Attracting Birds

>> Monday, January 31, 2011

One of my favorite pastimes is watching and listening to birds feed right outside my window while I work away inside. Hanging bird feeders around your yard will soon attract many birds. Black Sunflower seeds is the favored seed for many seed-eating birds. Setting out fruit, nuts, suet and even peanut butter will attract many different species.

The simplest feeder is a tube feeder. As its name implies, it’s a tube of durable plastic or glass with multiple feeding ports and perches along its sides. Tube feeders come in a range of sizes, colors, and styles that will fit into any yard or garden. Inexpensive models are easy to find. They’re also easy to keep clean.

Among the many food options available, black-oil sunflower seed is the clear choice if you’re not sure which birds you’ll be attracting. This small, black seed is available at birding specialty stores, pet shops, grocery stores, and discount stores. The most common feeder birds—including cardinals, juncos, chickadees, finches, jays, titmice, nuthatches, and woodpeckers—are sure to be attracted to a tube feeder stocked with these high-fat, high-protein seeds. Be patient, though, because it might take a few weeks for birds to discover and use your feeders.

Hang the tube feeder in a place where you can view it from your window. Be mindful not to hang it too close to a shrub where cats might lurk waiting for their chance to pounce. About 10-12 feet away should be fine. I hang mine in trees around the yard, I don’t have a squirrel problem so this works out well for me. If you do have squirrels they will find your feeder fairly quickly. There are many ingenious ways to foil their attempts to get to the feeder, and they probably have just as many ingenious ways to defeat your attempts.

Store your seed in a cool, dry place to prevent mold. A metal trash bin works well and is also rodent-proof. Every couple of weeks, empty out your feeder and wash it with a solution of one part chlorine bleach to nine parts water and a scrub brush, rinse well. This will remove any seed shells, mold, bird droppings, and other disease-causing elements and will ensure that your avian friends have a clean place to enjoy a meal.

To provide for birds in a more natural way, provide plants that produce berries and seed heads that they enjoy. Here are some of the best bird plants available for the garden. Ask your local nursery for species native to your area.

  • American cranberry bush (Viburnum trilobum,  Zones 2 to 7)
  • Annual sunflower (Helianthus annuus)
  • Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica, Zones 3 to 6)
  • Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta, Zones 3 to 7)
  • Clove currant (Ribes odoratum, Zones 5 to 8)
  • Common juniper (Juniperus communis, Zones 2 to 6)
  • Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis, Zones 4 to 9)
  • Hackberry (Celtis laevigata, Zones 5 to 9)
  • Limber pine (Pinus flexilis, Zones 3 to 7)
  • Oak (Quercus spp., Zones 3 to 9)
  • Oregon grapeholly (Mahonia aquifolium, Zones 5 to 9)
  • Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea, Zones 3 to 9)
  • Red osier dogwood (Cornus stolonifera, Zones 3 to 8)
  • Shadblow (Amelanchier canadensis, Zones 3 to 7)
  • Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica, Zones 4 to 9)
  • Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia, Zones 4 to 9)

Bird seed can become a bit expensive, and you really should not be overly concerned with making your feeder the birds sole source of food. They can find many natural sources on their own. I fill my seven feeders daily and by just after noon they are all empty. The birds go away, they feed elsewhere and come back the next morning. Following is a list of tips to keep birds coming back and feeding without breaking the bank.

1. Say No to Insecticides – Before you reach for the bug killer think about this: 96 percent of bird species in North America feed their babies insects.  Most adult birds rely on insects as a source of protein too, but even those that primarily eat plant foods as adults still feed their young insects, including hummingbirds.  Make sure you have plenty of insect life for the birds by going organic and eliminating insecticides.  Let the birds control the insects for you.

2. Go Native – Native plants that grow naturally in your area provide birds with the foods they’ve been eating for thousands of years and thrive in local soils and weather.  Many exotic plants don’t provide seeds or fruits that birds can eat and those that do have become invasive pests.  Native plants also support up to 60 percent more insects than exotics and therefore more birds.

3. Attract Birds with Water – Even if you can’t provide food, a simple bird bath with clean water will attract plenty of birds to your yard.  Replace the water every three days to keep the bath clean and to avoid mosquito problems.

4. Free Food – Make your own suet by recycling bacon grease. Next time you fry up a batch of bacon, pour the grease into a plastic container and freeze it. You can then put it out in a suet cage or mesh onion bags as a high calorie treat for birds such as woodpeckers, jays and chickadees. Saving the plastic packages from store-bought suet and using them again to make your own will save you even more.

5. Buy in Bulk – If you are addicted to watching the constant activity of birds visiting your feeders, consider buying seed in bulk to save some cash.  Avoid seed blends which often have “filler” seeds that most birds toss aside and feed black-oil sunflower seed, which all feeder birds relish.  Store seed in a metal container with a secure lid to keep moisture and other critters out.

6. Grow Your Own Feeders – Plant sunflowers instead of buying expensive sunflower seed.  The flowers look beautiful and also provide nectar for bees and other beneficial insects.  In the fall, cut the flower heads and hang them in the yard as home-grown bird feeders.

Hummingbirds hold a special place in every gardeners yard. Nothing is more exciting than watching them flit around playfully chasing each other, and they occasionally will fly up to within feet of you seemingly investigating what you are up to. What a delight it is to hear one zoom past you defeating almost every attempt for you to follow. Hummingbirds flap their wings so rapidly—approximately 50 to 80 flaps per second—that they actually produce a humming sound when they fly.

It’s easy to provide the basic elements of hummingbird habitat in your garden and encourage these feisty little birds to take up residence in your neighborhood.

Provide nectar. Hummingbirds feed on flower nectar and are attracted to red, so include red-blooming plants in your hummingbird garden. Always select native plant species first. These are the plants that hummingbirds have been feeding on for thousands of years. What’s native varies greatly by region, so check with your local native plant or birding group to find out what will attract hummingbirds in your area.

How you arrange your plants will affect your garden’s attractiveness to hummingbirds. Individual plants are hard to spot from the air and won’t provide enough nectar by themselves. A bed filled with clusters of several species of nectar plants, however, will be much more successful.

You can also attract hummingbirds by putting out a feeder with homemade nectar. You can use a pre-packaged powder to make nectar, or make it from scratch by dissolving one part white sugar in four parts water. Never use honey, which can grow mold and bacteria that sicken hummingbirds. Don’t use artificial sweeteners, either, because they lack the calories these birds need to support their high-energy flying. A word of caution: do not add food coloring to your feeders!

Allow tiny prey to go pesticide-free. Hummingbirds cannot survive on nectar alone. They also need tiny insects, spiders, and other invertebrates as a source of protein. When you’re tempted to grab the pesticides, remember that many pesticides not only kill hummingbirds outright, but also rob them of an important food source. Having a diversely planted, pesticide-free garden will ensure that you have plenty of invertebrate prey for hummingbirds.

Install a birdbath or mister. Hummingbirds drink water and bathe in it to keep their feathers clean. They’ll use a standard birdbath for these activities as long as it’s not too deep. They are also attracted to the sight and sound of moving water, so adding a pump-powered mister will make your water feature irresistible to hummingbirds. They enjoy flying through the fine mist of water, effectively bathing on the wing.

Give them a place to call home. Hummingbirds build tiny, cup-shaped nests. They use spider webs, plant fibers, and seed down to create the cup, and then add lichens to the outside surface. They build their nests in a fork in the branches of dense shrubs and trees. Add a shrub row or other woody vegetation to give hummingbirds a protected place to nest.

Hummingbirds have co-evolved with the plants on which they feed. The birds and the plants depend upon each other for survival. It’s no random happenstance that hummingbird flowers are long and tubular. This structure forces the bird to put its whole face into the flower so its long bill can reach the nectar in the bottom. In doing so, the bird’s face and forehead are dusted with pollen, which it then passes to the next flower as it continues feeding. When it does this, it pollinates the flower, thus ensuring that the plant will produce seeds for the next generation.

When we think of wildlife in a backyard garden, most of us picture rabbits, squirrels, sparrows, chickadees, a variety of insects, and maybe the odd raccoon. Fierce, soaring hawks and mysterious, sharp-eyed owls are not what we expect in an urban yard. And yet several birds of prey are surprisingly common in cities and towns.

Few things are more thrilling than catching a glimpse of a hawk or an owl in your very own neighborhood. If you understand a little bit about raptors’ habits and habitats, you can create the kind of yard that will attract them—and increase your chances for a close encounter.

Attract raptors to your yard. Protecting and restoring natural plant communities is the best thing you can do to attract raptors. Plants provide habitat for prey species and shelter for raptors. Raptors need large, mature vegetation (such as trees and cacti) for nesting. Some smaller species are cavity nesters, laying their eggs in old woodpecker holes or places where branches have broken off. Larger species typically use nests made of branches piled in the tops of trees. Some species don’t build their own nests, but take over those built by crows or other raptors. Dead trees, called snags, work as well as living ones, so leave them standing if they pose no danger.

Learn to identify hawks and owls. Hawks and owls are the most likely raptors to show up in your yard. Depending on the species, they feed on rodents, snakes, insects, and other birds. They have extremely keen eyesight, hooked beaks, and sharp talons. However, despite their similarities, hawks and owls have key differences and are not closely related.

Hawks are active during daylight hours. Owls, on the other hand, are adapted for nocturnal living. Owls have special feathers that muffle the sound of their flapping wings, and their flat, round faces funnel sound into their ears, allowing them to locate prey in the dark.

Look for raptors in urban areas. Here’s a list of the raptors you’re most likely to see in your yard and garden:
Screech owl
Both eastern and western screech owls are common in cities and towns. These small owls nest in tree cavities, but will also use a properly mounted nesting box.

Red-tailed hawk
These large hawks live in every type of ecosystem, from forests to deserts to grasslands. They are easy to spot because they hunt voles, rabbits, and squirrels while perched in trees along highways.

Great horned owl
Great horned owls are the nighttime counterpart to the red-tailed hawk, living in similarly diverse habitats. They can tackle large prey and, lacking a good sense of smell, are one of the few regular predators of skunks. They often use the same nests as red-tailed hawks but avoid competition by laying their eggs much earlier—sometimes in the middle of winter—and completing their nesting process before hawks begin theirs.

Cooper’s hawk
This swift hawk feeds primarily on small birds and is a regular visitor to gardens with bird feeders. Seed-eating songbirds get an easy meal in such gardens, and so do bird-eating hawks.

American kestrel
One of the tiniest raptors (only about 10 inches long), kestrels will nest in the same tree cavities or nesting boxes used by woodpeckers. Males sport colorful slate-blue wing feathers that are easily recognizable.

Bird Information Resources
Bird Identification          
Hummingbird Society       


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