Red-breasted Nuthatch. Photo credit: Unknown

Red-breasted Nuthatch. Photo credit: Unknown

(After a brief hiatus, our Bird of the Week feature returns today.)

It’s second nature to me, whenever I pass my dining room window, to take a quick peek to see which birds are visiting the feeders. Do you do that, too? It was only a couple of weeks ago, if that, that I realized I hadn’t seen my usual Red-breasted Nuthatch in a while. You know how it is: If all of the usual criminals aren’t hanging out together, it’s just not as much fun. The chickadees, juncos, jays, and other sparrows and finches were there, but no nuthatch. It wasn’t long afterward, however, that he started showing up again, first on the sunflower seed feeder…but just briefly, before hanging from the suet basket, where he was happily eating upside down.

Funny how the return of a much-loved little bird can make everything feel a little more settled. It was as if he was saying, “Okay, I’m back…fall can begin!”

Read on to learn more about the Red-breasted Nuthatch.

Scientific name: Sitta canadensis
Family: SITTIDAE

Size and markings: The Red-breasted Nuthatch is 4-4.5 inches long with a wingspan of 8 inches. Its sides and belly are rufous (rust-colored), giving this very small bird its name. A black stripe covers its crown, and a black eye stripe gives it a mask-like appearance. Its eyebrow, cheeks, and throat are white. The upperparts and short tail are gray. Bill is long and slightly upturned. Sexes are similar.

Food: Insects, spiders, and larvae make up the main diet of the Red-breasted Nuthatch, who looks for its food on or under tree bark. It is also drawn to feeders that offer sunflower seeds or suet.

Habitat/nesting/behavior: Mainly found in forests at higher elevations, the Red-breasted Nuthatch can also be convinced to come to feeders in suburban areas where sunflower seeds and suet are offered. This bird will hollow out its own nest cavity in a conifer or snag and then smear the entrance with pitch. Whether hunting for insects on a tree or pulling a sunflower seed from a feeder, it will typically do so facing head down.

Number of broods per year: 1

Number of eggs per brood: 2-8

Migratory pattern: The Red-breasted Nuthatch is a year-round resident of the Pacific Northwest. Some migration does occur, but has been known to happen irregularly on alternate years.

Months usually seen at backyard feeders: Any.

The above information was taken from Birds of the Pacific Northwest: How to Identify 25 of the Most Popular Backyard Birds.
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Learn more about your backyard birds in the newly revised and updated Birds of the Pacific Northwest: How to Identify 25 of the Most Popular Backyard Birds. Get it for your Kindle (which you can also read on your PC, Mac, smartphone, or tablet with this free reading app), Nook, on Smashwords, or in the iTunes bookstore.

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On suet-making days, when I’ve got everything melting together in a pan on top of the stove, each member of my family, one-by-one, will saunter nonchalantly into the kitchen. Soon comes the sly, “Whatcha makin’? Smells like peanut butter fudge.”

Disappointment ensues when they find out that not only is it not fudge, but it isn’t for them at all. It’s peanut butter suet, and it’s for the backyard birds who’ve become spoiled enough to depend on it during cooler weather. Or even demand it, like the resident Northern Flickers who absolutely relish it.

Some time back, I decided to facilitate a taste test between my suet and some that was store-bought. (Both were peanut butter flavored.) Knowing my suet was fresh, fragrant, and even a little softer and easier to eat, I had a feeling I already knew which suet would win (ahem…mine), but gave it a go anyway. Here are a few photos to illustrate how the test went.

Order here: Pacific Northwest Birds Peanut Butter Suet

I’d added raisins to this particular batch of suet, but my mistake was mixing them in whole and not chopped. The birds seemed to pick around them and were more interested in the seeds, peanuts, and the suet dough itself. But, whole raisins or not, you can see which suet the birds preferred. The store-bought suet is on the left and mine is on the right. It’s been a while since I took these, but if I remember right, all of the photos were taken over a two week period, though the time frame may have been shorter.

#1 -- Hard to tell, but both suet baskets contain approximately the same amount of suet (by weight). The baskets are the same size.

#2 -- They've been chipping away at my suet and all but ignoring the store-bought.

#3 -- Whoa...almost gone!

#4 -- BAM! Loser concedes. We have a winner!

Somewhere in the middle of that, I forgot to take another photo, but you get the idea. The birds preferred the suet on the right.

Making your own suet is a fun and rewarding project. Check out this recipe to try it yourself. Or, if you’d rather not bother, you can purchase it directly from Pacific Northwest Birds. All of my suet is made in small batches to ensure quality and then frozen until shipment. The recipe I use for this suet is slightly different than the one at the link, as I changed it up just a bit to ensure stability and consistency. Each block of suet weighs about a pound or more…much larger than those little suet cakes you’ll find at the store. The suet on the right in the photos above is not representative of the much-larger suet blocks available for purchase.

Whether you buy it or make your own, you’ll most likely attract some or all of these birds: Black-capped Chickadees, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Spotted Towhees, Steller’s Jays, Downy Woodpeckers, Hairy Woodpeckers, Song Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Pileated Woodpeckers, Bushtits, and Northern Flickers. I have a feeling I’m forgetting one or two. Oh, that’s right — and European Starlings, which I don’t appreciate due to their ability to hog and demolish the suet block within just a few days. (I’ve been known to take the suet down until the starlings have forgotten about it.)

Enjoy!

Read more about our peanut butter suet here.

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Learn more about your backyard birds in the newly revised and updated Birds of the Pacific Northwest: How to Identify 25 of the Most Popular Backyard Birds. Get it for your Kindle (which you can also read on your PC, Mac, smartphone, or tablet with this free reading app), Nook, on Smashwords, or in the iTunes bookstore.

Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook and Twitter!

Hands down, this is the most personal post I’ve ever written for the Pacific Northwest Birds blog. I’ve been thinking of telling my story for quite some time, and now…with October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month…here we go!

If you’re wondering what kind of connection October, breast cancer, and birds could possibly have to each other, look no further than yours truly. I was diagnosed in August of 2011 with HER2+/ER-/PR- invasive ductal carcinoma, stage 3b. It had already gone to my lymph nodes, which is what put me so close to a stage 4.

This was followed by just over five months of chemo, which was followed by a double mastectomy, which was followed by several weeks of radiation therapy, which was followed – over the next two years – by about 12 more surgeries, the most recent (and last…finally) being two weeks ago. Sadly, about a month after starting chemo, I lost my wonderful dad to complications from a heart attack. The same week we lost him, I almost lost my own fight, and was hospitalized with a white blood cell count of almost zero. (The chemo that was zapping the tumors almost took me out, too.)

Saying that it was a very rough time seems to be putting it lightly. But it’s amazing – and this is something I discovered for myself while in the trenches – how much strength we can find inside ourselves when we really have to. I knew instinctively going in that whether or not I won this battle depended in large part on my attitude and outlook. That doesn’t discount everything my wonderful team of doctors did for me, but the will to live is a real thing.

Besides my attitude, it helped immensely to remember that God has the final word, not the doctors, and that I didn’t have an expiration date stamped on my forehead. In fact, I never asked my oncologist how much time he thought I had with this particular cancer, because I didn’t want a time frame stuck in my mind.

But what does my breast cancer diagnosis have to do with birds and this blog? Everything. One of my favorite movies, Secretariat, also has one of my favorite quotes: “Work is good for grief.” That’s true. After chemo, I was still deeply grieving for my dad, and had my remaining treatments and surgeries looming large on the horizon. I wanted something tangible that I could focus on. I’d heard many success and business coaches say to do what you love (in fact, you may have heard the well-known quote, “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life”), so I asked myself what that meant for me: What was it I liked to do? What was my hobby?

Coming up with that answer was easy: Birding.

I loved watching, feeding, and learning about birds…wild, native species, that is. (I’ve always felt bad for birds kept in cages.) And so, in March of 2012, right around the time of my mastectomy, Pacific Northwest Birds was born. It has grown by leaps and bounds since then…and hopefully will even more now that I’m done with my surgeries…and I am thoroughly enjoying writing about the beautiful birds of the Pacific Northwest and getting to know you all. Thank you, everyone, for being a part of this!

One memory that really sticks out to me from 2012 is the Indian summer we had. I spent quite a few days sitting outside that October, soaking up the sun for as long as it lasted, writing in my journal, and listening to and watching the birds in the trees and at my feeders. What a time of inner healing that was, to be able to sit and connect with nature as I was also healing on the outside. Now, more than three years since my diagnosis, it’s wonderful to look back and see how far I’ve come.

I’m a survivor: I fought like a girl and am here to tell the tale. Knowing how many women are fighting now or have even lost their fight, that isn’t something I say lightly. I am grateful beyond words that I am able to sit here and write about it. I am grateful, in fact, for each breath I take.

So with it being October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, it’s a great time to give to breast cancer research or to help out in another way. If you have a favorite breast cancer-related charity to give to, please do. On the other hand, if you don’t know where to give, I highly recommend giving to Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, one of the top-rated cancer centers in the U.S. and also where I received my care. You may give of your finances, your time, or by donating Christmas gifts, books, magazines, healthy snacks, and more. Check out this link for more information: SCCA: How to help.

And, of course, there’s the old standby of simply paying it forward. We were greatly helped (“greatly” is an understatement) in many ways during my cancer treatments by caring family, friends, and complete strangers, and now I’m in the pay-it-forward mode, too. Imagine what a great world this would be if we all did that a little more often.

This post would not be complete without a reminder to get yourself checked, too — and I’m not just speaking to the girls here. Breast cancer isn’t just a women’s disease, as men can also be diagnosed with it. Recent statistics I’ve seen say one in eight women will get breast cancer during their lifetime. With men it’s much lower, about one in 1,000, but high enough to warrant getting that checkup.

Thanks for reading and for allowing me to temporarily steer away from our usual fare here on the blog. I appreciate the opportunity to share my story…which is also Pacific Northwest Birds’ story…with all of you. Has focusing on birds (or another aspect of nature) helped you through a hard time, too? If so, please share your story in the comments below, on Facebook, or on Twitter.

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Learn more about your backyard birds in the newly revised and updated Birds of the Pacific Northwest: How to Identify 25 of the Most Popular Backyard Birds. Get it for your Kindle (which you can also read on your PC, Mac, smartphone, or tablet with this free reading app), Nook, on Smashwords, or in the iTunes bookstore.

Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook and Twitter!

American Goldfinches. Photo: Sally Dinius/Pacific Northwest Birds

American Goldfinches have been hogging the feeders lately, perhaps to fuel up for their journey to...elsewhere (certainly not here). 9-1-2014. Photo: Sally Dinius/Pacific Northwest Birds

When I stepped outside to fill the feeders the other morning (the first of September, to be exact), I was pleasantly surprised to feel a slight chill in the air. I love summer, but all the heat and humidity was making me cranky.

Besides the lower temps, there are other things I look forward to with the arrival of fall: the changing of the leaves, drinking hot coffee at Starbucks just to warm myself up, and the visits of migrating birds passing through on the way to their winter homes.

It’s that very idea of birds heading south that causes some people to believe that feeding the birds is just a seasonal thing. The truth is that while many birds do fly off to spend the winter in warmer climates, quite a few remain. Here are some of the birds you’ll see year-round in the Pacific Northwest (though not everyone here in the PNW will see the same birds):

Spotted Towhee
Steller’s Jay
Dark-eyed Junco
Pine Siskin
Black-capped Chickadee
Chestnut-backed Chickadee
Red-breasted Nuthatch
American Robin
House Finch
Purple Finch

American Goldfinches also hang out year round, according to every range map I’ve seen. That may be true, but where I live (just south of Seattle), I only see them from spring through early fall. What about you? Do you see them during the winter months? Since they’re more drab in the winter, they may in large part just go unnoticed, but I have a feeling that many of them also vacation in the southern U.S. before returning in the spring. I know for a fact that they are nowhere near my feeders in the winter months…and you can bet I notice and identify every bird I see in my backyard.

Considering that so many of our feathered friends do stick around, what should we be doing this fall to help care for them? I’ve come up with a few ideas.

1. For starters, now is a great time to clean your feeders. Let the birds empty them, then bring them in to give them a good scrub in your sink. (Be sure to dry them completely before refilling with seed.) I prefer feeders that come apart easily. I also have a long tube seed feeder, but since it’s hard to clean, it gets replaced about once a year. Choose hummingbird feeders that are easy to clean, too, since these can grow mildew and bacteria quickly.

2. Continue to feed the hummingbirds. Rufous Hummingbirds and Black-chinned Hummingbirds arrive in spring and leave in late summer, but our Anna’s hummers are year-round residents who depend on nectar for sustenance, especially when the bug population drops.

3. Depending on where you hang your feeders, this is also a good time to rake or sweep away any old seed and seed husks. Not only is it unsightly, but old seed left on the ground can harbor bacteria and also attract slugs and rodents.

4. Hang up bird houses and/or roosting boxes to provide shelter for birds during cold and harsh weather. Also, hold off on any drastic pruning of shrubbery and trees, for the same reason. This also gives birds a place to hide from predators.

5. Most importantly, keep feeding the birds! Once you’ve begun to feed your backyard birds, it really is a commitment. They quickly learn to depend on you for sustenance. Look for sales and stock up on seed if you live in an area where you’re likely to get snowed in.

What do you do to care for backyard birds during the fall and winter months? Leave a comment below or chime in on our Facebook page or on Twitter!

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Learn more about your backyard birds in the newly revised and updated Birds of the Pacific Northwest: How to Identify 25 of the Most Popular Backyard Birds. Get it for your Kindle (which you can also read on your PC, Mac, smartphone, or tablet with this free reading app), Nook, on Smashwords, or in the iTunes bookstore.

Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook and Twitter!

Of all the birds that migrate to the Pacific Northwest for springtime breeding, I consider the Barn Swallow to be the herald…the one whose arrival announces that it truly is spring, even if it isn’t the first to get here. Beginning in April, I keep an eye to the sky, watching for the charming, tell-tale aerobatic maneuvers of this graceful little bird.

I know, I know…it’s almost fall and I’m talking about spring! But the Barn Swallow will be heading south soon, which means, in my scheme of things, I’m running out of time to feature it as the Bird of the Week. (Speaking of fall…I’m ready. Pumpkin everything? I think yes.)

But I realize, as I write this, that I haven’t seen our resident Barn Swallows in a while, which means they may already be on their way to their winter home somewhere in Central or South America. And according to this cool Barn Swallow timeline, that’s exactly what’s happening. (Ah, well…see you next year, little darlings.)

Left: Male Barn Swallow. Right: Female Barn Swallow. (See end of post for photo credits.)

Left: Male Barn Swallow. Right: Female Barn Swallow. (See end of post for photo credits.)

Here’s more fun info about the Barn Swallow, from the newly revised edition of Birds of the Pacific Northwest: How to Identify 25 of the Most Popular Backyard Birds:

Species: Hirundo rustica
Family: HIRUNDINIDAE

Size and markings: The Barn Swallow is 6-7.5 inches long, with a wingspan of 11-12.5 inches. The male’s upper parts are midnight blue while its underside and chest are a light buffy orange. The dark, glistening eyes and small, dark beak are surrounded by a rust-bronze on the forehead, chin, and throat. The female has the same blue above, but her undersides, forehead, and throat are lighter. Long wings taper back toward the tail when perched. Easily identifiable on a wire or in flight by its long, forked tail.

Food: This swallow catches food “on the wing” (in flight), dining on a large variety of flying insects, such as wasps, beetles, bees, moths, butterflies, and grasshoppers, but has a special fondness for flies.

Habitat/nesting/behavior: Suburban areas are a favorite of the Barn Swallow, as it readily builds nests in man-made structures like garages, car ports, bridges, and barns, from which it gets its name. It will also use bird houses, if provided. This bird tolerates people and will return to the same nesting site each spring.

The Barn Swallow’s nest is made up of bits of mud. The base of the nest is built first, and eventually a cup-shape is created as more mud is added.

Breeding happens from April to June or even later. One of the first signs of the yearly return of the Barn Swallow is its aerobatic swooping overhead. Power lines are often used for perching, and you are very likely to see fledglings sitting there as they noisily wait to be fed.

Number of broods per year: 1-2
Number of eggs per brood: 3-7

Hungry Barn Swallow fledglings. Photo: Sally Dinius/Pacific Northwest Birds

Hungry Barn Swallow fledglings. Photo: Sally Dinius/Pacific Northwest Birds

Migratory pattern: The Barn Swallow breeds during the spring and summer months throughout the North American continent, with the exception of northern Canada and northern Alaska. It winters in Central and South America.

Months usually seen at backyard feeders: While not a feeder bird, you are still likely to see this bird as it performs its beautiful swoops over your yard and neighborhood.

Photo credits: Male Barn Swallow by “stevebyland” on canstockphoto.com. Female Barn Swallow by “igraciela” on canstockphoto.com.
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Learn more about your backyard birds in Birds of the Pacific Northwest: How to Identify 25 of the Most Popular Backyard Birds. Get it for your Kindle (which you can also read on your PC, Mac, smartphone, or tablet with this free reading app), Nook, on Smashwords, or in the iTunes bookstore.

Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook and Twitter!

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