Backyard Birding: Two great books for those who enjoy birds at home

A house finch and sparrow feed on a seed mix in the backyard. Photo: Howard Meyerson

A house finch and sparrow feed on a seed mix in the backyard. Photo: Howard Meyerson

By Howard Meyerson

The dark-eyed juncos are the first to arrive on wintry mornings. They land in the snow and forage around, picking at the seeds that have fallen from the bird feeders. I’ve always liked how they appear: dark gray feathers on top, white on the bottom. They are soft looking, and fluffy, and never squabble like the house sparrows which converge on the feeders en masse later in the day.

I didn’t notice the Juncos until the snow arrived. The usual northern cardinals had come once I put out some seed. An occasional purple finch would arrive and take station on the feeder. Now and then a white-breasted nuthatch would fly down from the big oak tree out back. Even the hairy woodpecker made an appearance – flying directly to the suet, where it pecked away at some nourishment before flying furtively back under the house eves, only to reappear minutes later and peck away again.

Author Bill Thompson III calls the dark-eyed junco “the snowbird” in his new bookMidwest Birds jacket Hi-res jpg image “Midwestern Birds Backyard Field Guide.” There is a reason for that.

“They seem to show up at our feeders and in our backyards at the same time as the first snows begin falling over much of the country,” Thompson writes. “For many of us, winter is the only time we have dark-eyed juncos around.”

He seemed to be reading my mind.

Thompson’s new book is one of two nice birding books that crossed my desk this fall. The other is the “Audubon Birdhouse Book,” by Margaret A. Barker and Elissa Wolfson. Winter seems to be when many get serious about their backyard bird feeding and either of these books will be valuable to those who enjoy birdwatching around the home.

Thompson is the editor and co-publisher of “Bird Watcher’s Digest,” a bi-monthly birding magazine that was started in 1978 by his family in Ohio. It has published the writings of such luminaries as President Jimmy Carter and naturalist and ornithologist, Roger Tory Peterson. 

What I like about Thompson’s book is its simplicity; it is focused on the essentials that backyard birdwatchers need to know: what the bird looks like, where it is found, what backyard bird feeders can do to attract them, and what their nests look like.

It is a small format book and designed attractively with glossy color photographs that show the birds very well. It includes a list of Midwest birding hotspots, and more importantly, helpful discussions about how to get started with backyard birdwatching: the feeders available, what different species prefer, the types of seed to use, and an assortment of landscaping tips for drawing more birds to the yard.

The junco, I learned, loves white millet. It’s a seed that is often mixed into seed blends, but it can be put out by itself on a low platform feeder. Nuthatches like suet, sunflower hearts and mealworms.


Birdwatching and backyard bird feeding continues to be a highly popular pursuit for Americans, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service which publishes an in-depth FWS 2011 report coverreport every five years called the National Survey of Fishing Hunting and Wildlife Associated Recreation,  Its last report in 2011 found nearly one-third of the U.S. population enjoyed wildlife watching, that is, 71.8 million U.S. residents over 16 years of age. They fed wildlife of one sort or another, observed or photographed wildlife, maintained plantings or natural areas for wildlife, and visited parks and other natural places to see it. The most popular of those activities was feeding birds and other wildlife around their homes.

Of the 52.8 million that fed wildlife around their homes, 50.2 million (95 percent) fed birds. In Midwest states that accounted for approximately 35 percent of the population. Approximately 46.7 million people watched birds at home or elsewhere. Nearly 70 percent watched them around the house.

“Of all the wildlife in the United States (that people watch), birds attracted the biggest following, the FWS report stated.”

Enter Barker and Wolfson’s Birdhouse Book – a delightful, large format publication that 9780760342206 copypresents detailed plans, among other things, for building bluebird boxes and homes for a variety of species, from owls to chickadees to wood ducks and mourning doves.

“Building a nest box for wild birds can be one of the most gratifying projects a person can undertake. When placed in the proper habitat, a nest box or bird house may be occupied, defended, or filled with eggs almost immediately,” Stephen Kress wrote in the book forward. Kress is the vice president of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society.

The book authors present the case for helping birds, the problems and threats they face, the heroes who have helped them, and the do’s and don’ts involved with birdhouse construction. It is an excellent resource for any birdwatcher that enjoys working with their hands.

The Midwestern Birds Backyard Guide costs $17.95. The Audubon Birdhouse Book is $24.99. Both are available online from, Barnes and Noble or from their respective organizations. Give them a look; even give one as a gift. You just might make a birdwatcher very happy this holiday season.


This feature appears on MLive Outdoors

About Howard Meyerson

After more than 30 years in the outdoor writing business, you would think I'd know better.
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2 Responses to Backyard Birding: Two great books for those who enjoy birds at home

  1. Duncan says:

    Great post! When I was a younger man, I often thought that only older people watched birds. Not long ago, while watching the cardinals from my back window, I had to wonder if 36 is considered “older people.” Thanks for giving a newcomer a place to start.


  2. Thanks Duncan. And Happy New Year. I’ve been a casual birder for many many years now. It’s great fun and always makes my winters just a little more enjoyable.


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