical report. Did you have these? The list below shows the species and the percentage of the reports that included that species.

chickadee 97%
blue jay 94%
goldfinch 91%
mourning dove 90%
junco 88%
crow 87%
downy woodpecker 86%
white-breasted nuthatch 86%
cardinal 74%
tufted titmouse 64%
house finch 62%

Species with above normal numbers

This November survey showed that the goldfinch with 1284 on 100 reports was more abundant at feeders than any other bird. It was the most abundant bird in October too. This was also the largest tally for goldfinches for any count in the 45 years that data has been collected.

The count of pine siskins was above normal for a November Feeder Survey. The pine siskin is a bird that normally breeds in the coniferous forests of southern Canada and northern U.S. Some nest in the Adirondacks and at other high elevations in New York State.

Some winters it moves southward. The tally for the November survey suggests that they may become quite abundant by mid-winter. They are attracted by niger seed and sunflower seed. So watch for them.

CAPTION: Pine siskins were being seen in above average numbers in the November survey. This small finch from the north is a about the size of a goldfinch and is heavily streaked. Its field marks are a deeply notched tail and a touch of yellow in the wings and at the base of the tail. This painting is from Peterson’s “Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America”, (Courtesy of the Houghton Mifflin Co. )

Mourning doves were seen in quite large numbers. In fact it has been 7 years since this many were listed.

This was the highest November count of red-bellied woodpeckers since they first began to show up on the feeder survey in Central New York in 1959. It has been 20 years since so many downy woodpeckers have been reported.

Below normal numbers

Several species were tallied in lower than normal numbers for this time of the year. Few bluebirds were listed and hardly anybody saw cedar waxwings. Others with lower than normal numbers were white-crowned sparrow, red-winged blackbird, house finch, redpoll and evening grosbeak.

What has happened to the cedar waxwing? It seldom comes to feeders, but flocks move about feeding on berries where they can find them. In the first week of November, only three people listed waxwings and the total was only 34. The waxwing has never been as low in the 45 years of the feeder survey. This is the second year in a row that their numbers have been way down.

The numbers of red-winged blackbirds was down. Only two people listed redpolls. Evening grosbeaks were seen by only 3 people. It doesn’t appear to be a year for northern finches to migrate down from Canada.

Seasonal trends

Tree sparrows have begun to appear from the north as they usually do in November. The numbers have not been this high in November since 1995. Are there more of them or are they early? The big influx usually comes in December.

Dark-eyed juncos were migrating down from the north on schedule with many more seen than in October.

Rare Birds

Some species were seen by only one person. Two mockingbirds were in Marcellus at Lawrence Abrahamsons. Janet Allen had a catbird in Syracuse. At Malone, Pete Biesemeyer had a gray jay. A merlin spent some time one day at Bill Burch’s in Skaneateles. The only turkey vulture was seen at Whitney Point by Steve and Dorothy Hanzlik.

A great horned owl was tallied by Linda Quackenbush at Waterloo. Paul Radway had a northern shrike in Pompey. The only one to see a red-headed woodpecker was Linda Sherman of Georgetown. Ken Zoller of West Winfield was they only person to list black duck, wood duck, greater yellowlegs, kingfisher and winter wren.

The shortest lists

Remember every list is important regardless of how few birds are seen around the yard. Mrs. Norma Griffin’s 4th Grade Class in the New Haven Elementary School has a feeder just outside and they participate each season. In November they had a 21 goldfinches in sight at once. They also had 7 mourning doves.

Joe Burgdorf at Hannibal listed 7 species. In Jamesville, Morgan Cooper tallied 8. Reporting 9 species was David Ferro of Auburn and Cynthia Wallace of Elbridge. Three people had 10 species. They were Eugenia Fish in Cortland, Dennis and Merry Gantley of Fulton and David and Kathleen Zakri of Liverpool.

Tallying 11 were Janet Allen and David Bigsby both of Syracuse, Mary Berkman of Camillus, Elizabeth Kelly of Hogansburg, Elaine Lyon of Cortland and Phyllis and David Smith of Dryden.

The longest lists

The longest list with 34 species was turned in by Linda Quackenbush of Waterloo. In Pompey, Paul Radway talled 32. Linda Sherman reported 30 in Georgetown. Ken Zoller had 28 in West Winfield. Listing 27 were Dorothy and Steve Hanzlik of Whitney Point and Kathy and Scott Trefz of Perryville.


Here is a list of all species reported. The first figure is the number of birds spotted by 100 observers. The number in parentheses is the number of reports out of 100 that listed the species. If you divide the number of birds by the number of reports, you get the average number per observer. You may wish to compare this with your own tally for that species.

Great blue heron 6(5); turkey vulture 1 (1); blue goose 8 (1); snow goose 1200(2); Canada goose 5,268 (44).

Ducks: wood 5 (1); black 6 (1); mallard 47 (8); common merganser 1 (1).

Hawks: harrier 3 (3); sharp-shined 7 (7); Cooper’s 7 (7); goshawk 2 (2); red-tailed 29 (26); kestrel 3 (3); merlin 1 (1); pheasant 6 (5); ruffed grouse 4(3); turkey 86 (8); greater yellowlegs 1 (1).

Gulls: ring-billed 135 (17); herring gull 383 (5); rock dove 284 (19); mourning dove 628 (90).

Owls: screech 2 (2); horned 3 (2); kingfisher 1 (1).

Woodpeckers: red-headed 1 (1); red-bellied 42 (36); downy 160 (86); hairy 75 (52); flicker 7 (6); pileated 3 (3).

Gray jay 1 (1); blue jay 351 (94); crow 1,394 (87); raven 11 (4); chickadee 493 (97); titmouse 152 (64); red-breasted nuthatch 48 (36); white-breasted nuthatch 133 (86); creeper 3 (2); Carolina wren 4 (4); winter wren 1 (1).

Golden-crowned kinglet 3 (2); bluebird 5 (2); robin 155 (33); catbird 1 (1); mockingbird 2 (1); cedar waxwing 34 (3); northern shrike 1 (1); starling 2,780 (35);

Sparrows: tree 65 (25); chipping 4 (3); field 4 (2); fox 12 (7); song 11 (7); white-throated 51 (29); white-crowned 7 (4); junco 407 (88).

Cardinal 154 (74); red winged blackbird 18 (4); grackle 28 (16); cowbird 45 (6); purple finch 25 (14); house finch 160 (62); redpoll 2 (2); siskin 49 (17); goldfinch 1,286 (91); evening grosbeak 4 (3); house sparrow 713 (48).