Backyard Naturalist: Birds

Many PVAS members and friends just enjoy watching birds in their backyard and neighborhood.  Our members are always eager to share some of their tips for birdwatching and we share them with you here. 

Special Alert!  House Finch Eye Disease!

Be nice to the birds!  House Finch eye disease is caused by bacteria that can accumulate on bird feeders when visited by sick finches.  Birds with the disease have red, swollen, runny, or crusty eyes (conjunctivitis).  In the worst cases, the eyes can swell shut and the bird becomes blind.  You might observe an infected bird sitting quietly in your yard or clumsily scratching its eye with its foot or on its perch.  Goldfinches, Grosbeaks, and Purple Finches are also commonly infected.

 Doing these things can help minimize the risk of disease and makes you a bird-hero!

  • Clean your feeders at least every month with diluted bleach solution.  Rinse well and allow your feeders to dry completely before for recharging them.
  • Consider using tube feeders that can be completely disassembled and washed.  Use a diluted bleach solution in the sink or put them in the dishwasher.
  • Keep the area under your feeder raked to remove droppings, and old, moldy seed.
  • Space your feeders widely to discourage crowding among birds.
  • If you see diseased birds, take your feeders down and clean them, then wait a few days before putting them back up.  This will encourage the sick birds to disperse.  (You can contact a wildlife rehabilitator for help with sick birds.) Our wildlife rehabilitators are Wildlife Vet Care (540-664-9494 or or PVAS Wildlife Coordinator Diana Mullis (

 Find out even more at Feederwatch!


Feeding Birds
If you are interested in hanging up a bird feeder to start watching birds in your backyard, but don't quite know where to begin, here's a great resource from National Audubon!  Another great site for information on the birds that may be coming to your feeder this fall and winter is from Project Feederwatch.  National Audubon also has some tips for winterizing your backyard to make it attractive to birds.  And here are plans for making your own solar powered bird bath.  If you'd like to make your own suet cakes, these recipes from Birds and Blooms magazine might help.

If you are having problems with "bully birds" (grackles, European starlings, cowbirds, etc) eating all the seed at your feeders, here are some tips from Birds and Blooms (Dec/Jan 2000 issue):

  • Encircle your feeder with large mesh hardware cloth or chicken wire with openings large enough for small birds to get through, but not the larger ones.  Or purchase a "caged-in" tube or tray feeder at a garden shop.
  • Hang your suet feeder under a domed squirrel baffle.  Starlings are reluctant to go "under cover" to gobble up suet.
  • Since "bully birds" like to eat seeds that drop from feeders, place a deep container (like a garbage can) directly underneath your feeder.  It will catch the seeds that drop, but pigeons and doves won't go into the can to eat.  They'll find another, easier feeder to use.
  • Offer food that bullies won't eat: niger seed in thistle socks or tubes or safflower seeds rather than sunflower.
Choosing A Bird Guide
There are many bird guides on the market and each has its own way of describing birds.  The best way to choose the field guide that is right for you is to go to a bookstore and compare them.   Some of our favorites are:
  • Stokes Beginners Guide to Birds: Eastern Region     Why we like it:  it's small, inexpensive, and simple to use, with large pictures of the most common birds you may see in your backyard. 
  • Peterson Field Guide To Birds of Eastern and Central North America    Why we like it:  the drawings are clear and accurate and have small arrows to show you the key field marks on birds of similar color.
  • National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America    Why we like it:  this guide has great maps and covers birds all over the US, not just in our region, so if you are traveling, you need only take one bird field guide.
  • The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America    Why we like it: this guide has information on nesting, behavior, food and feeding, and a voice description of the birdsong as well as key identification features.
  • Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America    Why we like it:  this guide has detailed information with computer-enhanced and edited photographs to show the bird's most common features.

Online Field Guides
Online field guides are very detailed and include bird sounds.  Here are two excellent sites.
Audubon's Online Guide to North American Birds
Cornell Lab's All About Birds
Learn birdsongs with Bird Song Hero Tutorial from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

There's An App For That!
Birding apps for your phone are available, some free and some not.  Check the App Marketplace on your phone for availability.  The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has just posted their reviews of "best phone apps" for learning bird sounds, so check out what they think!   Here are some smart phone apps to consider:

For iPhone, iPod, iPad
  • iBird Explorer Pro
  • Peterson's Birds of North America Birding App
  • Sibley eGuide to the Birds of North America
  • Audubon Birds App--A Field Guide to North American Birds
  • National Geographic's Handheld Birds
  • BirdsEye
  • BirdLog
  • BirdCodes
  • Merlin Bird App from Cornell Lab of Ornithology
For Android
  • Bird Atlas Recording Software
  • Bird Songs
  • Audubon Birds--A Field Guide
  • Bird Song Sound Droid
  • blueBill
  • Merlin Bird App from Cornell Lab of Ornithology 
If you are thinking about getting a pair of binoculars this video helps explain what all the numbers mean and which pair might be best for you. 
This short video from Eagle Optics will help you adjust your binoculars for the best viewing. 

National Audubon has great information in their 2014 Guide to Binoculars here.  The Cornell Lab of Ornithology's 2014 Guide is here as well.  The 2013 Optics Guide from Birdwatchers Digest also has great information!  You can view it here online. Optics Planet has good information, too.

Birds and Cats
Did you know that cats are one of the biggest threats to birds?  Here's information that might help you find ways to enjoy your cat (inside) and your birds (in the backyard.)

  • Every February, the Great Backyard Bird Count  is a way folks all over the US record feeder birds during just one weekend in February.  You can participate even if you are just beginning!

           © 2016 Potomac Valley Audubon Society

              P.O. Box 578 • Shepherdstown, West Virginia 25443
              phone // 304-676-3397

Yankauer Nature Preserve (Berkeley County)
Eidolon Nature Preserve (Morgan County)
Stauffer's Marsh (Berkeley County)
Cool Spring Nature Preserve (Jefferson County)

Kristin Alexander, Executive Director //   304-676-3397

Kimberly Baldwin, Program Director //

Katelyn "KC" Walters, Conservation and Land Manager // 304-283-7319

Krista Hawley, Adult Program Coordinator
// 703-303-1026

Amy Moore, Cool Spring Preserve Manager and Naturalist // 240-818-4714
Follow us on Facebook Follow us

Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software