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.



  1. Wonderful information, looking forward to the next! Always enjoy reading your bird writings. Wanting to be kind and fair to all, keeping the peace can be really frustrating and challenging sometimes. Maybe we need to look for a Bird Sheriff. LOL!

    1. Thanks so much, James. Yes, I think we do need a Bird Sheriff!