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Cagey Birds

A nice trend developed in my yard this winter when a flock of Bushtits began regularly blitzing my suet.  They especially seemed to like snowy mornings which gave me a great excuse to linger over coffee on weekends at the breakfast table awaiting their arrival.  Until this season, I had only seen Bushtits in my yard a couple of times.  A November 2013 post to the Cobirds list by my buddy Ted Floyd had a few lines that really summarized their prior occurrence in my yard just as well as in his local patch:

I love how the Bushtits just show up, chipper away merrily, pay me absolutely no heed, then disappear for months or years. It’s as if they’re not really of this world; they just drop in from some higher dimension, check things out for a while, then return to the ether.

Needless to say, I was happy to see the Bushtit trend go from rare to regular right out my kitchen window!  The change isn’t a total shock, as Bushtits have been expanding their range and population up Colorado’s northern Front Range.  For example, on the Boulder Christmas Bird Count we’ve seen a significant climb  in our Bushtit detections over the last 20 years as measured by number per party hour:


Overall I was enjoying the Bushtits and other nice birds who snacked on my Do-It To-It Suet like Downy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Black-capped Chickadee, and even the occasional Dark-eyed Junco.  But there was one significant fly in my ointment: European Starlings defeated my squirrel- and supposedly starling-proof suet cage.  They would reach in through the grid with their long bills and tear at the suet cake, dropping as much as they ate on the ground for their compatriots to gobble up.  I tried to thwart them with some finer hardware cloth on the sides closest to the suet holder but they still managed to get at it from above,  below, and through the smaller grid.  The search was on for a new solution.


This suet cage was popular with my Bushtits but unfortunately the small distance from the outer grid to the suet basket was also just fine with European Starlings. Longmont, Colorado, January 2014. Photo © Bill Schmoker

I found a  different feeder model online that appeared to have a much larger cage protecting the inner suet basket.  It also boasted a solid lid and a removable solid plate to put under the suet.  (Supposedly, starlings aren’t prone to hanging upside-down to feed like a woodpecker but mine must be above average because they have no qualms about inverting themselves as they dine.  Maybe it’s the awesomeness of my suet recipe!?!)  I was hoping it would keep the manna out of the starling’s long reach but not shut out my “good”birds, and I’m happy to report success!  Since its installation the starlings have totally given up, my suet lasts about four times longer, and I’m not conflicted about attracting those cagey, cavity-nest hogging birds to my yard more than necessary.


Bushtits instantly accepted the new feeder, flying though the outer cage without missing a beat to get at the suet inside. Longmont, Colorado, February 2014. Photo © Bill Schmoker



Northern Flickers can still reach the suet with their long neck, long bill, and long tongue. Longmont, Colorado, February 2014. Photo © Bill Schmoker



Downy Woodpeckers took a little more time to adjust but found they could fit inside the new feeder’s outer defense perimeter. Longmont, Colorado, February 2014. Photo © Bill Schmoker



Finish your drink and move it along, partner- there’s nothing else for you here any more.  European Starling, Longmont, Colorado, January 2014. Photo © Bill Schmoker

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Bill Schmoker

Bill Schmoker

Bill is known in the birding community as a leading digital photographer of birds. Since 2001 he has built a collection of digital bird photos documenting over 640 species of North American birds. His photography has appeared in international nature publications, books, newspapers, interpretive signs, web pages, advertisements, corporate logos, and as references for art works. Also a published writer, Bill wrote a chapter for Good Birders Don't Wear White, is a past Colorado/Wyoming regional editor for North American Birds and is proud to be on the Leica Birding Team. Bill is a Colorado eBird reviewer and is especially fond of his involvement with the ABA's Institute for Field Ornithology and Young Birder Programs. Bill is a popular birding guide, speaker, and workshop instructor, and teaches middle school science in Boulder, Colorado. When he isn’t birding he enjoys family time with his wife and son.
Bill Schmoker

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