Winter wonderland – sparrows and warblers

Yesterday, as I walked through my yard, I was surprised to see groups of daffodils sticking up their heads; it seemed rather early to me but last year we had early signs of spring as well. It is a big contrast to our weather conditions less than a month ago, though. On the 17th of January, our town was surprised by 11-12 inches of beautiful, powdery snow.

  

  

 

While our southern area often has a couple instances of (light) snow and/or an ice storm in the winter, our climate is generally fairly mild and temperatures in the 50s and 60s Farenheit are not uncommon during winter. So the brief but heavy snowfall was quite an event; our streets were empty of traffic as everyone stayed home and watched the falling flakes.

Some people built snowmen, others went sledding and walking, and some of us spent hours filling our bird feeders and watching the birds. I also made an attempt to photograph some frozen bubbles, which was very challenging since it was windy during the entire winter weather event.

  

The snow began slowly melting a bit the next day, which made some of the icicles on the house elongate to a length of almost 3-4 feet, but it wasn’t until Friday and Saturday that the snow and ice really started disappearing.

My yard looked beautiful, but I spent time on the 17th repeatedly knocking snow off the bird feeders and heated birth bath so that the birds could reach the food and water.

  

   

Although I saw a couple squirrels and the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) also came by, I didn’t see other mammals like chipmunks, raccoons, opossums. But I had 25 different bird species come by on Wednesday and Thursday; on Friday and Saturday, two more species came by. I’d like to share some snow day photos of them all in this and the next few blogs.

First up are the sparrows and warblers. The chipping sparrows (Spizella passerina) usually get their seed from the hanging feeders in the front and back yards but now they were looking everywhere for a bite to eat. I had strewn some seed on the ground and they began looking there.

One found a trove of food and another came by asking to be fed, a request the first sparrow accommodated quite sweetly.

 

 

The white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) have an opposite feeding strategy, usually feeding on the ground and occasionally venturing up to a feeder. They, too, searched under the snow for some food.

 

The pine warblers (Setophaga pinus) tend to be rather shy; only very rarely does a pair visit together. Mostly, one shows up at a time; their beautiful yellow color was really highlighted against the white background.

 

The pine warblers did have to brave a bad-tempered bird to get to the feeders. One of the six resident yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata) has become very territorial, chasing away some other yellow-rumped warblers, the ruby-crowned kinglets and the pine warbler – in other words, the birds his size or smaller. He allows a couple other yellow-rumps to feed peacefully and I think perhaps they are his family members so that he tolerates them. He didn’t stop the other small birds from coming around, however, as we’ll see in the next blog.

 

“Nuts” for nuts!

A primary source of nutrition for many birds is nuts.This high-calorie food provides them with dietary fat, which can be especially welcome during the colder months. As nuts ripen, you can see the birds flying by, carrying acorns and beechnuts, as well as seeds of various kinds. Some birds are especially suited to eating nuts with their thicker, cone-shaped bills, which are shaped to help them crack open pods and seed cases. Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), sparrows, grosbeaks, finches and woodpeckers are seed and nut lovers.

I had been lax in providing my yard birds with these culinary treats except for sunflower seeds and the seed pods in my yard trees. So one day early last year, I purchased a nut and seed holder and proceeded to give them peanuts, which are not actually nuts but the seed of a legume (Arachis hypogaea). This makes no difference to the birds like the Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) of course.

I first tried peanuts in the shell and an occasional blue jay and tufted titmouse would stop by. However, they didn’t seem to want to put much time into removing the nuts from the shells and I didn’t really want the shells littering the ground either.

Then in the spring I put out some shelled peanuts from a container I’d bought for my own consumption and the avian visitors were delighted. Reading about peanut feeding informed me that I should avoid giving salted peanuts. I couldn’t readily find unsalted ones at the grocery store, so I began removing the salt, either by shaking the nuts in a paper bag or by washing off the salt.

   

Northern cardinal                                            Brown-headed nuthatch (Sitta pusilla)

Before they left for the summer, the yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata) and ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) tried the peanuts, too. Sometimes I wondered if the kinglet was also not looking for insects around the peanut feeder.

   

My choice to provide nuts was a big hit; I was rewarded with a procession of individuals of varied species who came by to quickly gulp or carry off a tasty nut. Some are pictured below – they came at different times of the day.

 

White-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)     Tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor)

    

Tufted titmouse                                                       Pine warbler (Setophaga pinus)

   

Red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)      Northern cardinal

 

Gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis)        Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis)

       

Chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina)         Brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum)

The common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) will sometimes break down the nuts (and are quite messy about it, compared to the chickadees and titmice), but they will also swallow the treats whole.

  

Others are intent on breaking the peanuts into smaller pieces that are easier to get down; this seems especially true for the smaller birds like the Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) below. Here we also see Riley, my banded Carolina wren, enjoying a treat.

   

The blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata) often gulp down some nuts quickly and then try to carry off several nuts at a time.

One good thing about the peanuts is that thankfully the starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) and brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) don’t appear fond of them (they gulp down the dried mealworms, however, as if that food is going out of style). One will occasionally sample a nut, but they never seem to want a second.

As time passed, I realized that the peanut feeding strategy was rewarding me with frequent avian visitors, but was also rather costly. In the autumn, I began putting out a less expensive fruit and nut mix. This has also proved very popular and various species of birds are willing to share space at the feeders. The chickadees especially will feed alongside others, like the house finches and Northern cardinal below.

Species that usually forage on the ground, like the white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis), also make occasional forays to the nut feeder.

When the nut feeders are empty, it’s not uncommon to see birds sitting atop them; when they see me, some will call out, as if saying, “Hey, fill up that feeder, please!” And I usually accommodate them, especially when it is very cold, as has been the case the first days of 2018 – we have had a record-breaking stretch of days in which the temperature did not rise above freezing, an unusual occurrence for our southern state of North Carolina.

 

Yellow-rumped warbler  (Setophaga coronata)  House finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)

The nut feeders have also been very attractive to the resident Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis), one of whom has been VERY persistent in devising ways to get onto the feeders. Each time s/he succeeds, I change the position of the feeders or stumps and branches nearby. Currently, that clever rodent hasn’t been able to get up there. In compensation, I occasionally throw a handful of nuts on the ground.

             

So, not all the birds are “nuts” for nuts, but plenty of species think they’re mighty fine! They are definitely a worthwhile addition to the birders’ array of feeder offerings.

American goldfinch (Spinus tristis)

 

 

 

Late arrivals and late departures

Since a ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) began visiting my suet feeders several years ago, I’ve looked forward to his arrival each autumn so that I can watch him at leisure during the winter months. This past season, however, I began to fear that he had decided to go elsewhere or, more sadly, might have passed away and wouldn’t be coming around again. I did see members of the species at the Haw River in late November and one was feeding on seeds to my surprise.

Then, finally, on the 26th of December, Rudy turned up at my feeders – weeks later than usual but to my great delight! And where did he go for a bite to eat? In the past, he loved my suet but now he, too, was feeding at one of the seed feeders!

Shortly thereafter, I discovered I now had two ruby crowns in residence as they began vying with one another to claim the suet area as their territory. After thinking that I would have no jeweled visitor this winter, it turned out I had two, leading to a happy dance as I gazed out of my living room window.

   

The golden-crowned kinglets (Regulus satrapa) have a single feather covering each nostril; this doesn’t appear to be the case for the ruby crowns. Their tongues are often in sight when they open their mouths in anticipation of getting a bite. I wondered if the tongue is sticky to help them snatch food while hovering; an online search did not net me any references about kinglet tongues, however.

Normally, these hyper-active tiny birds seek insects and arthropods as meals, including spiders, pseudoscorpions, aphids, bees, wasps, beetles and ants. But my home-made suet has proved to be a big draw (also for other birds with whom they must compete for space).

 

The ruby-crowned kinglets will often hover in front of a feeder, sticking out their tongue to snag a bit of suet before they fly to a perch.

As winter progressed, it looked like the yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata) decided to copy their style, also hovering and snatching on occasion.

 

I decided to leave the dry stalks of the scarlet mallow and butterfly bush in place this past winter so they had perches close to the feeders. They made a nice “studio” for some portraits!

After a while, since there was a lot of traffic at the feeders, I began smearing suet on the mallow stalks, which proved to be a big hit. The ruby crowns alighted and fed calmly, a big change from their usual frenetic pace. (A few other birds also enjoyed this option, including the Eastern bluebirds and yellow-rumped warblers.)

 

Sometimes, they went through a bit of head contortion to snag some of the treat.

 

 

 

 

These kinglets surprised me again in January when they began visiting the peanut feeder, too. I watched as they pecked off tiny bits of peanut; I suspect they also might have been looking for ants or other insects around the nuts.

 

 

 

When it rains, these little avians can look quite bedraggled! But they didn’t appear bothered by the snow flurries.

Normally, these birds are in what seems to be constant motion, scarcely stopping for a second in their quest for food. A large privet bush near my feeders, however, has become a resting and hiding spot for them. (Yes, I know, privets are invasive plants and should be removed but this particular shrub provides a get-away for the feeder birds when the sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks fly in for a raid and the catbirds love to build their nests in this particular site.)

    

  

I continued seeing ruby crowns during my nature walks, although not as reliably as in my own yard. They were in residence at the Jordan Lake woods and a small wooded area near Chapel Hill’s Senior Center.

 

 

One day at the Haw River, I witnessed a territorial dispute between two males who were claiming certain trees as their own.

 

I stopped seeing the ruby crowns at my feeders around the end of March and assumed that they had embarked on their migration up North for breeding season. On 9 April, I was surprised to see one in the woods bordering Jordan Lake.

On 18 April, one appeared in a cedar tree in my yard.

And then on the 22nd of April, I spotted one high in the leafy branches of a willow oak in my front yard. I’m guessing that perhaps this bird was stopping for a rest as it traveled from further South on its way up North; I didn’t see it visit the suet feeder.

 

 

I miss my little kinglet companions in the spring and summer; hopefully, they won’t wait so long to appear again later this year.

 

Outwitting the starlings during Winter Storm Helena

white-tailed-deer-i77a4029-maria-de-bruyn-resSo this past weekend, our part of North Carolina dealt with Winter Storm Helena, which brought us 83 straight hours of below-freezing temperatures (e.g., -9C/15F but we had lower) and a need to bundle up really well if venturing outside. (It also brought me a realization that winter storms are being named like hurricanes.) The first morning, when I went out to fill the bird feeders, I didn’t put on gloves or a cap and dealt with hypothermia symptoms when I finally went inside. I had on triple layers after that! The deer had their fur puffed up and seemed to be coping well.

The frigid air made me feel very sorry for the wildlife, although living outdoors is, of course, what they do and what they have evolved to accommodate. (I did hear today, however, of some birds and small animals that were found frozen to death!) With the snow covering the ground, it turned out the birds were more than happy to visit the feeders and piles of food I had strewn on the snow for the ground feeders.

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Not only did I have many types of birds coming round, but also record numbers of them. Some birds, like the yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata, above), usually tend to visit on their own and are not happy with their species mates in the vicinity but during these days, I had four of them alighting near feeders at a time. The same was true for the colorful pine warblers (Setophaga pinus) although they didn’t come close to each other.

yellow-rumped-warbler-i77a3138-maria-de-bruyn-res

pine-warbler-i77a2441-maria-de-bruyn-res

The Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) and Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis) don’t seem to have too many problems with sharing space and visited the feeders in the same way they always do – quick flights to and fro from nearby tree and shrub branches.

carolina-wren-i77a3873-maria-de-bruyn-res   carolina-chickadee-i77a2710-maria-de-bruyn-res

brown-thrasher-i77a4236-maria-de-bruyn-res

 

Most of the birds were fairly content to be in close proximity to one another during the snow days. The brown thrashers (Toxostoma rufum) did get very cross with one another, however, when they came too close to one another and chased their rivals away.

Sometimes a bird would go off and rummage in the snow, like this blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata).

 

blue-jay-i77a2776-maria-de-bruyn-res blue-jay-i77a2770-maria-de-bruyn-res

european-starling-i77a2674-maria-de-bruyn-resThe biggest challenge for me was keeping the suet and meal worms in supply, mainly because the European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) show up in large groups and gulp down food at a speedy pace. The other birds nibble but the starlings seem to inhale food as if they have vacuum cleaners in their throats. They can get grumpy with one another and don’t mind landing atop each other to get a foothold on the feeder.

brown-thrasher-i77a3641-maria-de-bruyn-resI was pleased that the other species of birds are learning to cope with them, no longer being intimidated to fly away when these greedy avians arrive. However, they may get displaced from a feeder just because the bulky starlings take up so much room and never wait their turn to get a spot. The larger birds, like the thrashers and red-bellied woodpeckers, may express their displeasure to the starlings while trying to hold their ground. Other people report common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) as feeder dominant birds but they are well behaved at my house.

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suet-i77a3541-maria-de-bruyn-res

So, what was I going to do? Some of my feeders are set in a flower garden and I had left the dried stalks of sage, butterfly bush and scarlet mallow standing. They don’t look pretty but the birds love sitting on them near the feeders as they digest a bite before getting another. So I began smearing suet on the stalks, which are not sturdy enough to hold the starlings.

The yellow-rumped warblers and chickadees were pleased, as was my faithful ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) and the Carolina chickadee.

yellow-rumped-warbler-i77a3913-maria-de-bruyn-res  carolina-chickadee-i77a4283-maria-de-bruyn-res

ruby-crowned-kinglet-i77a4167-maria-de-bruyn-res

To my surprise, even the larger Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) and brown thrashers discovered and sampled the suet-laden stalks.

northern-mockingbird-i77a3629-maria-de-bruyn-res   brown-thrasher-i77a3607-maria-de-bruyn-res

Following advice from the Bird Sleuth program, I had stuffed the bluebird and nuthatch boxes with pine needles and wool in case the birds wanted to shelter there overnight. I don’t know if any of them did, but the brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla) were again checking out their preferred nest box, so perhaps they did roost there overnight.

brown-headed-nuthatch-i77a3959-maria-de-bruyn-res    brown-headed-nuthatch-i77a4183-maria-de-bruyn-res

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I was filling the heated bird bath daily, too, as it became a popular drinking fountain.

The thrill of the wintery snow days for me was a new yard visitor, a gorgeous fox sparrow (Passerella iliaca). I have never had one here before so it was a wonderful surprise and discovery. (I’m still hoping that a red-breasted nuthatch will turn up, too.)

 

 

fox-sparrow-i77a4347-maria-de-bruyn  fox-sparrow-i77a4348-maria-de-bruyn-res

fox-sparrow-i77a3773-maria-de-bruyn-res

The birds “missing” from the storm gathering were the hawks. I’ve had a Cooper’s hawk  (Accipiter cooperii) visiting for years, but recently discovered that a sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus) is also taking birds from my yard. As they look quite similar, the sharpie may have been coming around for some time and I just never realized it. They were both here in the last couple weeks, but neither one made an appearance during the storm.

coopers-hawk-i77a1341-maria-de-bruyn-res   sharp-shinned-hawk-i77a8520-maria-de-bruyn-res

Our two neighborhood white-tailed does (Odocoileus virginianus) and their three offspring came by, obviously finding my yard a peaceful and safe space to rest.

white-tailed-deer-i77a4432-maria-de-bruyn-res   white-tailed-deer-i77a4431-maria-de-bruyn-res

So I’ll end with some “beauty shots” from the snow days as the snow and ice are now melting. In two days’ time, we are supposed to be having temperatures of 68F/20C or higher! And then we can wait out the rest of January as well as February and March to see if we get any more winter storms.

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White-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)

chipping-sparrow-i77a2830-maria-de-bruyn-res

     house-finch-i77a2852-maria-de-bruyn-res

Chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina)        House finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)

dark-eyed-junco-i77a2590-maria-de-bruyn-res  downy-woodpecker-i77a2810-maria-de-bruyn-res

Dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis)          Downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens)

eastern-towhee-i77a4111-maria-de-bruyn-res    northern-cardinal-i77a3099-maria-de-bruyn-res

Eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus)      Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

blue-jay-i77a2858-maria-de-bruyn-res     eastern-bluebird-i77a2285-maria-de-bruyn-res

Blue jay                                                       Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis)

red-bellied-woodpecker-i77a4047-maria-de-bruyn-res       ruby-crowned-kinglet-i77a4263-maria-de-bruyn-res

Red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)     Ruby-crowned kinglet

northern-mockingbird-i77a2714-maria-de-bruyn-res   pine-warbler-i77a2657-maria-de-bruyn-res

Northern mockingbird                                              Pine warbler

 

My nemesis birds!

european-starling-dk7a5386-maria-de-bruyn-resIn the birding world, a “nemesis bird” often refers to a species of bird that is eluding a birder intent on adding to their life list of bird species seen in person. For me, however, a nemesis bird is one that is emptying my feeders and depriving other birds of their bit of nutritional goodness because it descends in such great numbers that no one else has a chance. Which bird is this? It’s the European starling (Sturnus vulgaris), a bird which I admittedly find visually beautiful but rather unattractive as far as temperament goes.

northern-mockingbird-i77a9648-maria-de-bruyn-resOther birders who spend time attracting birds to their yards often comment on how Northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) chase other birds away – those in my yard feed quite happily alongside other species, however, and even wait their turn for the suet feeders. Another large bird, the brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum), does the same. In fact, most of the species that visit my yard are content to share feeder space and/or wait their turn.

brown-thrasher-img_9913-maria-de-bruyn-res     sharing-feeders-i77a9154-maria-de-bruyn-res

american-crow-dk7a2281-maria-de-bruyn-resOther species that are called “bully birds” include common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula, below), who can look quite beautiful with iridescent feathers, blackbird species and house sparrows. The grackles and red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) in my yard have not been too dominant; they do sometimes come in numbers but let other birds near. I haven’t had crowds of grackles lately and when they’ve come, their main concern was to attempt to drive away the American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos, above), so my main foe has been the starlings.

common-grackle-dk7a2236-maria-de-bruyn-res   common-grackle-i77a1447-maria-de-bruyn-res

They discovered my yard as a buffet about a year ago and introduced their young to the feasting area this past summer.

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What is striking to me is the fact that they not only will “yell” at other species to go away but also compete vigorously with one another for a spot at the platform and other feeders, indicating a rather nasty disposition.

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The young starlings pick up on this behavior quickly.

If I come outside, they quickly fly off and roost high up in the tallest trees; sometimes, they will actually fly off to another place in the neighborhood. Clapping my hands and banging on the window will also get them to leave. However, they stick around to assess whether I will appear and if I don’t come out, they are back in short order.

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Their first love turned out to be the dried mealworms, which are a big hit with the Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis), tufted titmice (Baeolophus bicolor), Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis), Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) and pine warblers (Setophaga pinus, left) among other species.

eastern-bluebird-i77a6862-maria-de-bruyn-res  eastern-bluebird-i77a9596-maria-de-bruyn-res

tufted-titmouse-img_4143-maria-de-bruyn-res   tufted-titmouse-i77a9678-maria-de-bruyn-res

carolina-chickadee-i77a9738-maria-de-bruyn-res   carolina-wren-i77a7312-maria-de-bruyn-res

It’s always a pleasure to see the banded birds return, like the Carolina wren below.

carolina-wren-i77a9548-maria-de-bruyn-res   carolina-wren-i77a9547-maria-de-bruyn-res

When five or more starlings gather around a feeder, they literally gulp the mealworms down, making short shrift of a good-sized supply.

european-starling-dk7a0937-maria-de-bruyn-res   european-starling-dk7a2433-maria-de-bruyn-res

northern-cardinal-i77a2061-maria-de-bruyn-resI began putting out only mixed seed, sunflower seeds (Helianthus annuus) and my home-made vegetarian suet, the latter being a favorite for many species: the bluebirds, chickadees, wrens, titmice, yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata), brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla), Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis, left), and downy and red-bellied woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens and Melanerpes carolinus).

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brown-headed-nuthatch-i77a6423-maria-de-bruyn-res

downy-woodpecker-dk7a1967-maria-de-bruyn-res   downy-woodpecker-dk7a1961-maria-de-bruyn-res

red-bellied-woodpecker-i77a4258maria-de-bruyn-res red-bellied-woodpecker-dk7a0440-maria-de-bruyn-res

My resident ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) hasn’t returned this winter (though I hope he is just late), so he doesn’t have to compete with the much, much larger starlings for his beloved meals.

ruby-crowned-kinglet-img_1776-maria-de-bruyn-res  ruby-crowned-kinglet-dk7a0538-maria-de-bruyn-res

european-starling-dk7a5647-maria-de-bruyn-resTo my dismay, when the starlings discovered no mealworms were available, they decided that suet could be a nice substitute. Oy vey! They manage to empty the suet holders in record time.

I waited to put out the suet until I saw no starlings in any of the tall trees surrounding the yard.

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european-starling-i77a7189-maria-de-bruyn-resThe smaller birds came but this lasted only a little while. Soon the starlings showed up, leading me to think that either “scout” or “watch birds” were left behind to warn the flock when preferred food arrived, or they had a tremendous sense of smell that led them to my yard. It does turn out that starlings use their sense of smell to identify plants for their nests, so who’s to say they don’t use it to find food, too?

 

red-bellied-woodpecker-dk7a1833-maria-de-bruyn-resOne bird advice website recommends avoiding sunflower seeds as “bully birds” prefer them. Well, so far, the starlings have assiduously avoided any seeds. So a couple days ago, I filled all the feeders with seed except for the suet feeders – and I stood outside next to them so that the songbirds could have a go at the suet without their bigger avian neighbors chasing them away. It was gratifying to see the little ones enjoy a bit of suet while the starlings perched high above, unwilling to come down in my presence. Today, it was raining persistently but the songbirds were flying to and fro among the feeders so I put suet in three holders and some mealworms in one.

For an hour or so, they had the dried worms and peanut butter-based treat to themselves; then a starling appeared. I went outside but this particular bird didn’t seem to mind. When three of its compatriots arrived and saw me, they swooped away so the little birds still could grab some suet and mealworms.

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Now I’ll wait to see if the starlings begin eating the seed or finally move on or stay away for longer periods. I’m guessing as long as there is occasional suet, they will leave their scouts in place to warn them when a tasty meal is available. And I do want to put out some mealworms now and again so I don’t disappoint the chickadees and wrens who greet me with loud twittering when I approach empty feeders. Non-birders probably think that’s silly (to put it mildly) but I think bird lovers will understand….