Backyard Birds at Chickadee Gardens

Chickadee Gardens is for the chickadees, after all. It's also for the finches, the warblers, and the insects. When a friend of mine was recently bitten by backyard birding fever and had some solid questions about creating a backyard habitat, I was reminded of the time when I too had the same questions. Many of you already know a lot about birds (much more than I do), but it is always helpful to revisit some basics and meet a few of our feathered visitors.

The majority of the photos below were taken in the last two weeks. Thus, they do not represent all the birds that visit throughout the year, just merely a sampling of our winter-time residents. Up until now I have not really thought about taking photos of birds as it's always seemed much funner (and easier) to simply observe them, so I now say hats off to all wildlife photographers for their difficult and frustrating task of getting a decent shot of any bird. Here are the best of my efforts, many hundreds of others omitted for blurriness (or lack of a bird at all in the shot).

Here's Townie, a Townsend's warbler. I'll go into details about him further down the post.

First up, is a song sparrow. Just this morning I watched as he puffed up his chest and sang a sweet little song, attracting a nearby finch. Hmmm, forbidden love, maybe, but very cool to hear. These guys do the two-step shuffle on the ground foraging for bugs and dropped seeds. It's a good idea to leave garden debris where it is so that these guys and others can forage.

In the winter they do visit the suet feeder. Here's a simple feeder you can buy for a few dollars and fill with suet cakes. I usually get my suet from the Backyard Bird Shop or Fred Meyer if I'm desperate. You can make your own, too - it's basically rendered fat from the butcher with added seeds, nuts, insects or fruit. I have made mine before but prefer to buy it as it's a messy process. The down side to this type of feeder is that there is no protection from squirrels or starlings, but those are few and far between at Chickadee Gardens, gratefully.

Oh boy, our namesake bird! The ubiquitous black-capped chickadee. Chick-a-DEE-DEE-DEE is their call, they are little acrobats and so fun to watch. We get both these guys and the chestnut-backed chickadees and I have seen more of both this year than ever before. I'm surprised that I don't have any other photos of them, but as I mentioned, I tend to focus my camera towards things that don't move, the plants. Here, she's at the black oil sunflower feeder. It has a short perching area that is ideal for the smaller birds and thwarts the bullies like the invasive European sparrow who can't take hold of such a small perch. The black oil sunflower is also the best overall choice for seed, the European sparrows don't tend to like it but most other small songbirds do. It's rich in protein and keeps fairly well, but I go through it so fast in the winter, it's hard to tell. Millet seed is a cheap filler that attracts the invasive birds (the starlings and European sparrows) and leaves a mess, it is also not as nutritious so I stay away from it personally and have had great results.

They also adore the suet (in the winter especially). I think this one is a chestnut-backed chickadee.

A new visitor to the garden is this sweet ruby crowned kinglet. It took a long time to i.d. this one as it looks like several other birds such as a goldfinch or a pine siskin when flitting about. He's small like a bushtit, but not quite as small, so he was a mystery for a while. It was the red flash at the top of its head that eventually gave it away.

Tiny and very cute, he loves the suet.

In this shot you can just make out the red fleck on his crown. I saw another one with a much larger crown of red, but that little patch is iridescent, just like the Anna's hummingbird so it really catches the light when seen at the right angle.

Here's another form of food for the birds - some peanut butter and almond butter mixed with some black oil sunflower seeds crammed into a pinecone. The chickadees really go for this, so do the squirrels, so look out. I have had more than one pinecone walk away, but I kind of expect that. I only put these out in cold weather.

Speaking of iridescence and Anna's hummingbirds; we have many at Chickadee Gardens. There are four feeders in the winter, we fill them with nectar made of one part sugar and four parts water, boiled for one minute or so then cooled. That's it - no red dye, please. They don't need it and it's not good for them. No honey or other sweetener, just plain old sugar and water. Keep the water changed every week or so and the feeder clean as mold can be an issue in the Northwest. This is a Hummzinger feeder, it's particularly great because the hummingbird can sit on the edge and drink rather than burning up precious fuel while hovering. It's also made up of three simple parts so cleaning is very easy. These hummingbirds are here year-round, so make sure and have food sources for them continually if you do decide to feed them. They are VERY territorial and will buzz away other visitors; that's why we have four feeders. In the Northwest, it does freeze so make sure and take them indoors overnight on super cold spells and then put them back out at first light.

OK, here's a bit of a flashback to February of last year.
We saved a hummingbird in an ice storm. We had the worst weather imaginable, on top of that this little guy below---whom we named Jimmy---was attacked by a female hummingbird. It was a territory issue on a horrible, frozen day. He was left for dead with the female poking him with her beak. We saw it, it happened at our front door. Now normally I wouldn't interfere with nature but these were very unusual circumstances, and he would have died out there in the 14-degree weather.
The whole blog post and a video of him being released a few days later can be seen here.

Here's Jimmy about an hour after his initial rescue:
Poor guy is in pretty bad shape.

Finally warming up a bit.

He needed some food, so I cupped him in my hand and fed him.

He was willing to consume some sugar water. In fact, Jimmy seemed to need it to get his metabolism going again.

Here he is a couple days later, a near full recovery after much sugar water and some ground-up insects (yuck!) for protein. He had the whole downstairs bathroom to himself until the freeze passed.

Jimmy! He's ready to fly! Doesn't he look much better? His was a success story, but I wouldn't recommend taking any wildlife into one's home. Audubon was impossible to get to due to the ice storm so we were all stranded. It worked out in the end, we'll never forget our days with Jimmy.

Speaking of freezing temps, here's another little tool for the backyard birder. This silver thing in the birdbath is a low-voltage heater that barely keeps the ice from forming on the coldest of days. Birds need water in these conditions especially, and without something like this I wonder how they fare. We get a lot of activity on cold days at the watering hole. This heater costs about $20, very little money for such an invaluable tool. I got this one at the Backyard Bird Shop in Portland. This photo is from one of last year's winter storms.

Next up is the sweet goldfish feasting on nyjer thistle seeds. This is a special feeder just for these seeds, the finches pull them out one by one through the mesh wire. These feeders attract all kinds of finches, we get lesser goldfinches, flocks of pine siskins, and house finches. The juncos feed on the seeds that fall to the ground.

This is a spotted towhee, a blurry photo as these guys tend to move quickly. They are mostly ground feeders and look a little bit like a robin. We see them mostly this time of year.

Here's a better photo I took last spring at the Elk Rock Garden at the Bishop's Close.

Here he is again in our backyard, poking around for bugs.

These sweet little birds are bushtits. They travel in packs, we've seen groups of at least 30 at one time. They swarm, they feed, they are cute. The u.f.o. floating above is a squirrel baffle, but I use it to help keep the seed and birds dry in the wet weather.

Here they are at the hummer feeder of all things. There is a little well in the middle that fills with water and sometimes they come to drink from it, as do the chickadees. They hop around branches feeding on little insects, too.

But mostly they go for the suet. If you put it out, they will come.

This is a junco - they are seasonal in our garden. We see a lot of them this time of year in pairs.

They are usually seen foraging on the ground but lately they've taken to the suet buffet.

Here's a sweet little male house finch turning a pretty shade of red.

Caught him with a seed in his mouth.

This little guy is a downy woodpecker. They are quite nervous so to actually photograph one was a bonus for me. They love the suet and they of course will peck for bugs in tree bark.

They look a lot like hairy woodpeckers but are smaller with shorter bills. The black barring on the outer white tail feathers is another identification marker.

Oh, hi!

And up and away he goes. He's a fast one. Oh, bye!

Here's our resident Townsend's warbler, we call him Townie. One day I moved the suet to confuse some destructive squirrels. Townie found the suet nonetheless.

He loves his suet.

Here he is waiting for his turn at the front suet feeder.

Here's the front suet feeder. Not the best photograph but I wanted to illustrate a different kind of feeder that has a protective cage around an inner suet holder. This keeps the starlings and squirrels away, but the little guys can pop right in and feast away. Bluejays do visit as do the woodpeckers and flickers, but they'll reach in for a mouthful (with their longer beaks) then fly away after a bite or two, so I don't mind.

Here's another fun story - some parent crows left their babies to fledge on our front porch a few years ago. They are almost the same size as adult crows but have blue eyes - that's how to i.d. them. They had no fears and didn't mind us coming and going, but the parents had something to say to be sure. Parents continued to bring them food, so the best thing to do is stay out of their way and let them be.

Just hanging out! We did protect them from wandering neighborhood cats and dogs.

These guys still come around and visit, the whole family does. We do like the crows and feed them a handful of almonds from time to time. They sit on the telephone wires and peer into our windows to see if they can catch my attention. I believe we're considered extended family, now. They even nest in the big tree in the back yard every year and we are constantly saying hello to one another.

Lastly, one that does not regularly visit Chickadee Gardens (thankfully), a red-tailed hawk. We live very near Mt. Tabor park and frequently see them soaring around looking for rodents and probably smaller birds, too. In our neighborhood the crows keep them out, they "escort" the hawks out of our territory any time one comes too close. This is an advantage of befriending the crows.

They are magnificent, I must admit. We've also seen bald eagles in the area.

It doesn't take much to appreciate seeing wildlife in one's own garden, but there are deeper levels of meaning for me when I see these visitors. For me (and countless others), presence of such wildlife means balance. My garden is certified through the Backyard Habitat Certification Program and I believe with every ounce of my being that the program is one that is making a difference. It's no surprise then to know that the program is a partnership between the Portland Audubon Society and the Columbia Land Trust - both organizations that are pro-bird…I mean look at my results. I did not have any of these birds before we were certified. It works, I see that first hand. If you plant it, they will come. I am very grateful they do, for they provide me with so much mental nourishment and a sense of connectedness.

The balance I mention is balance with nature in my garden that goes something like this: Native plants attract native bugs, the native bugs attract the native birds who feed on the bugs (especially when rearing young who really only eat bugs and not seed). The plants provide shelter for the birds and food for both insects and birds. Underneath it all the soil is healthy, there are no pesticides, only microbes, worms and other beneficial creepy crawlies (and other not so beneficial, I'm sure - but the birds eat them, too). I do have ornamental plants that are not invasive and some are beneficial in that they provide pollen, nectar or some other food source. In the garden I see dragonflies, I also had a monarch caterpillar on my Asclepias speciosa or milkweed last summer. I see honey bees, mason bees, bumble bees, butterflies and green lacewings. I see birds eating worms, other bugs and berries. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Almost all of these photos are of birds eating supplemental food provided by me. There are arguments for and against this practice of feeding wildlife. I, of course, lean towards the notion that only a small percentage of their food comes from me, most comes from nature. They do eat many other things in the garden, it's just that it's very difficult to photograph birds on the go - I have my camera set up inside aiming out towards the suet feeder, so it seems that's all they eat when in reality that's all I have the skills to photograph.

So here's to all you backyard birders out there doing your part to provide habitat and perhaps food and water and shelter to our feathered friends. I would love to hear stories of your experiences and sightings and what flitters around your is a small world after all.

Thanks for reading and until next week, happy (birding) gardening!


  1. I enjoyed this cavalcade of birds that appear at Chickadee Gardens. We get a lot of the same, also Northern Flickers which hang on my bird feeder till they see me, they're very shy. There's a Steller's Jay that comes through my back garden every so often too. It's so cool that a family of crows have adopted you.

    1. I bet you do, Alison…and those flickers are very skittish, aren't they? We are honored to be a crow family member…they are a lot of fun and so vey smart.

  2. Really nice catalog of the feathered visitors! Does the double cage protect the suet from raccoons too? Everybody loves that stuff!

    BTW, do you know how many caterpillars Chickadees catch for their young? The number will astound you. Google "chickadee caterpillars Tallamy".

    1. why thanks! I will google that now and see….they are so busy that I bet they need a lot of caterpillar goodness to keep them on the move….as far as raccoons, no - we don't have trouble with those gratefully. I think the coyotes nearby keep them in check.

    2. OK, I just googled His was the book that really inspired me, by the way - Bringing Nature Home. That's crazy - between 300 - 600 a day! Wow.

  3. Replies
    1. Thank you for reading and commenting! I do appreciate it…glad you like it.

  4. Thoroughly enjoyed your post Tamara, the variety of birds visiting your garden is amazing. Truly your garden is a haven for them. Your story of Jimmy is very endearing!

    1. So glad, Mark and Gaz…we do have a lot of birds, it's pretty remarkable…they're not all here year-round, they come in waves. Jimmy is our special guy, we swear we see him come back from time to time, he has a couple special markings that help to i.d. him, but we can never be 100% sure. All hummingbirds are Jimmy to us, now…hahaa

  5. Thanks for your wonderful post - I enjoyed it. I too feed the local birds and, unintentionally, the squirrels (despite my ostensibly "squirrel-proof" feeders). This year, I think I'll move my feeder pole away from our Albizia and add a pole baffle to make things more difficult for the squirrels. I've avoided suet, assuming that it would all go to the furry creatures, but will have to look for a feeder with a cage like the one you've shown.

    1. You are welcome Kris, thank you for reading and commenting. Yes, squirrels can be thugs, they multiply so rapidly. Your plan sounds good, and yes, the suet cage is very effective at keeping squirrels and other critters out, I do recommend it.

  6. Anonymous6:13 PM PST

    What a great post! I'm not very good at telling them apart, but last year after the ice storm, I had a little Ruby-capped kinglet pretending to be a hummingbird at my hummingbird feeder. He kept trying and trying, but couldn't hover like the hummers do. It was so cold and icy, I duct-taped a chopstick to it, so he could sit. He was so cute!

    1. Oh, how cool! that is amazing, I would love to see that!

  7. Great post Tamara, you've got quite the extended family there.

    We've got a neighbor across the street with quite the collection of feeders, all different sizes and shapes. Sadly we've also got quite the neighborhood killer kitty who treats the whole thing as a buffet. I love to sneak up and scare her as she's stalking her prey.

    1. Aaah, yes we do have quite the extended family!

      Those kitties….bad kitty! I hope they at least have bells around their necks. It is so not good to let them wander around especially in nesting season, which is coming up soon. If kitty owners are out there, watch for baby bird season coming soon!

  8. Wonderful post! Watching birds and wildlife, and looking after a beautiful garden... it doesn't get much better than that. Do you participate in Project FeederWatch? It's a fantastic citizen science program: here's a link. Thanks so much for using your garden to help wildlife and the environment!

    1. Thank you Luisa, thanks for reading and commenting. I have heard of this but have not signed up…I would like very much to, thanks for the tip! It doesn't get much better than wildlife and gardening, does it? :)

  9. What an outstanding blog you have. Really interesting post. I like it a lot. Beautiful pictures and also all birds are looking so cute.

    1. Thank you for reading and for posting a comment! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

  10. Lovely post! I love winter for all the birds that come to visit my feeders. You captured some excellent shots of visitors! Well done :) I love the last few paragraphs of this post the best. Just that reminder of how the whole circle works. Why we who strive to organically garden do so..and how the whole system works! Bravo!

  11. Anonymous10:49 PM PST

    Fun post! I will post a link on the Backyard Bird Shop facebook page. Thanks for all the plugs!- BYBS

  12. Great post Tamara!! I tried to photograph birds in my garden for the first time this Christmas...and was really really difficult (I don´t have feeders so that makes it even worst). I think your pictures are great!
    I loved the story of the little cute :)

  13. Thank you for identifying the kinglet! I've seen one around lately and haven't been able to figure it out. I've yet to see the red, though. Now I know to look for it.

  14. Hi Tamara,

    I came across your article online "Backyard Birds at Chickadee Gardens" and I really enjoyed reading about the birds and how you make your own suet cakes.

    I wanted to let you know about a product I invented called You Do It Suet® that allows you to pour the meat fat directly from cooking into our suet cake mold without waiting for it to cool down. The mold makes the perfect size suet cake for any standard suet cage and is the perfect addition to every kitchen.

    You can learn more here:


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