Backyard bird feeders: Free seed inspires an entertaining battle of the beaks


A house finch helps itself to sunflower seeds at a feeder in John Kelly's back yard Sunday. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
John Kelly
Columnist July 20

I think my back yard has reached peak bird.

That’s the point at which not a single bird can be added, so great is the number of swarming, feathered visitors.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

We have three feeders in the back yard, each filled with a different food: sunflower seeds, thistle, suet. There’s a little tray of water, too. We’ve always had a steady flow of birds partaking of this free, all-you-can-eat buffet, but in the last month, the numbers have exploded, as if our address is scrawled on the avian equivalent of truck-stop bathrooms all across the Americas: “For a good time, visit the Kellys.”

There are sparrows, cardinals, blue jays, goldfinches, tufted titmice, chickadees, flickers, downy woodpeckers, nuthatches, wrens, ostriches (just seeing if you’re paying attention), catbirds, blackbirds, starlings. . . .

Sometimes it looks as if I coated the feeders in glue and rolled them in a tray full of birds.


A blue jay sits atop a suet feeder in John Kelly's back yard on July 9. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

“Please, guys don’t be greedy,” I say out the window as they jockey at the feeders. But they ignore me. The other morning I watched as a red-bellied woodpecker used its hypodermic needle-like beak to try to pop the pesky sparrows it thought were hogging all the food.

I couldn’t blame him. A few months back, a reader chided me for mentioning in my column that sparrows were “meek.” Not so, he said, and now I see his point. I didn’t think sparrows were much into suet — those blocks of fat, often studded with seeds — but I was wrong. The sparrows can consume an entire 12-ounce brick in a matter of hours. It’s frightening to watch them whittle it down, like seeing piranhas go after an unlucky villager who’s fallen into the Amazon from his dugout canoe.

You may be wondering: What about the squirrels, those nemeses of backyard birders? So glad you asked. Not long ago I bought a squirrel-resistant feeder. It’s surrounded by a wire mesh that is weight-sensitive. Birds have no problem perching on the feeder, but when a squirrel grabs onto it, the mammal’s weight pulls down on the mesh, shutting off access to the seed portals.

The thing actually works. For a while, squirrels tried to defeat it. One used to cling to the pole across from the feeder, a single paw outstretched, as if sheer force of will could cause the seeds to issue forth. If squirrels ever develop telekinetic powers, there might be trouble, but for now the squirrels — up to four at a time (plus the occasional chipmunk) — scavenge around underneath the feeder for bits of seed the messy birds have dropped.

It’s a little sad, actually. The squirrels look like busted gamblers rooting around on the floor at a racetrack in search of discarded betting slips that might be worth a few pennies.

We’ve had some unusual visitors this summer, species that have me reaching for the Peterson field guide we keep in the kitchen cabinet next to “The Joy of Cooking” and “The Great American Chocolate Chip Cookie Book.”

I think we’ve seen an oriole, though I can’t be sure; it may have been a rose-breasted grosbeak. A pileated woodpecker has sampled our suet. It’s a massive thing, reminiscent of a pterodactyl. When it swoops into our back yard, it’s like a jumbo jet landing on a grass airfield. All of the other birds hang back, giving it a wide berth.

There can sometimes be a desperate vibe to the backyard proceedings. It’s that time of year when baby birds aren’t really so little anymore, yet they stubbornly cling to their dependency. I get a kick out of the two juvenile blue jays I see begging for food from their parents. They’re just as big as their parents, but they adopt a pathetic stance, crouching down, fluttering their wings, opening their beaks, imploring mom and dad to regurgitate some tasty treat.

They remind me of teenagers.

And maybe that’s why I like watching the birds: They remind me of people. Some are plain, some are beautiful. Some are greedy, some hold back and wait their turn. Unlike with people, though, when I tire of birds, all I have to do is clap my hands and watch them fly away.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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