Backyard birding is a wonderful way of observing wildlife from the comfort of your own home. In all seasons, it’s possible to attract a steady flow of birds to a well-stocked and well-positioned bird feeder. The green spaces that punctuate the shores of Lake Washington attract a wide variety of birds that may be passing through in any season. The parks and gardens in Leschi and Madrona provide an abundant source of food, shelter and nesting habitat for songbirds.
(Bushtits feasting on a suet feeder.)
A well-sited feeder can animate a garden and help observers develop an informed understanding and appreciation of some of the amazing wildlife that is probably outside of the window - right now! Collectively, by feeding birds together, our neighborhood has the potential to be a sanctuary for birds!
This mini-guide is based on my experience of attracting some of our feathery friends to gardens in Madrona and Leschi, and it is not intended to be comprehensive. The lists of birds that I have provided are based on the birds that I have seen in my backyard.
Please note: Basic hygiene is essential with feeders and they should be cleaned on a regular basis – this minimizes the transmission of viruses.
Tip: If possible, buy a feeder with a tray underneath to catch any discarded seed. Many birds like to feed off of the discarded seed that ends up on the ground, however, in urban areas they are easily predated by cats (I own one too), so I prefer to prevent any uncontrolled spillage. Furthermore, discarded food is likely to attract mice and/or rats.
To become a backyard birder, you don’t even need a backyard! I lived in a downtown apartment with a tiny balcony, but I was still able to attract a steady stream of finches and chickadees. A balcony will suffice but a garden with any shrubs or trees nearby is likely to attract a much wider variety of birds.
Please note: Anna’s Hummingbirds overwinter in Seattle. They are at the northernmost edge of their winter range in NW America and as a result are extremely susceptible to temperature changes. If their feeders freeze over, or are not cleaned and replenished at least twice a week, the chances of your hummingbirds surviving the winter are severely reduced. Before even thinking about feeding hummingbirds in winter (or any other birds), please consider the commitment that will need to be made to ensure that they survive!
Tip: Binoculars come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. I would recommend a pair of 8 x 32 magnification binoculars that can be purchased from an Audubon store that specializes in birding optics.
Feeders, Food and Birds
There are a number of different types of feeders that are available and they are all effective in attracting different types of bird when sited correctly. I use all three of the commonly available types listed below, but any one will provide you with years of joy if they are well stocked:
1. Squirrel proof seed feeder – the metal caged feeders are the best and, if you buy one with more than 6 holes, you won't have to fill it every other day. When choosing a feeder, select one that has a canopy to protect the seed from rain.
Seed for the seed feeder – It’s possible to buy a wide range of seeds for your feeder but by far I find sunflower heart chips to be the most successful in attracting a wide range of locally common species. Sunflower chips are expensive; I find it cheaper to buy several sacks that will last me through the winter!
2. Squirrel proof suet feeder – I prefer the metal caged varieties that hold at least two blocks of suet; the greater the capacity, the less it will need to be refilled.
Suet blocks for suet feeder – Suet blocks are fantastic at attracting other types of birds that do not frequent seed feeders and they tend to last a long time. The blocks come in a number of varieties where the suet is mixed with berries, seeds or even insects. I find the insect varieties work best.
3. Hummingbird feeders – These tiny birds with their flashy iridescent colors are the jewel in the crown of the birds that can be attracted into a backyard. It’s also possible to attract hummingbirds to feed right next to a window, which allows for fantastic close-up views. Hummingbirds are attracted to anything red, so most feeders on the market consist of a clear container to hold liquid food solution and a red plastic feeding station.
Hummingbird feeders are the cheapest of feeders to buy, BUT they are the most difficult to maintain, and careful consideration should be given before getting one. By nature, hummingbirds are highly territorial and once established, they will defend their feeder from other hummingbirds that may take an interest in what they consider to be their food supply.
Food for hummingbirds – I feed hummingbirds with granulated white sugar diluted in warm water on a ratio of five parts water to one part sugar.
Two Other Essentials
The two other things that a backyard birder should consider buying are:
Field guide – It’s always nice to be able to identify what you are looking at! There are lots of field guides available, some that focus on birds in Seattle and some that focus on Washington; my preference is for The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America.
Binoculars – It helps if you can see what you are looking at! Although binoculars are not absolutely essential (especially if feeders are located near windows), they help with identification, and the views that are attainable with modestly priced optics are probably worth the investment.
So long as you commit to filling your feeders up, you will be rewarded with a constant stream of different birds at different times of the year.
Garden birds do not particularly like feeding in the open where they are likely to be predated, so you will attract more birds by locating your feeder near to shrubs or trees where birds can shelter from any danger.
Always site feeders high enough off the ground so that they are out of reach of cats - seeing the beloved Townsend's Warbler that frequented your feeder in the jaws of your neighbor’s pet is not what any backyard birder wants to see!
Don’t situate them above plants where cats can hide in wait. A feeder situated above a clear area will provide ground feeding birds with a better opportunity to flee if a cat is present. Birds likely to be predated on the ground include sparrows, towhees and juncos.
There are significant variations in the types of birds that can be attracted to your backyard that are based on the types of trees and even the aspect of a property. For example, woodpeckers are more common in areas with localized tree cover than in areas that don’t have many trees. Some birds are very specific about the type of habitat that they need. Where you live in Madrona or Leschi and where you locate your feeder will determine the type of birds that you attract.
By attracting birds into your garden, it’s possible that you will also attract other birds that associate with flocks but that don’t feed on your feeder. I’m not sure whether this occurs because birds have their curiosity aroused by the activity of other birds, but several times this year Red Crossbills have been present within large flocks (charms) of Pine Siskins. At any time of the year, it’s possible to attract less common birds, so always expect unexpected visitors!
Here are a few of the less common birds that I’ve seen in my backyard whilst living in both Madrona and Leschi:
Birds of prey like Coopers Hawk and Sharp Shinned Hawk are also likely to be drawn towards the small flocks of songbirds that congregate near your feeder(s). When these stealthy predators strike, be prepared for some natural attrition - this hobby has everything to do with bringing the natural world into your backyard!
Remember to occasionally look up, too! Overflying birds that I have seen include:
For those living closer to the margins of Lake Washington, the opportunities to observe additional species abound, but for now this article is for budding backyard birders! Perhaps that is for another day.
All photographs were taken in my backyard - © Clive Lissaman 2013
Duncraft - http://www.duncraft.com
Local Stores Selling Feeders
The Nature Shop
Seattle Audubon Society
35th Ave. NE
Seattle, WA 98115
Seward Park Environmental & Audubon Center
5902 Lake Washington Blvd S
Seattle, WA 98118
Wild Birds Unlimited
15155 NE 24th St.
Redmond, WA 98052
Free Online Resources
Free web based field guide with songs and calls - Birdweb: http://www.birdweb.org/birdweb/index.aspx
Free local bird news and stories by email – Tweeters http://www.scn.org/tweeters/
Advice from Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife: http://wdfw.wa.gov/living/backyard/
Audubon Birds, A Field Guide to North American Birds – by Green Mountain Digital
Sibley eGuide to Birds of North America – by mydigitalearth.com
Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America – (2003) David Sibley, Random House Inc
Birds of Seattle and Puget Sound - City Bird Guides (1996), Lone Pine Publishing
Birds of Washington State, (2006) Brian H. Bell and Gregory Kennedy, Lone Pine Publishing
About Clive Lissaman
Clive has had a lifelong interest in birds and has travelled in Europe, Africa, North America and Asia in pursuit of his hobby. Clive is an Arts Education Consultant working locally and internationally on a wide range of projects.
Clive and his family lived in Leschi for about two years and recently moved to Madrona.