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Feeding Wild Birds during the Spring and Summer

In contrast to most everyone I know, I enjoy feeding birds as much in the warmer months as in winter.  The question, sometimes raised, of the possibility of one “taking them away from their role as insect catchers” is far too complicated to address here but is, I can assure you, not a concern.

Hummingbirds, Supreme Aerialists

Warm weather bird feeding offers us the opportunity to observe at close quarters birds that are, in many regions, absent during the winter.  In most parts of the country the magnificent hummingbirds first spring to mind.

These little gems are simply breathtaking…our glass hummingbird feeder can start you on the road to what can easily become a lifelong hobby.  The book Attracting and Feeding Hummingbirds  provides valuable guidance on hummingbird-friendly gardens, nectar mixes and species identification.

Insects for Summer Visitors and Winter Regulars

Another simple way to attract summer residents is to supply insects.  This is most easily accomplished by offering freeze dried Wild Bird Mealworms.  Especially if your feeder is located near sheltering trees or bushes, you may be treated to the sight of warblers, orioles, thrushes, catbirds, flickers and other beautiful insectivores gathering food for both themselves and their young.

Chickadees, juncos, sparrows and other seed-eating “winter regulars” raise their young on insects, catching several hundred daily in most cases, and will take advantage of your hospitality as well.

Seedeaters – Generalists and Specialists

Although catching insects for their nestlings and consuming many themselves, many confirmed seedeaters will continue to take seeds, nuts and other such staples year-round.  Our line of wild bird foods  can provide all you’ll need, including specialty mixes for doves and pigeons (which eat seed all year and feed their young with “pigeon milk” derived from the lining of the crop).

An Interesting Observation

Concerning seed-eaters, this spring I was quite surprised to see a male English sparrow (Passer domesticus) feed cracked corn to its newly-fledged youngster (fledglings are fed by parents for several days after leaving the nest)…I had assumed insects to be the sole food provided by adults.

Birding Opportunities

Warm weather bird-feeding usually results in spectacular bird watching opportunities…driven to catch hundreds of insects daily, raise several broods and keep themselves fed as well, parent birds are far less cautious than at other times of the year.

The Backyard Bird Tracker  will help you to identify the birds you see and provides interesting life history details and a place for recording your observations.



Setting out birdbaths within easy reach of your feeders will increase visitation, including by bird species that might not be interested in the foods you provide.  For example, robins, which in most areas are earthworm specialists, will readily make use of bird baths.

Other Steps You Can Take

Setting out birdbaths within easy reach of your feeders will increase visitation, including by bird species that might not be interested in the foods you provide.  For example, robins, which in most areas are earthworm specialists, will readily make use of bird baths.

A well-thought out garden (please see below) will encourage reluctant feeder-visitors to remain and forage on insects, buds and other treats.


Mammals: Flying Squirrels, Gray Squirrels and Bats

Don’t forget your mammalian friends.  Gray squirrels newly emerged from the nest are clumsy and even more entertaining than are adults.  By providing squirrel feeders, corn logs  and peanuts, you can limit competition with avian visitors and provide yourself with quite a show.

If flying squirrels are resident in your area, by all means install some indirect lighting and take a look at your feeders after dark.  These adorable, nocturnal acrobats are quite fearless feeder users…trust me, you will not regret the effort.  Resident even in the heart of NYC, flying squirrels do not reveal themselves in the daytime.  A call to your local zoo or nature center should provide you with information concerning local populations.

While we’re on nocturnal mammals, let me not forget some of my favorites, the bats.  I have rehabilitated a number of injured bats, and never tire of watching their nighttime hunting forays.  A surprising variety of species inhabits the USA, even within most cities…try putting up a bat house and see what happens.

Further Reading

For information on planting a garden that will both attract wild visitors and provide nutritious food for your pets, please see my article Gardening for Birds.

A very interesting field report documenting the huge of insects captured by robins with chicks in the nest is posted at:


Northern Flicker image referenced from Wikipedia commons and originally posted by naturespicsonline.com

Ocellated Turkey: The “Other” Thanksgiving Turkey

Male Ocellated Turkey

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Bruno Girin

Stories about the North American Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallipavo) and its domestic cousins abound as Thanksgiving approaches. And certainly this impressive and economically important bird is worthy of attention (please see articles linked below). But there is another turkey – and only one – a breathtakingly beautiful bird that is largely overlooked by zoos and private aviculturists alike. I had the good fortune of working with this species, the Ocellated Turkey (Meleagris ocellata), at the Bronx Zoo. Bringing to mind a turkey-peafowl hybrid, this fascinating bird is threatened by poaching and habitat loss, and deserves more attention from bird enthusiasts. Today I’ll take a look at its natural history and captive care.



The male Ocellated Turkey’s body is clad in a mix of highly-iridescent bronze and green feathers; in the sun they are truly spectacular. The hens are a bit less-brilliant in color, but still very attractive. The blue-gray tail feathers are adorned with large, round blue and bronze spots (ocellus). The bright blue head and neck bear red and orange nodules, which are more pronounced in males.


North American Wild Turkey

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by D. Gordon E. Robertson

A blue crown, which becomes larger in the breeding season, tops the male’s head; red eye rings develop at this time as well. The leg spurs, used when battling other males, are noticeably larger than those of the North American Wild Turkey (please see photo).


Somewhat smaller than their North American relative (and much smaller than barnyard versions!), males usually top out at 11-12 pounds in weight.



The Ocellated Turkey is found in Mexico and Central America, where it ranges from the Yucatan Peninsula to central Belize and northern Guatemala.


Ocellated Turkey habitat

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Allan Patrick


Ocellated Turkeys inhabit brushy grasslands, thorn scrub, open lowland forests, rainforest edges, riverside thickets and abandoned farms. Open habitats are utilized during the breeding season, but they never wander far from thick cover.



The natural diet appears to be as varied as is that of the North American Wild Turkey. Leaves, berries and other fruits, nuts, seeds, small snakes, lizards, spiders, worms, insects and other invertebrates are taken with equal relish. Field studies indicate that chicks subsist largely upon insects, but captive born youngsters take a wide range of foods.


From egg to adult, Ocellated Turkeys face predators ranging in size from coatis and snakes to pumas and jaguars. Consequently, they remain wary and alert even after several generations in captivity.


Ocellated Turkeys in Captivity

I kept Ocellated Turkeys in heavily planted-outdoor exhibits provisioned with heated shelters. They were somewhat high-strung and always on guard, but did fine as long as dense cover was available. I do not believe they would thrive in bare exhibits. Although some European zoos allow their turkeys outdoor access on warm winter days, those I’ve worked with seemed quite cold-sensitive and were kept indoors during the late fall and winter.


Ocellated Turkeys are not fussy eaters and readily accept commercial turkey chow, but I strove to provide a great deal of dietary variety. They especially favored the crickets, mealworms and other insects I tossed in most days, and continually searched the leaf litter for snacks at other times.


Breeding in zoos is sporadic, with more success being had in Europe, especially Belgium, than in the USA. They are rare in private collections, and remain very expensive.


Status in the Wild

Ocellated Turkeys are classified as “Near Threatened” by the IUCN and are listed on Appendix III of CITES.


They are hunted, often illegally, throughout much of their range. Males lose much of their characteristic caution during the breeding season, and make easy targets as they display in open grassy areas. Habitat loss to logging and agricultural expansion also threatens their survival.


Even in undisturbed habitats, their apparent “tastiness” to non-human predators results in significant losses. One study found that 85% of the chicks hatched in June did not survive until September; 30% of the breeding hens were taken by predators during the same time period.


The Ocellated Turkey’s stronghold appears to be in the Maya Biosphere Reserve of Guatemala and northern Belize, but detailed surveys are lacking.




Further Reading

Wild Turkey Raised by Peafowl




Abandoned Baby Birds: What to Do When You Find a Baby Bird out of the Nest

Yellow-faced Honeyeater nest

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by benjamint444

Hand-rearing a bird that seems abandoned is an extremely difficult process. If you’ve observed wild baby birds in their nests – calling continually for food and greedily gulping down whatever their parents bring, this may be hard to believe…seems most would be very easy to satisfy. However, there are a great many factors to consider, fine points that are not well-known and potential health problems that are all-too-common. As a lifelong zookeeper and licensed wildlife rehabilitator, I’ve raised many nestling birds representing a huge array of species – and none were easy! Today I’d like to highlight some important points one should consider before taking on the very tedious job of raising a young wild bird.


Note: The following information is general in nature, designed to provide an overview of what to expect. Please post below for detailed advice on hand-rearing specific types of birds.


Senegal parrot hatchling

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Snowmanradio

Immediate and Future failures – Be Prepared!

Those who take in orphaned wild animals of any type are generally kind-hearted souls who take losses personally. But death and failure cannot be avoided, and may be the rule rather than the exception. Baby birds that fall from the nest often have internal injuries, and are usually weakened by parasites, lack of food, and exposure to the elements. Turning the bird over to an experienced rehabilitator is usually the best option; please post below if you need help in locating a local rehabber or veterinarian.


If they survive, hand-raised wild birds often have difficulty with socialization, and may be rejected by others of their species. A Great Horned Owl I helped to rear tried to feed mice to its keepers when it entered breeding condition, but fled from other owls…a good educational animal, but not suitable for release. Captive-reared birds may lack survival skills, and their immune systems may not serve them well under natural conditions.


Attention to Detail is Critical

Until fully-feathered, young birds typically need to be kept at 85-90 F. Commercial rearing foods used for seed-eating hatchlings must be properly prepared and cooked, then served at the ideal temperature (generally 101-104 F) many times daily and, at least early on, 1-5 times each night.


While it appears that parent birds merely stuff food down their chicks’ throats, feeding is actually a very delicate procedure, and small mistakes can lead to death by asphyxiation or infection. As birds open their mouths for food, the glottis closes and the food winds up where it belongs. Weakened nestlings that do not beg are often “force-fed” by well-meaning rescuers. Food and liquid provided thus usually wind up in the lungs, resulting in a quick fatality.


The condition of the chick’s crop must be monitored carefully, even if the youngster is eating well and appears hungry. Due to the nature of artificial diets and other factors, crops may fail to empty or retain air. Infections inevitably follow.


Dehydration is common, especially at typical household humidity levels and for birds that are not feeding eagerly. The water content of your bird’s food must be carefully monitored and adjusted as the bird grows and different foods are offered.


Short-eared Owl

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Jerzy Strzelecki

Eager Feeders May Still Face Troubles

Wild nestlings are provided with dozens to hundreds of different food items by their parents. The diets of most, even those species that are confirmed seed-eaters as adults, are comprised largely of insects, spiders and other invertebrates. The nutrients they contain are impossible to duplicate artificially. As a consequence, birds that survive hand-rearing often exhibit growth and immune system abnormalities.


Transferring a youngster to the adult diet can be tricky, and can result in losses even when all else has gone well. Depending upon the species, an entirely new diet or additional food items will be needed. Some switch from insects to seeds and/or fruit, insect eaters and birds of prey begin taking whole animals, and so on…these drastic changes must be accommodated by the bird’s digestive system. Nestlings that have not been properly nourished may not be able to adapt.




Further Reading


Hand-Rearing the Black Palm Cockatoo


Assisting Abandoned Baby Birds



Penguin Facts – African Penguins in Captivity and the Wild

Penguins are beloved by bird enthusiasts and “regular” people alike.  While they are not typically thought of as “pets”, in the course of my zoo career I have run into several people who have managed to keep penguins in their personal collections.  One such instance involved a well-known entertainer who donated his flock of flamingoes – which he housed in a climate-controlled building in the desert just outside Las Vegas – to the Bronx Zoo in order to make room for penguins!  I’ve had the good fortune to work with several species in zoos and today would like to cover the care and natural history of a great favorite, the African Penguin, aka the Black-Footed or Jackass Penguin, Spheniscus demersus.

African Penguins

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Jurriaan Schulman

Captive Care

Penguins are demanding captives…I found this to be true even though I had the Bronx Zoo’s resources, and the expertise of experienced co-workers, at my disposal.  Most species lack defenses to local fungi, bacteria and parasites …in NYC, West Nile proved to be especially dangerous.  The range of preventative medications and vitamin supplements they require necessitated that I hand feed each daily – an enjoyable but tedious task.  They learn to “line up” for food right away, but squabble continually…and the numerous wing tags attached to each bird complicated individual identification (the opposite of a wing tag’s intended purpose!). Read More »

Audubon’s Bird Conservation Report – Many Common Birds in Trouble

The National Audubon Society has released the 2012 State of North American Birds Report, an impressive annual study that highlights species and habitats at risk.  Because many birds respond quickly to changes in their environments, the report’s findings are also useful to organizations studying pesticide use, air quality, pollution, climate change and similar concerns.  Compiled in conjunction with the US Fish & Wildlife Service and the North American Bird Conservation Initiative, the report also relies heavily upon the input of “citizen scientists” participating in the Christmas Bird Count and similar projects (please see the articles linked below to learn how to become involved…help is needed and appreciated!).  Today I’ll summarize some of the report’s key points, including the disturbing finding that populations of many common birds, including typical garden and feeder visitors, are in steep decline.

Baltimore Oriole

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Mdf

Common Birds in Decline

I was especially troubled to read about the population crashes being experienced by quite a few species that were so common that we might have been tempted to “take them for granted”.  But as with so many other animals around the world, large populations are proving no match for rapidly changing environmental conditions.  All of the common species on Audubon’s watch list have declined by at least 50%, while the 10 mentioned below have lost 70-82 % of their populations.  Bobwhite Quails (one of my all-time favorites to observe and care for), for example, have decreased from approximately 31 million to 5.5 million individuals! Read More »

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