It’s quite easy to attract a variety of birds, even if you live in the city like me (as opposed to the suburbs or country) in St. Paul or Minneapolis, Minnesota. Of course there are some species you’ll never attract, because we simply don’t have the right habitat, but I’m amazed by the ones I see that I thought only people in the country could attract. The key is to have a variety of seed and other feeders, because many species will only eat specific foods. Also, keep your feeders filled year-round, because different birds come at different times of the year!
In this article, I’ll describe what you’ll need in order to attract birds wherever you live, which birds you can attract in the city in St. Paul or Minneapolis, which types of seed feeders and food will attract which birds, which will only eat on the ground, and insect-eaters you can’t attract unless you have the right kind of bird house. Also, towards the bottom, learn why bluebirds and purple martins need our help.
My house in St. Paul is in a family-oriented residential area, far from the suburbs, and our block is often filled with neighbors walking or talking, and children playing outside. There’s even a major, traffic-laden street two blocks from us. But my small back yard has become a bird sanctuary.
I have a variety of feeders there, with several trees and bushes nearby, so birds can feel sheltered enough to swoop down and linger at the feeders or on the ground, and believe me, they do. Occasionally a cat will wander through, but the birds have learned to merely stay in the trees until it leaves. They’re highly attuned to any threats. In fact, sometimes when I glance out my window too quickly, they get startled and fly back into the trees. Yet other times they’ll stay at the feeders while I’m gardening.
WHAT YOU NEED: To attract a variety of birds in St. Paul, MN or in any state, you’ll need a variety of types of feeders – and a bird bath. Ideally, have some trees and shrubs nearby for shelter, but don’t hang your feeders on the branches or squirrels and other animals will not only eat all the seeds, but likely destroy your feeders. Make sure the bottoms of the feeders are at least 5 feet off the ground and not too close to any trees, because squirrels can leap up 6 feet. (Further down, I’ll cover which birds will only eat on the ground, and bird houses that will attract insect eaters.)
Hanging different kinds of feeders from “shepherd poles,” which come with “arms” and usually can be found wherever plants and bird seed are sold, works best. To stop squirrels from climbing them, you can attach a baffle (cone-shaped disk) that fits on the pole. You can also extend a thin, strong wire or rope across your yard to hang some feeders.
A SAMPLING OF SEED FEEDERS you should have, AND OTHER FEEDERS you can try: What best attracts a variety of birds for me is a feeder with an all-around mixture of seeds, another only for sunflower seeds (black oil), yet another for thistle seeds, and a suet feeder, which should all be kept filled year-round because different birds come at different times of the year. Although these are the main feeders you should have to attract seed-eating birds in the city in St. Paul, there are other seeds you can try in their own feeders too, which I cover further down. (If you look closely, you can distinguish seed-eating birds by the shape of their beaks. Cardinals are a perfect example.) For birds other than seed-eaters, you can try hummingbird and oriole feeders, which I also cover later, besides suggestions for birds that only eat off the ground, and insect-eating birds that will only come if you have the correct kind of bird house.
Important: When you buy any feeder that’s boxed, look inside while you’re at the cash register to make sure all the parts are there! Usually they’re listed on the side of the box. For example, for hummingbird feeders there should be a top “bowl” and bottom feeder, flowers around the feeding ports, some type of string to hang the feeder, and on oriole feeders, perches (ladders) for the birds to rest on.
DON’T FORGET A BIRD BATH! This will attract more types of birds, even if they don’t use your feeders, because birds need water. It doesn’t have to be fancy, just far enough off the ground and fairly roomy. I see birds galore in ours, flapping their wings to bathe or taking a sip, then holding their heads up so the water will run down their throats. Just remember to keep it filled during dry spells, and in the early spring and late fall if there isn’t much rain. Also, once a week dump the old water and replace it with fresh. Not only will this remove any debris, but you won’t have to worry about hatching mosquitoes.
WHICH BIRDS WILL EAT AT WHICH FEEDERS (and their description):
1. Mixed-seed feeders, which among their mixture include sunflower seeds, millet and cracked corn, will attract White-Breasted Nuthatches, Black-Capped chickadees, House Finches (musical!), Cardinals, Sparrows, Mourning Doves, Starlings, Common Grackles, and Bluejays in the city. (Look under “thistle feeders” too, because many of these birds also eat thistle.) Ideally you should buy your packages of seed at pet, hardware or other specialty stores. Those sold in grocery stores generally don’t have as good a blend, and include a much higher content of hard, reddish-brown “filler.
Nuthatches are the only birds that climb headfirst down a tree. They are so-named because when they get a nut or seed, they bang it with their beaks in the crevice of a tree (or some other solid object) in order to chop it open. Sometimes they can be mistaken for a chickadee because of their coloring, but nuthatches are long, bluish, their call (to me) sounds like “eh-eh,” and in flight they look like a streak of silver. They nest in tree cavities. (See bluebirds and purple martins further down.)
Chickadees are small, with a black cap and throat, and grey wings. While they are most recognized by their “chickadee-dee-dee” sound, they also have a beautiful, prolonged, almost melancholy “feee-bee” call that’s high on the first note (feee) and a tone lower on the second (bee). (They also next in tree cavities.)
House Finches may be mistaken for sparrows at first glance, but the males have red on their head and breast, and are white with brown streaks below that. Their wings are mostly brown, with some white, but there’s also some red near their tails. (We once had a couple nesting in a plastic fern on our front porch and were able to watch them feed their babies!) Their song is quite melodious; a sustained “breet, abreet, abreet, abreet, abreet.”
Cardinals: While the male cardinal is bright red all over, including their beaks, with black around their eyes and beak, the female is light brownish/orange with a red peak on their heads, a red or orange beak, and they have some red on their wings and tail. I see them in my yard all year long, and usually they’re one of the last birds at my feeders, on the ground, or in the trees at night. Their wide-range of calls include a continuous “weet, weet, weet” or “chew, chew, chew.”
Common Grackles are statuesque, with long tails and iridescent blue and green feathers, a bright yellow eye and dark feet.
Starlings: Although this European bird has a tendency to steal the homes of other hole-nesting species, eats destructive insects, makes a delightful variety of sounds (particularly because it’s a great mimic) and is quite intelligent. (The book Arnie, the Darling Starling, by Corbo and Barras, tells how Arnie, a baby starling, was hand-raised, performed tricks and even learned to talk.) Adults are smaller than a grackle, have short tails, their bodies are more round, and in Minnesota, their green and purple plumage isn’t as spectacular (juveniles are a mousy brown), and their legs and feet are reddish. In the summer their beaks are yellow, but in the winter they change to brownish/black. Their wings are also interspersed with white, so they often look speckled.
2. Sunflower seed feeder (black oil): I get chickadees, cardinals, nuthatches, house finches, goldfinches (when they’re migrating), juncos, doves and sparrows.
3. Thistle feeder (For imported niger seed-not our prickly garden weed thistle): I continuously see House Finches and Chickadees at my thistle feeder, but I actually have attracted American goldfinches in the city in St. Paul, too (while they were migrating). Normally, the males are bright yellow with a black forehead, wings and tail; the females olive green. In the winter they both become a dull yellowish/brown (and when I’ve seen them during migration).
4. Suet feeder: (feeders are made of wire or mesh.) The overall winner, health-wise for the birds and their most preferable form, are those chunks of beef suet I get in the meat department at grocery stores, but they’re hard to find. Some distributors don’t carry it, so ask the butcher. I buy my suet at Lunds. Otherwise, you can find processed suet cakes in stores where bird seed is sold. One benefit: they don’t turn rancid during extremely hot weather. Suet attracts woodpeckers, sapsuckers, chickadees, nuthatches and starlings.
5. Hummingbird and Oriole feeders: We get Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds and Baltimore (aka “Northern”) Orioles in Minnesota.
Although I haven’t had much luck, I’ve occasionally attracted Hummingbirds and Orioles when they’re migrating, but other birds, such as woodpeckers, use oriole feeders, too. I’ve also seen hummingbirds actually sit still on the perches (ladders) of an oriole feeder! The idea that hummingbirds and orioles won’t migrate soon enough if you leave your feeder out too long is a myth, because their genetic makeup tells them when it’s time to leave. Although most hummingbirds have left northern Minnesota by mid-September, if you put your feeders out just before spring arrives, and leave them out until later in the fall, you may be able to help any early or late migrants when they pass over our area. The average hummingbird consumes half its weight in sugar a day.
Baltimore orioles have a pointed bill. Males are a rich orange with black heads, throats, backs, wings and tails, while females are paler or brownish. They live in hanging nests, and by mid-September have left for Central America.
Don’t use prepared packet solutions, because they contain a red or orange dye that can be unhealthy for birds. While it’s true that the color attracts birds to the feeders, Hummingbird and Oriole feeders themselves usually have all the coloring you’ll need. Instead, make your own sugar-water solution (see below). The solution should be replaced at least once a week, and more frequently during particularly hot spells. Clean y our feeders both inside and out, because you’ll likely find some decomposing “bug bodies” floating around inside, and the sugar helps bacteria to grow. (There are attachments you can buy to catch ants and wasps, if need be.)
How to make the solution:
For hummingbirds, use 4 parts of water to 1 part of white table sugar (i.e. 1 cup of water to ¼ cup of sugar). Don’t use any sugar substitutes or honey. Boil the water first, then add the sugar and stir until it dissolves. Let the mixture cool before pouring it into the feeder, or you’ll melt the plastic. (I learned that from experience!) Note: Some people report that hummingbirds will sip from an open can of pop (soda) that’s resting on a ledge.
For orioles: Following the same method, instead use 6 parts of water to 1 part of sugar (i.e. 6 cups of water to 1 cup of sugar-or 1/3 cup of sugar to 2 cups of water).
Orioles also like grape jelly! (You can use a generic brand.) Simply blend one part of water with one part of grape jelly, and put that into your feeder (funnels work great). Or, spoon it right out of the jar into a shallow dish (about three or four inches in diameter and about one inch deep), that’s set up high, away from predators and where they’ll feel safe. Orioles also enjoy oranges, which you can slice in half and leave on a high platform, or even nail onto a tree.
Wasps and Ants at hummingbird & oriole feeders: Once the wasps and ants come out, they’ll also be attracted to the sugar water in feeders. To deter wasps, rub cooking oil or Vaseline around the feeding ports. Bee guards also work. To deter ants, not only are there ant guards, but hardware, pet and other stores that sell feeders also carry a cup contraction that fits above the feeder itself. Some cups are designed to hold water; others you coat with a layer of petroleum jelly.
6. Other seeds you can try in separate feeders: Safflower seeds (a cardinal’s favorite food, but finches, chickadees, nuthatches, doves and some sparrows also like it, while squirrels don’t), or Peanuts (Woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees, cardinals, house finches and blue jays, and of course, squirrels.)
7. Mealworms: If you put a cup of mealworms in the shade, you can attract robins, cardinals, woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches, and possibly bluebirds and wrens.
FOOD TO ATTRACT GROUND-FEEDING BIRDS: Usually birds that eat at feeders will also eat the seeds scattered on the ground, but some birds, such as Dark-eyed Juncos, will only eat on the ground. Every year I attract them in the city in St. Paul. Then there are birds that don’t eat seeds, such as Robins, that will eat other foods scattered on the ground. The trick is to put your food items out early in the day, so by evening everything will be eaten.
Dark-eyed Juncos (“snowbirds”), which prefer to eat seeds and particularly cracked corn on the ground, start arriving in Minnesota the last week in September, stay during the winter, and leave when it starts warming up. They’re a little bigger and fuller than a sparrow, and are slate-grey, with white bellies and white on their tails. In flight, the white is prominent.
Robins, a member of the thrush family, prefer worms and insects, but they love macaroni and cheese. They start arriving in Minnesota in March. (Juvenile robins have the body shape and distinctively-shaped eye of an adult robin, but their feathers are a grayish-brow n and their breasts are speckled.) Robins can be heard warbling late into the evening.
Suggested food items for various birds: Many birds will eat bread, rolls, etc. (they prefer white), including robins and sparrows, but try more “exotic” items, such as various forms of cooked potatoes, peas, pancakes and popped popcorn. Put peeled bananas on the ground in your yard, and you’ll see robins, sparrows, and other birds gathered around having a party. Apple halves attract robins, cardinals and blue jays. (You can put them on nails that are driven into perches, such as tree stumps, or on a log near the ground.) Orange halves attract orioles and woodpeckers. If you grow grapes, you’ll probably see cardinals picking them off the vine. Robins also love grape jelly. (Put some in a shallow dish on the ground.) And chickadees love peanut butter!
IMPORTANT-PURPLE MARTINS and BLUEBIRDS /NESTING HOUSES:
Cavity nesters such as purple martins and bluebirds are increasingly finding fewer places where they can live, raise their young, and survive. Not only must they vie against starlings and sparrows that kill their young and steal their nests, but we humans are aggressively taking down trees, including dead ones, and erecting new developments, leaving these birds with even less places for their homes. Since purple martins and bluebirds don’t eat from feeders or off the ground, providing purple martin houses or bluebird nesting boxes will attract them and enable them to flourish. To learn more about cavity nesters, go to http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/young_naturalists/cavity_nesters/index.html .
Purple Martins, a songbird, are the largest member of the swallowtail family, and have a slightly forked tail. The male is a glossy blue/black, while the female isn’t as bright and has a speckled throat and whitish belly. They spend the winter in South America. For fabulous information on purple martins and how to make sure they keep coming back to the house you give them, go to http://www.purplemartin.org/main/mgt.html .
Eastern Bluebirds start arriving in Minnesota in March. The male is bright blue, with an orange throat and breast; the female is paler. In the spring and summer, they mostly eat insects and grubs. They need short grasses and nearby trees.
Bluebird Nesting Boxes: Don’t put up just one, because the odds are it’ll be taken over by tree swallows. Instead, according to an article by Dan Prusi (from Floodwood, MN), in the Jan.-Feb. ’06 issue of the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer magazine, http://www.dnr.mn.gov/volunteer/janfeb06/nestbox.html, you should to place two bluebird boxes about 30 feet apart on the edge of an open grassy area. Usually one box attracts a pair of tree swallows, which will defend the neighborhood from other tree swallows, but they’ll allow a bluebird pair to nest next door.
If You Find Any Baby Bird that Can’t Fly, you CAN return it to its nest. According to the March-April ’05 issue of the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, our fear that the chick’s parents will smell our human scent and reject it is a myth. “Most birds have a poor sense of smell. Place the bird back in the nest. If it’s learning to fly and continues to fall out of the nest, keep people and pets away for a day or so until it gets the hang of it.”
The Minnesota Conservation Volunteer has a wide variety of articles on everything dealing with nature, including conservation, hunting and fishing, and restoration, besides fabulous photos, which are relevant wherever you live. The magazine is free of charge anywhere in the U.S. (They depend entirely on subscriber donations for their existence.) Many subscribers have been getting the Volunteer for their families for generations-it’s that good! http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/volunteer/index.html
If you follow these guidelines, you’ll not only help the birds you attract by giving them the sustenance and energy they need to survive, during any season, but in return you’ll find their chirps and trills to be a heartwarming symphony, as I do. Enjoy!