Saturday, November 29, 2014

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Do Barn Swallows communicate with humans?  Yes!  I developed an intimate relationship with one of the fourteen baby Barn Swallows who were hatched on my porch.  The baby returned the following spring, claimed the nest, and we became close friends. This is a true story!

The Barn Swallow who returned the following spring taught me that wild birds actually DO communicate with us, both vocally and by body language.  The message that he was conveying to me was borne out a few days later by an event that occurred.  You can read about that and much more in my book, Bonding with the Barn Swallows.

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Thursday, November 27, 2014

Adventures in Bird Feeding, Part 3: The Northern Cardinal
by Adele Barger Wilson, author of Bonding with the Barn Swallows
Photos and text © 2014 Adele Wilson

The most brightly colored bird species that makes its home year-round in the eastern and central portions of the U.S. is the Northern Cardinal.  The Northern Cardinal is one of several species whose name begins with “Northern”, not because these birds live solely in the Northern U.S., but rather, because they are common to North America rather than to South America.  But most people know the Northern Cardinal simply as "the Cardinal".

The male Cardinal exhibits a bright vermillion red, while the female Cardinal’s plumage is duller, blending more readily into the environment.  The natural camouflage of the female is perhaps Mother Nature’s way of protecting the potential egg bearers of this species in order to ensure its preservation.  In the photo to the left, the female is in the foreground with the male in the background.

During mating season, which begins in late winter to early spring, adult male Cardinals who do not have mates will compete with other males for territory.  They will sometimes peck at and attack their reflections in car windows, thinking that their reflections are other male Cardinals who are seeking to intrude.

Male Cardinals will often proclaim their territories by perching on a tree, a fence, or a wire and sounding a beautiful song.  Early last spring I was most fortunate to hear that song almost every morning.  I would venture out on my porch, and there he would be:  Our resident male Cardinal perching in plain site and singing his familiar melody.

Once a male finds a female who accepts him as a potential mate, the female will show him a possible nesting site.  If the male does not like that site, the female will show him another one.  This will continue until the two birds agree on a nesting site.

The male will sometimes bring some nesting material to the site, but it is the female who does most of the nest-building.  A typical clutch consists of two to five eggs, and the female incubates them for eleven to thirteen days.  While the female is incubating, the male brings her food.

The young stay in the nest for seven to thirteen days and are fed by both parents.  Once the babies fledge from the nest, one or both parents continue to feed them for up to two weeks.

Sometimes the female will start building another nest while the male is still feeding the fledglings.  By the time the female is laying and incubating eggs, the male will again feed her at the nest.

Depending on the climate of the region, the nesting season of the Cardinal can last into September.  After the nesting season is completed, the adult birds begin to molt.  During this time period, the plumage of these birds can look rather scruffy, as in the photo on the right.  However, by the time that winter arrives, the birds have regained their full plumage. 

In my experience, the best way to attract Cardinals during the winter is by putting up suet cakes that contain black oil sunflower seeds.  These birds absolutely love this type of seed and can crack the shells in their beaks immediately after picking them from the cakes.  Unlike other birds, Cardinals do not have to fly to another location to crack a seed shell.
The suet cake pictured on the right contains black oil sunflower seeds and is perfect for Cardinals.  You can click on the image to find out more about these suet cakes and how to order them.

I once viewed a photo on Facebook of several bright red male Cardinals perching simultaneously on a snow-covered tree.  Having learned that male Cardinals are territorial, I wondered how these birds could co-exist so peacefully without chasing each other away.

It recently dawned on me that, since the Cardinals were perching together during the winter season, they may well have all been juveniles.  In that case, they had not yet experienced the mating season when males begin to compete against each other for territory.

On the morning of November 15th, for the very first time, I witnessed this type of scenario myself.  Three male Cardinals were perching on various branches of the tree at the edge of my driveway, the tree that the Mockingbirds had been guarding for many months.

Unfortunately, just as I was running inside to grab my camera, a Mockingbird flew to the tree and chased the Cardinals away.  Apparently, the Mockingbirds were still guarding that tree and the suet feeder hanging from it.

The following morning, I noticed three Cardinals on the mimosa tree, only this time they were all dull-colored!  My first thought was that the birds were all adult females, but I later realized that they may well have been juveniles.  One Cardinal was feeding from the suet cake, while the other two were perched on higher branches of the tree.

As I looked through binoculars at the Cardinal perching highest on the tree, I sighted a Mockingbird also perching on a high branch!  However, the Mockingbird was not disturbing the Cardinals.  This made me wonder if the Mockingbirds are refraining from taking over the mimosa tree.

Yesterday, the answer seemed clear.  We had our first snow storm of the season, and, while the snow was falling, a Cardinal was eating from the feeder on the mimosa tree, undisturbed by Mockingbirds.

So I am hoping that the mimosa tree continues to be fully available to the Cardinals and other birds this winter.  More information about my battles with the Mockingbirds, can be found at:

Adventures in Bird Feeding, Part 1:  Keeping Peace with the Mockingbirds
Update on the Mockingbirds - Are they still interfering? 

If you would like to read more about the Northern Cardinal, I highly recommend this book by Gary Ritchison:
Wild birds are not dumb!  They are sentient beings who often communicate specific things to humans.  You can read about how I determined this to be a fact based on my intimate experiences with Barn Swallows as described in my book, Bonding with the Barn Swallows.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Carolina Wrens are back on the porch! Adele Barger Wilson, author of Bonding with the Barn Swallows
Photos and text © 2014 Adele Wilson

At sunrise this morning it was 14 degrees F (-10 C).  Ice was clinging to the insides of my storm windows.  I opened my door and was greeted by ice -- icy air, icy porch, icy car, and heavy frost on the lawn.

Porch nest, November 11, 2014
There is an old swallow nest on an eave of my porch.  It was originally a Barn Swallow nest, but now it is a Cliff Swallow nest. The nest is generally visible from the inside of my storm door as I look toward the porch.  To see the nest, all I have to do is look up and to the right, and it is only 4 feet away.  (You can read more about the nest at

Did you know that some types of birds need to find warm, enclosed spaces in which to roost on cold winter nights?   Bluebirds, for instance, will often roost in the same nesting boxes that they used during the previous summer.  During the winter, Bluebirds do not stay inside the boxes during the day, as they did during the summer while they were incubating eggs and raising their young.  Instead, they enter their roosting spaces at sunset and depart at daybreak.

Last winter, a pair of Carolina Wrens spent nights in my porch nest in order to keep warm.  Around sunset, I would sometimes observe a Wren on the porch, obviously waiting for me to go inside and give it clearance to fly to the nest.  On a couple of occasions, I peeked outside my door at daybreak and saw a Wren fly from the nest.

By April the Carolina Wrens were gone.  I no longer saw them at the suet feeders or in the driveway.  Where did they go?  I suppose they relocated somewhere to build their nest and raise their young.  All I know is that I have missed them and wondered if they are still all right.


Back to this morning:  Since it was so cold this morning, I wondered if any birds had roosted in the nest last night.  The glass on the inside of my storm door was foggy.  The cold temperature outdoors had caused moisture condensation, rendering it impossible for me to see outside my storm door without opening it.

When I opened my door, I immediately looked up at the nest.  Just a couple of seconds later, a Carolina Wren peeked out of the nest's entrance hole!!!  Upon seeing me, he quickly took flight.

What a thrill to know that the nest is again being used as a roosting place!  I am assuming that it was the male Carolina Wren that I saw leaving the nest this morning.  The female may well have still been inside the nest.

Presumably the same pair of Wrens that used the nest last winter have returned.  Birds tend to be habitual, returning to the same locations for the same purposes year after year.


The first time I ever saw a Wren in the nest, I didn't even know it was a Wren!  It was on a very cold evening in early March 2013.  I had gone grocery shopping after work and had finally arrived home.  After carrying my first load of groceries inside, I proceeded to open my door to get the second load.   At that moment, I looked up and was shocked to see a bird go inside the nest.  The bird looked like a sparrow, but it had a white line over its eye and a very long beak.

It was the long beak that stumped me.  I had never seen that long of a beak on a small bird.

As I stared at the nest, I saw the bird exit and fly out of sight.

What kind of bird was it and what was it doing in the nest?  It was a very cold night in March, still snow season here in the mountains.  Do birds start nesting here that early in the year?  By that time, darkness had fallen.  I turned on the porch light, stepped outside, looked up at the nest, and wondered what type of bird would lay eggs during cold winter weather.

My curiosity got the best of me.  I returned inside and got a step ladder and a mirror.  Once I had returned to the porch and set up the step ladder, I climbed up, mirror in hand, to look inside the nest.  This was how I had checked for Barn Swallow eggs during the summer of 2012.  I was about to put the mirror above the nest, when, suddenly, there was a loud flapping noise and something swooped out of the nest and away from the porch!  It all occurred in a matter of seconds and scared me so much that I was shaking.  I almost fell off the ladder.

I went back inside to calm down and began looking through my bird book.  After studying the drawings for a while, I concluded the bird that I had seen entering and exiting the nest had been a Wren.

The Wren's mate must have still been inside the nest when I saw the first Wren leave.  I had apparently disturbed both Wrens and felt exceedingly guilty.

After further research based on the time of year, I determined that the bird had been a Carolina Wren rather than a House Wren.  In this region of the country we have Carolina Wrens year-round, but House Wrens only during the summer.

I was both excited and concerned at the same time.  The nest had been built by Barn Swallows two years previously and used by them during both summers.  Were the Wrens going to use the nest to start a family?  If so, what was going to happen when the Barn Swallows return in mid-April?  Would the Wrens be finished using the nest?

I saw no more Wrens that year.  The Barn Swallows returned in mid April, but did not use the nest.  Cliff Swallows ended up refurbishing the nest that summer.  I have narrated that story on my other blog at

In August of that year, all of our swallows, both Barn and Cliff, left the area for their winter migration.  The porch nest was still intact, only now it looked like a Cliff Swallow nest.  The photo to the right shows what the nest looked like on July 16, 2013.


Summer turned to fall, and fall turned to winter.  It was now January 2014.

One afternoon in January, a heavy snowstorm had come though our area, leaving almost 12 inches of accumulation.  The snowfall ended around 5 p.m., when my next-door neighbor and I proceeded to shovel snow from the porch that we share.  After we had cleared the porch, it was starting to get dark, but there was still the driveway to do.  As we began working on the driveway, my other next-door neighbor, who was still inside her apartment, called to me and told me that she had seen a bird fly into the swallow nest.

Curious and excited, I ran up the stairs and toward the nest.  As I was nearing the nest, a bird flew out of it and landed on the lower roof of our building.  I could tell it was a Carolina Wren!

I proceeded back to the driveway to join with my neighbor in the shoveling effort.  About 30 minutes later, darkness had fallen.  The neighbor who was still inside her apartment again called to me, "Adele, I just saw two birds fly into the nest!"

That night, after much research, I learned that Carolina Wrens need to find warm, enclosed spaces to spend cold winter nights.  It made sense.  That was why the Wrens were trying to use the nest that night in March 2013 -- until I scared them, that is!

Carolina Wren waiting for me go inside
Several weeks later, on March 1, 2014, I was in the driveway with my camera, taking pictures of birds at the feeder.  All of a sudden, a bird flew onto the porch rail and started scolding me.  Fortunately, this time I recognized the bird and understood what he was telling me!

It was the Carolina Wren again, and he was telling me to get inside so that he could fly to the nest.   He kindly allowed me take his picture, after which I returned inside my apartment and closed the door.

Close-up of Carolina Wren
But I couldn't resist peeking out through the blinds and storm door.  I saw the male Wren fly to the nest.  But he did not go inside the nest!  He clung to the outside of the entrance hole.  Soon a second Wren flew to the nest and quickly entered it.  At that point the first Wren also entered the nest.

How chivalrous, I thought!  Upon seeing that the way was clear, the male Wren had flown to the nest, and then had guarded the entrance so that the female could enter!  After the female had been safe inside the nest, the male had joined her.

I am so happy that the porch nest is again being used this winter!

Update, November 26, 2014:  Late this afternoon, just before sunset, the pair of Carolina Wrens was hanging around the porch area.  I saw them first in the nearby barberry bush.  A Mockingbird soon flew from The Mockingbird Tree  into the shrub.  Oh no, I thought, have the Mockingbirds taken over that bush, too?

[The Mockingbirds have their own tree now, which I term "The Mockingbird Tree".  More information about my battles with the Mockingbirds can be found at:
Adventures in Bird Feeding, Part 1:  Keeping Peace with the Mockingbirds and
Update on the Mockingbirds - Are they still interfering? ]

I knew that the reason the Wrens were hanging around was that they were seeking clearance to enter the porch nest for the night.  I went inside and got my camera, then went out on the porch again.  Just as I had predicted, one of the Wrens, presumably the male, soon appeared on the porch stairs.  I tried to take a photo, but as soon as the Wren saw me, he quickly flew from the porch.

A few minutes later, both Wrens appeared on a different part of the porch.  However, again, as soon as they had seen me, they suddenly flew.

So I decided to give up my efforts at photographing the Wrens.  It was very dark, anyway, and even using the flash on my camera would not have helped.  Moreover, the flash would have further frightened the birds.

But it is nice to know that the Wrens are now apparently making a habit of roosting in my porch nest at night!

Wild birds are not dumb!  They are sentient beings who often communicate specific things to humans.  You can read about how I determined this to be a fact based on my intimate experiences with Barn Swallows as described in my book, Bonding with the Barn Swallows.

Update on the Mockingbirds - Are they still interfering? Adele Barger Wilson, author of Bonding with the Barn Swallows
Photos and text © 2014 Adele Wilson

Adventures in Bird Feeding will continue in the near future, with Part 3 to be about Cardinals. For now, this is an update on the Mockingbirds, whether they are still around, and whether they are still preventing other birds from eating at the feeders.  There is also a new development concerning Carolina Wrens that I will cover in the next post.

Mockingbird on feeder, May 8th
As explained in Part 1, I've been learning about the extremely territorial nature of Mockingbirds.  A pair of Mockingbirds has laid claim to the tree by the driveway, the tree from which my two suet feeders were hanging for many months.  By taking possession of that tree as part of their territory, the Mockingbirds have been chasing all other birds away from the tree and not allowing them to eat there.

My solution was to take one of the two suet cakes down from the tree and hang it on a new tree 50 to 60 feet away.  That new tree is a mimosa tree.

Female Cardinal, mimosa tree, Nov. 16th
It seems that hanging the second feeder on the new tree (the mimosa) might have solved the problem. So far, it looks like the Mockingbirds are not chasing the other birds from that tree, but I have wanted to be certain of that.  I also wanted to see if the Mockingbirds have vacated the neighborhood now that frigid weather has arrived.

So, yesterday afternoon I decided to sit on the porch to see whether I could find out the status of the Mockingbirds -- whether they are still around and whether they are still preventing the other birds from feeding.

I stationed myself on the porch in plain sight of any bird who might decide to approach.  It is difficult to sit still in below-freezing weather, but I was all bundled up and doing the best I could.  I didn't see any birds at first, but, after a few minutes, a Mockingbird landed on the suet feeder on the tree by the driveway, the tree that the Mockingbirds have been guarding. 

I must admit I was somewhat disappointed that the Mockingbirds were apparently still around.  They are year-round birds here in Eastern West Virginia, but I don't remember seeing any of them during our many weeks of snow cover last winter.  I don't mind them being around, but I dislike the way they have been chasing other birds from the feeder.

On the other hand, Mockingbirds certainly need to eat, as do all of the other birds.  After landing on the suet feeder, the Mockingbird proceeded to have a snack.  It didn't take long -- just a few seconds.  It was as if this bird, who I assumed to be the male, was demonstrating to me that he was the owner of the feeder!  Little did he know that, by his actions, I had already recognized him as the prime guardian of the territory, the bird who has been chasing the other birds from the feeder and the tree from which it hangs.

Just then, the male Mockingbird's mate arrived on the same tree.  Both of the birds then quickly flew to the fence, only 15 feet from the porch and closer to where I was sitting.  Perhaps the birds had decided to get a closer look at me.  Both birds continued to perch on the fence just a few feet from one another.  They were both pointed toward me and staring at me.

The fence is one of the perching posts typically used by the Mockingbirds to guard their territory.  The photo on the right, from June 2014, shows where the male Mockingbird was perching.

Soon the male flew from the fence to the ground and started foraging, supposedly for grass seed.  He continued foraging on the ground, gradually making his way toward the second tree, the mimosa tree to which I had moved one of the feeders a few weeks ago.

Once the male Mockingbird arrived at the mimosa tree, he suddenly flew up and landed on one of the branches.  His mate then flew to the tree to join him.  Perched on two separate branches, the two birds began staring at me.  By that time, I was getting quite cold and preparing to return inside. 

These two Mockingbirds are quite familiar with me.  They know me from having seen me for many months wandering around the building with my camera. 

I therefore began contemplating why the two birds had been demonstrating their activities to me, first on the suet feeder, then on the fence, the ground, and finally on the mimosa tree.  They were definitely trying to tell me something, but I was not sure what the something was.  Were they telling me that they were considering expanding their territory to include the mimosa tree?  Were they asking me to guard that tree for them?  Were they asking me to put out different types of suet cakes?

I don't have the answers.  Only about 25 per cent of the cakes on both trees have been eaten.  Perhaps the above-freezing weather that we had for a few days earlier this month has rendered the suet rancid.  On the other hand, I observed smaller birds eating from both cakes this morning.

Mockingbirds are survivalists.  They are opportunists who will pursue food sources in any manner that they can, and that could include trying to coax humans into giving them the type of food that they desire.

Perhaps the two Mockingbirds were asking me to put out a new type of suet mixture.  Or, perhaps they were asking me why I moved the second feeder to the mimosa tree.  It remains a mystery for now, but at least I have learned that the Mockingbirds are still around.

It's 11 a.m. right now, and the outdoor temperature is still below freezing.  Monday's temperatures are predicted to be in the 60's; so I am planning to further monitor the situation on that day.  In the meantime, I will try to figure out what the Mockingbirds were trying to say to me! 

Update, November 26, 2014:  Now that I've been thinking about it, the pair of Mockingbirds may have been merely expressing their displeasure at my having moved one of "their" suet cakes from the tree by the driveway to the mimosa tree.

Having first appeared at the tree by the driveway while I was watching from the porch, the male Mockingbird had taken a bite from the suet cake hanging there.  After flying to the fence and watching me for a while, both birds eventually gravitated to the mimosa tree.  It was as if they were showing me that they knew I had removed one of the cakes and hung it on the new tree.  I am hoping that they will not be translating their displeasure into taking possession of the tree!

I've decided that, from now on, I will be calling the tree by the driveway "The Mockingbird Tree".  Just before sunset this afternoon, the pair of Mockingbirds appeared on that tree and chased away several House Finches who were feeding there.  So, unfortunately, the Mockingbirds are still in possession of that tree and its name still fits:  The Mockingbird Tree!
Wild birds are not dumb!  They are sentient beings who often communicate specific things to humans.  You can read about how I determined this to be a fact based on my intimate experiences with Barn Swallows as described in my book, Bonding with the Barn Swallows.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Adventures in Bird Feeding, Part 2: The Majestic Blue Jays Adele Barger Wilson, author of Bonding with the Barn Swallows
Photos and text © 2014 Adele Wilson

Here in Eastern West Virginia, as well as in much of the Eastern and Central U.S., we have three beautifully colored bird species that stay around all winter -- Blue Jays, Cardinals, and Eastern Bluebirds.  This post will focus on Blue Jays.

The plumage of the Blue Jay is probably the most fascinating of all of our local birds.  While the Blue Jay's breast is a light blue color and its face a whitish blue, its crest, upper wings, and the back of its head all exhibit a brilliant solid blue. 

The black accents on the Blue Jay's face add to its mystique.  What truly gives this bird its unique appearance, however, is the mosaic pattern on its lower wings and tail, consisting of tones ranging from mid blue to bright turquoise, amazingly interspersed with black and white.

During the first winter that I put out suet cakes, I would hang the cakes from a redbud tree that was growing beside my porch.  My landlord had transplanted the tree from the woods years ago.

Blue Jay on Redbud Tree
It was my first experience in hanging out a suet feeder; so I did not know what to expect.  To my delight, among those who came to feast on the suet cakes that winter were the majestic Blue Jays.

Unfortunately, the redbud tree seemed to be developing a disease.  Its trunk had split open, and the branches were starting to split, also.  The following summer, my landlord chopped it down.

And so it was that during the following winter I no longer had a tree beside my porch.  I was forced to put the suet cakes on a different tree, one that was farther away.  That was the “tree by the driveway” that I mentioned in Part 1.

Unfortunately, no Blue Jays came to my suet feeders on the tree by the driveway.  I didn't know exactly why this was.  I suspected that it had something to do with the Blue Jays being able to find food that other people had put out for them.

For one thing, Blue Jays LOVE peanuts in the shell, in other words, whole peanuts.  They also love shelled peanuts and shelled or unshelled sunflower seeds.  Shelled sunflower seeds come in two varieties – striped and black oil – and Blue Jays love them both.  Cracking shells is no problem for these birds.
Blue Jay Peanut Feeder
Here is an example of a feeder that Blue Jays would love – perfect for peanuts in the shell!  You can click on the image to find out more.  Unfortunately, with the high winds around here, I have nowhere to hang such a feeder.  Hung from the tree by the driveway, it could easily hit a parked vehicle if the wind were to blow it down.  The only other choice would be the mimosa tree, whose branches are too delicate to hold it intact.
Peanuts in the Shell

And here is a good source of Peanuts in the shell to attract not only Blue Jays, but also other birds such as Titmice, Chickadees, and Nuthatches.  If you click on the image, you can find out how to order this 10 lb supply of unshelled peanuts.

Although I was concerned that the local Blue Jay population had somehow undergone a dire fate, I was nevertheless relieved that the Blue Jays were not competing with the other birds at the feeders.  As beautiful as they are, Blue Jays often bully the smaller birds and prevent them from eating.  But I still wondered what had happened to them.

Blue Jays gathering acorns
In early October, I went to visit a friend who has a huge oak tree in front of his house.  As I approached his door, I saw a dozen or more Blue Jays momentarily perching on the branches of the oak tree, and then quickly swooping to the ground. 

I soon observed that the Blue Jays were knocking acorns, one-by-one, from the tree.  Each time a Blue Jay would dislodge an acorn, it would quickly leave its branch and fly down to the ground to retrieve it.  Once it had gathered the acorn in its beak, it would suddenly lift off and fly over the building and out of sight.

Blue Jay gathering acorns
But the Blue Jays kept returning to the oak tree to gather more acorns.  Again, each bird would first land on a branch, knock an acorn to the ground below, and then swoop to the ground to pick it up.

Soon I noticed that the Blue Jays’ mouths looked conspicuously full.  Their checks were bulged out, as if they were holding more than one acorn at a time.  Upon looking more carefully, I noticed that, besides gathering acorns, they were also gathering unshelled peanuts!

The mystery was soon solved when my friend’s next-door neighbor told me that her grandson had thrown peanuts out on the lawn to feed the squirrels.  Little did she know that the peanuts would attract Blue Jays!

I later read that Blue Jays will actually bury acorns and peanuts for safe keeping, much as squirrels do! They will eat some of the acorns immediately, but save the others to bury and find later during the cold winter months.

One day I was wondering if we still had Blue Jays in our neighborhood.  On a couple of occasions during the summer, I had identified a couple of these birds through binoculars on the neighbor’s property, quickly flitting from trees to fences, then briefly to the ground, and then up again into the trees.  But they had never come close to my feeders and I had not seen them since those two occasions.

During my regular backyard bird watches, I began using binoculars to view the distant trees.  Over a period of time, I began to notice movement --- flashes of blue light moving from tree to tree.  Upon realizing that the most of the trees were oaks, it suddenly dawned on me that those flashes of light must be Blue Jays!

What a relief it was to know that our Blue Jay neighbors had not perished!  Thanks to my newly gained knowledge of these birds’ love for acorns, I had learned where to look for Blue Jays -- on or near oak trees!  And, despite the absence of Blue Jays at my feeders, it is consoling to know that we still have these marvelous wonders of the Avian Kingdom around us. 

Here are some gift suggestions that feature the awesome beauty of the Blue Jay.  You can click on the images to find out more:
Suncatcher - Beautiful!
Blue Jay on Snowy Branch - Charming Figurine!
Enameled Box - Inlaid Czech Crystals
Porcelain Christmas Ornament - Gorgeous!


Blue Jay Feeder - Sunset Vista Designs
Clip Christmas Tree Ornaments (2)

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Adventures in Bird Feeding, Part 1: Keeping Peace with the Mockingbirds Adele Barger Wilson, author of Bonding with the Barn Swallows
Photos and text © 2014 Adele Wilson

This is Part 1 of a series on my experiences with feeding wild birds in my back yard.  I reside in the eastern mountains of the United States, in what might be termed "Central Appalachia".  Here in eastern West Virginia we have many of the typical eastern U.S. birds who make their homes here during the winter.

This post will focus on how I feed the birds and my experiences in dealing with Mockingbirds.


Traditionally, people have thought of seeds as major bird food.  And it is true that many birds depend on seeds in the winter.

However, I have had to refrain from putting out feeders containing loose seeds because I rent from a landlord who could well be concerned about overspill of seeds from a feeder.  When spring comes, these seeds could possibly germinate and cause weeds to sprout.

Therefore, any seeds that I put out are contained in suet mixtures that have been compressed into suet cakes.  These cakes can easily be placed in “suet cages” and hung where birds can find them.

For further information about suet cages, or “baskets” as they are sometimes called, you can click on this image:

During the winter of 2013-2014, I had two suet feeders hanging from the tree next to my driveway.  The tree became a welcome feeding station for Cardinals, Tufted Titmice, House Finches, Chickadees, Dark-Eyed Juncos, Sparrows, Wrens, Woodpeckers and Nuthatches.  Here is a Dark-Eyed Junco at the top of a feeder with a Tufted Titmouse clinging to the left side:

In my experience, at least with the birds that make their homes here during the winter, the best all-around suet cakes to attract a variety of birds have been cakes containing black oil sunflower seed.  Cardinals love these, as do the Woodpeckers.  Even the Chickadees and other birds will grab a seed and then fly to a higher branch to crack the seed and consume it.  Here is an example of a suet cake containing black oil sunflower seeds:


As winter turned to spring, I began to see Mockingbirds.  I didn’t often see them on the suet feeders, but it was a common occurrence to see a Mockingbird conspicuously posted either on the tree where the feeders were hanging, or on a nearby fence or wire.  My thought was that the Mockingbirds were staking out and defending their newly formed territories.  Or perhaps they had built a nest in the vicinity, and were therefore guarding their eggs or young.

On a couple of occasions during the month of May, I was surprised to see a Mockingbird eating from one of the suet feeders.  I had never observed Mockingbirds feeding from suet cakes before.  Upon raising the question on Bird Forum, I learned that other people had also observed this and that Mockingbirds are generally omnivores, eating from a wide variety of sources, one of which can be suet cakes.  This photo is from May 8, 2014:

By late May, Grackles and Starlings were arriving by the dozens, often devouring at least one suet cake per day.  I could not afford to keep replacing the cakes; so I left the suet cages up but did not refill them.  Besides, I thought, now that the weather was warm, the birds could start finding food on their own.

The Mockingbirds continued to make their presence known, even more overtly than during previous weeks.  On most occasions when I stepped out on my porch, a Mockingbird would appear and sound its alarm call, the same alarm call that it would voice in response to a cat roaming the area.  

I came to regard the Mockingbirds as the self-appointed sentinels of the neighborhood.  If I didn’t see one immediately upon setting foot on my porch, camera in hand, one would soon appear in plain sight, as if asking to be photographed.  Proud and confident, it would hold its ground and stay in one position, allowing me to take numerous shots.  This photo is from June 5, 2014:

All summer long, the Mockingbirds guarded their territory.  At the start of my walks around the neighborhood, I would almost always see a Mockingbird posted on a fence, tree, utility wire, or the top of the building, staring at me as if it thought that I was threatening to take over its territory (photo from August 20, 2014):

In mid-October, with cold weather approaching, I decided it was time to put out the suet cakes again.  The suet cages on the tree by the driveway had withstood the high winds of our summer storms and were still intact, hanging from their same positions as they had been hanging last spring.

Since some of our daytime temperatures were still as high as 60 to 70 degrees F, I decided to insert peanut butter, no-melt cakes into the cages.  However, after observing the cakes for a few days, I noticed that they were barely being eaten.  They hung for weeks, and I rarely saw any birds on or near them – except for Mockingbirds.

Then I noticed that the Mockingbirds were actually guarding the suet feeders!  When any other type of bird would land on the tree, the Mockingbirds would chase it away.

Suet cage feeders are advantageous for small birds that can cling to the sides and bottoms of the feeders while they eat.  But with the Mockingbirds guarding the feeders, the smaller birds didn’t stand a chance of getting that close to them. 

Small birds can also perch on the tops of the suet feeders.  However, larger birds, such as Grackles, Blue Jays, and Mockingbirds, in order to partake of the suet mixture, MUST either perch on top of a suet feeder or on a lower branch, if there is one, from which they can reach the cake.

Here is a Mockingbird eating from the feeder on October 20th.  Since there was no branch below or beside the feeder on which to perch, the Mockingbird was forced to perch on the top of the feeder.  You can see that the Mockingbird seems to be straining to eat from the feeder, having to contort itself to get to the suet.

The only types of birds who were availing themselves of the suet cakes were the Mockingbirds.  But even the Mockingbirds were rarely eating from them.  It seemed that the Mockingbirds were partaking of the cakes not because they had to, but merely as a demonstration to the other birds that they were the sole owners of not only the feeders, but the entire tree from which the feeders were hanging!

The no-melt peanut butter cakes were getting old, so I decided to replace them with the black oil sunflower seed type that had proved to be so popular with the birds last winter and spring:

However, even the two suet cakes of this type were not being eaten.  On several mornings I witnessed a pair of Cardinals approaching the tree where the cakes were hanging, only to be quickly chased away from the area by the Mockingbirds. Here is a Mockingbird standing guard on the tree where the suet feeders were hanging (photo from October 26, 2014):

Perplexed and frustrated by the Mockingbirds disallowing the other birds from eating from the cakes, I decided to research the matter.  I subsequently read an article stating that sometimes Mockingbirds do indeed perceive certain feeders as parts of their territory.  It went on to state that since the Mockingbirds feel that they own the feeders, they will chase all other birds away from them, preventing the other birds from feeding.

One of the suggested remedies is to put the feeders up in another location.  Hopefully, that other location would not be in the Mockingbirds’ territory, and the other birds will be free to feed there.

Since there were two suet feeders hanging on the tree by the driveway, I decided to keep one of them on that tree and move the other to another tree.  My reasoning behind leaving one on the tree by the driveway was to give the Mockingbirds something to continue to guard.  

And indeed, the Mockingbirds were continuing to guard the feeder on the tree by the driveway.  They seemed to be cooperating in allowing each other to eat.  On November 11th, one Mockingbird was guarding the feeder while the other bird was eating from it!

The tree on which I placed the second feeder is a mimosa tree some 50 to 60 feet from the tree by the driveway.  Even if the mimosa tree were part of the Mockingbirds’ territory, I thought, the Mockingbirds would have a difficult time guarding two trees at once.

For about ten days I rarely saw a bird at the newly located suet feeder on the mimosa tree.  Again, I was disappointed to be unable to feed the Cardinals, House Finches, and other birds that I had regularly seen last winter.  Perhaps the Mockingbirds were also guarding that tree.

Finally, on November 15th, I saw a House Finch feeding from the newly located feeder.  What a relief it was to realize that at least one bird had found the feeder!

Generally, all it takes it one bird finding a feeder in order for the other birds to follow.  Soon I started seeing Tufted Titmice, Chickadees, and Cardinals eating from the newly located feeder on the mimosa tree.

On the morning of November 16th, I was thrilled to see three female Cardinals on the mimosa tree, with one of them voraciously eating from the suet cake. 

One of the three Cardinals was perched near the top of the tree.  While viewing her through binoculars, I noticed a Mockingbird perched near her on the topmost branch.

Oh no, I thought, the Mockingbirds are now aware of the new location of one of the suet feeders!  Yet, the Mockingbird was merely perching there, allowing one of the Cardinals to eat and the other two to perch on other branches in order to await their turns at the feeder.

So, at least for the time being, I was convinced that the mimosa tree was out of the range of the Mockingbirds’ territory and that the other birds were free to eat from the feeder on that tree.

For the last couple of days, our weather has been unseasonably cold, more similar to our weather in January and February than to November.  At night, the temperatures have dipped well below freezing and sometimes stayed below freezing in the daytime.  During the few times that I have ventured outdoors, I have not seen any Mockingbirds.

Now that I am thinking about it, I do not remember seeing any Mockingbirds in my yard during the many weeks of snow cover that we had last winter.  At this time, we have not yet had snow, but perhaps the bitter cold weather has forced our Mockingbirds to leave the neighborhood.  If that is the case, the Mockingbird problem has been solved, and both trees have been freed for the other birds to eat!

November 22, 2014 - Read the latest update:
Update on the Mockingbirds - Are they still interfering? posts will feature further adventures in winter bird feeding.  In the meantime, here is the book that has been most valuable to me in identifying our Eastern U.S. birds:  The Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America.

This book contains superb illustrations by Roger Tory Peterson that brilliantly illustrate plumage markings on specific bird species.  The text, also by Roger Tory Peterson, excellently explains not only the markings, but also the voices and calls of the different birds, in addition to their typical habitats.  The section on each bird contains a reference to its range map in the back part of the book.  From this you can find out if the bird is specific to your region.