Creating a Buzz about the Sweet Lives of Honeybees

igure 1: Honeybees tending their queen.

Figure 1: Honeybees tending their queen. Can you find her? Photo courtesy of Brenda Snape

I remember going out on sunny days and watching bees fly in and out of their hive; legs heavy with orange, yellow, red, or white pollen (Figure 1). If you haven’t guessed, our post today is about honeybees.

Honeybees (Apis melliferaI) are native to Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Captive honeybees are subspecies of this species, and many have been crossed and bred for differences in temperament, honey production, over-winter capabilities and other traits that a beekeeper might desire. Today, Honeybees face other challenges like new diseases and parasites, and each variety is evaluated to assess their ability to withstand these new threats1.  Let’s fly into a honeybee hive and see its workings and the wonderful bees that make it thrive.

When we first approach the hive, we see several bees at the entrance. These bees are doing a couple different jobs. Some are lined up in rows with their rear ends up in the air buzzing their wings. These bees are fanning. You can see this behavior in the above video. They are moving air though the hive keeping it well ventilated and cool. That is pretty important when you can have 50,000 bees in one hive2. As we fly closer, we’ll see bees around the entrance. If you watch, you’ll notice they check out everyone who goes in. Bees identify hive-mates by how they smell. If you don’t smell like one of the hive, watch out. They chase off invaders and even kill them.

Figure 2: Honeybee life cycle.

Figure 2: Honeybee life cycle. Image courtesy of Stacey Guerrero’s Blog

Since we are one of the hive, these guard bees let us pass. Guarding is an important job and is handled by bees that are three weeks old2. Bees from other hives will steal honey if they are let inside. Worker bees have different jobs according to their age. The youngest bees, up to 1 week old, clean out the hive and feed developing larvae (Figure 2). Looking around, we see bees up to two weeks old building brand new honeycomb and receiving food from incoming bees2. These incoming bees are the oldest, ranging from three to seven weeks old. They are the foragers. They go out of the hive and find pollen and nectar to feed the rest of the hive (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Foraging honeybee with pollen laden legs.

Figure 3: Foraging honeybee with pollen laden legs. Photo courtesy of Alan Hammond

If we follow one of the incoming bees, we’ll see something amazing. Bees talk to each other. Not in the way we think of talking, but in a dance language. I encourage you to watch this video to learn the amazing language of honeybees.

There are other bees besides workers. One very special bee is the queen. She is distinct in her size and shape (Figure 1 and 4). She is the only egg layer in a healthy hive and is larger than other bees. She has a large abdomen for egg laying: up to 1,500 eggs each day4. She is surrounded by worker bees who feed and clean her. She maintains her rule through pheromones; signaling chemicals that mark the bees, communicate with them, and prevent them from laying eggs themselves. The queen lays a single egg in a honeycomb cell, and worker bees attend this egg once it hatches into larvae. They feed and care for the larvae until it pupates and becomes an adult. Once it emerges, it is checked out by the workers. If it’s healthy, it begins life as part of the hive.

Figure 4: Honeybee castes and their forms.

Figure 4: Honeybee castes and their forms. Using this information, can you find the queen in Figure 1. Image courtesy of Digital Museum of Natural History

As the queen ages or dies, her lack of pheromones or lack of brood signals the worker bees to raise a new queen3. If the hive gets too crowded, the old queen will lay an egg to be raised as a queen and will leave with some of the workers to find a new home. This is called swarming (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Honeybee swarm.

Figure 5: Honeybee swarm. Photo courtesy of T. Munk

In a beehive, the worker bees are all female.  Male honeybees are called Drones. Drones come from unfertilized eggs and have large eyes and abdomens (Figure 4). Their job is to mate with the queen and produce workers and future queen bees. It sounds like a cushy life, but come winter, they are the first to go out in the cold4.

There is so much more I could say about these amazing insects. Our health and food supply depends on them. Click here to see a list of foods in the grocery that are pollinated by bees.

There are many threats to our honeybees. Invading diseases and parasites cripple and even destroy hives, and there is a lot of research being done on how to treat them. Pesticides, especially neonicotinoids, disrupt and even kill bees. Be careful about plants you buy and flowers you use in your yard. We’ll talk more about this in our next post on March 18. See you then!

Posted in Bees, Plants | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Shake off the Winter Blues by Taking in some Greenery

Figure 1: A creek in a Missouri State Park.

Figure 1: Missouri State Park creek. Photo courtesy of Missouri State Parks

I don’t know about you, but I am suffering from severe cabin fever. I am craving the great outdoors and some green. So, I thought there would be no better topic than our wonderful national and state parks here in the Midwest.

We have heard of the benefits of enjoying the great outdoors. Many of us lead a fairly sedentary lifestyle. We sit at work, and we sit at home. If we are lucky, we may have time for a walk or a few minutes at the gym. Spending a little time outside can do a world of good to help reduce stress and improve your overall wellbeing1. Thinking of getting away for the weekend or planning a vacation? Why not try a little R&R at some of our county’s greatest treasures (Figure 1)? First up, Porcupine Mountain State Park in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Figure 2: Porcupine Mountain State Park

Figure 2: Porcupine Mountain State Park. Photo courtesy of

Porcupine Mountain State Park (Figure 2) in Michigan is one of the few wilderness areas left in the area. The wonderful, secluded lakes, flowing rivers, and thick forest will make you forget about the hustle and bustle of everyday life. With lodges, cabins, and wilderness campgrounds, there is a lifestyle for everyone. You can ski, canoe, hike, fish, bike, swim, or just relax and read a book. The park follows the Leave No Trace ethics, so be sure to check out the manual before a visit. Learn more and make reservations.

Figure 3: Turkey Run State Park.

Figure 3: Turkey Run State Park. Photo courtesy of

Turkey Run State Park (Figure 3) in Indiana is another treasure. It is definitely a family friendly park with playgrounds, nature center and planetarium, swimming, and horse-back riding. They have wonderful trails that wind through sandstone ravines and old forest, and with both camping and an inn, you’ll be comfortable whether you prefer a sleeping bag or a pillow-top mattress. Learn more.

Figure 4: Lake Hope State Park.

Figure 4: Lake Hope State Park. Photo courtesy of

If you are in the Ohio area, check out Lake Hope State Park (Figure 4). This park is great if you have kids or want to try camping, but have little to no equipment. They have a lodge and cottages along with the campground. No tent? No problem. This park does tent rentals. Give camping a try. You may find how relaxing it is. They are full family friendly with playground and pet friendly sites. They offer a variety of activities like swimming, horse-back riding, boating on their 120-acre lake, fishing, hiking, biking, and nature programs. Interested in some history? They have fossil beds and historic programs too. Learn more and make reservations.

There are so many more we could talk about. To find more wonderful parks, visit for the top 35 parks in the Midwest. If you are looking for one a little closer to home or maybe one as far away as possible, check out for a map of Midwest Parks or for parks nationwide.

If you do decide to go on an adventure be sure to plan ahead. Check the park’s website to see if it is a designated wilderness area, park rules and regulations, and visit recommendations. There are also a few things that I would be sure to pack as well. Good socks and shoes are a must. I hope you take to the trails or bike or something that gets your blood pumping and your feet moving. See the sites, and a good pair of shoes and socks will keep your feet as happy as you are. Bug spray and some flashlights are also very handy. Check the weather in the area and dress accordingly. Nothing can ruin fun like an unplanned rain shower. If there is a possibility of rain, bring indoor games or warm, water-resistant clothing.

Figure 5: Missouri trails.

Figure 5: Missouri trails. Photo courtesy of

The last thing I would say is about cellphones. Bring them in case of an emergency, but think about turning them off. Cut yourself off from the hub bub and just enjoy nature (Figure 5). If you use it for a camera, as I like to, try to remember to enjoy the moments and not just capture them.

I hope as spring and summer approach, you take the time to enjoy these and other wonderful places. Maybe we’ll meet while on the trails. See you back on March 4 for our next post.

Posted in Parks | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Close Encounters of the Non-native Kind


Figure 1: Cover of horror film, The Day of the Triffids. Image courtesy of

Let’s talk about plant invasions. You know the story. Spores of alien plants fall to Earth in meteors. The terrifying plants then stalk and attack mankind (Figure 1).

Well, okay. Our plants are not from outer space, and they don’t eat people. However, these plants are invasive and wreaking havoc on our ecosystems. They choke out our native plants and animals, and they could be in your back yard right now. So what can you do?

A plant is considered invasive when it’s been taken out of its natural environment and transported to another where it is no longer controlled by its natural pests, diseases, climate, etc. They then grow unchecked and outcompete native species. Invasive plants can be introduced by accident but some are brought deliberately. The real question is how we get rid of them when they become a problem.

Figure 2: Multaflora Rose bush

Figure 2: Multaflora Rose bush. Image courtesy of MassAudubon

The first one on our list is the Multiflora Rose. Sounds pretty, but if you’ve ever walked through a patch of it, you know it’s not. They are member of the rose family, and the Midwest does have native roses. These however were brought to the U.S. from Japan in 1866 as root stock for domestic roses. Later in the 1930s, they were used for erosion control and as living fences¹. Now, it crowds forest floors and grasslands, and can alter nesting behavior of our native birds.

They have long arching branches (canes) that are covered in thick thorns (Figure 2). These canes are green when they are young, but turn brown with age. Cane tips can even root if they touch the ground. It has 5- petaled white to pink flowers (Figure 3) which mature into small, red fruits that are spread by wildlife. To get rid of them, you have to cut the canes off at the base and paint with glyphosate or triclopyr. You can also mow with a brush cutter repeatedly, but they do try to grow back1.

Figure 2: Multaflora Rose in bloom

Figure 3: Multaflora Rose in bloom. Image courtesy of the Southeastern Wisconsin Invasive Species Consortium, Inc.

Another invader is Garlic Mustard which came from Europe and was probably introduced in the early 1800s as a food source. You can tell garlic mustard by its strong garlic smell. It has a two year life cycle, a rosette and then the second-year plant. Rosettes are kidney shaped with scalloped edges, and unfortunately can be mistaken for natives like violets (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Garlic Mustard

Figure 4: Garlic Mustard. Rosette Photo courtesy of Eat the Weeds

The following year, these rosettes bolt quickly into tall plants that flower (Figure 5). The problem with this plant is that it shades out our native forest plants like our wildflowers (See March 20 post). This affects our native butterflies and any other species dependent on our native plants. To get rid of it, you cut it below ground level, spray it with herbicide, or pull it up1. It is best to get rid of these plants early before they flower or set seed, and you have to monitor and pull the site for several years.

Figure 5: Second-year plant Garlic Mustard with flowers

Figure 5: Second-year Garlic Mustard with flowers. Photo courtesy of

The last we’ll cover for today is Honeysuckle. There are many species and varieties, but we’ll cover Bush Honeysuckle. It grows like crazy, crowds out our natives, alters ecosystems, and is very hard to eradicate. It was brought to the U.S. in the late 1800s as an ornamental and was promoted for wildlife. It can grow 6-20 feet high and flowers during May and June with white flower that fade to yellow (Figure 6).

Figure 6: Bush Honeysuckle in bloom

Figure 6: Bush Honeysuckle in bloom. Photo courtesy of Butterfly Gardening

Honeysuckle leaves are opposite each other and smooth edged. Their fruits are bright red (Figure 7) and often spread by birds¹. To get rid of it, spray herbicide on the leaves in the late growing season or cut the large stems and painting with herbicide. You may have to do this a couple time. If you just cut down the honeysuckle it will resprout several new growths, like a hydra.

Figure 7: Bush Honeysuckle fruits

Figure 7: Bush Honeysuckle fruits. Photo courtesy of Outside My Window

The first step in fighting invasives is identifying your plant. This can be tricky, but there are plenty of books, and even websites. Check out for help identifying some common invasives you might run across. With this website, you will need to know how to identify certain parts of a plant such as leaf shape and branching pattern.

For help with these and other plant identifiers see this Plant Identification Basics guide. Even with great resources, it can be difficult to ID a plant online. It never hurts to contact a specialist. For pest specialists in your state visit the Pest Tracker website, which covers animal pests as well as plants.You can even use the Ask an Expert tool where you can write your question and upload photos.

Another way you can be part of the fight is planting native plants in your yard and garden instead of exotic non-natives. If you would like to know more about native gardening and landscaping, I suggest reading my blog post “Oh the Flowers You’ll Grow” from May 27, 2015. Be sure to check back in February 19 to read about some local plant warriors, and what they are working on to protect our native ecosystems.


  1. Kaufman SR, Kaufman W. Invasive Plants Guide to Identification and the impacts and control of common North American species. Machanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books; 2007.
Posted in Gardening, Plants, Uncategorized, Wildflowers | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Amazing American Eel: A journey from the Sargasso Sea

Figure 1: Life cycle of the American Eel.

Figure 1: Life cycle of the American Eel. Image courtesy of Virginia Institute of Marine Science

The American Eel (Anguilla rostrata) may be one of the most underappreciated fish in North America. They have an incredible life, go through many changes and adapt to different environments American Eels can be found from Greenland all the way down to Brazil1. That is quite a large range! They are considered catadromous species; born in saltwater but live out most of their life in freshwater (Figure 1). It’s the exact opposite of salmon which are anadromous. I thought it would be nice to learn about these fascinating fish from their perspective.

Figure 2: Leptocephalus of an eel.

Figure 2: Leptocephalus of an eel. Photo courtesy of Deep Blue

We start our journey in the Sargasso Sea, where both the American Eel and the European Eel breed2. An egg has been laid by a female eel; one of 20-30 million from her alone. It drifts in the warm salt water for a couple weeks and then hatches. Out swims a small baby eel, a Leptocephalus (Figure 2). She’s only 5 cm in length and looks like a transparent willow leaf. She begins swimming towards the coast, but at the mercy of the currents, it will take her a long time.

Figure 3 Glass Eel.

Figure 3: Glass Eel. Photo courtesy of Jordan Colosi

As she swims, she slowly begins her first transformation and upon reaching the Atlantic coast 7-12 months later, she becomes a 2-3 inch glass eel (Figure 3). At this stage she takes on a more eel-like form but is still transparent. This makes her very difficult to see in the deep blue, but this little eel is well on her way to finding a suitable freshwater home.

Figure 4: American Eel Elver.

Figure 4: American Eel Elver. Photo courtesy of Parks Canada

As she grows and moves upstream, she develops a darker brown pigment, and by April to July (a whole year after she was born) she enters the Elver stage (Figure 4). This little Elver is now a feared, 4 inch freshwater predator of insect larvae and gobbles up as many as she can find. In another 12-14 months, she has eaten enough to make it to the Yellow Eel stage (Figure 5).

Figure 5: A Yellow Eel caught during routine monitoring.

Figure 5: A Yellow Eel caught during routine monitoring. Photo courtesy of Ben Lubinski of the Illinois Natural History Survey featuring Chris Maxson holding the eel. The eel was soon returned to the water unharmed.

She will spend the bulk of her life as a Yellow Eel remaining in her river home for anywhere between 3 to 40 years. During this time, she hunts for fish, mollusks, crustaceans, insects, and anything else she can catch. As the sun rises each day, she finds a large rock, fallen log, or some good mud to hide in away from other hungry fish and fishermen.

Figure 6: What I believe is a Silver eel.

Figure 6: What I believe is a Silver eel. Photo curtesy of

Let’s fast forward 20 years. She is now a length of ~ 85 cm (almost 3 feet long) and ready to begin her journey back to the Sargasso Sea to breed. At this point, she stops eating, and her digestive tract begins to degenerate. Her eyes and fins enlarge to aid swimming, and blood vessels around her swim bladder increase in number. Up until now, she has been swimming along the bottom of the river, but now she must cope with a deep ocean. These extra blood vessels around her swim bladder will help her stay buoyant and help her swim. Her color changes too. She transforms from a yellow-brown to dark grey on top and pale underneath. She has now entered the Silver Eel stage (Figure 6). She makes the harrowing journey back to the Sargasso sea where she was born, where she herself lays her millions of eggs and completes her life cycle. In a few weeks, her legacy will go on in the many little Leptocephali that will be born and begin the journey back to freshwater1,3.

There are many mysteries that we have not solved about the American Eel and other freshwater eels. No one has ever witnessed spawning. We do not know how they migrate through the ocean or what triggers them to spawn. There is much more to discover about these fish. Overfishing and the building of dams are well known to have negative impacts on their populations by harvesting the glass eels and preventing their migrations up into rivers. Fishing regulations, dam removal, and the use of eel ladders at existing dams have all made a difference. Continued research and monitoring are key to learning more about this incredible species and preserving it for the future. I hope you have enjoyed the journey of the American Eel. Be sure to check in on February 5st to learn about some of the top invasive plants.

Posted in Fish, Mississippi River, Water Conservation | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Admiring Bobtailed Beauties

Figure 1: A beautiful Bobcat

Figure 1: A beautiful Bobcat stands in Yosemite Valley. Photo courtesy of Phil Hawkins

Bobcats (Lynx rufus) are incredibly beautiful animals that capture the imagination. They are about twice the size of a house cat reaching between 26-41 inches from head to the base of their tail1. They have small tufts on their ears and well-defined spots on their thick, yellowish/reddish brown fur. They also have the classic short “bobbed” tail which has bands and a tip that is black on the upper side2 (Figure 1).

Bobcats are the most abundant wild cat in North America and are found across the U.S., in southern Canada and even northern Mexico. Even with this wide range, it still faces threats from to hunting, persecution and habitat fragmentation and loss. These beautiful cats inhabit many different habitats that include coniferous and deciduous forests, mixed forest, grasslands, chaparral, scrublands and even the Everglades. This variety shows the versatility and adaptability of this animal.

Factors that make an area suitable bobcat habitat include prey abundance and shelter from severe weather and for their cubs. A Bobcat’s home range size can vary significantly according to geographic area and season. They can even be found in areas where logging and agriculture are taking place as long as it provides cover, resources and prey for them. (Figure 2) In these areas, Bobcats do their best to avoid direct contact with people; often moving away from any human activity3. They appear to be quite adaptable, but do have preferences and specific habitat requirements that vary according to the geographic area in which they are living3.

Figure 2: Bobcat hunting

Figure 2: A bobcat hunts from a birch tree. Photo courtesy of Frank Rossi

Habitat choice is never more crucial then when a female is choosing a spot to raise kittens. There must be plenty of den sites and enough prey to feed her and her litter. Females can breed after their first year, and can give birth to 1-5 kittens. Males are not sexually mature until they are two years old and provide no assistance in raising young3. You have to be a tough lady to be a momma Bobcat.

Bobcat kittens are born with their eyes closed and open them within 3-11 days. Their mother nurses them until 7-8 weeks of age (Figure 3), and at that time, the kittens begin to the eat meat. When the kittens reach 3 months, they will start tagging along with their mother and often remain with her until the following spring2. In the wild, Bobcats live an average 10-12 years, but can reach an age of 151.

Figure 3: A mother Bobcat

Figure 3: A mother Bobcat nurses her kittens. Photo courtesy of Tanya Mello

Bobcats are often one of the top predators in their areas. They hunt a variety of animals including insects, fish, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals. Rabbits seem to be their favorite prey, but they are capable of hunting full sized deer2 (Figure 4). Like other cats, they pounce on prey and are capable of making a 10ft leap1 (Figure 5). Wow! They are usually nocturnal hunters; preferring to come out at night. They can also be active in the morning and evening, and activity patterns can vary significantly depending on the season. They are not common prey for other species, but kittens are vulnerable to foxes, coyotes, and birds of prey3. However, they are hunted and trapped in several states.

Figure 4: Bobcat kittens

Figure 4: Bobcat kittens enjoy the leftovers from a deer killed during hunting season. Photo courtesy of Jeff Frabel

I have personally never been so fortunate as to see a Bobcat in the wild. If you have, you are incredibly lucky. They are wonderful, powerful animals that can have a huge and beneficial impact on their environment. Bobcats help their ecosystem by keeping the number of rabbits and deer down. This improves the native vegetation of the area by reducing the number of animals grazing on it. This in turn can help keep invasive species out, decrease erosion and improve water quality. It’s amazing how much we need predators. If you want a perfect example, read up on the impact of wolves in Yellowstone.

Figure 5: A Bobcat pounces

Figure 5: A Bobcat pounces. Photo courtesy of Dan Weisz

Check out the below video to view how wolves change rivers. It is well established in science that predators have positive impacts on the environment, and Bobcats are no exception.

I hope you have enjoyed learning about Bobcats as much as I have. When you are out walking quietly in the woods, keep a sharp eye out for their ear tufts, bobbed tail, and fluffy coat. You might just get lucky!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Being Cold Blooded in the Cold

Figure 1: Turtle in the Mud

Figure 1: Turtle in the mud. This particular turtle is not hibernating at the time of photo. Image courtesy of

Have you ever wondered what happens to cold-blooded animals in the winter? Where do the turtles, frogs, and snakes go? They can’t migrate far south like birds, and they can’t keep warm like deer and foxes. So, how do they cope?

First off, let me explain what I mean by cold-blooded. A cold-blooded animal is known as an ectotherm. These animals are dependent on the temperature of the environment to regulate their body temperature. This is in contrast to endotherms which use their metabolism and their own body’s mechanisms to maintain a constant internal temperature. Mammals are endotherms. So, how do ectotherms survive when it drops below freezing? Let’s start with turtles.

When winter comes around, a turtle’s body temperature will drop. Once it reaches about 40-50°F, the turtle will stop eating and start seeking out a place to ride out the coldest part of the year. Most turtles are going to want to find a place under a bank or in the mud where it is cold, but the water doesn’t freeze solid (Figure 1). You might be asking, “How do they breathe if they are under water?” One of the advantages to being cold-blooded is that as the temperature cools, your metabolism decreases. When their metabolism slows down, they don’t require as much oxygen. In this state, they can go days without breathing and some absorb enough oxygen through tissues in their throat and under their tail.

Figure 2: Hibernating Frog

Figure 2: Hibernating Frog. Image courtesy of

Some frogs spend their winters underwater, preferably under vegetation or mud (Figure 2). They need to leave some skin exposed to the water so that they can get enough oxygen through their permeable skin. There are other frogs that like the land and will hibernate out of the water under rocks or leaves or in a fallen log. There is even a frog that can freeze itself solid! This amazing creature is the Wood Frog (Figure 3). How does it do it you ask? Well, urea and glucose accumulate in the frog’s body. These two compounds combined act as protection against tissue damage from freezing. It keeps the frog’s cells from being damaged by ice formation. Once the weather warms up, they thaw and hop away unscathed. They are the Mr. Freeze of the frog world.

Figure 3: Wood Frog in frozen hibernation

Figure 3: Wood Frog in frozen hibernation. Don’t worry, this frog can take it. Photo courtesy of

Snakes also hibernate, and like frogs and turtles, different species have slightly different tactics for survival. Garter snakes will often hibernate in dens with other snakes (Figure 4). Others like to hibernate in animal burrows. The Eastern Ribbon snake will hibernate in areas where it can be partially submerged during its hibernation. If a snake is living in an area where temperatures do not get bitter cold, they might not reach the deep state of hibernation but enter into a state called brumation. Brumation is a time when their body temperature drops and their metabolism slows, but it’s not as drastic as hibernation. If there is a bright, warm, sunny day in winter, brumating snakes may emerge. If you see snake out in winter, leave it alone. Chances are, it is enjoying the slight warming period as much as you are. As the temperature cools again, it’ll move back to its den.

Figure 4: Garter snakes emerging from a hibernation den

Figure 4: Garter snakes emerging from a hibernation den. Photo courtesy of

So while you are bundled up and scraping ice off of your car, think about all the amazing reptiles that are toughing out the long, cold winter days. It is really amazing the adaptations animals have to surviving the extremes of nature. This is the last post of 2015. There will be a whole new batch of posts coming out starting January 8 and 15 due to closure of the Lewis and Clark Community College campus. Be sure to come back and start your year off right with more info about the amazing natural wonders around you.

Happy Holidays!

Posted in Hibernation | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How to Attract Beautiful Winter Birds to Your Feeders

Figure 1

Figure 1: Red-Bellied Woodpecker (left) and Blue Jay (right) on feeder. Photo courtesy of Dr. Greg McIsaac

As winter approaches, we are not the only ones feeling the chill. Many birds have migrated south, but some are well adapted to the cold. One of the joys of winter, in my opinion, is seeing all these birds on the feeders (Figure 1).

Have you ever wondered what kind of bird food to get or why there are so many options? It has to do with the kinds of birds you have or hope to attract. Birds come in many shapes and sizes, and that includes their beaks. A bird’s beak is a specialized tool that is very good at picking, cracking, and eating some foods, but not all. It’s like if you had a big plate of spaghetti. You would choose a fork not a spoon. So a bird’s beak is good for some foods and not the best for others. So what birds can you expect on your feeder this year if you live in the Midwest? Do you know what kind of feeder and food is best for them? That, my friend, is the subject for today.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Black-capped Chickadee (A), American Goldfinch (B), Cedar Waxwing (C), and Dark-eyed Junco (D). Photos courtesy of Feeder Watch

One bird that you will probably see is one of my personal favorites, the Black-Capped Chickadee (Figure 2A). This little bird is quite common throughout the U.S. and will visit a variety of feeders and eat large and small seeds and really go for a suet block. American Goldfinches (Figure 2B) are another small bird that can eat a variety, but will especially appreciate if you have tube feeder filled with thistle seeds. If you put out some fruit, you might be fortunate enough to see a Cedar Waxwing (Figure 2C). These beautiful birds do best with a platform feeder and will be attracted to any fruiting trees or shrubs in your yard. Dark-Eyed Juncos (Figure 2D) are another common feeder bird. They will eat just about any kind of seed1 and specialize with ground feeding so don’t bother cleaning up fallen seeds. They will do that for you.

Figure 3

Figure 3: White-breasted Nuthatch (A), House Finch (B), Purple Finch (C), and Tufted Titmouse (D). Photos courtesy of Feeder Watch

The White-Breasted Nuthatch (Figure 3A) is a wonderful little bird that will enjoy a variety of seeds, suet, and maybe even some mealworms on your feeder. They do well with a variety of feeders and will appreciate a nearby tree. You’ll enjoy watching them flip sideways and upside down along the tree trunk. House Finches (Figure 3B) are a pretty little bird with a beak ready for sunflowers. They do well with many feeders and can be confused with the similar looking Purple Finch (Figure 3C) which eats very similar foods. The Tufted Titmouse (Figure 3D) is a very cute bird, and they do well with a variety of seeds and feeders.

Last but not least, I have to cover the well-known Blue Jays (Figure 4A) and Northern Cardinals (Figure 4B-C). These large birds will really like your larger seeds like sunflowers but will eat a variety. The jays will also enjoy suet feeders1. Watch out though. They can hog the feeder.

Figure 4

Figure 4 Blue Jay (A) Male Northern Cardinal (B), and Female Northern Cardinal (C). Photos courtesy of Feeder Watch and All About Birds

Since we are talking about feeding birds, don’t be surprised if you attract other birds to your feeder like Cooper’s Hawks (Figure 5A) and Sharp-shinned Hawks (Figure 5B). These raptors eat birds and will be drawn to the crowds around your feeders. The have short wings, long tails, and long legs for maneuverability and catching prey on the wing. They look very similar, but you can learn to tell them apart at Keep in mind these magnificent birds need to eat too, but careful feeder placement can reduce predation.

So when you are choosing a place to put a feeder, there are a couple things to consider. One is that all these birds are going to attract the attention of the hawks we talked about and house cats. Make sure there are areas around the feeder that the birds can hide in if they are threatened. It could be a small evergreen tree or even a type of shrub. This will help the birds feel safe and more attracted to the feeder.

On a similar note, make sure that the feeder is placed high enough that cats cannot jump up to the feeder and the seeds are safe from hungry deer. Now squirrels are another challenge and not an easy one to solve. You don’t need to buy an expensive “squirrel-proof” feeder. There are several home-solution ideas available. Check out the following websites for tips using everything from a toy slinky to plastic water bottles.

For information on the different types of feeders, visit You also don’t have to buy fancy bird feeders. Visit the following website for homemade bird feeder ideas and make it a family project,

Bird watching doesn’t have to just be a hobby. You can use your feeder to be a part of science too. Through Feeder Watch  and The Great Backyard Bird Count you can install a feeder, count the bids that visit and upload the data for scientists. You can also see the results of previous years and search by species, area, and time frame. It’s a pretty fantastic way to take your bird feeding one step further. If you are not confident in your bird identification skills, the FeederWatch website can help you out. I personally like my bird book, but a couple other websites have ID help too. For example,

There are also several bird ID apps for different phones and tablets. Check out these websites to see what will work best for you.

So, I hope this has got you excited to see all the birds this winter. I know I am. Come back for the last post of the year to learn about how reptiles and amphibians make it through the cold. It’s pretty amazing.

Posted in Birds | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment