Welcome to the homepage of my website!

Here you can read some of my newspaper columns on birds that appear every other Sunday in Stars Magazine of the Post Standard in Syracuse, NY. Recent columns published during the last few years are also available here, courtesy of the Post Standard.

Each column becomes available by clicking on the List of Columns link in the Table of Contents to the right. In that list the latest column is at the top.

Click on the of the date of the column you wish to read. It includes all the original material published in the newspaper. Sometimes there is also extra information on the subject of the column for the interested reader who wishes to learn more about it.

To get in touch with Ben Burtt:

  • Via Mail: Write to Ben Burtt, Stars Magazine, P.O. Box 4915, Syracuse, NY 13221
  • Via E-mail: Send message to features@syracuse.com. Be sure to put “For Ben Burtt” in the subject line.

The most recent column to be posted is directly below.

Seed and feeders for birds that eat seeds


By Benjamin P. Burtt

For the birds that eat seed I put out fine cracked corn, millet and niger seed as well as sunflower seed. Each seed is in a separate feeder or in a separate compartment of a given feeder.

There are a number of commercial feeders of various types available in stores that specialize in feed and feeders for birds. The feeders for dispensing seed include some that are hanging transparent plastic tubes filled with a given seed. They have holes in the sides with a perch just below each one so a bird can reach into the hole for seed.

CAPTION: A large platform feeder like this will attract many more birds than a number of small feeders. Uncovered by a roof, the seed and birds feeding on the tray are visible to those flying by. A hopper in the center keeps the seed dry, but allows some to flow out each of the four sides as birds consume it and scatter it about the tray. Compartments in the hopper allow you to offer up to 4 different types of seed.. (photo by B. Burtt).

Others have a hopper to keep the seed dry and a small tray across the front into which the seed flows. The birds perch on the edge of the little tray to eat. Most of these allow only a few birds to feed simultaneously.

In addition to these manufactured feeders each yard should have one post mounted feeder without a roof that has a relatively large, open platform as shown in the photograph. Birds scatter the seed over the platform and birds flying by will see the seed and the birds feeding there. It brings in lots of birds for it is an advertisement that food is available there.

Generally you will need to construct this yourself or find someone who can make it for you.
The photograph shows a feeder that was first made to my specifications in 1965 by a retired cabinet maker. This large open tray was about three feet on a side There is enough “elbow room” so that many birds can feed together without conflict.

Note the hopper in the center. The roof lifts off and there are 4 compartments inside, each with a floor that slopes to a horizontal slot on the side of the hopper where the seed flows out. Above each slot is a very small overhanging eave which protects the slot from the rain.

The floor of the platform is made by installing a piece of aluminum or plastic fly screening on the frame for drainage.

BIRD COLUMN FOR Sept. 14, 2008

The bird behavior called "anting" occurs when a bird is observed beside an ant hill picking up ants, crushing them in its bill and then rubbing them on its feathers. What is going on?

Now and then The under side of the long primary wing feathers usually gets the most attention. Sometimes birds try so hard to reach inaccessible parts of their bodies that they fall over and roll on the ground.

CAPTION: This blue jay has picked up an ant, crushed it and then is rubbing the ant on its feathers. This odd behavior has been observed all over the world with many different species and is called “anting”.( Drawing by B.P.Burtt)

At other times, the bird will lie down on an ant hill and let the ants crawl through its feathers. In this case it may be that the ants feed on the vermin they find amongst the feathers.
It is not really certain why birds do this. The most reasonable idea is that this treatment in some way removes parasites that are found in the feathers of all birds.

If an ant is crushed, a small amount of formic acid is released. It is this compound that is responsible for the sting in the bite of the ant. Perhaps the acid repels or kills parasites.
Poet Ogden Nash wrote: “The ant has made his name illustrious. through constant industry, industrious; so what, would you be calm and placid, If you were full of formic acid?”

Other substances have been rubbed on the feathers. Grackles and starlings have used the acidic juice from green walnuts. After pecking a hole in the shell and wetting the bill in the juice, the bill was thrust into the feathers.

Mothballs are sometimes used in a garden to repel rabbits. A grackle once picked up a mothball and rubbed it on the under side of one wing and on the body on that side. After dropping the mothball and preening its feathers, it gave the same treatment to its other side.

Beer, orange juice and vinegar were used by some rather tame song sparrows in one yard where the owner put out different substances to see what the birds would use. Some 40 different substances have been rubbed by birds into their feathers. These include cigarette and cigar butts and even a discarded cigarette that was still smouldering.

Bird Banding

By Benjamin P. Burtt


CAPTION: The herring gull is the large common gull in Central New York. Shown here is the full adult plumage or breeding plumage that is not attained until the third or fourth year. In its earlier years it is a dark colored bird, but it gets lighter in color each year. ( Photo courtesy of Jay and Kevin McGowan)

Scientists tell us that the herring gull lives longer than most birds. But how do they find out how old a bird is when it dies? You can’t tell by inspection. The one shown in the photograph is at least three years old, but it could be much older.

To find out how long a bird lives, a numbered aluminum leg band provided by the Fish and Wildlife Service is put on the leg of a nestling bird and that information is recorded. If that bird is found years later and the number on the band is reported to the address on the band, its age at that time can be calculated.

Finding a banded bird

If you ever find a banded bird, prepare a letter and send it to the address on the band. Include a record of the circumstances under which it was found. If the bird is alive, it should be released wearing its band after you record and send in the number on the band.

If the bird is dead, remove the aluminum band, tape it to the letter. Write the band number in the letter in case the band is lost in the mail. You will be notified where the bird was banded and when, and the person who banded it will learn what happened to the bird.

Here is the story of what is probably the oldest banded bird that spent its entire life in the wild.
On June 29 ,1930 Dr.O.S. Pettingill banded herring gull chicks on a small island off the coast of Maine. Some years later when he was Director of the Laboratory of Ornithology at Cornell University he received a letter from the Banding Office that one of those chicks was found dead by some girl scouts on the shore of a lake in Michigan.

This gull had moved inland from its birthplace and had lived 36 years. That 36 year old life span may well be a world record for a bird living in the wild.

Benjamin P. Burtt writes about birds every other week for Stars. Write to him features@syracuse.com in care of Stars Magazine, P.0. Box 4915, Syracuse, N.Y. 13221; or features@syracuse.com ( put "birds" in the subject field).

The Pileated Woodpecker

By Benjamin P. Burtt


The largest woodpecker in our area is the pileated woodpecker and it is about the size of a crow. It has a brilliant red crest and a black body. There are white areas under the wings that flash when it flies.

The scientific name is based on the Latin word pileatus, meaning crested. Some common names used by early settlers were "great black woodpecker","king of the woods" and "stump breaker".

CAPTION FOR Fig 1: This is the pileated woodpecker. Both male and female have the brilliant red crest. The female, shown on the left, differs by having a black forehead, and the line running back from her bill is black. These pictures were painted by Roger Tory Peterson for his field guide "Birds of Eastern and Central North America" ( Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Co.)

This is not a common bird and is very shy. When you see one, usually it is flying away at high speed. However, it can be attracted to large chunks of suet fastened to a tree. Now and then it will visit a regular suet feeder.

It is generally seen in wooded areas and only now and then in a town or village. Some years ago one did spend a lot of time in Little Falls where it fed on the insects in the remains of a large stump located downtown between the sidewalk and the street.

During the spring and summer it feeds largely on insects and many are fed to its young.

During the fall, it begins to eat plant material. Grapes left over from summer are a favorite food. Seeds and berries then supply about half its food. It eats the seeds from beech, cherry, Virginia
creeper, dogwood and oak.

Carpenter ants burrow into living trees from below ground and establish a colony up through the center of the tree. There are chambers at intervals which act as nesting cavities for the ants.
From the outside the tree appears to be healthy.

CAPTION FOR Fig 2: When you see huge rectangular holes in big live trees like this it means that a pileated woodpecker has located a tree that is being destroyed by carpenter ants . The bird returns until every ant in the tree has been eaten and I hope in time to save the tree. (Photo Courtesy of John DePasquale of Auburn NY.)

In the winter, this woodpecker taps on the tree to disturb the ants and then stops to listen for the sounds of the ants scrambling about. The sounds are loudest at the site of the nest chambers.

There, the pileated woodpecker digs the rectangular holes shown in Figure 2 and removes each ant with his sticky, barbed tongue.

The tongue extends 3.5 inches beyond the tip of the bill. It can reach into a tiny hole and be bent around corners.

Benjamin P. Burtt writes about birds every other week for Stars. Write to him in care of Stars Magazine, P.0. Box 4915, Syracuse, N.Y. 13221; or email features@syracuse.com ( put "birds" in the subject field).