Winter Bird Feeding–A Session With Randy Carone’s Camera



Hello, everyone!  This post follows up on a conversation I started with Randy Carone, who contributed one of the photographs for a previous blog post about leaving plant seedheads and fruits for winter birds to eat and when which birds eat particular fruits and seeds.

After feeding birds in his backyard for 30 years, Randy now has a seriously addictive bird feeding habit.  Randy, who is a photographer first and a birder second, doesn’t count himself a having seen a bird unless he has gotten a photograph of it.  In fact, he may end up photographing a bird and not really knowing what he has “seen” until he views the photo, since light conditions make it hard to see with the naked eye.

Randy has one pole mounted bird feeder that his daughter Kate bought him a while ago.


He also has two window mounted feeders—the one in the front acts as “cat TV” for his (and his wife, Emily’s) two cats.



He also has two “finch feeders,” round clear tubes with a roof, hanging from a line.  During warmer weather, he also has a hummingbird feeder.

His basic food of choice is Audubon Supreme Blend, which has seeds, fruit, and nuts, and which he buys a 40 pound bag of for about $40 every two weeks.




He supplements this with suet on the pole feeder.


The pole feeder also has a “squirrel catcher” that prevents squirrels from getting to it, although they still get to feed since the birds slop things over the sides of the feeder onto the ground.  Squirrels –two of them—can and do get to the window feeders, but so do the birds.


He fills the two finch feeders with Nyger seeds (sometimes called thistle seed, but apparently not actually related to thistle at all).

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Randy’s feeding (to me) is that it has given him ample opportunity to intimately observe and learn some bird habits.  He has noticed that while cardinals stay around and are feeding year round, they generally like to wait until dusk to feed, and like to eat alone or in the company of other finches (since they are also a type of finch).  White throated sparrows are only around in the winter, when they migrate south from their summer range for the somewhat warmer weather New Jersey represents for them.

Red-bellied woodpeckers are aggressive, and will peck other birds; blue jays are also aggressive.


The bird feeders indirectly also feed meat eaters—hawks will sit some distance away, pretending not to notice, but waiting until an unwary smaller bird can be picked off at the feeder in a cloud of falling feathers.  Mourning doves, in particular, are “dumb,” as shown by how often they end up being someone else’s meal.



One of Randy’s favorite photo sequences is of a mother Red-bellied woodpecker feeding her almost same size offspring; he feels sure that the juvenile was fully able to feed itself, but the mother still wanted to do so.  She had picked out a peanut from the mix, used cracks in the roof of the feeder to smash it into smaller pieces, and then carefully picked out and fed the pieces to her child.



Randy’s and Emily’s yard includes various trees and shrubs that also provide cover; in particular, finches take refuge in a Blue Spruce tree, and an Azalea bush right by the back porch is also a common source of cover, especially when it leafs out.


Randy grows Tithonia, Passion flowers, Sage, Cat Mint and other flowering plants that provide nectar to hummingbirds and seeds for other birds to eat.


Which Birds Eat What and When? Part One: Fruits

Viburnum with berries–Photo by Linda Brazaitis

As I mentioned a couple of blog posts ago, I am leaving a lot of seed heads on my end of season perennials in hopes that the seeds will become bird food.  Since I’m only a beginner birder, I’m doing this without any real understanding of who will eat it and when—and why certain seed heads or fruits stay on the plant so long.

So it was serendipitous that the last program in my Naturalist Training at Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, given by Master Naturalist Dr. Ed Lignowski, included some details about which birds eat what and when, from mid-summer through winter.  Dr. Lignowski focused on how specific fruiting plants and birds had co-evolved, so that the plants provided fruit for the birds and the birds dispersed the seeds by pooping them out in a location away from the parent plant.  While Dr. Lignowski didn’t specifically talk about plants that don’t produce what we think of as fruits, being “only” seed heads, his information provides a framework from which you can make your own observations and gain an understanding of what needs various plant foods are meeting for birds.  I will have to do research on the seeds I am leaving on my plants for a future blog post, or this one will be too long.

It makes sense that birds who are about to migrate need to chow down and stock up on energy for their trip (they may do this several times, during stops along the way).  What became clearer from Dr. Lignowski’s presentation was that these birds cannot just chow down on whatever is around—they specifically need foods that are high in lipids.  So, these birds aren’t the ones eating the blueberries, blackberries, black cherries, and service berries that ripen from mid to late summer, since these fruits are “characterized by high sugar/low fat content.”  It is resident birds, not migratory birds, that eat these fruits—and the fruits become ripe just as the resident birds switch off eating the main flush of insects in spring.

Just a quick aside—did you know that even hummingbirds have a diet that is 80% insects?  The availability of insects that can serve as food, especially an abundance of caterpillars, is crucial to most birds’ ability to successfully rear their young.

Getting back to plant food.  With these high sugar fruits, just as for humans, it is the change in fruit color that signals to the birds that the fruit is ripe.  For example, blueberries go from green to pink to dark purple as they ripen, which, due to co-evolution, also coincides with the readiness of the seed inside the fruit to be dispersed by a pooping bird.

A separate group of especially “high quality” fruits ripen just in time for fall migration, including spicebush, flowering dogwood, sassafras and Virginia creeper.  These fruits are those high in the lipids which provide energy for migration and are not sweet enough to be attractive to mammals, so there is less competition for them.  The migrating birds feed “voraciously” and “deposit seeds locally,” otherwise known as pooping the seeds out in the area surrounding the plants that the fruits originated from.  The migratory birds are tipped off to the ripening of these high-lipid fruits by “foliar fruit flags”—a change in leaf color that quickly alerts the birds where to go for ripe fruit.  It seems New Jersey’s own Dr. Ted Stiles first did a study of these foliar flags.  Marcia Bonta, a naturalist with more than 300 articles and 9 books to her credit, followed onto his work in explaining that fruits high in lipids rot quickly, so it is crucial that the plant attract birds to eat the fruit while the seeds are still viable. (Appalachian Autumn, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1994).  Thus, the plant needs a clearly visible signal in the form of the foliar flags to get birds to the fruits just in time.

Still other plants provide food for resident birds during or at the end of winter, including hawthorns, chokeberry, poison ivy, viburnum, and winterberry holly.  These fruits are “low quality” in terms of concentrated energy, being low in lipids, and thus are passed up by migratory birds.  While the fruits are on the plants from fall through winter, anyone with a winterberry holly knows that birds often don’t get around to eating them until the end of winter/early spring, suggesting there are more desirable foods around, even for resident birds.  Obviously, these fruits must not be prone to easy rotting, as they often remain on the plant for months.

Robins eating fruit in January–Photo by Randy Carone
Pileated Woodpecker with grapes–Photo by Mary Anne Borge  (



As this picture of a yellow-rumped warbler eating poison ivy fruit shows, some of the latter fruits are eaten by birds that are semi-resident and semi-migratory.  Yellow-rumped warblers live in our area from fall through spring, then summer further north of us.

Yellow-rumped Warbler with Poison Ivy Fruit
Yellow-rumped warbler with poison ivy berries–Photo by Mary Anne Borge (

See Mary Anne Borge’s blog at for more bird and other photos.


Flowers, Food and Feathers

By:  Priscilla Hayes

At the end of last year, the first grade teachers at Littlebrook School started planning a bird garden as a service learning project for their classes with design ideas from Littlebrook’s fabulous art teacher. We are converting an existing bed which already contains plants that support birds, so the kids will be drawing plans to add additional bird-friendly plants from a pre-selected list.

Creating a successful bird garden is more than just adding plants—it’s learning to look at both the existing and new plants from a bird’s point of view. I am learning that this requires unlearning or rethinking some things that have become almost second nature to me as a gardener.

One of those things to reconsider is deadheading—removing the spent flower heads after the blooming period is over. If you do that, you also remove the developing seeds that can provide food for birds. I am suggesting that you should consider discontinuing deadheading for birdseed plants. Just a few examples of the many plants which produce seeds that birds can eat over the fall and winter are:

• Rudbeckia
• Echinacea/coneflower
• Joe pye weed—per CREP publication, the seed is an angular nutlet providing food to songbirds; look for chickadees, wrens, titmice and juncos; the fluff is used for building warm nests.
• Goldenrod—benefits songbirds; birds eat seeds; insects use it to overwinter, so birds can eat the insects, also.
• Tickseed
• Sedum—all sedum varieties popular with pretty much all types of seed eaters.
• Asters—provide seeds.
• Globe thistle—especially popular with goldfinches; not an aggressive plant.

• Zinnia
• Nasturtium
• Marigold
• Bachelor button
• Coreopsis
• Tithonia/Mexican sunflower
• Sunflowers
• Purple majesty millet

My research also showed that some weeds, notably smartweed, produce a large amount of seeds per plant, attracting red-winged blackbirds, cardinals, sparrows and others. While I am not really advocating planting smartweed, I have a collection of seeds as they become ripe on the turnpike overpass where we bike in mind. I figure that I can move the ripe seeds to a bird feeder, since it is unlikely that they will get eaten on that hot, noisy, open overpass.

But not every bird eats seeds. If you begin to study the shapes of birds’ beaks, you will begin to see that some birds have the right beaks to eat seeds, and others have beaks that are appropriate for collecting and eating something from the animal kingdom (of course, some things eat both plant and animal things, as we do). Insects and other small crawlies are among these foods, so another important change in gardening habits is to learn to tolerate some level of insects chomping away on garden plants. Many of these things, including caterpillars, are foods for birds we want to see. In fact, the presence or absence of enough of these may help determine how many eggs are laid and how many young birds can be successfully raised by adult birds nesting in a given area.

This has proved more slippery to embrace than the no-deadheading protocol change. We are wondering if the reason we aren’t seeing many of the Black Swallowtail caterpillars this year is because we have a bird population that is too efficiently picking them off and eating them. We really do like Black Swallowtails—they are one of two butterflies especially studied by the second graders, and we don’t mind sharing our parsley and fennel with their caterpillars. On the other hand, no birds seem to be eating the cabbage worms we are seeing on our collards. Are Black Swallowtail caterpillars the caterpillar of choice for birds with discriminating palates? We have taken to squishing the cabbage worms (and drowning Japanese beetles) since nothing is eating these for us. Figuring out how to provide insect food for birds is going to be a real learning process for us humans at Littlebrook School.

As I was introducing the fifth graders to their Freedom Garden (instead of a bird garden) for this year, the teacher I was working with pointed out an adult male and a juvenile goldfinch eating coneflower/Echinacea seeds in one of our pollinator borders. With her impressive birding skills, she could tell that the youngster was trying to get the adult to feed it, and the adult was saying the youngster was old enough to feed itself. I was reminded of how much I still have to learn about the natural world, but at the same time, a mystery was solved for me. Last year I collected Echinacea seedheads with the second graders from that very border and we seemed to come up with almost no seeds or fully pollinated, viable seeds from the seedheads. The finches in the courtyard explain why—they had already picked out most of the seeds before we even got to the seedheads.

I love my job for all of these constant little insights every day, and even just the gift of noticing things, like goldfinches, that were there all along.

Love Those Lichens

By:  Priscilla Hayes

A lichen I photographed during my program at Eagle Hill Institute
A lichen I photographed during my program at Eagle Hill Institute

I have loved lichens for as long as I can remember. I have always found the large and colorful rosette shapes they form on rocks beautiful. Thirty or so years ago, I wowed a group of teachers while taking a Project Learning Tree training course. For my introductory science question, I asked them to identify the entity composed of a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and an alga.

So, when I started designing an after school schoolyard habitat series for young students, I naturally included a session on lichens. Along with the bird books which were meant to make me an expert for the birding session, I bought two normal size lichen books (this is meant to distinguish the books from Lichens of North America, a massive volume, which I finally bought this month).

I realized almost immediately that I wouldn’t be able to be enough of an expert on birds to do any kind of session, partly because birds move. You might not find any at all! What you do find may be moving too fast to see with binoculars, let alone to see long enough to identify with beginning birding skills. It’s better not to be embarrassed in front of my little third and fourth grade students!

So I concentrated on creating a lesson about lichens. Lichens don’t move, and I could theoretically scout my lichen hunting sites out in advance, make identifications, and be prepared to wow my students into loving them as I did.

Of course it didn’t happen that way (there’s a Steve Forbert song, “It Isn’t Gonna Be That Way” playing in my head as I recount this)! I never found the time to do the advance scouting. I made sure I knew a place that had lichens, but I didn’t do any ID. Of course, I needn’t have worried. Not only was I miles beyond my third and fourth graders, so they didn’t notice any lack of expertise, but really, what they wanted to do was make little movies in the garden with the iPads again. And not even movies about habitat or plants, but featuring little stuffed animals! It was an after school program after all.

This teaching experience had taught me that my lichen ID skills were rudimentary, so for my next student lesson, I persuaded a local lichen expert to come out to one of the schools that I work with to do a lichen walk in our “community forest.” He even brought a microscope, and gave each student a look at several different lichens.

It was on his recommendation that I headed off to Maine for a week in June, to an intensive course on lichens at the Eagle Hill Institute (link and a description, below). It was on the first day, I finally had to face the supremely underestimated profundity of my ignorance.

I didn’t even have a clue about good naturalist hand lenses, and had to go to the office to buy one immediately (they didn’t have the lighted ones the instructors recommended). I had not used a microscope myself since 9th grade biology, and had never dreamed how much skill that required. Out in the field, I collected lichen specimens in small brown bags as feverishly as any of my colleagues (none of whom were the rank beginner I proved to be), but my notations on each bag were sketchy, since I figured I would do identifications back in the lab. After the first night, when I found I couldn’t understand the difference between isidia and soredia and other lichen structures, or apply the dichotomous key well enough to identify my specimens from scratch, I made sure to carefully write down whatever name the instructors said in the field as we were collecting. That made it somewhat easier to make correct identifications back in the lab and let me play around with looking for whatever structures the book said that kind of lichen was supposed to have.

This experience not only challenged me to sharpen my lichen identifying skills, but also left me with another positive end result. My preconceived notions about symbiosis were upended, leaving me with a whole new understanding of and appreciation for what I thought I already knew. I’ll explain more in a future post!

Eagle Hill Institute, in Steuben, Maine, offers weeklong and shorter courses/seminars on lichens, birds, bryophytes, and a host of other nature topics. See My week was intense but thoroughly enjoyable, the food is great and the accommodations are rustic but fine. During my lichen week, there was also a group of people studying bryophytes, including a 12 or 13 year old prodigy who had already been volunteering at a natural history museum in Chicago. He was always the first one to head back to the lab for specimen identification after dinner.