Birding

From Bluebird Admirer to Yard Birder

How one Californian got hooked on feeding birds through different store-bought experiments.

At first, the four Western Bluebirds that live behind my California home were elusive. They’d flee past me and hide in the forest when our paths crossed. So I started leaving them food. I tried Kaytee Birders’ Blend, which includes peanuts, corn, and sunflower kernels, and noticed that they liked the latter especially. I’d spread a handful in the summer mornings or a few hours before sunset, and the bluebirds would stop by in pairs to snack. One grew particularly comfortable: It would stare me in the eye and churrr while it gathered. 

The bluebirds were my birding spark; I now notice the croaks of ravens and the mixed flocks of songbirds that fill the trees out back. I also see the shadows of hawks as they hunt around my house. The raptors’ presence makes the bluebirds cautious. Now, they appear silently on a nearby limb to signal to me for weekly feedings. 

After the success of my first feeding venture, I branched out and bought Lyric Fruit and Nut High Energy Wild Bird Mix, which contains pumpkin seeds, cherries, pistachios, and pecans intended to feed orioles, jays, and woodpeckers. So, when a black and red bird with a bulky beak started visiting my yard, I assumed it was the latter. But when I spotted an actual Acorn Woodpecker recently, I realized my backyard visitor was different. 

When running through online bird guides proved overwhelming, I consulted a local expert: Tania Romero, an education staffer and habitat-restoration expert at the Audubon Center at Debs Park. Considering my clues and observations, she said that the species in my yard must be a Red-winged Blackbird. The boldly marked male has a bigger wingspan than most feeder regulars (about 12 to 15 inches across), and shows a flash of red as it swoops to the ground. It also calls out on warm, sunny days, typically around noon—a piercing, siren-like whistle that drowns out the bluebirds. And while it has no problem tucking into the fruit-and-nut feed, it doesn't quite like my presence, always staying about 20 feet back near the woods. I've given up viewing the blackbird up close, but I hope it's enjoying its time in the neighborhood.

I'm planning to stick with the Lyric mix because it's drawing more birds and more species than the Kaytee blend. (The resident crows, which help chase away hawks, could be another factor.) My guests devour every single piece, singing their praises and filling my day with chirps. But I'm still vying for that woodpecker. This week, with Romero's advice, I went back to hang a suet feeder on the tree where I first met the acorn bird. I scheduled my trip for 8:30 a.m.—exactly when I sighted the clownish individual last—and dropped some mix into the grass. Looking up, I noticed two woodpeckers scuttling around the trunk. They didn't stay long, though; after grabbing a nut or two, they both flew off.

Like the blackbird and unlike the bluebirds, the woodpeckers are probably shy around me. When I checked on the suet (a vegetable-based option I picked up at PetSmart) yesterday, it had four holes drilled into its surface. I'll take it as a sign to continue to my visits, in hopes that my acorn friends will become as interested in my offerings as they are in pecking trees.

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