Once established, a bird feeder can attract a number of different species. Those that come will vary depending upon the time of year, what is fed, the nature of the surrounding habitat, local and continental weather conditions, and a bit of serendipity.
This section profiles some common feeder visitors, their preferred foods, and how they act when feeding. While it offers a brief description of each species, it cannot replace a good bird identification guide. If your feeder is located near a window, you may not need a pair of binoculars. On the other hand, when that new visitor makes a quick flight to a more distant tree, binoculars may provide a second opportunity to determine its identity.
WOODPECKERS: Tail feathers propped against a tree branch as the bird uses its substantial beak to chip away bark and rotted wood in search of insects are sure signs of a woodpecker. Wood- boring insects and their larvae are a major part of their diet and suet is the food of choice when most visit your feeder.
Pileated woodpecker (pictured right)
If you live near a mature woodland, you may host pileated woodpeckers at your suet feeder. Strike up a good relationship with your local meat market; this crow- sized bird can devour a lot of suet! Both the male and female have black bodies and red "Woody Woodpecker"-style crests. The male has red "moustache" marks extending downward from the corners of his beak; the female has the same markings but hers are black.
You will be lucky to see any trace of red on the belly of the robin-sized red-bellied woodpecker. Look instead for the ladder-striped pattern of black and white on the back and the broad red band which extends from the beak to the back of the head in the male. The red on the head of the female is limited to the back of the neck. While traditionally a forest species, red-bellied woodpeckers now frequent much smaller wooded areas. While a red-bellied woodpecker may visit your suet feeder, they frequently use hopper feeders, selecting a sunflower seed, peanut, or kernel of corn, then flying away to another perch where they will eat their tidbit.
This is Ohio's most common woodpecker and a frequent visitor to suet feeders. It is a small woodpecker, measuring about seven inches in length. The black back has a central white vertical stripe and the black wing feathers are marked with lines of white spots. The belly is white. Adult males have a small red patch of feathers on the backs of their heads. In juvenile males, this patch is located on the top of the head. On a quiet winter's day, you can hear the irregular tapping of downies as they inspect tree limbs for insects. They are small enough to cling to goldenrod stems as they extract grubs from their gall shelters. The hairy woodpecker, which looks very similar, is about two inches longer. Insects are the most important component of the downy's diet, but occasionally they also feed on berries. They are fond of poison ivy fruit.
JAYS: Jays belong to the crow family. They have a heavy black beak and feed on a wide range of plant and animal matter.
Blue jay (pictured right)
If they were human, blue jays would probably be characterized as raucous, intelligent, arrogant rascals. They are, however, birds and so such words are inappropriate. They are a dominant force in bird communities wherever they occur: rural, urban, hardwood, and coniferous habitats. Easily identified by the blue coloring on their back, the blue crest of feathers on their head, and the white belly. This jay eats a wide variety of insects, wild fruits, and seeds as well as the eggs and young of other birds. At a feeder, jays feed like chickadees and tufted titmice, taking a single sunflower seed to a nearby perch before shelling and eating it. The jay taking a number of seeds before leaving the feeder is probably caching them. Watch for this behavior during the fall months. Acorns sprouting in areas away from oak trees may have been planted by blue jays, again storing food supplies for the upcoming winter.
TITMICE: This family contains the "small birds": titmice and chickadees. Social, relatively fearless, agile, and active, their antics raise spirits on even the dreariest winter day. Insects are a major component of their diet and they relish suet and peanut butter/seed mixes as well as sunflower seeds. Typically, each sunflower seed is carried from the feeder to a nearby perch where it is held between the feet and chiseled open with the beak.
Chickadee (pictured right)
Two species of chickadees live in Ohio, the black-capped and the Carolina. Black- capped chickadees are found in the northern third of Ohio while Carolina chickadees are found in the central and southern portion of the state. Both are alert and seem to notice as soon as an empty feeder is refilled, sometimes perching on a nearby branch waiting for your departure. If you are willing to wait quietly by your feeder, you can often persuade chickadees to take sunflower seeds from your hand. Chickadees frequently visit suet feeders as well.
A slimmed-down model of a sparrow, gray feathers above a white belly, and a prominent crest of head feathers characterize the tufted titmouse. It often hangs upside down when inspecting branches or clings to the rough bark of the trunk in search of insects. It will feed on the ground, as well as from feeders positioned above the ground. Sunflower seeds and suet are preferred foods.
NUTHATCHES: Their family name describes the common behavior of members of this group which will wedge a seed in a bark crevice and then hack (hatch) it open. Nuthatches forage for insects on tree trunks, moving headfirst down the trunk. This may give them an opportunity to find morsels missed by woodpeckers which keep their beaks above their feet! Their jerky, "Charlie Chaplan" movements are distinctive.
White-breasted nuthatch (pictured right)
The white-breasted nuthatch is a permanent resident in Ohio's woodlands and fence rows. It is frequently found in association with chickadees and titmice but individuals will chase off other white-breasted nuthatches that dare to arrive at the feeder at the same time. Like chickadees and titmice, it prefers sunflower seeds, taking them one at a time from the feeder to a nearby tree where it can shell and eat them. Nuthatches also use suet feeders.
Most often seen as a spring or fall migrant at Ohio feeders, the red-breasted nuthatch has the characteristic shape and movements of this family. It resides in coniferous forests, unlike the white-breasted nuthatch which inhabits hardwood stands. Smaller than the white-breasted nuthatch, red-breasts have a rusty-tinted breast and a black stripe through the eye.
STARLINGS: Introduced from Europe and widespread, starlings lack the long tails of "real" blackbirds. Only one species is found in Ohio.
Aggressive and numerous, the European starling will set up its own feeding stations at open restaurant dumpsters, feed lots, indeed, anywhere food is available. The yellow beak and glossy, speckled winter plumage are striking. One can grudgingly admire its adaptability and ability as an imitator of other bird calls, but it is still unwelcome at many feeders. It often overwhelms other visitors with sheer numbers and size, and it's hard to characterize its feeding habits as anything other than gluttonous. Offering seed in tube feeders with short perches will help deter starlings who lack the agility to exploit these dispensers. Starlings also relish suet; use suet holders which only give access to the fat from below to restrict its availability to the more agile woodpeckers, titmice, chickadees, and nuthatches which are able to cling upside down as they feed.
OLD WORLD SPARROWS: Biologists assign house sparrows to the same family of birds that includes the weaver finches of Africa, known for their complex nests. This is why, when you look at your field guide, house sparrows aren't found next to song sparrows.
House sparrow (pictured right)
House sparrows are among the most predictable, most numerous, and most maligned year-round visitor to the backyard feeder. Releases of this European species were made in cities throughout the East; in Ohio, they were introduced in Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Warren in 1869. Later, releases were made in Marietta, Coshocton, Portsmouth, Steubenville, and Wapakoneta. The species did well in Ohio, taking advantage of the refuse in cities, waste grain in farm fields, and grain found in horse manure. They feed on the ground as well as at shelf feeders. Small grains, such as millet, and cracked corn are particularly favored. As unwelcome as they may be at many feeders, some people still enjoy their "spatzies."
BLACKBIRDS: Although members of this family generally resemble their name, orioles, meadowlarks, and bobolinks also belong to the group. These latter species, however, seldom visit the bird feeder (where they would be welcomed). Those blackbirds which do visit feeders generally do so in numbers, often dominating the station.
A welcome early sign of spring as they perch on old cattail stalks in roadside ditches, the occasional red-winged blackbird brings thoughts of milder weather. Males are black with a scarlet wing patch bordered with gold on the bottom. Females look like overgrown sparrows, dark brown with a heavily streaked breast. Young males resemble the adult male but lack the complete red wing patch. Red- wings often appear at feeders early in the spring but are present in the state most of the year. They frequently flock with grackles and cowbirds, forming large black clouds of birds in the fall.
Common grackle (pictured right)
The blackest of the blackbirds, in sunlight the male common grackle sports an iridescent sheen of purple, blue, and green. Females lack this sheen and are slightly smaller, about the size of a robin. Although they can be found in Ohio throughout the year, grackles are less common during the winter months. They are aggressive at feeders, eating almost anything that is offered. You can control their presence somewhat by offering food only in small feeders with short perches.
Male cowbirds are the size of a small robin. The glossy brown head and black body are distinctive. Females are a gray-brown color with a finely striped chest. Historically, cowbirds followed herds of bison as they wandered the western plains, eating grasshoppers and other insects flushed by the feet of the moving throng. Their mobile nature was made possible by their unusual nesting habits. Cowbirds lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, leaving these foster parents to hatch and rear their young. More than 100 species have been reported to raise young cowbirds in this manner. The expansion of cowbird range into the eastern U.S. has exposed a number of woodland species to this practice. Biologist believe that this parasitic relationship may be partially responsible for the decline of some species. The cowbird is a major threat to the existence of the endangered Kirtland's warbler. Cowbirds frequently visit feeders along with grackles and red- winged blackbirds. They typically feed on the ground, eating cracked corn and millet.
FINCHES: The short, conical beak is the best field mark for members of the finch family, the largest family of North American birds. The beak is well adapted for cracking seeds, a staple of their winter diet. During the summer breeding period insects often become an important food for both adults and young.
Northern cardinal (pictured right)
Ohio's state bird is also among its most familiar residents and is a frequent visitor to feeders throughout the year. Males are brilliant red with a black face mask. Females are a more subdued brown. Both have distinctive crests, tufts of feathers on the top of their head. Cardinals prefer sunflower seeds and typically feed on or near the ground, although they will fly up to hopper and shelf-type feeders.
Feeder managers brag when this winter visitor arrives at their site! Their winter migrations are unpredictable, but a flock of evening grosbeaks will quickly deplete the supply of sunflower seeds in your shelf feeder. "Gross beak" properly describes their large and powerful bill. The bird is slightly smaller than a robin; the male has a yellow body and a yellow "boomerang" which extends from his beak, back over either eye. The female is a dull brown. Both sexes have large white wing patches.
Ohio has a small population of breeding purple finches, but most are encountered at feeders during spring and fall migrations of northern populations. Their numbers vary from year to year; few feeder managers will host this colorful visitor throughout the winter. Their deeply forked tail helps separate them from the similar house finch.
House finch (pictured right)
Some of Ohio's first house finches were reported at Lake County's Holden Arboretum in January, 1964. Their ancestors were a handful of birds which were released in the 1940s by staff at a New York pet store after they learned that it was against the law to sell this West Coast native. Since then, their numbers have increased and this sparrow-sized bird is a familiar resident in Ohio's urban areas. House finches feed on a variety of seeds, including black oil sunflower, offered on the ground as well as at shelf, hopper, and tube feeders.
Both common and hoary redpolls are found in Ohio. It is very difficult to reliably identify hoary redpolls unless they are in the hand, so we group the two species here. Redpolls are erratic visitors from the north and may mix with flocks of goldfinches and pine siskins at your feeder. They are the smallest of the purple, finch-type birds which visit feeders and will take black oil sunflower seeds as well as Niger thistle from tube feeders as well as the ground.
An erratic winter visitor, more likely to stop at your feeder during the fall migration than to spend the winter there. Some years bring large flocks to Ohio. They have the distinctive finch appearance and the yellow edge on the long wing feathers and yellow wing patch make it easy to distinguish from the other "little brown birds" visiting your feeder. Sometimes they will be seen in flocks of goldfinches. They prefer small seeds, such as Niger thistle, millet, and hulled sunflower meats.
American goldfinch (pictured right)
You may be confused by the double life of the goldfinch. The males who visit your thistle seed feeder during the summer are bright yellow, with a black cap and wings. They are often called wild canaries. Their late summer molt replaces these brightly colored feathers with a more somber olive green, similar to that of the female. This common, year-round resident will also feed on black oil sunflower seeds.
Juncos are the sparrow-sized "snowbirds" that arrive in Ohio in mid-fall. To many, they herald the beginning of the winter bird feeding season. The male is slate gray with a white belly. The females and juveniles are a lighter gray with a brownish cast, particularly on their sides. The outer tail feathers of all dark-eyed juncos are white and flash a distinctive "V" pattern as they fly from the feeder. Juncos usually feed on the ground, eating seed placed there or that which has fallen from other feeders.
Tree sparrow (pictured right)
This tundra breeder winters in Ohio. It is most likely to be found scratching for seed below feeders in rural settings near its preferred habitats: weedy fields, roadsides, and edges of woodlots. The rusty cap and distinctive spot in the center of its otherwise unmarked breast make it easy to identify. It feeds on small seeds such as white millet but will also take cracked corn and sunflower seeds.
White-throated and white-crowned sparrows
Migrating white-throated and white-crowned sparrows often visit feeders in the spring and fall. They are large, as sparrows go, and feed on seeds they find on the ground. Both species have a white line on the top of the head, but this is a broader stripe on the white-crowned sparrow which also has a light-colored bill. Adult white-throated sparrows have white throats and dark bills.
Song sparrow (pictured right)
Song sparrows are small, reddish brown birds with stripes of dark brown and black on their back. The streaked breast has a large central spot. The long tail pumps up and down in flight. Although seen at many feeders, seldom do song sparrows visit in large numbers. They scratch for small seeds below feeders.