Big Bend hosts surprises for Wyoming birders

Vermilion Flycatcher

We found the Vermilion Flycatcher perched on a grill at the Cottonwood Campground in Big Bend National Park in Texas. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Published Nov. 30, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Big Bend hosts surprises for local birders.”

By Barb Gorges

Have you heard the rumor that Texas has mountains?

It does. The ranges I saw weren’t the Grand Tetons, and I doubt they are ever snow-capped. But in terms of size, they remind me of many of Wyoming’s smaller ranges.

Earlier this month, Mark and I visited Big Bend National Park, which entirely encompasses the famous (especially for birders) Chisos Mountains, where the Colima warbler nests. It breeds only in those mountains and Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental.

If you look at Texas as your left hand, palm down, fingers pointing south, Big Bend is the end of your thumb. It is above a big bend in the Rio Grande which forms the border with Mexico.

The north park entrance station is 39 miles from the closest town, Marathon (pop. 436) and the northwest entrance is 76 miles from Alpine (pop. 6,000). We were able to reserve a room three months in advance at Chisos Mountains Lodge, in the heart of the park, because we were a tad early for the height of the tourist season. Summer, with temperatures over 110 degrees, is the off season.

It is the only lodging in the park, unless you bring your own. It isn’t fancy, but it’s clean, comfortable and the food is good. We learned that reservations for the lodge for 2016 will open this January.

The lodge is tucked into the Chisos Basin, closed in by peaks, including Emory, which is 7,832 feet high. Centrally located, we were 30 miles from Rio Grande Village to the east at an elevation of 1,850 feet, with visitor amenities and scenic attractions on the river, and 38 miles in the opposite direction from the other visitor amenities near the river at Castolon. It’s a big park.

Like the rest of the Southwest, Big Bend has a monsoon season—heavy rainstorms at the end of summer. It wasn’t supposed to be raining in early November. But it did. So I wore my rain suit in the desert because after all that driving, I didn’t want to miss a thing.

However, it was so foggy the two days we were there that we never saw the tops of the Chisos Mountains. And we couldn’t go down to see the famed Santa Elena Canyon because too much water was flowing over the road and it was closed.

But we did find birds. These days it is easy to use eBird.com to find birding hotspots. Mark identified Cottonwood Campground. It was a little intimidating reading all the signs warning how to stay safe in encounters with javelinas, bears and mountain lions, but the big old cottonwoods were all a-twitter.

It sounded familiar—a flock of yellow-rumped warblers frantically feeding in trees and on the ground during a break in the rain, just like I’ve seen them behave in Cheyenne during migration.

But we also found uncommon Southwestern species. A vermilion flycatcher—incredibly red—alternately perched on tree tops and signs. Nicely perched on a picnic table was a black phoebe, another flycatcher. The flicker-like bird was a golden-fronted woodpecker.

We stopped at nearly every pullout, walked out on many trails, and added a few more southwest specialties like cactus wren and pyrrhuloxia (faded version of a cardinal), Inca dove, black-throated sparrow, and roadrunner.

And we found familiar birds escaping winter: mockingbird, loggerhead shrike, Wilson’s snipe, blue-gray gnatcatcher—although for these species, individual birds may make the park home year round.

There are plenty of trails for the adventurous who have real 4-wheel-drive trucks—not SUVs built on car chassis. I’ll bet Big Bend has little trouble with people driving off road due to the multitude of tire-piercing cactus.

And what interesting vegetation is out there in the Chihuahuan Desert: 20-foot-tall century plants and other rosettes of sharp-pointed leaves putting up tall flower stalks, along with tiny flowers tucked beneath spiny neighbors, and higher up, southwest versions of oak, juniper and pine, even Douglas fir.

In addition to the one-volume edition of Sibley’s field guide to birds of North America (some Texas birds are in the eastern edition and some in the western), the most valuable publication for visiting birders is the park’s bird checklist available at the visitor centers. It’s by Mark Flippo, one of the local birding guides. The 28-page booklet lists the more than 450 species found in the park, preferred habitat for each and how likely you are to find them each season. It also points out the specialties, birds that are easier to find in Big Bend than in the rest of the U.S. and Canada.

The only question I have for Mark is, can we go back for another stay in the Chisos Basin maybe during spring migration 2016?

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Curiosity, generosity rewarded by the University of Wyoming’s Biodiversity Institute

Biodiversity Institute logo

The University of Wyoming’s Biodiversity Institute was organized in 2012.

Published Nov. 10, 2013, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Curiosity, generosity rewarded by UW’s Biodiversity Institute.”

2014 Update: Chris Madson continues to write at his blog, http://www.thelandethic.com. Many of the Dorns’ publications are available.

By Barb Gorges

It’s wonderful when friends are recognized for a lifetime of work they enjoy.

Last month, the Biodiversity Institute recognized Chris Madson of Cheyenne, and Jane and Robert Dorn, formerly of Cheyenne, now residing near Lingle.

The Biodiversity Institute, established in 2012, is a division of the University of Wyoming’s Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources. It “seeks to promote research, education, and outreach concerning the study of living organisms in Wyoming and beyond (www.wyomingbiodiversity.org).” This was the first year for what will be biannual awards.

Chris’s award for “Contributions to Wyoming Biodiversity Conservation,” highlights his 30 years as editor of Wyoming Wildlife, the magazine published by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. The week before the awards ceremony, he retired.

Each issue has been a compilation of the work of the best nature and outdoor photographers and writers, who were attracted to the prize-winning magazine. Judith Hosafros, longtime assistant editor, should also be credited for her attention to graphic details and proofreading that made it easy to read all these years.

Most subscribers turned to page 4 first, to read Chris’s monthly elucidation of issues or hosannas to nature, and then they looked for any articles he authored.

Getting in touch with Chris for what might have been a minute could turn into a conversation exploring a topic in nearly any field–not surprising for a man with degrees in biology, English, anthropology and wildlife.

Chris’s dad was also a writer and conservationist in Chris’s native state of Iowa. He remembers his dad interpreting the scenery on long car trips. When I spoke to two of Chris and Kathy’s three daughters at the awards, Erin and Ceara, they both mentioned long drives as favorite times with their dad.

Chris made Wyoming Wildlife much more inclusive than the typical hook and bullet publication—for instance, the October issue had three major non-game bird articles. Illuminating the conservation ethic was always uppermost for Chris, and that’s why he was nominated for this biodiversity award.

The Dorns received the Contributions to Biodiversity Science Award. Both Bob and Jane trained as scientists: Bob with a doctorate in botany, and Jane with a masters in zoology. They met in 1969 at UW, he coming from Minnesota and she from Rawlins. They have been a productive partnership ever since.

When Bob first started his studies at UW that year, he realized there was no single good plant guide for Wyoming and he set out to correct that, publishing “Vascular Plants of Wyoming” in 1977. It’s essentially a key he made for identifying hundreds of plants, based on his and many others’ research, and Jane has provided scientific illustrations for it. The third edition, still with a humble, plain brown paper cover, is available through UW’s Rocky Mountain Herbarium. It’s considered the bible by anyone working in botany in Wyoming.

Bob has had his own biological consulting business, working on clearances and inventories for threatened and endangered species, reclamation evaluations and wetland determinations.  But he has continued to have scientific papers published, and other books. Many of his contracts called for inspecting remote areas and at this point, out of the 448 units he divided the state into back in 1969, he has botanically surveyed 445.

Jane is no slouch, botanically. Growing up, she spent a lot of time on her grandparents’ ranch and her parents impressed on her that everything has a name. I’m not sure it is possible to divide Bob and Jane’s joint interests in botany and birds, but when researching in the nation’s great scientific libraries, Jane tends to find the birds.

Having met them through the local Audubon chapter, Bob and Jane became my mentors when I first started writing this bird column in 1999. They put their research into two editions of their book, “Wyoming Birds.” Doug Faulkner continually credits them throughout his 2010 book, “Birds of Wyoming.” Jane wrote the chapter for him on the history of Wyoming ornithology and Bob wrote the chapter on landforms and vegetation.

While both books often save me from having to make phone calls, the Dorns’ book also has 70 pages of Wyoming birding hotspots and directions on how to get to them.

What Jane, Bob and Chris have in common is not only intelligence and education, but insatiable curiosity that has and will keep them going long after any official retirement; the afternoon before the awards ceremony on campus I found Bob doing research in the herbarium.

And they also share a huge spirit of generosity, making all of us, maybe unknowingly for many people, beneficiaries of their scientific and conservation passions.

City geese love our parks too much

Domestic geese

Domestic geese at Holliday Park, dumped off by someone a few years ago, come running to see if the car that just pulled up will have people with handouts for them. They have since been removed from the park. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Nov. 25, 2012, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Goose population success is a messy problem for parks.” WTE online heading: “Don’t worry about the geese, they’ll be fine without our handouts.”

2014 Update: This fall the city hired someone with specially trained dogs to harass but not harm the geese at Holliday Park. We’ll see if it helps.

By Barb Gorges

As your resident bird lady, it’s time for me to bring science to the issue of too many geese in Cheyenne parks.

The domestic geese that Teddie Spier mentioned in her letter to the editor Nov. 6 are not a problem. The city can round them up any time, which they did this summer at Holliday Park, leaving behind four whites and a gray.

Mallards are common park ducks, but here they are a fraction of park waterfowl. Mid-winter, the large flock of ducks on the open water at Lions Park is made up of species eating aquatic invertebrates, not mallards begging for handouts.

It’s the wild geese, properly known as Canada geese. If one of them hails from Canada, you could refer to it as a Canadian Canada goose.

Over the last three years, I have been counting the birds at Holliday Park around 8 a.m., 10 days per month on average, recording the results at www.eBird.org. In the spring of 2010, Canada geese were numbering 60-100 per day. This spring they were running over 200. You can access my data for free by setting up your own login and password at the website.

Cheyenne geese move between the parks, golf courses, F.E. Warren Air Force Base and rural fields, so to get the big picture, look at the Cheyenne Christmas Bird Count, which strives to count geese all over town at the same time. The data is available for free at http://netapp.audubon.org/cbcobservation/Historical/SpeciesData.aspx.

I found eight Canadas were recorded in 1974, then none until 50 in 1983. In the 1990s numbers jumped into the hundreds and by 2000, to over 2000. Last year’s count was 1,332, probably not a sign of a downward trend but instead some geese may have been in fields outside the count circle.

The increase in geese, and geese that aren’t migrating, is nationwide over the last 50 years. Hunting (2 million harvested in 2002) hasn’t held back the Canadas. Plus, the birds in most parks, including ours, are safe by law. No one can hunt within city limits.

So yes, there is more goose poop in our parks than before. Because it is recycled grass, I don’t find it as objectionable as dog droppings.

At Holliday Park, goose nesting was confined to the island, but this year there were three pairs nesting off-island–three ganders hissing at park visitors trying to walk the sidewalks–for four weeks of incubation. I worry geese beaks are about eye-level with small children.

Canada geese

Canada geese hang out at Holliday Park year round. The city is trying several approaches to discourage them. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Because Canada geese and other migratory waterfowl are protected by international treaty and congressional acts, the city can’t touch them without permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Before the city could try addling eggs to slow population growth, FWS asked the city to have a ban on feeding birds in the parks.

According to Birds of North America Online, www.bna.birds.cornell.edu, which is summaries of scientific bird studies available to the public for an annual subscription fee, Canada geese eat grass-type plants almost exclusively, adding berries and seeds in the winter, though they’ve learned to find waste grain in farm fields.

People objecting to the city’s feeding ban, saying it’s bad for the geese especially in winter, need to keep several things in mind:

–People often feed the geese junk food rather than dried whole corn, which is what farmers have determined works for domestic geese.

–Handouts represent very little of the total diet of the 1500-plus Cheyenne geese–most of which are too busy grazing far from the parking lots.

–According to research, urban geese have adapted to a year-round diet of grass.

–Our geese often fly to nearby fields for grain.

The urban Canada goose is looking for lawns next to ponds, say the studies referenced by BNAO. I don’t foresee the city draining lakes and paving parks since people like grass and water as much as the geese do.

Where it is imperative to keep geese away, such as airport runways, harassment by dogs has some effect. But don’t try this yourself since it’s illegal to harass a federally protected species. It probably isn’t realistic to fence Holliday Park and turn it into a dog park, either.

I haven’t seen much evidence of predation except for the cormorants eyeing goslings. What we need is a way to harvest Canada geese within the city without using firearms, and to be practical, feed them to the hungry. Wild geese are very nutritious, especially when park employees work hard to grow the grass they eat.

Instead, we have to wait and see if a feeding ban and egg addling will limit the goose population. If not, we’ll be stepping around more droppings and territorial ganders.

Deliberate littering leaves local citizens wondering

Old tires

Old tires keep getting dumped in the wetlands along the side of our favorite birding route outside Cheyenne, Wyoming. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Nov. 6, 2011, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Deliberate littering leaves local citizens wondering.”

2014 Update: Each spring the last three years, Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society members put on our rubber boots and gloves and pull tires out of the creek and pluck windblown trash out of the shrubs.

By Barb Gorges

We enjoyed our summer Sunday mornings. They were golden. The low angle of the early light filtered through the leaves along the creek and a few birds sang.

The air was so still we could hear every note, yet mosquitoes were absent. It is a perfect time for bird watching along a country road.

From week to week we noticed changes. One week it was vociferous western kingbird families everywhere, another week it was tiny grasshopper sparrows on the barbed wire.

Once, a middle-aged pickup passed us and we waved to the old guy driving. He towed a light trailer with mesh sides, carrying a little mound of dried plant material and a garden hose.

I briefly wondered where a man would be going at 7 a.m., coming from town, hauling a trailer. Twenty minutes later we found out.

The hose and the dried weeds, plus some soiled paper towels, were on the side of the road. It was a well-watered spot where the weed seeds will easily sprout.

 

Removing trash

Members of the Cheyenne-High Plains Audubon Society remove construction debris from the wetland next to the road. Photo by Barb Gorges.

I am sure it is the same weeds and hose because years of distinguishing birds and their various shades of color has sharpened my eye. No, the hose didn’t fall out accidently. It was poorly tucked into the roadside vegetation—just the way you’d expect a slob to try to hide something quickly.

Public lands near towns are always victims of hit and run littering. My sister, who works for the U.S. Forest Service, tells me tales of contractors dumping building debris, and there is some along this local road, as well as an assortment of tires and furniture.

But here the land is privately owned. Perhaps this dumping is a personal statement to the owners, but more likely, the slob doesn’t know to whom the land belongs.

I wonder if he’s the one who, just this year, left evergreen branches, fireworks trash, a chair, a love seat, a mattress and box spring, an old computer and porn magazines.

Perhaps the litterer doesn’t know that the Cheyenne compost facility takes any vegetation for free. It is open in November 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., closed on Tuesdays and Sundays (March through October, it’s open every day but Tuesday.).

Anyone in the county can dump anything for free at the Cheyenne waste transfer facility, 200 N. College, on the middle Saturday of May. If you can’t wait, they’ll take your old tires the rest of the year for $1.55 apiece, more if they are still on their rims.

Abandoned chair.

Furniture is abandoned on the side of the road. Often it becomes a shotgun target. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Useable furniture and other things should be donated to charities, but whatever items are beyond repair only cost $10 per pickup load to take them to the transfer station, if you live in the city, more if you live outside city limits. For a small fee, the sanitation department will pick up things that don’t fit in your regular bin.

Call the sanitation department at 637-6440 for particular costs and hours.

The city does its best to make it easy to dispose of trash properly. The recycling businesses even make it pay for some kinds of junk.

But teaching personal responsibility is the best way to control deliberate litter. In a state like Wyoming where its citizens worship private property rights, you’d think there would be zero tolerance for making a mess of someone else’s land, if only to preserve your own.

However, Mark and I do have something in common with the litterer. We like having an excuse to enjoy a Sunday morning in the country. If that old guy reforms, he’ll need a new reason for a drive. We have this extra pair of binoculars….

Trash collected

The amount of trash collected the third year is nearly equal to the first year. Photo by Barb Gorges.

eBird: How to use a scientific database as a vacation planner

Wild Turkey

Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, showed up as a hotspot during our vacation planning. We found this Wild Turkey running around the historic gravestones. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Nov. 14, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “eBird: How to use a scientific database as a vacation planner.”

2014 Update: While you can still use this workaround, eBird now has the ability to get you the hotspot information quickly, with even more details. Click on Explore Data, then Explore Hotspots and type in the location you are interested in. The map will show hotspots in the area. Click on one and you can generate a bar chart (checklist) of birds seen, high counts, low counts, first time and last time each species was seen, recent visits and checklists.

By Barb Gorges

Because most of our long distance travels are to see family, Mark and I haven’t had time to sign up for bird tours. But we have figured out how to add birding to our family visits by using eBird.

eBird is a free, publicly accessible, scientific database and isn’t designed as a vacation planner, but here is how we’ve used it to find birding hotspots for our future trip to eastern Massachusetts.

Step 1. Go to www.eBird.org. Sign-in is free.

Step 2. Of the tabs along the top of the page click on “Submit Observations.”

Step 3. Click on “Find it on the Map.”

Step 4. This next page, about location, says Step 1, but that’s for the process of submitting an observation. We don’t know the counties in Massachusetts, so we only filled in the “State/Province” box with “Massachusetts” and made sure the “Country” was United States. Put in your destination and click on “Continue” at the bottom of the page.

Step 5. A Google Map of Massachusetts popped up for us. If you aren’t familiar with Google maps, note that you can click on “Map,” “Satellite,” “Hybrid” or “Terrain” buttons. The last one will give you an illustration of the topography and a road map.

Step 6. Zoom in on your destination by clicking on the “+” sign. To slide the map to one side, click anywhere on the map, hold the mouse’s left button down and drag the hand icon across the screen. If you have a slow Internet connection it might take a bit for the map to catch up with each operation.

Step 7. As you zoom in you’ll see the red balloons with cross marks change to groups of unmarked red balloons, each representing a birding hotspot location. Click on a balloon to find out its name, which will pop up in the box above the map. As long as you don’t click “Continue,” it won’t matter where you click the map. Write down the names of likely looking hotspots.

Step 8. At the top of the page, click on “View and Explore Data.”

Step 9. Click on “Bar Charts.”

Step 10. On the “Choose a Location” page that comes up, Mark and I scrolled down to Massachusetts and clicked on it, and then in the list on the right, we selected “Hotspots.” At the bottom of the page click “Continue.”

Step 11. From the list of Hotspots, choose the one (or more) you want to use to generate a bird list. Mark and I were interested in Parker River National Wildlife Refuge so we clicked all 16 of the refuge’s hotspots. Click “Continue” at the bottom of the page.

Step 12. Review your bar graph. Ours showed us how abundant 342 species are at every quarter-month interval of the year.

Step 13. If there is a species you’d really like to see, click on its name. I have never identified an American Black Duck, so when I clicked on it, a Google map of the refuge popped up with red and yellow balloons. This time, the red balloons mean observations at those locations are more than 30 days old. Yellow balloons indicate less than 30 days.

Step 14. Click on one of the balloons. You’ll see on what dates your chosen species was observed at that location, plus how many individual birds each time, and by which observer.

Step 15. Go see the birds! We looked up Parker River on the Internet and learned all about visiting.

So who are all these people sharing their observations with the public and the scientific community? They are any birdwatcher or birder who takes the time to enter their data online at www.eBird.org. You can contribute your information too. Click on the tab at the top of the page, “About eBird,” and learn how to enter your backyard and vacation bird sightings.

Surveying the birds of Holliday Park

Holliday Park

Holliday Park, a small city park in Cheyenne, Wyoming, has old cottonwoods, shrubs, lawns and a lake that attract birds and other wildlife. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Nov. 7, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Holliday Park summer bird counts total 43 species.”

2014 Update: It’s been two years since I’ve made regular excursions to the park. Since then the lake has been deepened to improve water quality and the island removed to discourage nesting geese.

By Barb Gorges

Between the last week in April and the end of September I counted 43 species of birds at Cheyenne’s Holliday Park while walking a friend’s dog about three times a week.

I recorded my observations at the free website, www.eBird.org, so now I can look back and tell you that there were 60-70 geese at the end of April, a high of 180 mid-July, including a crop of about 25 goslings, and in September there were around 130. I hope some more will migrate and not eat all the grass in the park.

Yes, there were the other usual urbanites: mallard, European starling, house sparrow and pigeon, but there have been surprises.

From late April until the first week in August I could count on up to a dozen double-crested cormorants each visit and maybe around five American white pelicans, both species trolling the lake for fish.

I caught glimpses of wood ducks and turkey vultures during spring and fall migration. Warblers passed through too, but identification is difficult because I don’t take binoculars. It takes two hands to walk a 125-pound dog known to sometimes walk me when she sees other dogs, squirrels or her park friends.

Holliday Park has had a colony of black-crowned night-herons for more than 20 years. May 29, before the cottonwoods completely leafed out, Mark, my professional wildlife biologist husband, counted 49 adults working on their treetop nests. Two days later they were invisible except for the occasional adult collecting another branch for repairs. But they were noisy.

And then Aug. 2 I saw 20 brown-striped youngsters strung out along the edges of the lake, perched on rocks and branches, waiting to pounce on passing fish. This was not all the young that hatched. Park caretakers told me earlier they picked up a lot of dead young herons under the trees after a windstorm.

I noticed the chimney swifts sporadically June through August. They really do look like flying cigars compared to swallows. I wonder if I was too busy counting ducks to look up and see them more often.

There was a lull in the number of crows I counted mid-July. That could have been while they were protecting their eggs and nestlings by not drawing attention to themselves.

I think the flickers successfully fledged their young. I was used to hearing or seeing around two per visit and then Aug. 24 there was a family of four together on the ground.

Common grackles weren’t seen after Sept. 4 and red-winged blackbirds after Sept. 10, reducing the park’s noise level.

The verdant lawns of the park look like perfect robin habitat. I was surprised not to see more hunting for worms. Perhaps regularly applied pesticides have reduced the food that lawn-loving species can find, or there is too much human and dog activity.

Of species not already mentioned, the spring and fall migrants on my Holliday park list were: northern shoveler, redhead, lesser scaup, spotted sandpiper, western wood-pewee, yellow warbler, yellow-rumped warbler, common yellowthroat, Wilson’s warbler, chipping sparrow and Brewer’s sparrow.

The species that flew over only once were: osprey, sharp-shinned hawk, Swainson’s hawk, Franklin’s gull, ring-billed gull, common nighthawk, belted kingfisher, downy woodpecker and black-capped chickadee.

The summer regulars were: Eurasian collared-dove, mourning dove, blue jay, cliff swallow, and American goldfinch.

Of the winter birds that should be returning from the mountains, I first heard the red-breasted nuthatch in late July—perhaps they nested in town instead—and the first junco flashed by me Sept. 27.

Who knows what else will drop by during the rest of fall migration?

To feed or not to feed birds?

Bird feeder

House Finches mob our sunflower seed tube feeder. The wire fencing is meant to keep squirrels and bigger birds out. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Nov. 29, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “To feed or not to feed? Local birdwatcher battles with whether her birdfeeder is a good idea.”

2014 Update: Besides www.abcbirds.org, check out bird feeding information at the Project FeederWatch website, http://feederwatch.org.

By Barb Gorges

To feed or not to feed, that is the question this time of year.

On one side are the purists who say bird feeders are an unnatural source of food for birds. They blame the invasion of the East Coast by a western bird species, the house finch, on feeding. They’ll point to avian diseases transmitted when unnaturally high numbers of birds congregate in the same location day after day.

The purists will mention birds die when they fly into windows near feeders or when they are attacked by loose cats. They argue that some birds may decide not to migrate if they have a ready food source. That is true for the Canada geese in Holliday and Lions Park.

But let’s keep this discussion centered on the songbirds fond of sunflower seeds.

The purists are right: A bird in its native habitat does not need supplemental feed to survive the winter. If its preferred seed crop had poor production or becomes covered in snow, it will fly. Grosbeaks, redpolls, waxwings, crossbills and siskins are all noted for travelling when they need food, sometimes hundreds of miles from their expected wintering grounds.

Yes, the backyard feeding station can be hazardous to small birds, but probably not any more so than natural predators and hazards.

So why feed birds? Do it for your own enjoyment. Do it for the cheerful chatter, the bright colors, the bustle and hustle. If watching fish swim in a bowl relieves stress, as I’ve heard, then watching birds out the window not only relieves stress, but is life affirming. It is for me.

Wildlife is elusive enough that most people have little contact with it unless they hunt or fish or have spotting scopes or long lenses on their cameras. Without some other kind of personal relationship, how can we expect the general population to begin to buy into any kind of conservation ethic? Most wild animals are too dangerous to approach or feed. Chickadees seldom are.

Is it important to have a conservation ethic? Yes. What makes wildlife and land healthy makes people healthy. If you want the footnotes and scientific references, read one of Michael Pollan’s recent books.

Meanwhile, let’s talk about ethical bird feeding. For more information see the American Bird Conservancy, www.abcbirds.org.

Grow diversity in your yard by providing native flowers, shrubs and trees for shelter and habitat, and even food. Reduce or eliminate pesticide use. Pesticides are toxic to birds and can kill insects beneficial to them. Even seed eating birds feed their young insects.

Provide water and keep it clean and fresh. If you don’t offer food, water will attract birds. Get one of those little heaters meant for bird baths or dog water dishes or use a portable pan or plastic dog food dish you can bring inside to thaw the ice.

Feed the good stuff, black oil sunflower seed, and thistle seed if you can afford it. Forget the mixes with red and white milo which tend to attract the non-native house sparrows and Eurasian collared-doves. They compete well enough with our native birds already.

You don’t need to run a soup kitchen. A couple of feeders are enough. If the birds empty them in the morning, then wait until mid-afternoon or the next morning to refill them. We don’t want to upset the natural balance too much.

Keep feeders clean. At our house we no longer use the feeders with the little saucers at the bottom—those get really gross. Our feeders are hung over the concrete patio so we can sweep up the debris regularly. If the weather gets warm, it is important to wash the feeders weekly before organisms can grow. If you notice sick birds, stop feeding for a week and clean everything.

Keep feeders within three feet of the window, so birds will be aiming for the perches instead of the glass or at least won’t hit the glass so hard. Leave the window screen on so birds will bounce off, or put decals on the outside of the window to break up the reflection. If feeding birds is for your enjoyment, there’s no point in putting the feeders where you can’t see them easily.

Keep your cat indoors—they look better if they haven’t lost the tips of their ears to frostbite. If it isn’t your cat lying in wait under the feeder, then send the dog out for awhile to clear the area.

If you won’t keep your cat indoors, make sure it doesn’t have a place to hide in ambush within 25 feet of your feeder. And if you can’t do that, don’t feed birds.

If you have trouble with deer horning in, either don’t feed the birds or put the feeders where troublesome wildlife can’t reach them.

If sharp-shinned hawks start picking off seed-eaters at your feeder, congratulate yourself on attracting the next level in the food chain. Life in the wild is about death as well.

Get a field guide from the book store or the library and find out what birds are visiting. Take a close look at the LBJs and LGBs (little brown jobs and little gray birds) and you might be surprised how many kinds you’ve attracted. Many are just here for the winter so enjoy them while you can.