By Jon Friedman
(This article was recently updated from its original 2011 publication in The Wild Bird Store Newsletter.)
Birders know that Southeastern Arizona provides some of the premier bird watching experiences in North America, and this presents year round opportunities as every season offers excellent birding. Winter birding can be every bit as satisfying as any other season. Backyard birding may be birding at its casual best, yet an astonishing number of species can be attracted to our feeders and houses. The general rule of thumb is that the wider variety of food types you offer to birds – the wider the variety of species you will be able to attract.
Most species have their food preferences. Some, like the goldfinches, prefer Nyjer thistle seed and will neglect almost everything else. Others, such as cardinals, will eat a wider variety of seeds besides their preferred sunflower and safflower seeds. In fact, the cardinal family (Northern Cardinal, Pyrrhuloxia, and the grosbeaks) will also frequent suet feeders, feeders for peanuts and/or tree nuts, fruit feeders, kibble feeders, and feeders for live or dehydrated insects and feeders filled with our insect meal (Nuts ‘n’ Bugs.)
We encourage you to experiment and discover what works best for the birds that come to your backyard feeding station. Of course, you can always talk to our staff to get answers to any questions you may have.
Alternate Use Suet Feeder
I usually keep a wide variety of feeders available all year, including nectar feeders. Additionally, I offer leftovers and kitchen scraps in a wire suet feeder. The birds that are familiar with this “ever-changing” feeder actively seek anything I put out in this improvised “potpourri” feeder.
Over the years, I have used a wide variety of human foods in this type of feeder. I have offered cooked meats and fats, fruits, salad vegetables, grains and baked goods, pasta, and even dry dog kibbles. Birds may be hesitant to try new foods for the first time, but persistence pays off. While you may waste some of these foods after their initial introduction, those foods can be emptied to the ground where they will be eaten and the feeders can thereby be refilled. Once the birds accept this new feeder, I’ve found that they more readily accept almost any foods I use to restock it. I have fed birds leftover pasta (with and without sauce); most cooked meats (with the exception of pork, which is not good to offer birds); fruits that they may not have experienced before such as kiwi, star fruit, papaya, guava, exotic melons, and others. Occasionally, I scramble up some eggs, using the crushed eggshells for extra calcium, and put it in that feeder, as well. I usually add fresh garlic and hot pepper seeds to the eggs, which birds are known to favor, for extra nutrition and flavor.
I provide a variety of seeds and seed feeders for the seed eaters that visit my backyard. I always have at least one or two feeders for their favorite mix, our Song Bird Blend mix. This is a high-quality recipe featuring small black oil sunflower, safflower, canary, and millet seeds. (Our seeds are delivered fresh every week, unique in Tucson.) I also have two or three other seed feeders filled with individual seeds to attract seed eaters with strong feeding preferences and which prefer not to tolerate other species at their feeder.
Seed vs. Grain
Song Bird Blend is our most popular mix and has proven itself with our customers for a variety of reasons. It is an all seed blend with no added grains. Grains are usually used in almost all commercial mixes as it adds bulk and weight to the bag at a lower cost than all seed mixes. Folks who cannot distinguish between real seeds and commonly used grains (usually milo, wheat berries, cracked corn, and various types of oats) will purchase what I call “economy mixes” from discount chains, franchises, big box stores, hardware stores, nurseries, etc. They are priced cheaply as they contain only a small percentage of actual seed that birds prefer and are composed mostly of inexpensive grains that seed-eating birds will drop onto the ground. The cheaper the mix, the more filler and bulk these mixes contain. The cheapest of these economy mixes may even contain a fair amount of grain, dust, dirt and small pebbles and plant by-products, all of which are inedible, but add to the weight and bulk of the bag. For a more complete explanation of why certain seeds and mixes are preferred over low-cost grain mixes see our article, Myths and Facts Concerning Feeding Wild Birds, in our archive of birding articles on our website, wildbirdsonline.com.
Further, I provide lots of Nyjer thistle feeders (currently I have eight) for all the goldfinches. In winter, it is possible to attract the migratory Lawrence’s and American Goldfinches, and the Pine Siskins, in addition to the two Lesser Goldfinches that are year round residents. I have always enjoyed the goldfinches and usually have at least 100 of them present at almost any time of the day.
Jon's Thistle Feeders
I have multiple species-specific cardinal feeders for my Northern Cardinal and Pyrrhuloxia regulars and the occasional Black-headed, Blue, and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks that also share those feeders. Our Cardinal Mix is the superior mix for those feeders – superior to any other mixes or single seed. Cardinal Mix is composed of small black oil sunflower seeds, safflower seed, large black-striped sunflower seeds, sunflower hearts, hemp seed, and peanut kernels. Our cardinal feeders continue to be best-selling items year after year, as they only feed the desired birds and disallow all other birds, both larger and heavier and smaller and lighter. This pleases the cardinal families and they use their feeders in greater numbers each successive year.
Cardinal enjoying some seed in Justin & Clarisa's Yard
Throughout Southeastern Arizona, this region is the winter home to many species of exotic and rare sparrow species. Common House Sparrows can be nuisance birds, especially in large numbers. In cases such as that, using a “magic halo” will enable you to sparrow-proof your feeders. This technique is 99% effective in not allowing sparrows to feed from feeders. I have given directions on making a simple “magic halo” to dozens of customers and none have reported back to me that it was not successful in defeating sparrows. In fact, most of the folks who have tried using this method of sparrow-proofing their feeders have reported back to us that they were usually 99% effective! Effusive thanks were our reward!
Winter months do reliably bring a wide variety of the more “exotic” sparrows to Southeastern Arizona each year. To see some of the most rare sparrow species, you may have to travel to one of their known wintering grounds, where habitat and natural foods are ideal for those species. But, many species can be attracted to backyards with dove-proof ground platform feeders or scattering the right seeds directly on the ground. Sparrows are true ground-feeding birds and will easily use ground feeders, but must otherwise learn to use elevated feeders. Magic halos will prevent sparrows from using any given elevated feeder or the ground beneath the feeder!
Most birders are familiar with the White-crowned and Black-throated Sparrows they see in their yards during the winter months. The Black-throated Sparrow, while small, can belt out some of the best bird songs heard in the Sonoran Desert. And, many birders know to carefully survey a small flock of White-crowned sparrows to find the occasional Golden-crowned Sparrow mixed in with the flock. The Golden-crowned Sparrow is relatively rare and strikingly similar in appearance.
More Exotic Sparrows
Other exotic sparrow species that can be observed in our region, and sometimes in our own backyards, include Rufous-crowned and Rufous-winged, Cassin’s, Sage, Black-chinned, Brewer’s, Chipping, Baird’s, Grasshopper, Savannah, Vesper, Lark, White-throated, Fox and Slate-colored Fox, Song, Savannah, and Lincoln’s Sparrows. A few, perhaps even more exotic, sparrow species can be found in what’s considered more rarified habitats in Southeastern Arizona. These include, but are not limited to, Botteri’s, American Tree, Field, Clay-colored, Le Conte’s, Harris’s, and Swamp Sparrows.
Other members of the larger sparrow family that are regular winter visitors to our region include the towhees and the juncos. While we enjoy seeing and feeding the two more inconspicuous year round resident desert towhees, the Abert’s and the Canyon Towhees, other flashy and more colorful towhees grace our landscape in the winter months. They are the Western Spotted (formerly the Rufous-sided) and the Green-tailed Towhees. Eastern and California (formerly Brown) Towhees are not usually seen in our region. The Spotted Towhee of the American west is distinctively field-marked with white spots and wing bars, making it easy to distinguish from the other towhees. The Green-tailed Towhee lives up to its name displaying a greenish tail and flight feathers that contrast with its bright Rufous crown, which it can make erect when it is alarmed or excited. Towhees are the largest members of the sparrow family. All towhees are natural ground feeding birds that will also use ground and/or platform feeders. I sometimes see towhees that fly up to my quail platform feeder, which is almost six feet above ground level. On the ground or in a platform feeder they will pick at a scratch mix but I find they prefer real seeds, especially finch mix or white proso millet.
Winter months are also the best for seeing juncos, the birds that inspired the catch-phrase “snowbirds.” There are several species of juncos; all are relatively small, slender, cleanly marked sparrows with bright white outer tail feathers. The tail pattern is the simplest, quickest means to identify them from other sparrows and similar species. There are two types of juncos – Dark-eyed and Yellow-eyed Juncos. There are several sub-species of the Dark-eyed Juncos and the single Yellow-eyed Junco, often referred to as the Mexican Junco. Yellow-eyed Juncos occupy extensive range in Mexico, but the only reliable location for seeing this bird in the United States is in Southeastern Arizona. Of the several sub-species of the Dark-eyed Juncos, only the Oregon, Pink-sided, and Gray-headed are found in in our part of the state with regularity. The Slate-colored Junco can be found only in the extreme southeastern corner and the northeastern corner of the state. The Red-backed Junco is rarely found in the southern part of the state but is commonly found in Rim country and the White Mountains. Most junco’s typical habitats are mountain ranges, but these birds can be found in a wide variety of elevations and habitat, particularly when traveling between summer and winter ranges. Like most other sparrow members, they are typically ground feeding but may alight on an open platform feeder installed above ground level. Finch mix or white proso millet will attract them better than most other larger seeds. They will also eat Nyjer thistle on the ground. Like all sparrows, the towhees and juncos prefer seeds in the winter and insects in the summer months.
Gambel’s Quail are easily attracted to grain and/or seed mixes and are known for eating a wide variety of fruits, especially berries. Various seed and/or grain mixes are compressed into dense blocks or cylinders and are a popular way to attract and feed quail. Gambel’s are the most common quail in the Tucson basin, but three other species can be found in the outlying areas. The Masked Bobwhite Quail can only be found on and near the Buenas Aires Wildlife Refuge in the grasslands southwest of Tucson. While they were found there and in a couple of other locations south of the border in Mexico, overgrazing by cattle eliminated most of the native grasses they needed to survive and hunting has also taken its toll on this species. Birds seen in Arizona are a result of the ongoing efforts of captive breeding that takes place on the refuge. The Scaled and Montezuma Quail occupy grassy foothills and lower mountain elevations in Southeastern Arizona. Unlike the Gambel’s species, the Scaled and Montezuma Quail are quite secretive and hard to flush, making them especially interesting, and challenging, to both hunters and birders alike.
Quail eating seed and grain block
Roadrunners are fairly common throughout the region and frequent backyard bird feeding stations regularly. While they rely primarily on prey they hunt, they can be taught to feed out of our hands. Most folks who hand-feed roadrunners usually use cooked hamburger meat or Nuts ‘n’ Bugs insect meal. Some of our customers use a blend of both, claiming their best results using the combination. Otherwise, in the wild, roadrunners will hunt and eat almost anything they can catch - including a variety of insects and grubs, fruits, lizards and toads, snakes, frogs, birds and bird eggs. I’ve observed roadrunners eating a variety of snakes and once came upon a roadrunner and a Gila Monster fighting. I broke up the fight as I knew the roadrunner would win and I figured there may be more roadrunners than Gila Monsters, so I wanted the Gila Monster to live to see another day.
Hummingbirds are ever present in our corner of the state, and we have more species than any other region of the country with the only possible exception being the much larger Texas/Mexico border. Along the Rio Grande, Texas birders can see a couple of Mexican hummingbird species that we do not get in Arizona. Our nectar is the best at attracting hummers, and considerably safer than just providing simple sugar water, but an overripe banana placed near one of their feeders will attract generations of fruit flies and gnats that the hummers will eliminate with gusto.
Woodpeckers, Flickers and Sapsuckers
The woodpecker family grows more numerous in species during the winter months here. Alongside the resident Gila and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, winter months will bring the colorful Lewis’ into our area. In the outlying areas the Acorn and the Arizona (also called the Strickland’s and Brown-backed) Woodpeckers are found in nearby mountain ranges. Our rare but locally common Gilded Flickers are joined in winter months by the more widespread Red-shafted Northern Flicker. Both can be observed in open areas, on the ground, eating ants – their favorite food. Flickers are the largest members of the woodpecker family, with the Red-shafted reaching over a foot long. Of the four sapsucker species found in North America, only the Williamson’s and Red-naped Sapsuckers are commonly seen in Southern Arizona. The other two, the Red-breasted and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, have been recorded in Arizona but they would be considered rare birds here. All the sapsuckers are long-winged, generally quiet and inconspicuous. They drill rows of holes, usually horizontal, in tree bark, returning later to drink sap and eat the insects that are attracted to the sap. A great way to observe certain warbler species is to find some live sapsucker holes and wait and watch. I once spent several winter months watching a rare Cape May Warbler in mid-town Tucson that kept returning, about every twenty minutes, to a row of sapsucker holes on an elm tree to feed on insects attracted to the sap. The Red-naped sapsucker that drilled the holes would also return on a frequent schedule and after he left the male warbler visited the same site with some regularity. This behavior was observed from November to March, when the Cape May Warbler finally left the area.
Insectivores and Cedar Waxwings
Titmice, chickadees, nuthatches, creepers, and most wren species will be attracted to nuts, sunflower hearts, no-melt suets, and gorp (homemade peanut butter mixtures). All these same species are easily attracted to Nuts ‘n’ Bugs insect meal. It can be pushed into the textured bark of trees or used in an appropriate feeder. Mockingbirds and thrashers can be attracted using fruits, Nuts ‘n’ Bugs, some suet flavors, and nuts of various kinds. Kinglets will eat similar foods but I once observed a Ruby-crowned Kinglet feeding upside down on a Nyjer thistle tube feeder. Cedar Waxwings are best seen in our area during winter months and they are best attracted to berries of all types, including inedible (to humans, at least) pyracantha and grape ivy berries. Cedar waxwings usually travel in flocks, sometimes quite large. I’ve watched flocks feasting on wild berries (mostly hackberries) at Muleshoe Ranch Preserve. I’ve seen them strip every pyracantha berry off the bushes in my old Sam Hughes neighborhood in mid-town. And, I watched a particularly large flock (about 200) of waxwings take three days to finish off a large harvest of grape ivy berries in Bisbee. These same birds can be attracted to your backyard feeding station using plumped raisins and/or currents; apple slices, and interestingly, canned peas!
Warblers are present year round here but winter will bring some species that aren’t here in summer months. Most warblers can be attracted to Nuts ‘n’ Bugs, no-melt suet, gorp, and some even prefer nectar, when it’s accessible to them – such as in a test tube feeder. As I mentioned earlier, I have observed a warbler on a thistle feeder but, simply put, water is the best attraction for most species of warblers, especially activated water such as artificial streams, fountains, and bird baths with wigglers, drippers or misters attached to them. The handsome Wilson’s Warblers are frequent visitors at many Tucson backyards that have activated water features
Experiment and Have Fun!
Try experimenting with various foods and you may be pleased to discover a new species or two that you haven’t observed in your yard before. Remember variety is the spice of life and increasing the variety of foods you offer birds will surely increase the variety and number of species you can observe. Have fun!