Archive for the ‘Birds’ Category

It’s been pouring rain here in Utah the past three days. Yesterday was no exception. As the kids and I were driving to a dance performance for the girls I saw some birds flying up from the road just ahead of us. I looked more closely and saw a very small bird, just hopping in the middle of the road and not flying. "What in the world?!" I said. "What is that tiny bird?" I stopped the car and we got out.

Lo and behold–the bird was a tiny baby House Finch, a fledgling, big enough to leave the nest but not capable of flying yet. It was SO CUTE. And we knew that he/she was right in the path of oncoming traffic and the next car that came along would kill him. I had learned a couple of years ago that the whole "don’t touch baby birds because their parents will smell humans and abandon them" thing is a MYTH. Birds don’t have a very good sense of smell–they rely mainly on sight and hearing. (See this excellent article and video for good instructions of what to do if you find a baby bird.)

I also knew that a bird with most of his "baby fluff" gone and his regular, "adult" feathers grown in had likely left the nest on purpose and just needed to be left alone…but out of the road, of course! We could hear his very worried parents in the tree nearby.

So I told Ciara to gently pick up the baby and carry him to the sidewalk. She bent down and cupped her hands around the baby, and he climbed right into her hands. The look on her face as she carried him to the sidewalk was one I’ll never forget. As she put the baby down carefully near the grass and away from the road, she said, "This is the best day of my life."

baby house finch

We were so glad we had come along right then because as Ciara was walking to the sidewalk to put him down, a car came along right where he’d been. The baby would’ve died if we were five minutes later leaving our house.

The kids went back later to check on him and make sure he wasn’t back in the road. There was no sign of him, and we hope that his parents (rather than a cat or something!) took him to a safe place where he can spend his next few weeks learning to find food on the ground and growing more feathers and developing his muscles until he can safely fly away.


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Back in December, the kids and I made bird feeders.  It was very easy, very fast, and lots of fun! 

Here’s how we did it.

You will need:

2-liter soda bottles (1 per feeder)

dowels or sticks (I think our dowels were 3/8 inch size)

drill and drill bits

something to cut dowels or sticks with

a ruler to measure length of sticks/dowels

bird seed


wire strong enough for hanging a full bottle

a tree, post, or peg to hang the feeder from


1.  Wash the soda bottle thoroughly and dry well.

2.  Decide which way the bottle will hang—right-side-up or upside-down.  (We did ours upside-down, but the next ones will be right-side-up.)  Drill 4 holes a couple of inches from the bottom.  Put two of them across from each other, and the other two on the opposite sides, a little above or below the first holes.  This is to make a cross-shaped set with two dowels poking out on 4 sides of the bottle.  (This makes 4 perches for birds, but if you just want 2 perches, drill 2 holes and just use one dowel.)


3.  Measure and cut two 8 or 9-inch pieces of dowel and push them through the holes.  They should stick out 2-3 inches from the bottle.  If you make them too long, bigger birds like European Starlings (which are real pests for many people) will be able to perch and eat all your seeds in a day or less). 

4.  Drill 4 more holes 1-2 inches above each dowel hole.  This is where the birds will stick their beaks in to get seeds.  (We actually did 2 sets of feeder holes; one for smaller birds and one for taller birds.)

5.  Drill two smaller holes near the top of the bottle, across from each other.  These will hold your wire.

6.  Cut a long piece of wire and thread it through the small holes, bringing the ends up so it looks like a “U” shape. 

7.  Drill a small hole or two in the lid (or bottom of the bottle if making a right-side-up feeder).  This hole will help drain the moisture that collects inside the bottle.  (We didn’t do this for our first feeders and are regretting it, so that’s why our next ones will be right-side-up…drilling small holes in the bottom will be easier and drain better than drilling holes in the lid.)

8.  Unscrew the lid and fill with birdseed using the funnel.  Do this in an area that’s easy to clean (or even outside…ground-feeding birds like sparrows and quail will thank you for the spilled seed).  Some of the seeds will spill out the holes, but not much.  Screw the lid back on.


9.  Take the feeder outside and hang from a branch or post.  (I’ve heard there are wall-mount things you can buy to mount it from your house, as well.)  You can either make a loop of wire and hang it on a nicely slanted branch, or if you only have straight branches, put the wire around a branch and twist the ends together several times.  Make sure the wire ends are tucked under the branch where bird feet won’t catch on them.



10.  Wait patiently.  It may take up to 2 weeks before the birds find out there’s a new restaurant in the neighborhood.  You might want to scatter some seeds on the ground around the feeder, and even small bits of bread crumbled up.  We waited one week before we got our first customer—a beautiful male house finch—and then were mobbed a few days later (on Christmas Day, no less!) with Black-Capped Chickadees, House Sparrows (ugh), Dark-Eyed Juncos (Oregon variety), and California Quail

Since then we’ve also been visited by lots of male and female House Finches, 2 Mountain Chickadees, a Northern Flicker, a pair of Eurasian Collared-Doves, various Mourning Doves, several Black-Billed Magpies, lots of European Starlings (though they can’t perch on the feeders), and one Spotted Towhee.

You may want to consider making some pine-cone feeders while you wait.  These are quite effective–the birds love them!  They’re very easy:

1.  Find some nice bristly pinecones

2.  Tie a sturdy string or thread around them

3.  Cover them in peanut butter

4.  Sprinkle bird seed all over the peanut butter.  Some people mix cornmeal into the peanut butter, too, so the birds can digest it better

5.  Hang from a branch and watch the birds enjoy their tasty treat.  (Warning: Starlings LOVE these things, so cross your fingers that they don’t discover it or the peanut butter will be gone in an hour.)  Chickadees adore this treat, and they’re so curious and friendly that they may let you eventually stand a few feet away and snap some pictures like these:


Black-Capped Chickadee


Mountain Chickadee…notice the white stripe above his eyes


Here you can see the stripe isn’t a complete circle


Snatching some peanut butter.  We named this guy “Mountain Dude.”


Chickadees are so much fun to watch…they’re quite the acrobats. The purple
ribbons are for my friend, missing mother Susan Cox Powell. 


My favorite picture: a beak full of peanut butter, while “Ginny,” a curious female house finch, watches from a few branches above

We look forward every day to seeing old favorites as well as new birds at our feeders.  It’s also a terrific nature project for the kids…they can observe and draw the birds from two feet away inside the house and learn the differences in genders, types of birds, and how they act and eat. 

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I’ve been into birdwatching (or “birding” as it is commonly called) for a little less than a year now, and this year the kids and I are participating in the GBBC—The Great Backyard Bird Count.

Basically, everyone in North America can count the birds wherever they go this long weekend (Friday through Monday)…whether it be on birding trips or hikes, or just on a trip to a local park or running errands to the grocery store.  Did you see 6 pigeons when you went to WalMart?  You can count that.  Were your kids playing at the park when a flock of 30 starlings flew by?  Check.  Did some adorable black-capped chickadees come visit your yard bird feeder this morning?  The GBBC people want to know. (Scientists use this information gathered every year to track bird trends, health and other things.)

Here’s the website with all the information you need to participate.  There’s also a section for kids with a birdsong quiz, puzzles, recipes for bird treats, and more.

We are having a blast watching the home page for the GBBC change constantly as it’s updated every 30 minutes or so with bird finds from across the country.  Yesterday morning, when it started, there were a few red dots marking submitted checklists in the west part of the U.S., with a large cluster of them on the East Coast.  Now the map is nearly full of red, with lots in Canada and Mexico, too.  We love to see the bird count and species count change.

You can also access lists for your state and even city.  We are following Utah (because we live here) and Wisconsin (my beautiful home state…I love that my hometown of Eagle River even had 1 checklist submitted! Thank you, unknown Eagle River birder).

Yesterday we watched our back and front yards for a while and counted 1 Black-Capped Chickadee, 1 Mountain Chickadee, 12 House Sparrows, 5 Starlings, 1 House Finch, 1 Dark-Eyed Junco (Oregon variety) and a Spotted Towhee.  The Spotted Towhee was a thrilling find…we’d never seen one before, let alone had one visit our yard!  They’re beautiful birds.  The kids decided they have the head of a Junco, the tail of a Magpie, and the stomach of a Robin. 

Spotted Towhee (from Wikipedia)

Last night we went out to the International Center, near the airport, and saw a Great-Horned Owl.  He was more awake than the last time we’d seen him and the kids were so excited to see him wide awake and looking at them.  We tried to get some pictures but our cameras aren’t the best:


Here’s the nest, which is a bundle of pine needles, sticks, and leaves, and the owl peering out of his nest

We also had a fun time feeding the ducks in a nearby pond, despite the bone-chilling wind.



Nia thought it would be fun to pretend this bench was a bed

The kids were beyond excited to come home and enter their count on the GBBC checklists.  They loved the fact that we counted the only Great-Horned Owl and the only Killdeer (as of this morning) for Utah.

Note: In the half hour or so I’ve been composing this blog post, the national bird count has gone up by 4,000 birds.  We hope you’ll consider taking part in the fun!

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Yesterday morning after I dropped my oldest girl off at ballet and made a quick run to the LDS Humanitarian Center, I noticed some birds in a little marshy spot right next to a very busy freeway.

On the way back from the Center, we decided to check it out.  We parked at a gas station across the street and walked down the road a bit.  There was a stream on our side of the road and the dried reeds lining the stream were higher than our heads!


Apparently they also make good swords—the kids felt the need to bring some home and try it out.

We finally got up the nerve to cross the busy street and climbed carefully up the hill, making sure to stay far enough away from the equally-busy frontage road/freeway area.  I was so surprised that birds wanted to live in such a noisy area.


Little wetland area next to Highway 201 and 3200 West


Another view, before we crossed the road

This little wetland is absolutely loaded with a gorgeous type of bird—bright golden-orange head, black body, and white stripes on the wings—that I guessed was a yellow-headed blackbird.  (This guess was made on my less-than-a-week-old information from looking at various birds on websites.  Turns out, I was right!  Was I ever shocked. :))

Isn’t he a beauty? From Allaboutbirds.org

We couldn’t begin to count how many of these blackbirds are living in this area—we saw at least 8-10 at various times.  We also caught a glimpse of the female, who is much less noticeable but still very pretty.


You can’t tell in this picture taken with my cell phone, but that black smudge in the middle of the picture is a yellow-headed blackbird. 

The kids usually humor me on my interests (some would say “obsessions” :)) and often get really interested themselves, but the birdwatching was one where they were rather skeptical.  They couldn’t see how sitting quietly looking at birds would be that fun or cool.

However, yesterday Bran and Nia were absolutely glued to my binoculars that I luckily had with me.  I barely got a chance to use them because they were so fascinated by the birds.  We also saw Canada geese, mallard ducks, and an odd black duck-looking waterbird with a white bill that we later found out was an American Coot:


We also saw a couple of other birds, including one brown and white bird that decided it would be fun to take a nap on the side of the road.  I haven’t been able to identify it yet, even with the help of websites and the various bird guides I got from the library last week—I guess we didn’t get a good enough look at it.

The kids screamed with laughter (due to the roar of traffic, we didn’t have to be quiet during the birdwatching) over the bottoms-up antics of the mallard ducks looking for food in the water.  They also couldn’t believe the beauty of the blackbirds.  I think I’ve got some new birdwatching converts-in-the-making!  We can’t wait to go out again, just as soon as this awful weather clears up.


Ciara and Bran, trying out the new binoculars we got from Recreation Outlet a couple of weeks ago


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For years I’ve been interested in birds, but never got around to doing much about it. 

I grew up in northern Wisconsin, waking up each morning to the sounds of robins, chickadees, jays, and many others.  Living out in the country surrounded by forest was a bird paradise. 

Here in Utah, even though we live in the city, our back yard is a high-traffic area for a large amount of birds—and we don’t even have bird feeders up!  Every day our yard is visited by house sparrows, robins, magpies, starlings, mourning doves, and others that I don’t know the names of (yet).  We even get the occasional mallard duck. 

There’s a problem, though: the back of our house has this slanting patio roof that is irresistible to house sparrows. 

The house sparrow…they look so cute and harmless, don’t they?

They build their grass-and-twig nests in every crack of the underside of that roof.  It’s SO annoying.  Not only do they leave messes all over the concrete and swingset and everything else, but far worse—the nests are too precarious and their babies fall out and die.  We see at least 3-4 dead baby birds every summer…very sad.

Clearing out the nests doesn’t work.  Those birds are so industrious that there are new ones by the next morning.  John finally found something that worked last year, though, for several months: he put some natural powder stuff up inside the eaves that’s supposed to be so potent with herbal smells that it keeps cats and dogs off your lawn.  The birds left after a couple of weeks and though they still hung around the yard, the nests didn’t come back until this month. 

However, last week we discovered a whole new annoyance.  When John went to open his grill in preparation for a family party last Saturday, he found it filled with a massive nest!

He was angry, cleaned it all out, and scrubbed everything.  This was on a Friday.

The next morning he opened his grill and it was filled AGAIN with a nest!

The whole cleaning process began again.  This time, after the family party ended, he cut some cardboard and put them over the vent holes.  We thought this was the end of the sparrow grill problem.

Last night (only one week later) we wanted to grill some stuff for dinner.  When John opened his grill, this is what he found:




ARGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!  This was definitely a pull-out-your-hair moment. 

Something’s got to be done, but I don’t know what.  We need to make the sparrows leave, once and for all.  They are so cute but so annoying!  (I wonder when people will ever learn…it seems that most “introduced",” non-native species cause problems.  House sparrows are no exception.)

Tomorrow I’ll write more about birds, but for now, if you have an idea on how to get rid of pesky sparrows, leave me a comment and I will be grateful.

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