1001 Secrets Every Birder Should Know

Tips and Trivia for the Backyard and Beyond


By Sharon Stiteler

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Bird watching is one of the most popular hobbies in America, and 1,001 Secrets Every Bird Watcher Should Know is the first photographic guide and fact book written in a humorous conversational tone that appeals to every age and skill level. Replete with sound information, 1,001 Secrets will expose many birding myths: a bald eagle cannot carry off a four-month old baby, and crows do not go sledding for fun.

This accessible guide includes fun facts, such as where certain birds got their names, how birds eat, how they find a life partner, and how they build a home for the chicks. Other useful information includes identification tips, migration patterns, and where the best birding vacation spots are. Packed with full-color photos, 1,001 Secrets Every Bird Watcher Should Know is a fun, informative read for every bird watcher.


downy woodpecker


There is never enough thanks to give to my non-birding husband, Bill Stiteler. He’s put up with my long trips, my babbling about brown birds, bought me so many books and even when my love of birds can appear to trump our relationship or I come home with a new parasite, he is still with me. And he even maintains my birding website. Thank you, Bill, I do love you.

A big thank-you to my editor, Geoffrey Stone, who had to deal with my crazy bird survey and bird festival schedule over deadlines. I am a firm believer that a writer is only as good as her editor and this wouldn’t be nearly as fun to read without him.

Another huge thank-you needs to go out to Holly Schmidt, who read my blog and got this whole book rolling. Thank you, Holly.

A special thank-you to my agent, Merrilee Heifetz, for sticking with me as an author, even when I drive her nuts.

Other thanks to Brie Anderson, Raul Arias de Para, Tim Appleton, Paul Baicich, Matt Bango, Tracy Bernhardt, Carlos Bethancourt, Trace Beualieu, Mike Bergin, Edward Brinkley, Dougal Q. BunnyPants, Amber Burnette, Dean Capuano, Evan Carrigan, Christopher Ciccone, Richard Crossley, Alex Downie, Rob Drieslein, Dan Dressler, Michele Dupraw, Richard Dupraw, Lang Elliot, Steve Endres, Laura Erickson, Tony Ernst, Roger Everhart, Corey Finger, Ted Floyd, Jason Frederick, Greg Gard, Jeff Gordon, Liz Gordon, Terri Graves, Neil Gaiman, Lorraine Garland, Catherine Hamilton, Carrol Henderson, Steve Holzman, Amy Hooper, Ari Hoptman, Anthony Hertzel, Tammy Holmer, Alvaro Jaramillo, Peter Jones, Steve Kaufer, Kenn Kaufman, Kim Kaufman, Maureen Keefe, T. J. Kudalis, Paul Johnsgard, Randall Kinkor, Nikki Koval, Mark Martell, Jonathan Meyrav, Kirk Mona, Linda Munson, Craig Nash, Hans Newstrom, Mark Newstrom, Frank Nicoletti, Bill Oddie, Jay Ovsiovitch, Peter Perrino, Richard Phillips, Sue Plankis, LeAnn Plinske, Ron Plinske, Ian Punnett, Curt Rawn, Mark Robinson, Larry Sirvio, Lynne Schoenborne, Paul Sedler, Susan Stam, Bill Stiteler Sr. Judy Stiteler, Jenna Strahan-Ouren, Joseph Studnicka, Frank Taylor, Bill Thompson III, Nathan Swick, Clay Taylor, Brian Valentine, Nicole Wagner, Julie Waters, Judy Watson, Susy Woodson, and Julie Zickefoose.

And a very, very special thank-you to Dr. and Mrs. Paul and Judy Strange, you know what you did and who knows where I would be without that. Not a day goes by when I don’t think about how fortunate I am because of you.

Oh, yeah and every bird on the planet, thank you to you guys too. You rock. Well, except maybe for that one pelican who threw up on me and gave me pouch lice. You didn’t rock nearly as much as the other birds.


The most important thing you need to know is that birdwatchers are crazy. Most of us are crazy in the good way, a few in the weird way, but at the end of the day, we are all nuts. And that’s okay, welcome to the fold!

The second thing you need to know, and chances are good you already do, is that birds are cool and amazing. They come in all shapes, sizes, and brilliant colors, and some even look like they were designed by Dr. Seuss.

Bird-watching is more than a hobby. It’s an activity you can enjoy no matter where you travel to on the planet. It’s a scavenger hunt, and the objects fly and sometimes change color! It’s an adventure.

I once spent money to visit a blind on the side of the Platte River in Kearney, Nebraska. We arrived at 4:30 a.m. on a freezing March morning to sit in a cold dark box covered in frost. As I stood nestling my gloved hands deeper into my pockets, I could hear thousands of sandhill cranes calling on the river in front of us. Gradually, it became brighter as the sun slowly crept toward the horizon. I began to make out actual crane shapes on the water. I could see islands in the center of the river covered in cranes. It was so strange and beautiful to watch forty thousand three-foot-tall lanky birds milling about in front of me.

As it was just bright enough to get photos, a bald eagle flew over the cranes. There was a pause, a silence, and then a whoosh sound as forty thousand sets of wings flapped. All the cranes lifted into the air, and each individual trumpeting call of the cranes merged into the sound of a roar. The eagle startled the birds into flight, and the din forced everything out of my head: the cold weather, my lack of coffee, and my shivering toes. In that moment, there was just thousands of cranes and me.

Wilson’s phalarope

indigo bunting

baby owl

white-breasted nuthatcher

I loved that moment so much, I got a sandhill crane tattooed on my back. Birding doesn’t have to take you that far, but it will take you to amazing places.

If you watch birds, you are one of nearly forty-seven million people in the United States who do. Anyone can enjoy birds in their own way from enjoying chickadees flitting from a backyard feeder to counting every bird you see in a year to taking photos that tickle your fancy. No matter how you slice it, birds are fantastic and offer a variety of ways to enjoy their beauty, and they all touch us in some special way.

Watching birds can reveal that you don’t just have a backyard, but a live theater version of National Geographic playing on a daily basis. I was at a friend’s house when I heard a woodpecker screech. In the back of my mind I thought, “Hmm, distressed woodpecker call. Holy cow, distressed woodpecker call!”

I turned to look out the window, and a bird of prey was gliding to the ground with a woodpecker in its talons. When it settled and finished off the bird, I could see it was a small female falcon called a merlin. She had just killed a red-bellied woodpecker that was almost her size. We were sad to see the woodpecker go, but what a treat to see this raptor migrating through and stopping for a meal.

This book is to help you enjoy birds. I want to share with you insights of bird biology and their behavior—the spark that drives many of us to watch them. Most people love listing all the birds that they’ve seen because at the end of the day, bird-watching is a scavenger hunt where the items fly and sometimes even change color!

But there’s so much more to enjoy about birds beyond seeing a new species. This book will give you fun facts that not only enhance your watching in the field but that you can share at dinner parties. You can impress your guests by informing them that bluebirds do not have blue pigment in the feathers; their feathers are all black. Or if the mood is right, you can mention that if you even come up face to face with a turkey vulture, never startle it. They vomit as a defense mechanism.


Beyond bird behavior, you can make changes and adjustments to your yard to attract birds and create a better nesting habitat for them. There are better seeds to offer in feeders, but you can also plant conifers for roosting and mountain ash for important fuel for birds like waxwings who do not eat at bird feeders. I’ll provide little tips and tricks to increase nesting success of certain species.

You may enjoy birds at home, but consider a trip to see some different species. Watching birds doesn’t have to be an expensive trip and often can be combined with a nonbirding spouse’s trip. Did you know you could make arrangements to see burrowing owls in Las Vegas? South Padre Island is near the Rio Grande Valley, one of the hottest destinations for bird-watching in North America where green jays and plain chachalacas cavort at feeders. Central Park in New York City is a great birding destination and has hosted such unusual birds as a boreal owl. Being married to a nonbirder, I know some great travel destinations and share them with you here.

I love bird-watching because there’s no right or wrong way to do it, and as long as you aren’t wiping out a whole species by the way you enjoy birds, do what feels good to you. If you enjoy listing and categorizing every bird you see—that’s terrific. If you like to peek out your window and see a chickadee at your feeder—that’s great. If you think that red-tailed hawk flying overhead is your spirit guide—more power to you.

Just get out there and watch the birds.



Eat Like a Bird

Are you sure you want to eat like a bird? If so, you’re eating half your weight in food a day and some of those recipes include rendered beef fat mixed with peanut butter and dried crickets. This chapter gives an overview of foods used to attract birds around the world. From coconuts to grape jelly to mealworms to plantings, you can attract birds in your own backyard. You’ll also discover shocking examples of what birds have been documented eating around the globe. Every bird has a dark side!

When traveling, always find out where there are feeding stations. Whether you are a hardcore birder or just a casual observer, it’s your best chance to see lots of new birds. This feeder in Panama was a rainbow of birds throughout the day, including this chestnut-headed oropendola and blue-gray tanager.

Attracting Birds

The easiest way to begin watching birds is right outside your home. Whether you live in a remote country village or in the thick of a buzzing metropolis, you can attract birds anywhere. As many species adapt to life with humans and more people create wildlife-friendly habitats, great birds can show up anytime, anywhere.

The secret to any bird feeder’s success is mammal proofing. Try to mount bird feeders ten to twelve feet away from trees, fences, shrubs, or your home to prevent critters from jumping on them. Try to mount some sort of baffle or guard like a three-foot-long stove pipe at least five feet up on the pole. This should slow down most nonfeathered guests at the feeder.

Top Bird Feeds

This tufted titmouse is enjoying the most popular birdseed on the planet, the black oil sunflower seed. More birds eat sunflower than any other seed.

Nyjer (also known as niger and thistle) is popular with finches. The seed’s small size makes it easy to offer in feeders with tiny slits, reducing the chance of a takeover by larger birds and squirrels. Keep in mind, this seed is no longer desirable to finches if it is six months old, so replace it fairly regularly.

Nuts in or out of the shell are a delight to many species including woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees, and jays. Almost as many birds will eat nuts as sunflower, however the squirrels tend to give the birds a run for their money.

Many people assume that attracting sparrows will mean a boring sea of brown, but during migration, sparrows come in unique and fun variations. The Harris’s sparrow is very popular with birders because they are distinctive with the black Bluto-like beard. They enjoy white millet scattered on the ground.

Suet is rendered beef fat from the liver of a cow. It can be purchased in raw chunks at the grocery store and some companies sell it in convenient cake form in several flavors including nuts, fruit, and dehydrated insects. Some suets are specially formulated into dough so it can be offered in the warmer months without melting.

Some vegetarians and vegans are not fans of offering suet, since it is made out of animal fat. There are vegetarian suet pellets available on the market made from plant fats. It may take some time to get birds used to it, but it is a safe alternative to offer your wild birds.

Fruit is the mainstay of feeders in Central and South America. Birders delight in watching tanagers, oropendolas, and euphonias come in to trays of bananas. Oranges and apples can get the attention of robins, blackbirds, catbirds, mockingbirds, and orioles. Apples need to be secured down and it helps to peal away a bit of the skin, but many thrush species, like the female European blackbird, enjoy apples as much as people do. Coconuts are popular with tits. Hummingbirds will lurk around older fruit, attracted to the tiny insects that are attracted to the rotting fruit.

Jelly is primarily offered to orioles but some finches and sparrows will come in for it too.

Nectar is thought to be primarily for hummingbirds, but sometimes other birds like chickadees, finches, woodpeckers, and even fruit bats will come in for it.

Mealworms have grown exponentially in popularity as a food to offer backyard birds. Not all birds eat seeds. The eastern bluebird, for example, prefers mealworms. This feed allows you to offer a wider variety for a buffet. Since not all people are comfortable handling live mealworms, some companies sell them freeze-dried but they are not as popular with the birds.

Suet cakes made of fat make several birds like these adorable bushtits very happy.


Offering rice to birds will not make them explode.

This is an urban legend that has survived for years. Many pet bird owners feed their birds cooked rice as a treat and wild ducks depend on flooded rice fields as a source of food during migration. This story was probably started by brides who found being pelted by rice on their wedding day an unpleasant experience.

Hummingbird nectar is the same in Central America as it is in North America. This whitethroated jacobin will sip the same stuff that ruby-throated hummingbirds and rufous hummingbirds drink: 4 parts water 1 part sugar.


Nectar for hummingbirds and orioles must be red or orange in color.

It is simply not true that nectar for birds needs to be red or orange. There is even some anecdotal evidence that the red dye could be harmful to birds over time. When offering nectar to orioles, sunbirds, and hummingbirds, avoid using dye in the nectar. Wild nectar is clear. It's the flowers that attract them with their color. The feeders will be bright enough to attract the birds.

The Right Feeder for the Birds

Bird feeders come in hundreds of shapes and styles. All of them will feed birds, but the key to picking out the best bird feeder is to select one that can be cleaned easily. If it doesn’t come apart for easy cleaning, it is not worth the money. Keep in mind that not all bird feeders are dishwasher safe, so it’s best to plan on cleaning them the old-fashioned way with a bit of elbow grease.

Trays are ideal for larger birds like evening grosbeaks and pine grosbeaks.

Tray feeders will get a bird’s attention and are great starter feeders. The disadvantage is that when it rains or snows, the food is exposed to the elements. Some come with a roof to help protect the seed from precipitation.

Wooden feeders are the traditional type of bird feeder that many people gravitate to because that was the kind their grandparents or parents had hanging up. Now you can get those same styles made out of recycled plastic. They clean up easily and they last much longer than the traditional cedar feeders.

Woodpeckers typically use their stiff tail feathers to hold their bodies up when hanging on the sides of trees. Small cage-style feeders can be difficult for them to feed off of, so you may need to hang it in a way to accommodate all sizes of birds.

Tube-style feeders are a nice, sleek design and easy to hang off a deck or plant hook. Look at the feeding ports closely. Some will have tiny slits meant for finch food, while others will have larger holes for sunflower seed.

Some feeders are made of mesh so the birds can cling to the whole tube to work the seeds out. These are especially ideal for woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches, and tits.

Suet feeders can be simple cages or logs with holes drilled into them. If you offer suet doughs, you can dish it out onto a tray feeder. If you want to attract larger woodpeckers, you need a large feeder.

Bird Feeding Pro Tips

Never get too relaxed about mammal-proofing your bird feeders. Where there is a bird feeder, there is a squirrel, rat, or raccoon who will find a way into it.

Weight-sensitive bird feeders work best to keep squirrels out. They close when a heavy squirrel gets on, but stay open when lightweight birds land on them.

It’s important to keep your feeder full. If it goes empty, a bird might decide to move in and use it to raise a family. A house wren attempted to use this metal feeder for a nest. Unfortunately it was a poor choice and the chicks died from overheating because the feeder was not designed with the same ventilation that a proper bird-house requires.

If the idea of keeping a hummingbird feeder clean is too overwhelming, consider attracting them with nectar rich plants like honeysuckle, salvia, and trumpet vine.

Never feed bread to ducks and geese in parks. There is no nutritional value and with so many people feeding them, they are fat and plump but not getting the nourishment they need. It’s best to avoid feeding them, but if you must, use seed or a nutritional pellet like chick starter.

Starling bills are not good at cracking open seed, so offering food in hard shells will keep them from taking over a feeder.

Birds make a mess under the feeder. You can try offering seeds out of the shell so the birds will not leave empty hulls on the ground, but there will always be some mess. Then there’s all the lovely stuff that comes out of the other end of the bird. You can get trays to catch some of it, but at the end of the day, learn to live with a little mess and periodically rake it up.

This young cedar waxwing gulps down a showy mountain ash berry. Waxwings are beautiful birds to have in the yard, but they do not come to feeders. Your only chance of getting their attention is with fruit-bearing trees.

Seed and suet is not the only way to go. Fruit-bearing trees can also bring in birds. Certain trees attract tiny insects in early spring, which are a vital source of food as migrants pass through. Get in touch with your local nursery to find out the best native plants for your area.

Well-manicured lawns are basically green desserts to birds. Yards treated with insecticides lack seed-bearing plants and cannot support a bird, let alone one looking to build a nest. If you have weeds on your lawn, consider it a bonus and use it as a step to get away from grass.

The most important thing you can do for birds is to keep your feeder clean to prevent an outbreak of salmonella or some other illness. If your feeder looks dirty like this goldfinch feeder, take it down, empty it out, and clean it now. A mild solution of bleach and water or white vinegar will work well.

The most important thing you can do for birds that come to your feeder is to keep them clean. If the feeder looks nasty to you, chances are it’s not all that appealing to birds. Use a mixture of equal parts water and white vinegar or a capful of bleach with a gallon of water to clean your feeders.

Critters will visit your feeders at night. They can be small and relatively harmless like voles and flying squirrels. However, they can also be large and destructive like bears and raccoons that will take feeders away into the woods, never to be seen again.

If you let your cat run around your yard, do not put up a bird feeder. Cats live longer (as do birds) if left indoors.



4 parts water

1 part sugar

Stir until sugar is dissolved. Use a little hot water to help dissolve the sugar as you add in cool water for the rest. You can make a large batch and store it in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

Some are tempted to increase the sugar content of this recipe to attract more hummingbirds, but a four-to-one ratio of water to sugar is closer to the sugar content of nectar from flowers. If you do raise it, the birds will dehydrate sooner and visit for shorter periods of time.

Keep in mind that you don’t need red dye when making nectar for birds like ruby-throated hummingbirds.

The Palestine sunbird is the Middle East version of a hummingbird and can be taught to visit a nectar feeder. Orioles and woodpeckers will also come in fora sample.


Hummingbirds are only found in North America, Central America, and South America. Do not expect to put up a nectar feeder in Italy and then hope one day that one will fly over the Atlantic to visit. However, nature needs pollinators and birds all over the world will sip nectar, so you just might get a visitor.


1 pound beef suet

1 (16-ounce) jar chunky peanut butter

2 cups cornmeal

1 cup black oil sunflower seeds

I don’t recommend making suet in your home. It’s an incredibly messy business and a little time consuming, often leaving your home smelling like county fair food. There are several different iterations of suet. One of the most popular to make was developed by writer and artist Julie Zickefoose and affectionately referred to as Zick Dough. That recipe can be found at www.juliezickefoose.blogspot.com/2010/03/zick-dough-improved.html or search for Zick Dough. Here’s another popular recipe.

Chop up beef suet into smaller pieces (a meat grinder works well for this if you have one). Place chopped suet into a pot and cook on very low heat until the fat has liquefied. There will be a few chunks that float on top. You can either scrape that off with a spoon or run the fat through a cheesecloth.

Mix the fat with the peanut butter, cornmeal, and sunflower seeds. Some people like to add in other ingredients like dried berries, nuts out of the shell, or oatmeal.

When the mixture is cool, offer it in a suet log, a suet feeder, a tray, or spread it on the side of a tree trunk.


Peanut butter will suffocate birds because it gets lodged on the roof of their beaks, blocking their nostrils.

No one has ever studied this and plenty of people offer peanut butter, so if this were an issue, there would be reports of dead birds with peanut butter stuck to their beaks all over the place. If you wish to err on the side of caution, mix cornmeal in with peanut butter to give it a doughier consistency.

Suet is a popular food with any insect-eating bird like blackcapped chickadees.


On Sale
Apr 30, 2013
Page Count
296 pages
Running Press

Sharon Stiteler

About the Author

Sharon “Birdchick” Stiteler is a renowned birder and industry expert. Her previous works include Disapproving Rabbits and City Birds/Country Birds. Sharon contributes to Wild Bird Magazine, Outdoor News, Birds & Blooms, and Minnesota Public Radio, as well as Birdwatcher’s Digest. She has a popular birding blog called Birdchick.com. She lives in Minneapolis, MN.

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