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Unless otherwise noted, information contained in each edition of the Kansas School Naturalist reflects the knowledge of the subject as of the original date of publication.

KSN - Vol 42, No 2 - Backyard BirdsVolume 42, Number 2 - February 1996

Backyard Birds

by Marvin Schwilling


ISSN: 0022-877X

Published by Emporia State University

Prepared and Issued by The Division of Biological Sciences





Circulation (this issue): 7300

Press Run: 20,000

Typist: Nancy Gulick

Compilation: JOHN DECKER

Printed by ESU Printing Services

Online edition by: TERRI WEAST

The Kansas School Naturalist is sent free of charge and upon request to teachers, school administrators, public and school librarians, youth leaders, conservationists, and others interested in natural history and nature education. In-print back issues are sent free as long as supply lasts. Out-of-print back issues are sent for one dollar photocopy and postage/handling charge per issue. A back issue is sent free upon request. The Kansas School Naturalist is sent by third class mail to all U.S. zipcodes, first class to Mexico and Canada, and surface mail overseas. Overseas subscribers who wish to receive it by airmail should remit US $5.00 per year (four issues) airmail and handling. The Kansas School Naturalist is edited and published by Emporia State University, Emporia, Kansas. Editor: John Richard Schrock, Division of Biological Sciences.

Third class postage paid at Emporia, Kansas. Address all correspondence to Kansas School Naturalist, Division of Biological Sciences, Box 4050, Emporia State University, Emporia, KS 66801-5087. Opinions and perspectives expressed are those of the author(s) and/or editor and do not reflect the official position or endorsement of ESU.

Publication and distribution of this issue was made possible by a grant from the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.

The text of this issue (and other Kansas School Naturalist issues) is available at and may be downloaded for nonprofit educational use; please credit source.

Photo credits: All bird photos, with the exception of the hummingbird and house sparrow photos, were taken by Bob Gress, Director of Wichita Wild with the Wichita Parks Department. Bob is a longtime wildlife photographer who has worked to establish the Great Plains Nature Center. He has also served as co-author or co-photographer for three books: Kansas Wildlife, Kansas Wetlands and Watching Kansas Wildlife. The hummingbird photo was taken by Gene Brehm and the house sparrow photo was taken by Marvin Schwilling.

HOUSE FINCH (Cover Photo)

A phenomenal increase in the house finch population in the past two decades has made it the most abundant backyard bird in many Kansas communities. First recorded in 1882, it was not known to nest in Kansas until 1977 when it nested in Decatur County.

California house finches were released on Long Island, New York in 1940 when pet dealers released caged birds to escape prosecution for transportation and possession of a protected species. These birds adapted well and spread throughout the east. Also, the western population exploded and moved east. The two populations apparently met in eastern Kansas in the early 1900s and have increased rapidly.

The friendly house finches are now common at backyard feeders. Males are bright red on chest, rump and most of the head with prominent stripes on their sides and belly. They have a bright melodious song and become quite tame.


Marvin Schwilling served with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks for 37 years. He has authored three previous titles of the Kansas School Naturist: "Kansas Nongame and Endangered Wildlife" in 1981, "Cheyenne Bottoms" in 1985, and "Checklist of Kansas Butterflies" in 1991 (co-authored with Charles A. Ely).

Backyard Birds

by Marvin Schwilling

Everywhere we go out-of-doors, we find birds. They are in our backyards and throughout the countryside, along creeks on mud flats, ponds, lakes and even at sea and in deserts. At least some birds can be found in all habitats that support life.

As with all wildlife, birds need food, water and suitable habitat for roosting, feeding and reproduction.

Birdwatching, or birding, is a very popular out-of-doors pastime and is enjoyed by millions through their glass windows from the comfort of their temperature-controlled homes. Others enjoy birding in specific habitats for groups of birds such as shorebirds, water birds, grassland birds, forest birds, etc. Still others take birding vacations or visit national parks or wildlife refuges to observe birds.


One of the most important items needed is a book that identifies the birds that may be seen. There are many excellent bird identification guides to be found in bookstores.

The next step is to obtain a pair of binoculars. In general, you should choose a magnification of no less than 6X and no more than 10X with 7X or 8X being the most popular among experienced birders. Cost and quality varies greatly and only you can determine your needs and budget.

Most avid birders are in the habit of carrying a small notebook or checklist to keep a record of birds seen on a particular trip or day. Many also keep specific area lists, backyard lists, daily lists, yearly lists, etc.


Many birders began their interest watching birds in their backyards or near their homes. Much can be done to attract birds to these areas.


Bird feeders are an excellent way to increase the number and variety of birds near your home. Some birds are very colorful, some are sassy and others have charming personalities. They can be attracted to feeders where a continuous food source is provided.

A feeding program can be initiated at any time during the year; however, the best time is in the fall before birds have settled down in their chose winter territories and have fixed their habits of searching for food over about the same courses each day. When a feeding station is begun at this time, it will attract many wintering species that will become regular visitors.

Select an area in good view form a window close to shrubbery and evergreens that can afford good escape cover.

It is best to begin a new feeding station with a simple open tray about 12 inches wide, 18 inches long and one or two inches deep. Be sure to provide drainage to prevent rain or snow water from standing in the tray. Set it on a post at least four and one-half feet above the ground.

House sparrows or house finches usually find the feeder first and their feeding activity leads cardinals, chickadees, juncos and other species to the feeder. As birds become accustomed to feeding in your yard, the feeder should be roofed over or replaced with sheltered feeders.

Feeders may be stationary or hanging and a big assortment is available. Some are designed for specific foods, such as thistle feeders for finches, sunflower seeds for cardinals, chickadees, and titmice, suet feeders for woodpeckers and nectar feeders for hummingbirds and orioles.

Perhaps the best mix of feed for the cost is a mixture of millet, milo and sunflower seeds. Sunflower seeds should make up at least 15 percent of the mix. Woodpeckers, and some other species, are best attracted by beef suet put out in special suet feeders or bags. Chickadees and brown creepers like peanut butter, but be sure to add corn meal or suet to peanut butter to prevent them from choking.

It is best to maintain a feed supply year around (except for the nectar feeder) to keep the birds coming to your yard. You will then have the pleasure of seeing parent birds bring their young to the feeders.


Birds have a critical need for water to both drink and bathe. This can be provided with a simple bird bath or a backyard pool. A pool large enough to support a few small goldfish is best since the fish will prevent mosquito production in the water. A water drip or waterfall is especially attractive to bird life.

Picture - backyard habitat for birdsNESTING SITES

To increase the opportunity for various bird species nesting near your yard, the key is landscape diversityand nesting boxes. Each species has different nest site boxes. Each species has different nest site requirements. Some are ground nesters, other nest in shrubs and thickets, and still others nest high in large trees. The addition of manmade nest boxes attracts nesting birds such as wrens, chickadees, purple martins, titmice and others.


Hummingbirds are among the most prized of all backyard wildlife. They too are surprisingly easy to attract. Choose annual flowers and perennial flowers, shrubs, and trees that provide a source of nectar and you will have hummingbirds. Many shrubs and trees also produce seed crops used by many species of birds.


To attract the greatest diversity of wild birds, it is necessary to provide a diverse habitat. Most yards are too open, mostly tall trees and short grass. To this we need to add plants that bear fruit, seeds, nuts and other foods used by birds. Also plant shrubbery with branching, low growth that is ideal for escape cover and nesting.

Create a layered effect with large trees, small trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants. Open areas surrounded by layered planning is most attractive to bird life.

Maximize habitat edges where different types of plantings meet. This can be where a flower bed and shrub row meet or where a shrub row adjoins taller trees. These habitat edges are heavily used by birds. Include evergreen trees and shrubs as they provide critical winter shelter for resident species.


Following are some of the most common birds that come to our feeders or nest in our yards. Birders who have kept "yard lists" in Kansas have counted over 100 species when lists are maintained for several years.




With a red breast and dark back, the robin is probably the best known bird in the United States. They are widely believed to be the harbinger of spring, although they winter quite far north as long as food supply is available.

Robins are early risers and their melodious songs can be heard as the first faint glow of a new day begins. They do most of their feeding on the ground and are often seen as pulling earthworms from the soil of your garden or lawn.

Some may not know that the robin is a member of the thrush family, as is the bluebird.

Picture - American Robin


Most of us seem to have fallen in love with the house wren. Their rich bubbling song draws our attention to this busy, ever-moving small bird. They are not particularly colorful, just a small grayish-brown bird with lighter underparts.

However, they are friendly and live close to our houses and will nest in the bird nesting boxes we put up for them. If other houses or cavities are close by, the male will build what is known as dummy nests and fill them with sticks and nesting material.

House Wren

European Starling


Before the late 1880s, starlings were unknown in the United States. Then a few pairs were released in New York and now they are everywhere and surely must be the number one bird nuisance.

They appear to be a black, chunky bird with a short tail. On closer inspection, they are purple-greenish with a speckled plumage.

Their call is a jittery squeak, but they imitate or mock many other bird calls.

They have few friends in winter when they gather into huge flocks to roost in buildings and dense tree groves where they are noisy and dirty. They too nest earlier than most of our cavity nesting birds and occupy every hole, crack or cranny leaving few nest sites for our native birds.


Our Kansas checklist lists it as the house sparrow; others call it the English sparrow while still others correctly call it the black-chinned weaver finch. Although it was introduced into the United States from England, Africa was the original home of this species.

The record shows that eight pairs were introduced in Brooklyn, New York in 1850, but none survived. Two years later, more were imported and they now have spread over most of the United States.

As their population increased, they aggressively took over backyard nest boxes and replaced the bluebird as the most common nesting bird near our homes.

The male is rather colorful with a black throat and chest, white cheeks, chestnut nape and gray crown.

They do not have a pleasing song, but rather a long series of monotonous chirps.

House Sparrow


This chickadee is a resident in our yards the year around. Because of their delightful notes, their flitting ways, and friendliness, they are one of our best known birds. They come to our feeders, suet cakes and peanut butter logs. Often they become tame enough to eat from your hand.

Chickadees seem to always be in an awful hurry, scurrying from tree branch to tree branch. They, too, have acrobatic skills, often hanging upside down or in awkward positions. Their black caps and contrasting white cheeks make identification easy.

Black-Capped Chickadee

Northern Cardinal


Most people call him a redbird and color alone would make cardinals favored birds. No other redbird shows a crest, has a black face and heavy orange bill. Though mile mannered, they will sometimes chase each other from a feeding station in early winter, but by late winter and spring they eat side by side.

Cardinals can be found in a wide variety of habitats from open backyards to thickets. They feed on seeds and berries in winter, but change to mostly insects in summer.


Ruby-throats are more than common in Kansas, they are plentiful. They are the smallest bird of this region and are among the best fliers of the bird world. They can hover, fly backward or forward or straight away, whatever they wish. The male has a green back and in some light, the throat patch looks black only to flash ruby red when the bird changes position. They have a long beak and feed on deep-throated flowers, such as honeysuckles, petunias, and trumpetvines. A flower bed of red salvia is a favorite nectaring source. They also feed on pollen and small insects.

The female builds one of the daintiest of nests on top of a downsloping branch, using lichens and spider webs. It is often located over water.

Ruby-Throated Hummingbird


Many people hate and others admire the blue jay. They can be loud mouthed, arrogant hustlers or when around the nest, be quiet and make soft pleasing musical notes.

They are easily identified with their bright blue and white coloring with a distinct head crest.

They are bullies at the feeders and during the nesting season they show the dark side of their character. They destroy the homes of many nesting birds, eating both eggs and young of small species.

When they have eaten their fill, they carry off excess food, such as sunflower seed, acorns, pecans, etc. and bury them under leaves. Many of these are never eaten and grow into new trees or bushes.

Blue Jay

Gray Catbird


The catbird is a trim member of the mocker family and is not difficult to identify. No other bird has a uniform slate-gray plumage with a black cap and rust brown under tail coverts. Their normal song consists of a series of musical notes mixed with catlike mews. This is often heard from some concealed perch in shrubs or low bushes which is the favored habitat of the catbird.

They feed on insects and stuff themselves on mulberries, wild cherries and other small fruits when in season.

During courtship, the male often fluffs his feathers out until he looks much larger, sticks his head up with mouth open and struts around like a clown. It is one of nature's fascinating shows!

Purple Martins
Purple Martin Habitat


The male purple martin is entirely blue-black that may appear purple in some lights. It is the largest member of the swallow family and likes to nest in colonies. Thus, they have learned to use the many-roomed apartment houses that we put up for them. Most people get much pleasure in watching the graceful flight of these colonies. In flight, they have a low-pitched gurgling note that helps to identify them.

They arrive from their winter homes early in the spring and are usually heard or seen by late March. Many starve to death or die of exposure when late snows or ice storms cut off their flying insect food supply. They nest only once and as soon as the young have fledged, they gather in huge flocks and leave for their winter home in South America. Just why they migrate so early in the fall is a mystery since there is still an abundant food supply.

Downy Woodpecker


The downy is our smallest woodpecker, but he resembles his larger cousin, the hairy woodpecker. The downy's notes are a little softer and his tapping a little faster with his shorter bill. His outer tail feathers are barred in contrast to the hairy's pure white. Both males show a red spot on the nape which the female does not have. General coloring of both is black and white.

This friendly little woodpecker relishes suet at our feeding stations and also feeds on sunflower seeds and peanut butter. They also feed on insect larvae that they chisel out of insect galls on weed stems and from tree branches.


Downy Woodpecker

Eastern Bluebird


When our forefathers came to the United States, they found bluebirds could be attracted to come near their homes if they provided nesting boxes. This close association continued until the introduction of the house sparrow in the early 1850s. House sparrows soon took over the nest boxes and the bluebird was forced away from the backyards into the open countryside. Nestboxes widely scattered in open country are currently well used by bluebirds.

Unlike most thrushes, the bluebirds are not noted for their melodious songs. However, their friendly plaintive tur-wee gives a restful assurance that all is well. The male has bright blue upper back, tail and head with a reddish brown breast, much the same color as its cousin, the robin. Most bluebirds migrate only a short distance, but they collect in winter flocks feeding on juniper berries and other berries. Bluebirds form communal roosts with many birds roosting in a huddle inside a nestbox or other cavity.


Few birds are more colorful than the adult male Baltimore oriole perched atop a tall tree in full sunlight. Their rich orange body glows like a living ember. When you add the black of the head, back, wings and central tail feathers, the white wing bar and feather edging on the wings and the orange outer feathers near the end of the tail, the bright contrasting pattern is unique.

Look for the Baltimore oriole high up in the shade trees in residential areas of towns and suburbs. Their song is a distinctive rich melodious whistle. The song varies slightly from bird to bird but retains the oriole quality. They construct a deep well-woven gourd-shaped nest attached to the very tips of high, drooping branches where it swings gently in the wind.

Baltimore Oriole
American Goldfinch


The male goldfinch is a rich lemon yellow with a small black mask above the bill, black wings and tail (back cover). The wings show distinct white bars, more so in winter when the yellow has faded to a yellow brown (here).

They are often called wild canaries. However, they are not canaries but their small size, color, and twittering notes remind people of these pets. They are rugged little birds and winter throughout much of their nesting range. Their winter habit of flocking and tendency to feed in flocks at feeders and weed patches makes them easily found.

They have a deep undulating flight and utter a ti-dee-di-di with each dip.


The Kansas Winter Bird Feeder Survey

The Kansas Winter Bird Feeder survey is a cooperative effort between the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks and the Kansas Ornithological Society to census birds at feeders throughout Kansas during the winter. The data are gathered by hundreds of volunteers, who watch their feeders and count birds on two of four designated days in their backyards at their feeders in January of each year. The survey started in January of 1988 and the ninth annual survey was done January 11 through 14 of 1996.

Besides the volunteers who collect the data the survey involves several students and faculty, who enter the data into a computer data base and analyze the data. During the first three years of the survey, Dr. John M. Briggs, who represented the Kansas Ornithological Society, from Kansas State University and his student, Cornell Kinderknecht developed the protocol for collecting the data and entering it into the data base. The survey data base summary and entry was moved to Emporia State University for the January 1991 and subsequent surveys. Under my supervision, several graduate students, including: Deana Podrebarac, Jill Gregory, Dave Ganey and Katie McGrath, have been involved in the data entry and analysis. Thus, the survey not only provides us information about wintering birds at feeders, but also some valuable experience for students in data entry and analysis.

The data has been used in several different studies including a presentation by Charles Nilon, John M. Briggs and Cornell Kinderknecht at 50th Midwest Fish & Wildlife Conference where they analyzed data from the first year. They had 1200 usable surveys during the year and found that 101 of the 105 counties of Kansas were represented in the survey and the data was reliable for trend analysis with easily recognized species that are commonly at feeders.

When you exam the rankings of the top 10 species over the last five years you see a consistency among most of the species. The house sparrow has been number one during the entire time period. The coefficient of variation (C.V.), which measures the variation of the rankings relative to the mean ranking over the five years is relatively low for the house sparrow, blue jay and black-capped chickadee. One species that does not follow the consistent trend is the house finch, which made the top ten list for the first time in 1991 and has climbed to third. It has a high coefficient of variation, i.e., 53.5%. The pine siskin, which is highly variable in abundance within the state of Kansas only made the list one of the five years as did the mourning dove. Most of the species in the top ten list are readily recognizable by even the inexperienced birder.

In summary, the winter bird feeder survey has provided long term trend data for birds wintering in Kansas that visit our backyard feeders. It has provided valuable data for analysis by students and has provided hundreds of hours of excitement for thousands of volunteers, who feed birds.

Acknowledgment. I wish to thank Charles Nilon for starting the winter bird feeder survey and Ken Brunson for allowing the Kansas Department for Wildlife and Parks and the Kansas Ornithological Society to conduct the annual survey. Special thanks to the thousands of people who have been participants.

The Chickadee Checkoff has provided funding for the survey and thus the contributors of the checkoff also deserve special thanks.

Rank for each Year 1991-1995
Species 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 Mean C.V.
House sparrow 1 1 1 1 1 1 00.0%
American goldfinch 3 2 2 2 2 2.2 20.5%
Dark-eyed junco 2 5 3 5 4 3.8 34.2%
European Starling 5 3 4 4 5 4.2 20.0%
Northern cardinal 4 4 6 6 6 5.2 21.1%
House finch 10 6 5 3 3 5.4 53.5%
Black-capped chickadee 8 7 9 7 7 7.6 11.7%
Blue jay 7 9 8 8 8 8.0 8.9%
American tree sparrow 6 8 - 10 10    
Harris' sparrow 9 10 10 9 -    
Pine siskin - - 7 - -    
Mourning dove - - - - 9    
Reports 1118 925 912 787 700    


Dr. Elmer J. Finck is associate professor of conservation biology, ornithology, and mammalogy at Emporia State University. He also serves as teh editor for The Prairie Naturalist.


The Outdoor Wildlife Learning Sites program is directed by the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks through the Chickadee Checkoff. OWLS is designed to facilitate outdoor laboratories on or near school grounds. Grants of $2,000 are given through the Chickadee Checkoff to initiate development of the outdoor sites. Typically, OWLS areas are made up of native habitat plantings, small wetlands or pools, bird feeding stations, and interpretation displays. Students are encouraged to be involved form the very start so that they gain experience in planning, budgeting, and designing the site. On new sites, students, parents, teachers, administrators, and other cooperators get to plan, learn, plant and have fun together as the OWLS materializes. By following straightforward guidelines, schools can submit OWLS proposals to the Department of Wildlife and Parks. For more information about OWLS, contact: Fisheries and Wildlife Division, 512 SE 25th Avenue, Pratt, KS 67124. And also remember to support the Chickadee Checkoff through your donation on the individual income tax form.

For more birding information:
contact the Kansas Ornithology Society, Museum of Natural History, Lawrence, KS 66045.

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