Attracting Songbirds to Your Backyard

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9781609617547: Attracting Songbirds to Your Backyard
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The best ways to attract melodic birds, with insight into their rapidly changing habits The American robin and northern cardinal are two of the best-loved songbirds, but newer backyard arrivals, like rose-breasted grosbeaks and scarlet tanagers, quickly captivate with their vivid colors and unique songs. Bird lovers will learn to attract new visitors by offering treats that songbirds like best, such as soft, easy-to-peck foods that closely mimic caterpillars, their top food preference. And planting just a few carefree perennials and shrubs can provide opportunities for cover and nesting.
Sally Roth's Attracting Songbirds to Your Backyard draws on the latest science and 50 years of observation to reveal these fascinating details:

· In the wee hours, it's the robins that sing first, followed by the babble of house wrens and the whistle of cardinals

· Some birds learn birdsongs throughout their lives, while others stop learning once they can mimic their parents' song

· It's Dad, not Mom, who teaches the young birds to sing

Simple tips, ideas, and recipes, as well as an understanding of why songbirds are coming from the treetops into the backyard, will help any bird enthusiast create a songbird sanctuary.

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

About the Author:

SALLY ROT H is a lifelong gardener, naturalist, sought-after public speaker, and author of many books on gardening and birding. She lives in New Harmony, IN, and Fort Collins, CO.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:


The Joy of Songbirds


Meet the Singers

Whether we're listening to Bach's Brandenburg Concertos or listening to a robin singing in the backyard, music touches us in a place that words alone can't reach. Birdsong tickles our emotions in a way that simply watching a bird at the feeder can never do.

Music is magic that way—it creates a connection that feels personal to every one of us who's listening. And that connection isn't only about the music itself. Just as the smell of cinnamon can make us remember Mom's apple pie, and Mom's kitchen, and Mom herself, everything else connected with the moment we heard the music comes back, too.

Same thing with birdsong: It's uplifting, inspiring, and just as connected to our emotions. And it adds a deeper level of enjoyment of our birds. Their music tells us they're nearby, and it feels like they're talking to us. Whether or not we know who's singing, we can listen to and appreciate the music of our backyard birds.

And when we do learn a few distinctive songs, like the bubbling, joyful waterfall of notes from our house wren, we can greet our little friend personally every time we hear him, as well as when he stops by for a bite of suet.

It may sound corny, but we all know it's true: Listening to a singing bird makes us happy. That is, if we take the time to stop a minute, tilt our heads, and actually listen.

I'm always saying, "Listen! Hear that bird?" to my young friends—and to my not-so-young friends. Often I'll name the bird, the way my own mother used to do when she taught me to pay attention to the little wonders all around us.

The reaction is always the same. No matter how busy our day is, no matter how many tasks are still on that to-do list, we can't help but smile when we stop and listen to a singing bird.

Songbirds are especially beloved among our avian friends, and the better we get to know them, the more we can provide for their needs and encourage them to make their homes in our neighborhoods where we can enjoy their beautiful music. In this chapter, we'll explore some songbird basics. We'll take a look at our own emotional connection with music, and how ornithologists—as well as we backyard bird lovers—decide which birds qualify as singers. We'll examine the reasons behind birdsong, too, and we'll talk about which birds you can expect to hear and when. You'll also find practical tips for bringing more songbird music into your own backyard.


Many years ago, back when playing vinyl LPs was the way we listened to music, a friend who was cleaning out her record collection gave me an album of birdsongs. "I never play it," she explained. "I'd rather just listen to the birds without trying to figure out who's who."

I happily accepted the gift, took it home to our cabin in the flat Indiana farmland, and put it on top of the three or four LPs already waiting to play on my stereo. Turning the volume low so it wouldn't interfere with family conversation, I hit the start switch and went to tidying up and cooking dinner.

The music on the stereo was just a pleasant background sound as I worked. Although occasionally I hummed along to a song or two, most of it barely entered my consciousness as I chatted with my family and stirred my pots and pans. Then my friend's album dropped onto the turntable and started to play. The weird, quavering call I heard was soft but unmistakable. And I'd forgotten all about the record.

"Oh my gosh, it's a loon! Listen!" I cried, dropping my spoon and hurrying to open the door so I could get a better listen. "What in the world is a loon doing here?"


A Matter of Timing


Browse through a box of old greeting cards in an antique shop and you'll notice that doves are a popular theme on valentines, anniversary cards, and other messages of love. Maybe it's because these songbirds are so prone to public displays of affection. "Billing and cooing" is exactly what doves do: avian beak-to-beak kissing, plus plenty of "Cooo-cooo-coo."

Mourning doves, and the larger, paler Inca doves that are replacing them in some regions, are early nesters. They begin cooing right around Valentine's Day in many areas; in warmer places, they may breed year-round.

It's easy to attract your own pair of lovebirds. Just pour some cracked corn and millet in a low feeder and add a sturdy, low-level basin of water alongside it.

Even after I had finished laughing at myself for being fooled by the recording, my head was still filled with memories of an evening on a lonely lake in the Far North, sunset streaking the still water, the white bones of birches against near-black spruces. And the haunting voices of loons.

Loons are hardly backyard songbirds (well, maybe if you live on a lake in the North Woods). But the connection of music and memory works the same way with even a humble robin. Just hearing the first notes of that familiar song evokes the scents, the sounds, the sights of spring, and most of all, the happy feelings of other spring-times in which a singing robin played a part. Music: It's magic.


Songbirds are our nearest and dearest backyard friends. We quickly forge a personal connection with the singers in our backyards: That's our robin singing, our house finch holding forth, our cardinal feeding his mate a sunflower seed, our oriole pausing between bites of a fresh orange to whistle a few notes.

Sure, we love the downy woodpeckers at our suet, too, and all of the other birds who squawk or chirp instead of bursting into lyrical song. But songbirds add something special—the beauty of their music, to be sure, but also because their voices let us know when they're around. Who can resist looking up into the branches when a Baltimore oriole starts to sing? And once a pair of orioles or other songbirds chooses our yard as their home, the daily songfests just strengthen our connection with the happy couple. We're as territorial as birds are, which is why it feels so special when a robin makes its nest in the wreath on our front door, or a family of bluebirds comes to our feeder. Now we can really claim them as our own special backyard friends.

And these delightful birds happily share our yards with us. They're around every day, making use of our birdbaths, our feeders, our plants, and raising their families in our birdhouses, bushes, and trees.

Even when the season of singing finally comes to an end, songbirds keep their friendship with us. Thanks to new foods on the market or made at home, those songbirds who don't migrate may become year-round neighbors, spending at least part of their day in our yards. Those who do move along to warmer climes will visit our yards to say farewell in fall—and gladden our hearts when they return in spring.


The earliest singers are birds we already know. They're year-round residents of our backyards and neighborhoods, part of the crowd that comes to our feeders in every season. In winter, they sample our suet, scratch in our winter gardens, and visit our hollies, hawthorns, and crabapples for berries.

Other singers—including the most musical as well as the most beautiful of our backyard birds, such as thrushes and orioles—arrive later in spring. They're our part-time friends who raise their families with us, but spend winter in warmer places. Some of them winter in our own American South, so, depending on where you live, you may get to enjoy these species even in winter—or all year, in the case of brown thrashers, house wrens, and some other species that roam the South year-round. Other songbirds fly to Mexico or Central or South America, and their return is a welcome part of spring. During migration, songbirds may stop off en route, even if your region isn't part of their nesting or wintering grounds.

The spring migration of the sprightly little birds called wood warblers, for instance, is a yearly late-spring thrill in many regions, even though many of these tiny songbirds are only passing through on their way to nesting grounds in the Far North. Surprise visitors are part of the fun of songbirds, too—individuals may get blown off course by storms on their long journey, or otherwise go far afield, showing up unexpectedly in your backyard.

Not all of our backyard birds are songbirds, though. Some of our year-round birds, as well as some migrant species, hardly sing more than a note or two, let alone a whole melody.

Those who belong to the glee club are something special.

As Thrilling as the First Daffodil

Anticipation is a big part of the joy of songbirds. Their songs are seasonal efforts, not year-round, so hearing those first notes makes our hearts sing, too.

When our black-capped chickadees shift into their two-note love songs—hey, spring is coming! Not only can we look forward to a chickadee family in the birdhouse and fuzzy-headed babies at the feeder, we can also start dreaming about daffodils and all the other glories of spring. That's pretty good for a two-note song.

Trick or Treat

Next time you make a batch of oatmeal cookies—with or without raisins or nuts—pop a few into a zip-top plastic bag for the freezer. When wrens, bluebirds, robins, or thrushes show up in your backyard, crumble the cookies into bits in a feeder for a tempting songbird treat. Native sparrows and juncos like cookies, too.

What Is a Songbird?

Songbird seems like an easy word to define. A bird that sings a pretty song, right?

Not so fast.

The first question to ask is: What is a song?

Music is a matter of taste. What's music to my ears may not be pleasing to yours.

Bach or blues? Yes, please!

Modern jazz or that amazing double-toned Tibetan throat singing? Uh, maybe in small doses.

Hip-hop? Better ask someone younger than me.

It's easy to agree on the super singers among the songbirds. None of us would argue that a wood thrush, say, isn't definitely a songbird. Its voice even resembles the sound of one of our own instruments—the beautiful, breathy sound of a flute.

But what about a killdeer? Its call—crying its own name over and over—is distinctive, all right. But is it music?

Depends on who's listening. To most of us, the answer is no, in the killdeer's case. It's an ear-catching call, to be sure. But it's not a song in the traditional sense of music.

In our own backyards, though, each of us gets to be the music critic, and the judge of who's a songbird and who's not. Who knows? Maybe listening to our birds can even help us gain an appreciation for discordant jazz or Tibetan throat singing, as well as the Baroque beauty of Bach.

Whistle, Warble, Trill, or Buzz?

Music is a matter of taste, so I've used a fairly broad definition of music when deciding which birds to include in this book. You'll find birds with warbling, melodic songs, such as our beloved house wren and American robin. But you'll also find chickadees, phoebes, and other birds whose songs are very simple, as well as some birds with near-monotone trills, like the dark-eyed junco and the chipping sparrow.

Here's how I'd describe the voices of the birds that you will or won't find in this book:

Super singers.

These birds are the standouts, with long, complicated, melodic songs. Thrushes and robins, natch; brown thrashers, welcome to the club; indigo buntings, house wrens, finches, rose-breasted grosbeaks, not a doubt.

Subdued singers.

You may have to stand just five feet from a brown creeper to hear its sweet little song, but its voice is most definitely melodic. Bluebirds don't sing loudly or long, either, but their lilting voices are simply beautiful.

Two-or three-note singers.

If the bird only gives this call in breeding season, it's a song. Chickadees, phoebes, wood peewees—they're all welcome in the songbird circle, even though they're not hugely musical.


If a bird makes only a single-note call—think of a downy or hairy woodpecker—sorry, it's not a songbird. But if it rapidly repeats that note, with slight variation in pitch, that turns it into a trill. Now we've got a singer, like a chipping sparrow or junco with its near-monotone trill, or a prairie warbler or hermit warbler with a slightly more musical trill.

Sorry, shriekers and squawkers.

Tone of voice matters, too. Birds with nonmusical voices, those that chatter, rattle, scream, or shriek, aren't included in this book unless they also have a musical song up their sleeve. So, yes, you'll find the Carolina wren, because it has a musical song in addition to its rattlesnake- like chirr. But, no, even though I wanted to stretch it, I just couldn't see calling nuthatches "songbirds."

And, of course, only birds of the backyard.

There are no loons in this book, no matter how much I love them. Nor other waterfowl, nor birds of the marshes, deep forests, and other natural places- unless they visit backyards, too.

Science versus Common Sense

Use the word songbird around ornithologists, especially taxonomists whose work is classifying birds, and you're likely to see them roll their eyes. They don't define birds that way.

To us bird lovers, the word simply means a bird with a pretty song. But musical talent isn't how birds are classified. Scientists identify them by physical characteristics first—the structure of their body parts—not by the sound of their voices.

Still, voice does enter into it, because the structure of a bird's vocalizing equipment (its syrinx, tongue, and related parts) is one of the factors that taxonomists use to decide which bird belongs in which classification.

But first come the feet.

Check Those Tootsies

In layman's terms, we can think of birds in just two categories: passerines (or perching birds) and nonpasserines.

Members of the order Passeriformes, the passerine birds, have four toes, three pointing forward and one pointing back. That means their legs and feet are adapted to grasp a branch. They're birds that perch. And that category includes a huge majority of our backyard birds, everybody from robins to chickadees to starlings—nearly all of our songbirds, plus a handful of nonmusical types, such as jays and crows.

So who's not a percher? Picture how your backyard birds move about at your feeders or on your trees, and you'll quickly realize that nuthatches and woodpeckers have a much different way of hanging on: They cling. Sorry, fellas—you just don't have the right kind of feet to be passerines, which means you can't scientifically be called songbirds.

Hummingbirds, swallows, martins, and swifts aren't passerines, either. Neither are hawks, owls, ducks, herons, and other birds who are distinctly different from our songbirds in body structure. Even though their toes may be arranged in passerine fashion, they get put in their own orders because of other, bigger differences. But for our purposes we can lump them all together as non-passerines. And, according to ornithologists, non-passerines aren't songbirds.

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9781609617530: Attracting Songbirds to Your Backyard

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ISBN 10:  1609617533 ISBN 13:  9781609617530
Publisher: Rodale, 2012

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Roth, Sally
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ISBN 10: 1609617541 ISBN 13: 9781609617547
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