Neil Sperry

These are the birds we’ve loved watching at our backyard feeders this winter

A great garden in a small space

Jake and Sharyn Schaffer's patio garden in San Luis Obispo makes the most of the small landscaping space.
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Jake and Sharyn Schaffer's patio garden in San Luis Obispo makes the most of the small landscaping space.

I sit at our breakfast table eating my shredded wheat every morning about 7. Now on the surface that may sound rather uninspiring, but what unfolds before me each day is one of the most exciting scenes you could find in a garden.

We live in a pecan forest. Our house is now 42 years old. We built it, and we put it where it is to take advantage of the trees. They were half-grown when we moved in, and they’ve just gotten taller ever since, upwards of 60 or 70 feet tall by now.

The trees are filled with birds. We know they are because we can hear them. But because the branches are mostly up high now, we really haven’t been able to see them. That is, until we hung feeders in strategic spots in our backyard.

I love birds anyway, but I did this as much as anything to share that love with a 9-year-old grandson who’s at our house frequently. He’s expressed a great deal of interest in spiders and insects. I figured it was a short journey to birds.

A few things he and I have decided together:

It’s best to have several feeders of different types (hanging columnar, perches, suet, thistle seed, peanut butter, etc.). Different birds are attracted to different things.

The feeders should be 15 ft. (or farther) out from the house. Birds like to have shrubs or multi-stemmed trees nearby for “staging areas.” Don’t get the feeders too close to windows to avoid collisions.

Black, oil-type sunflower seed seems to be the most universally appealing food to many species of birds. But good birding stores will have specialty seed as well.

Don’t be afraid to scatter some of the seed on the ground beneath the feeders. Ground-feeding birds will devour it. Any that does germinate will be easy to eliminate, either by hoeing or mulching.

Be patient. It may take the birds a few days to find your seed. Activity is best during cold, cloudy weather. The past couple of weeks have been crazy. Some species will start migrating north soon, and that’s when you’ll think about putting up the hummingbird feeders to start the next season of bird watching.

Birds we’ve loved watching at our feeders this winter:


They have been present by the scores. These little birds, as a friend told me, are “pigs” at the feeders. We’ve had 75 to 100 at our feeders and in our trees at any given time. They’re gradually shading to their brilliant yellow summer plumage, so I’m sure they’ll start heading north before long.


We’ve had probably 10 pairs in our hollies and at our feeders the past couple of months. They really prefer a perch feeder. They don’t do very well competing at the tubular feeders. They’re simply too large to sit comfortably.


I have no idea how many we have because I rarely see more than one or two at a time. They dart in and out of sight in an instant. They come to the feeder, grab a seed, and go off to eat it. Then, they come back. They’re cute as they can be.

Purple finches (but they’re kinda rose-red)

As winter has been shading toward spring, they’re been getting more colorful. In the meantime they’ve looked like the little girl who’s gotten into Mama’s makeup for the first time. They’re half as big as goldfinches, and we’ve had a dozen or so at a time.

Blue jays

Long known to be the bullies of the bird world, these guys have quite the personalities. They drop in like bombshells, blowing off all the little birds around them. They’re pretty much ground feeders, eating what gets kicked out by the smaller birds. But that doesn’t keep them from taking a pass at the hanging feeders just to let other birds know who’s boss.

Carolina wrens

We don’t have as many this year, but they do know that they’re loved. I’ve put bark butter on one of our pecan’s trunks, and they’ve finally found it. So far they’re the only birds who are feeding on it, but their songs are so beautiful, I’ll do anything I can to sustain them.

Carolina chickadees

We have a bunch. They, too, have beautiful voices. They compete right in with the finches for the small oil-type sunflower seeds. They’re pretty little birds that we see even away from our feeders.

Mourning doves

I looked out the other day and probably 30 of them had gathered beneath one of our hanging feeders. It seems the finches had been unusually careless and spilled lots of seeds onto the walk. They were there, feasting on sunflower seeds en masse.


We’ve only had a few. These are the size of mockingbirds, but they’re medium-brown. They’re ground-feeders and rather docile in action. Just like big, gentle dogs that don’t do much to cause problems. Just there doing their thing.

Downy woodpeckers

We have several. These are small woodpeckers and they’re rather mannerly. They get their sunflower seeds, then they hop over to the trees’ trunks to open them. Soon they work their way up the trunks to go on about other work.

Red-bellied woodpeckers

I’ve saved the best fun for last. These are the clown princes of the aviary. They grab a few sunflower seeds, but they seem clueless as to what to do with them. They fly from feeder to feeder like guided missiles, scaring off all the other birds in the process. They’re big bullies with personalities, but no one seems terribly afraid. As soon as they fly off to another feeder, the little birds quickly fill in behind them, and the circus rolls on.

Note: Looking for a great website on birds and birding? Visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University: They have it all!

You can hear Neil Sperry on KLIF 570AM on Saturday afternoons 1-3 pm and on WBAP 820AM Sunday mornings 8-10 am. Join him at and follow him on Facebook.

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