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Should we feed backyard birds? The short answer is yes, but only if done correctly and with proper expectations. There’s no better or easier way to see birds than at your backyard feeder — after all, you can bird-watch in your pajamas with a cup of coffee.
Here are my top 11 species, organized in order of abundance at Texas seed feeders.

by Cliff Shackelford

Photo © Sylvia Garcia-Smith

NORTHERN CARDINAL

In first place and so recognizable is everyone’s favorite “red bird.” Both sexes have a pointy crest atop their heads. Males are mostly bright red, while females are brownish overall with red in the bill, wings and tail. This species has a conical bill that’s perfect for cracking backyard seeds.

Photo © Anthony Louviere

CAROLINA CHICKADEE

Always dapper in its (mostly) black-and-white plumage, this active bird enjoys seeds. This bird is usually so flitty that it causes great disdain among wildlife photographers. During the early years of collecting FeederWatch data, Cornell scientists realized that many observers weren’t aware that the chickadee of the South is the Carolina, not the black-capped as many erroneously reported. The two species look and sound very similar, but despite an odd single specimen record of a black-capped in the Franklin Mountains, your go-to chickadee across the Lone Star State is the Carolina chickadee.

Photo © Sylvia Garcia-Smith

HOUSE FINCH

Often confused with the overwintering purple finch, the house finch is a year-round resident of urban settings and a fairly recent addition in the eastern half of the state. Eastern transplants have spread westward, and westward populations have spread east, ultimately creating a seamless range across the continental U.S. Look for a deeper shade of red on the head of the male house finch than the cranberry-colored purple finch; the female house finch lacks the prominent eye stripe of her close cousin. In West Texas, there’s yet a third lookalike that occasionally makes an appearance, the Cassin’s finch. When you see a “reddish finch,” consider all three when making your final identification.

Photo © Anthony Louviere

WHITE-WINGED DOVE

Few species have exploded across Texas and beyond faster than and as effortlessly as the white-winged dove. We can thank urbanization — with its backyard feeders, birdbaths and shade trees — for their successful spread. Some homeowners think they hear an unfamiliar, day-calling owl, but it usually turns out to be the deep coos of this dove. In South Texas and Central Texas, some feeder watchers have seen this species take over their feeder due to large numbers. They’ll also puff up and march straight at smaller songbirds, invariably flushing the little guys away. It is difficult to exclude one species over another at your backyard feeder, but if they become a problem, look for seed feeders that big, heavy birds have a tough time navigating.

Photo © Rob Curtis/The Early Birder

AMERICAN GOLDFINCH

This bird’s first appearance of the year usually means welcome cooler temperatures are not far behind. They also usually descend in large numbers. Winter means these goldfinches have already molted out of their bright canary-yellow plumage and traded it for their drab, olive, nonbreeding color. The contrasting black-and-white wings remain, however, which aid in the identification of this species. If your goldfinches have stopped visiting your feeder during the first hints of spring, venture outside and listen because most are high up in the trees in search of nutritious tree buds (especially elms). American goldfinches don’t nest in Texas (except for a few pairs in the eastern Panhandle), but they do sometimes linger deep into spring; if you’re lucky enough to get a male in late May or early June, you may catch a glimpse of the bright breeding plumage. Soon he’ll migrate north like the smart birds do before the hot Texas summer.

Photo © Rob Curtis/The Early Birder

BLUE JAY

This is a bird Texans take for granted. But invite a birder over who has never seen this bright, crested jay before and you’ll see through their eyes what excitement you’ve been missing. Sporting vivid colors, these raucous birds normally occur in small groups that bully their way to our seed feeders. Not only are they fun to watch, their scolding and fussing in the yard may alert us to something out of place, like a hawk, snake or neighbor’s cat. My household is “in tune” with the jay’s alarm calls; we get up to go see what all the fuss is about.

Photo © Rob Curtis/The Early Birder

CAROLINA WREN

I’m never sure if this backyard bird is visiting our seed feeder to grab a seed or just looking to join the party. This wren also shows up to feast on any tiny insects visiting the feeder, reminding us that feeders need to be cleaned regularly. Watch for this busy species to flit around with its tail cocked high in the air.

Photo © Sylvia Garcia-Smith

MOURNING DOVE

With a long, pointy tail and a small, beady head, this dove enjoys sunflower seeds whether the seeds are at the feeder, on a fresh sunflower stalk or on the ground. The best feeders for a flock of these are rural sunflower fields in late summer or early fall; their Columbidae relatives line up shoulder-to-shoulder on the power lines and fences, assessing the danger before dropping down into the field.

Photo © Anthony Louviere

NORTHERN MOCKINGBIRD

The state bird of Texas acts like the backyard police, always patrolling for oddities, especially any other fruit eaters coming to its favorite backyard shrub or berry-filled tree. While perched, this bird appears to be a bland gray, but, in flight, watch for the showy patches of white in the wings and tail. The best food you can provide this bird is a wildscape (or “landscape for wildlife”) that includes native shrubs and trees that bear fruit. Mockingbirds just have to learn to share with the other fruit eaters like waxwings and robins.

Photo © Rob Curtis/The Early Birder

HOUSE SPARROW

This non-native species, originally found in Europe and Asia, was first introduced into the U.S. in the early 1850s near Brooklyn. Within a few decades it could be found in 35 states; our state’s first sighting happened in Galveston in 1867. The bird is obviously named for its close association with humans, so it’s no surprise that this seed-eating Old World sparrow (no relation to our North American sparrows) has benefited from backyard bird feeding. This species is not popular among most bird watchers.

Photo © Rob Curtis/The Early Birder

TUFTED TITMOUSE

It’s fun to watch this feisty, crested bird feed on sunflower seeds. With one foot, they pin a seed to the limb they’re perched on and begin to hammer away to open it, using head and bill like an all-in-one hammer and chisel. After all that work, they gobble down a tasty seed that’s rich in fat, fiber, protein, several vitamins and minerals and, most importantly, calories to get them through tough times until Mother Nature can again provide her buffet.

If you love watching the parade of birds at your feeder, you’re not alone. According to a 2016 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey, 81 million people now feed birds and watch wildlife in their own backyards. These enthusiasts spend $12.1 billion annually on bird-feeding and wildlife-watching tools, $4 billion annually on birdseed and wildlife food, $960 million annually on bird feeders/birdbaths/nesting boxes and $1.8 billion annually on binoculars and spotting scopes.
Some people get frustrated when they don’t notice an immediate response to the “free” food they’ve offered. Give the birds time to find you.
TIP NO. 1: KEEP FEEDERS AT A DISTANCE AN BINOCULARS HANDY
Keep feeders a minimum of 15 feet from your windows (farther is better). One of the greatest causes of bird deaths is window collisions, so leave plenty of space for takeoffs and landings. A good pair of binoculars will help you see all the birds’ amazing details and behaviors.
TIP NO. 2: FEED ONLY DURING COLDER MONTHS; DON'T FORGET THAT OUR BIRDS WOULD RATHER EAT MOTHER NATURE'S BOUNTY INSTEAD
What we place in our feeders is merely supplemental food, not sustenance, so don’t gauge bird abundance by what’s coming (or not) to your feeder. Mother Nature’s buffet is what all species seek, but that begins to wane during winter when many plants go dormant. Supplemental feeding can really work during these barren months.
TIP NO. 3: KEEP A CAMERA HANDY IN CASE AN INTERESTING SPECIES VISITS THE FEEDER.
As a teen birder growing up in urban Dallas in the 1970s, I’ll never forget my first feeder: an old pie pan nailed to the top of a wooden post, loaded with sunflower seed and positioned about 20 feet from the window by our kitchen table. That winter, I saw the usual and expected species visit the feeder, but an unfamiliar face showed up only once: a giant-sized sparrow with a black face and throat, no pesky house sparrow. A quick check of my Peterson field guide revealed that it was a Harris’s sparrow. What a score — a “life bird” attracted to my feeder! I would have never seen this thicket-loving wintering species had it not visited my feeder, and most importantly, had my eyes not been trained on the feeder the moment the bird fed there. I’m so glad I snapped fuzzy photos to document my discovery.
TIP NO. 4: KEEP YOUR CATS INDOORS; BUILD THEM A "CATIO" (OR ENCLOSED CAT PATIO) IF YOU WANT THEM TO HAVE FRESH AIR.
Predation by domestic cats is the No. 1 direct, human-caused threat to birds in the United States. Outdoor cats kill approximately 2.4 billion birds every year. If you love your cat and your backyard birds, keep them forever separated by enjoying your feline friends only indoors, where they’ll also live a longer, healthier life.
TIP NO. 5: KEEP YOUR SEED STORED IN A COOL, DRY PLACE
Some parts of Texas have high humidity, which can harm your stored seeds. A killer fungus, aflatoxin, can accumulate on seeds and go completely unnoticed by both humans and the birds chomping down on those tainted corn kernels. Aflatoxin is odorless, and there’s not much to see, but in microscopic amounts it can be deadly.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s FeederWatch Program, a citizen science project for public winter feeder sightings, is a tremendous resource that I used to narrow down my list (feederwatch.org).
All icons © Aleksey Vanin / Dreamstime.com

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