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NATURE HAPPENINGS - June 2008

Attracting Backyard Birds

by Damian Fagan

There are four main components to attracting backyard birds food, water, shelter and nest sites. Even if your yard is small, a little planning and minimal financial outlay will pay off big dividends.

Of the four, food is often the first ingredient that folks consider. But just check out your local birdseed sources and you’ll notice there are numerous options to choose from. In fact, determining what type of seed which birds eat is big business in the bird-feeding world. Millions of dollars are spent annually by the American public on seed and feeders. So where to start?
Remember that backyard bird feeding only supplements a wild bird’s diet. They still forage for seeds and insects on their own, and will not go “cold turkey” if you go on vacation and leave your feeders unattended. Most birds will not alter their migratory patterns just because you leave out some sunflower seeds, although some hummingbirds have been known to overwinter in areas due to the presence of feeders. But feeding birds is probably more beneficial to the bird watcher, since it brings birds right into your yard.

Birds are like humans in that they have preferences for certain food types and where they forage. Juncos, sparrows, mourning doves, and towhees tend to be ground feeders. They will consume milo and millet – two common seeds found in most birdseed mixes. Goldfinches, house finches and pine siskins prefer nyjer or black thistle seed that is offered in tube-like feeders with small ports. Their beaks are small enough to extract the seed from the ports, and the small size openings keeps some of the larger birds away because they can not get at the seed. Imported from Africa, the Niger seed has also been treated to keep it from germinating, should some seed escape the beaks of these seed predators. Black oil sunflower seeds, in or out of the shell, are a hit with some of the large birds like jays and grosbeaks.

Hummingbirds do not eat seeds, but they consume vast quantities of nectar and insects. A 4:1 ratio of water to sugar is sufficient to attract these “flying jewels” to your home. Bring the mixture to a boil to let the sugar dissolve, then fill a special hummingbird feeder when the mix is cool. Don’t forget to change this solution every few days and to keep the feeder clean.

Birds need water for cleaning their feathers as well as for drinking. Having a small pool or birdbath with moving water is an extra attractant, especially in the desert. Locate your water source away from feeding areas and prepare for some interesting activity!

One of the cardinal rules for birds is to always be aware. Predators, whether feathered or furred, will adapt to backyard feeding stations just like the seed eaters do. But instead of eating sunflower seeds or cracked corn, these predators are after prey. Providing suitable shelter and escape cover is necessary to the smaller birds to hide in when danger lurks. This may be a brush pile, dense vegetation or open space. Don’t place a feeder where birds may be easily cornered, and remember that your cat is driven by instinct to catch birds. Either keep cats indoors or consider a “kitty bib” that prevents your favorite feline from grasping prey.

For nest sites, consider planting some deciduous trees that offer structure needed for building a nest. These trees will also attract insects, which many birds feed upon or use to feed their young. Bird boxes provide artificial cavities for birds that nest in holes: house wrens, bluebirds, nuthatches, screech owls, and kestrels to name a few. These boxes come in a variety of sizes and many are designed to keep out house sparrows and European starlings – two non-native species that will outcompete the natives for nest sites.

And don’t overlook the desire to use garden plants to accomplish several of these requirements. Trees and shrubs provide berries, cover and nest sites. Perennials and annuals produce seed, nectar or attract insects that the birds will eat. Birds and blooms go together quite well.
So bring a little bit of nature closer to home by providing for these feathered creatures. Once the birds know your backyard is open for business, they’ll provide you with endless hours of entertainment.
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