2015-10-08 / Nature

The Beauty of Backyard Birding

By Jack Kelly


Painted bunting pays a visit to feeders in Middletown. Painted bunting pays a visit to feeders in Middletown. The advent of fall, with its cooler temperatures and vibrant foliage, is a special time of year for Aquidneck Island residents who enjoy backyard bird watching. While many maintain bird feeding stations year-round, others choose to wait for this change of season to set up their stations—when seed plants, insects, and berries become scarce.

Last winter’s brutal onslaught of snow and the unrelenting freezing temperatures extracted a heavy toll on the bird populations in our region. It is estimated that more than 2,000 migratory Canada geese, along with other waterfowl and possibly thousands of songbirds, perished. To counter the massive die-off, scores of nature lovers responded by setting up feeding stations in various habitats. Improvised bird feeders sprouted up everywhere. Wildlife rehabilitators in our state were overwhelmed by the injured, sick and dying birds brought to them by area good Samaritans.


A tufted titmouse feeds from a suet cage. A tufted titmouse feeds from a suet cage. One Middletown neighborhood of approximately 25 homes coordinated their feeding stations to offer a wide variety of birdseed, suet and fresh drinking water for the emaciated songbirds. One home even provided a heated birdbath for the avian crowd, and counted more than 40 species using its amenities.

Of note last February was the sudden appearance of one rare and colorful visitor, attracting a flock of curious but respectful bird watchers. A painted bunting, normally a resident of the deep American South, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, was spotted feeding in a local backyard. With its deep blue “helmet,” neon green back, and cardinal red throat, rump, under parts and eye ring, it stood out among the other birds. A prized songbird in its natural range, the bunting stayed in the area for about a week, offering a visual respite from the severity of the weather, and then abruptly moved on .


A white-breasted Nuthatch grabs a sunflower seed. A white-breasted Nuthatch grabs a sunflower seed. Setting up your own bird feeding station can provide a fascinating window into the natural world, and is also an excellent opportunity to introduce yourself, or your children and grandchildren, to this immensely satisfying pastime. Gourds, which are plentiful during fall harvest, make wonderful feeders and offer a project that everyone may enjoy. Discarded two-liter soda bottles may also be used and are an inexpensive alternative to store-bought feeders. There is no doubt that last winter they saved a multitude of birds from starvation.

The most important element of feed selection is to offer quality, high-energy, protein food sources that will help our feathered friends maintain their body heat. For example, blue jays, cardinals and white-breasted nuthatch prefer sunflower seeds and peanut seed, while house finches, purple finches and American goldfinches enjoy thistle or nyger seed. Ground feeding birds such as sparrows enjoy a variety of small seeds and millet. Downy woodpeckers and redbellied woodpeckers are drawn to suet—especially mixtures of peanut based products. Most birds will dine on suet, and this product contains vital nutrition critical to avian survival. Providing a variety of suet choices will draw multiple species.


A male cardinal gleans seeds from spillover from a local feeder. A male cardinal gleans seeds from spillover from a local feeder. A well-maintained, appropriately placed feeding station is a guarantee of endless entertainment for anyone with a fascination with birds. It is best to place feeders and water sources in a southeastern exposure, close to shrubs, bushes or trees, which will provide a place of refuge from predators.

For more local information, tips and guidance, visit asri.org or call 401-949-5454; normanbirdsanctuary.org or call 401-846-2577; or go to allaboutbirds.org. Another interesting site is connected with the Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. For any budding ornithologist, of any age, Cornell’s Great Backyard Bird Count, held every February can be a treasure trove of knowledge and experience. More information can be found at birdcount.org.



Jack Kelly, a native Newporter, is a wildlife photographer and nature enthusiast who enjoys sharing his experiences with others. Jack Kelly, a native Newporter, is a wildlife photographer and nature enthusiast who enjoys sharing his experiences with others.

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