Friday, May 13, 2011

Birdy Blogs II: Make Your Yard a Haven For Birds

Your yard type is the primary variable affecting what birds you’ll be able to host in your yard. Whether your yard is wooded, suburban, fielded, shady, sunny, and so on will mostly dictate what kinds of birds you can attract. Really, attracting birds is kind of like throwing a party. You find out who might be coming over and then set out things they like. They’ll be likely to stay – and next time, they may bring a few friends! When Reed and I lived in Red House, our property was surrounded by mature oaks, forests, and a mini apple orchard. Our yard was woodpecker, nuthatch, brown creeper, blue jay, city. But hummingbirds, orioles, and bluebirds (field and “edge” birds) wouldn’t give us the time of day. And we event tried. Today, we live on a flat acre, in full sun. 90% of the vegetation is along the edges. Our neighbors’ yards are similar, providing a high percentage of edge habitat. (Edge habitat or “ecotone” isn’t preferred by all birds – but ecologically, the narrow area where forest meets field is its own type of microhabitat that offers unique species of plants and animals, including many birds). We also found our yard has a lot of birdy plants along the edges…rose bush tangles, grapes, cherry trees, lilac, thistles, sumac, and more. In our new place, we don’t get creepers or jays. But we have hummingbirds, orioles, bluebirds as well as catbirds and others.
That said, you may do well to consider your property and invest most heavily in the birds that are already likely to visit you. But regardless of what birds you might have, each species all basically requires the same things we do: Food, water, and shelter (and OK, opportunity to reproduce). You’ll just be tailoring these needs to the birds you’d like to try to attract. Read on for how to do just that…
Reed and I feed the seed-eating birdies black-oil sunflower seeds. They are highly nutritious, everyone likes them, and they’re more affordable than the “filler” seed combos. As you feed your birds, there are a few things to keep in mind to make sure the birds get the most out of their seeds:
1. Only put up as many feeders as you can manage. Overall, bird feeders are a good thing. But they do create an artificial feeing behavior in which many birds gather at once. Like a school cafeteria, this can accelerate the spread of disease. So, spread out your feeders (this will also discourage territorial behavior), and keep your seed clean! (For hummingbird and seed feeders, clean before you see mold!),
2. Feed more in the winter than the summer. The birds really need it more then. Scatter seeds on the ground for doves in the warm weather and juncos in the winter. Not all are “perchy” eaters!
3. Grow some of your own bird food! :
Sumac – downy woodpecker
Trumpetvine, lantana, impatiens, – hummingbird
Grapes, blackberries, raspberries, mulberries – Catbird, mockingbird
Coreopsis, Bachelors Button, Conflower – sparrows, finches
A simple bird bath is all we use for water. Of course, if you have the funds, put in a small pond, or as my aunt did, a creek! This could possibly increase your yard diversity, but at the very least, will give birds opportunity for a bath or a quick drink. The main thing to abide with water is to keep it clean. Birds will not splash around in tainted water. If you want to go all out, you may also attract them with a pump. Many birds love the sound of bubbling water!

Some birds do love those wide open spaces, but even those who prefer high grass if they need to hide! If you can, let your grass grow high only in a section of your yard. To provide cover, you can also build a brush pile, plant brambly fruit vines to shield the birds from summer predators and winter snow. And don’t forget perches! Your birds will need a place to sit between trips to the feeder! You can get creative. I’ve seen old wagon wheels set in the ground, flower cages, and all sorts of things set out for perches.

This time of year, you also may want to help the birdies along with their breeding efforts. From March to May, male birds are establishing territories (you’ve seen them perch at the highest point and sing as loud as they can). Not too long from now, they’ll be going about the business of securing mates. Songbirds are generally monogamous – at least for one season. (Not unlike college students, these bonds only last 1 season, but pairs are mostly, if not 100% - monogamous during this time). After a flashy period of courtship, a pair bond is secured, and the parents will go about building a nest. Usually, both will build. Or in a few cases, the male will build the nest – or multiple nests – until it is approved by a hen. What you can do during this phase: Keep an extra watchful eye over your cat. Put a bell on kitty and don’t let him out of your sight out of doors. All that boisterous singing and showing off (either to rival males or suitable hens) makes these male birds very vulnerable to predation. You can also take strips of newspaper or hair from your brush (or your dog’s) and hang it in a suet feeder for easy nesting materials. If you like, hang up a bird box for cavity nesters like bluebirds, chickadees, or wrens. This can be done as early as February.
In late spring and early summer, hens will start laying eggs. From here, a hush falls over the woods and fields. Territories, mates, and nests are established and the parents don’t need or want to call attention to their investment! After the eggs hatch chicks will appear. (Some chicks fledge as soon as 10 days The mostly muted, camouflaged hen does most of the guard duty but both parents will usually bring food back to the chicks. By mid-summer, things are real quiet, but you may see the fledglings dashing around with Mom and Dad, or one day you’ll think that robin in the yard sure looks awfully speckly… What you can do during this phase: Again, watch the cat. New chicks are easy pickings for any cat, and the loss of one parent can kill them all. Put out more food. Anything that saves the parents time and energy is a help. Drive slowly. Seriously, all kinds of birds get hit by cars. Also, if, a bird lays eggs on your porch, leave it there until winter. Some birds, like swallows, robins, and bluebirds, will lay clutch after clutch in the same nest – as many as they can, all season. However, songbirds (unlike eagles) don’t use the same nest for two seasons. So it is safe to take it down in the winter.
(Note: If your property is big, you may be able to increase your diversity by planning a myriad of habitats: Field and woods, edge and thicket, creek and pond, high grass and low grass. This type of yard has the most diverse habitat and will therefore attract a high diversity of birds. Few private properties are big enough to pull this off. Also, ecosystems are not static - they change over time. In a bird sanctuary (owned by private bird lovers or non-profits) sections of land may be left alone to reach its highest level of maturity (ex: mature mixed hardwood forest). But in other sections, land managers make time stand still to accommodate specific species of bird(s). For example, if the land manager wants to provide a safe haven for bluebirds, she will need provide the regular maintenance to prevent the fields from eventually transitioning into forest. )

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