Creating backyard bird habitat

birdbathPublished May 2, 2002, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Backyards going to the birds: Habitat can also be pleasant for people.”

2014 Update: See the updated list of resources at the end of the article.

By Barb Gorges

When Sue and Chuck Seniawski moved to the Monterey Heights neighborhood about 13 years ago, their backyard was not fit for man or beast.

“The backyard was absolutely bare when I got started—just grass, with a couple trees in front of the house,” Chuck said.

The Seniawskis worked out a landscape plan through Tom’s Garden Spot, a nursery no longer in business, and now those trees and shrubs provide a sanctuary for them and a variety of birds. In one hour on an April afternoon, about 10 species were observed.

Any grade-school child can list the three major needs of wildlife the Seniawskis have provided: food, water and shelter. As it turns out, what’s good for wildlife is good for people.

Reg Rothwell, author of Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s free publication, “Wildscape,” said good landscaping will increase property value, “but it will also provide auditory and visual screening, protection from wind and excess solar energy and give privacy for the home. Wild life habitat comes with it.”

Shelter

Though the term “birdhouse” implies birds may seek shelter from weather in them, only a few species use natural or man-made cavities, and then usually only for nesting. Most look for shelter in vegetation.

Publications about creating backyard bird or wildlife habitat start with planning for and planting trees. However, most are written with the eastern U.S. in mind and recommend kinds of trees that cannot live long in Cheyenne’s environment, or need a lot of water to survive.

Rothwell champions native species for their suitability, “If I can’t get natives, I want something like natives.”

At the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, director Shane Smith estimates 80 percent of the plant species recommended for Cheyenne on their Web site are identified and growing in Lions Park so people can visit and find out what they look like.

The Web site lists both local and area nurseries but Smith recommends checking local nurseries first.

“Take the compass into account,” said Smith, giving his general planting rule of thumb. Plant coniferous trees on the north and west side of the house to insulate it from winter wind. Plant deciduous trees on the south side so that their leaves shade the house in summer, but when their leaves drop in the fall, solar rays will warm the house.

Both Rothwell, Smith and University of Wyoming Laramie County Cooperative Extension horticultural agent Catherine Wissner warn against planting aspen because it is short-lived and a longer-lived tree would be a better investment in time and money. Also, one aspen will send out suckers all over the yard, attempting to turn it into a forest.

Wissner said landscaping advice is also available through her office, especially through the master gardener program. Two of the current master gardeners specialize in trees and may be available to come out and look at potential planting sites.

Shrubs are perhaps more valuable than trees for providing shelter for some birds, said Smith. However, one book on gardening for birds pointed out that rigorous pruning may cause growth too dense for birds to navigate easily.

Food

Trees and shrubs can be selected to do double duty as both shelter and food sources if they produce flowers, berries, cones, seeds or other kinds of fruit.

Fruits of chokecherry and Nanking cherry make good syrup and jelly, but the birds will want their share. If your goal is backyard wildlife habitat though, there will be plenty for everyone.

Flowers, whether in the garden or on trees and shrubs, will attract birds. It’s the flower nectar attracting hummingbirds and orioles, flower petals for evening grosbeaks and the insects attracted to the flowers for insect-eating birds.

Bird feeders are not an essential element of a backyard habitat, but they do add to enjoyment. A sunflower seed or niger thistle feeder like the Seniawskis have, covered with cheery-voiced goldfinches, is hard to resist.

Water

Birds visiting the Seniawskis’ yard drink and bathe all winter in the heated bird bath located up on the deck. Down below is a pedestal-style bird bath as well. Birds will appreciate a simple pan of water on the ground as much as an elaborate waterfall or pond, especially if you clean it regularly to avoid the spread of disease.

Nest boxes

Only certain bird species are interested in nesting in a structure, or cavity. Some of the swallows prefer to build their own with mud.

Backyard birds in the area that might be interested in your handiwork include downy woodpecker, northern flicker, black-capped and mountain chickadees, red-breasted nuthatch, house wren and house finch. The mountain bluebird, wood duck, common merganser and American kestrel will also use nest boxes, but have habitat requirements beyond Cheyenne’s average backyard.

The size of the entrance hole determines if the intended species will be able to use it without aggressive species not native to our area, starlings and house sparrows, taking it over. Nest box specifications are available from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s free pamphlet, “For the Birds” and from The Birdhouse Network.

Hazards

Just as visitors to your home should be protected from injury, so should your avian visitors.

Keep your own cat indoors, or build a “cat haven” as Pat and Paul Becker have done. Make sure shrubbery that might hide a loose cat is far enough away from water and feeders so that birds, especially ground feeders like juncos, have a chance to see the cat coming and to escape. A dog installed in the yard makes a great cat repellant.

Pesticides poison insects and seed-producing plants, the very things that attract birds to your yard. If a bird eats enough poisoned insects, it will die.

High amounts of lawn care chemicals were found in birds succumbing to West Nile virus on the East Coast.

The National Audubon Society web site offers alternatives, though you can consider the birds themselves as part of your pest management strategy.

Housekeeping

Nature is not tidy.

She doesn’t rake up dead leaves and bag them. Instead, decomposing leaves offer sustenance for insects, slugs and worms—and the birds that eat them, before completely breaking down and nourishing the soil. Chuck Seniawski allows leaves to remain under shrubs because leaf litter and its denizens attracts green-tailed and spotted towhees.

Resources

Laramie County Library, 2200 Pioneer Ave. Check out books about landscaping, gardening and birds.

Wyoming Game and Fish Department, 5400 Bishop Blvd., 777-4600, http://wgfd.wyo.gov.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ecological Field Services, 5353 Yellowstone Rd., 772-2374. Look for these pamphlets on backyard bird houses and habitat: http://www.fws.gov/migratorybirds/NewReportsPublications/pamphlet/house.html, http://www.fws.gov/migratorybirds/NewReportsPublications/pamphlets.html.

Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, Lions Park, 637-6458, www.botanic.org. Look for plant lists under “Garden Tips.”

University of Wyoming Laramie County Cooperative Extension Horticulturist, 310 W. 19th St., 633-4383. Horticulturist Catherine Wissner can give you advice or send out a trained Master Gardner for onsite evaluations.

Laramie County Conservation District, 11221 US Highway 30, 772-2600, http://www.lccdnet.org. Look for publications and tree planting programs.

National Audubon Society, Audubon at Home program, http://athome.audubon.org. All about birds in the backyard.

National Wildlife Federation, http://www.nwf.org/How-to-Help/Garden-for-Wildlife

The Birdhouse Network,  PO Box 11, Ithaca, NY 14851-0011 http://birds.cornell.edu/birdhouse. Another citizen science project like Project Feederwatch, TBN is set up to accept reports about nest box success from member observers. Anyone can access the site which has an incredible amount of information about building, buying or placing bird houses plus a nesting success data base and, for live looks inside, nest box cams.

NestWatch, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, http://nestwatch.org. Observe a nest, build a nest box, find out how to encourage birds to nest in your yard.

Birds Observed in the Seniawskis’ Backyard, 1990-2001

Sharp-shinned Hawk, Mourning Dove, Great Horned Owl, Northern Flicker (Red-shafted), Downy Woodpecker, Prairie Falcon, Merlin, Western Wood Peewee, Western Flycatcher, Hammond’s Flycatcher, Red-eyed Vireo, Steller’s Jay, Blue Jay, American Crow.

Mountain Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Rock Wren, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Mountain Bluebird, Townsend’s Solitaire, Swainson’s Thrush, American Robin, European Starling, Cedar Waxwing.

Orange-crowned Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Townsend’s Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, Western Tanager.

Green-tailed Towhee, Spotted Towhee, American Tree Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Lincoln’s Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Harris’ Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Gray-headed Junco, Oregon Junco, Pink-sided Junco, Slate-colored Junco, White-winged Junco, Lapland Longspur.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Black-headed Grosbeak, Bronzed Grackle, House Finch, Red Crossbill, Common Redpoll, Pine Siskin, Lesser Goldfinch, American Goldfinch, House Sparrow.

The Seniawskis’ Backyard Plant List (including neighbor’s trees contributing to habitat)

Designations from Cheyenne Botanic Gardens list: N – native, D – drought resistant after establishment

Evergreens: Austrian Pine (D), Bristlecone Pine (D,N),  Colorado Blue Spruce (D,N), Ponderosa Pine (D,N), Juniper shrubs (D,N)

Broadleaf trees: Aspen, Flowering Almond, Flowering Crabapple, Locust, Narrowleaf Cottonwood (N), Seedless Mountain Ash

Broadleaf shrubs: Alpine Currant (N), Canada Red Cherry, Cotoneaster, Saskatoon Serviceberry, Spirea (white, pink, blue), Sumac

Tree Planting Disclaimer

Not all birds appreciate trees. Birds such as the western meadowlark, grasshopper sparrow, killdeer and bobolink nest on the ground in wide open spaces.

If wide open describes your property, consider allowing it to continue as grassland bird habitat rather than transforming it into forest.

Avoid mowing during nesting season, now through July. Keep dogs and cats confined or on a leash so they won’t harm eggs and young.

Be aware that a pole or tree may provide avian predators such as crows with a watch tower and launching pad to use in their quest for prey.

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