Keep birds safe

2018-05 Catio Jeffrey Gorges

A “catio” is a place for cats to hang out outside that keeps the birds safe–and the cats too. Photo by Jeffrey Gorges.

Published May 6, 2018 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Keep birds safe this time of year” and also at

By Barb Gorges

It’s that time of year that we need to think about bird safety —migration and nesting season.


Bird Tape is available from the American Bird Conservancy. Photo courtesy ABC.

The peak of spring migration in Cheyenne is around mid-May. If you have a clean window that reflects sky, trees and other greenery, you’ll get a few avian visitors bumping into it. Consider applying translucent stickers to the outside of the window or Bird Tape from the American Bird Conservancy,

If a bird hits your window, make sure your cat is not out there picking it up. The bird may only be stunned. If necessary, put the bird somewhere safe and where it can fly off when it recovers.

How efficient is your outdoor lighting? In addition to wasting money, excessive light confuses birds that migrate at night. Cheyenne keeps getting brighter and brighter at night because people install lighting that shines up as well as down, especially at businesses with parking lots. It is also unhealthy for trees and other vegetation, not to mention people trying to get a good night’s sleep.

Do you have nest boxes? Get them cleaned out before new families move in. Once the birds move in or you find a nest elsewhere, do you know the proper protocol for observing it?

You might be interested in NestWatch,, a Cornell Lab of Ornithology citizen science program for reporting nesting success.

Their Nest Monitoring Manual says to avoid checking the nest in the morning when the birds are busy, or at dusk when predators are out. Wait until afternoon. Walk past the nest rather than up to it and back leaving a scent trail pointing predators straight to the nest. And avoid bird nests when the young are close to fledging—when they have most of their feathers. We don’t want them to get agitated and leave the nest prematurely.

Some birds are “flightier” than others. Typically, birds nesting alongside human activity—like the robins that built the nest on top of your porch light—are not going to abandon the nest if you come by. Rather, they will be attacking you. But a hawk in a more remote setting will not tolerate people. Back off and get out your spotting scope or your big camera lenses.

If your presence causes a young songbird to jump out of the nest, you can try putting it back in. NestWatch says to hold your hand or a light piece of fabric over the top of the nest until the young bird calms down so it doesn’t jump again. Often though, the parents will take care of young that leave the nest prematurely. Hopefully, there aren’t any loose cats waiting for a snack.

2018-05Henry-Barb Gorges

Cats learn to enjoy the comforts of being indoors. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Loose cats and dogs should also be controlled on the prairie between April and July, and mowing avoided. That is because we have ground-nesting birds here on the edge of the Great Plains such as western meadowlark, horned lark and sometimes the ferruginous hawk.

There will always be young birds that run into trouble, either natural or human-aided. Every wild animal eventually ends up being somebody else’s dinner. But if you decide to help an injured animal, be sure the animal won’t injure you. For instance, black-crowned night-herons will try to stab your eyes. It is also illegal to possess wild animals without a permit so call a licensed wildlife rehabilitator like the Cheyenne Pet Clinic, 307-635-4121, or the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, 307-777-4600.

Avoid treating your landscape with pesticides. The insect pest dying from toxic chemicals you spread could poison the bird that eats it. Instead, think of pest species as bird food. Or at least check with the University of Wyoming Extension office, 307-633-4383, for other ways to protect your lawn and vegetables.

Are you still feeding birds? We take our seed feeders down in the summer because otherwise the heat and moisture make dangerous stuff grow in them if you don’t clean them every few days. Most seed-eating birds are looking for insects to feed their young anyway. Keep your birdbaths clean too.


2018-05hummingbirds-Sandia Crest-Barb Gorges

Hummingbirds fill up at a feeder on Sandia Crest, New Mexico, in mid-July. Photo by Barb Gorges.

However, we put up our hummingbird feeder when we see the first fall migrants show up in our yard mid-July, though they prefer my red beebalm and other bright tubular flowers. At higher elevations outside Cheyenne hummers might spend the summer.

Make sure your hummingbird feeder has bright red on it. Don’t add red dye to the nectar though. The only formula that is good for hummingbirds is one part white sugar to four parts water boiled together. Don’t substitute any other sweeteners as they will harm the birds. If the nectar in the feeder gets cloudy after a few days, replace it with a fresh batch.

And finally, think about planting for birds. Check out the Habitat Hero information at

Enjoy the bird-full season!

Find gifts for birders

Charley Harper puzzle

Environment for the Americas, the folks who organize International Migratory Bird Day, are offering this Charlie Harper puzzle titled, “Mystery of the Missing Migrants.”

Published Dec. 6, 2006, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Get creative with gifts for birders.”

2014 Update: The websites listed at the end of this column have been updated. There are now newer editions of the field guides mentioned. Bird-friendly coffee and chocolate are more widely available now at natural food stores.

By Barb Gorges

A good gift is useful, educational or edible, if not homemade. If someone on your gift list truly cares about wild birds, they don’t want energy and resources harvested from sensitive bird habitats wasted on making junk.

Here’s my list, sorted somewhat by a recipient’s degree of interest in birds.

First, for anyone, armchair bird watcher to ornithologist, Houghton Mifflin has three new illustrated books.

“Letters from Eden, A Year at Home, in the Woods” by Julie Zickefoose ($26) includes her watercolor sketches. A frequent contributor to Bird Watcher’s Digest, her bird and nature observations are often made in the company of her young children on their 80-acre farm in Ohio or from the 40-foot tower atop her house.

Zickefoose’s tower may have been her husband’s idea. He is Bill Thompson III, editor of Bird Watcher’s Digest and editor of “All Things Reconsidered, My Birding Adventures,” Roger Tory Peterson ($30).

Peterson was the originator of the modern field guide. From 1984 until his death in 1996, he wrote a regular column for the Digest. Peterson had the gift of writing about birds, bird places and bird people so anyone could enjoy his choice of topics. Anyone can enjoy this photo-illustrated book.

The third book, “The Songs of Wild Birds.” ($20) is a treat for eyes and ears. Author Lang Elliott chose his favorite stories about 50 bird species from his years of recording their songs. Each short essay faces a full page photo portrait of the bird. The accompanying CD has their songs and more commentary. My favorite is the puffin recording.

The field guide is the essential tool for someone moving up from armchair status. National Geographic’s fifth edition of its Field Guide to the Birds of North America ($24) came out this fall.

New are the thumb tabs for major bird groups, like old dictionaries have for each letter. It has more birds and more pages plus the bird names and range maps are updated.

Binoculars are the second most essential tool. If you are shopping for someone who hasn’t any or has a pair more than 20 years old, you can’t go wrong with 7 x 35 or 8 x 42 in one of the under $100 brands at sporting goods stores. You can also find an x-back-style harness ($20) there, an improvement over the regular strap.

Past the introductory level, a gift certificate would be better because fitting binoculars is as individual as each person’s eyes.

Spotting scopes don’t need fitting. However, if you find a good, low-end model, don’t settle for a low-end tripod because it won’t last in the field.

For extensive information on optics, see the Bird Watcher’s Digest Web site.

Bird feeders, bird seed, bird houses and bird baths are great gifts if the recipient or you are able to clean and maintain them. To match them with the local birds at the recipient’s house, call the local Audubon chapter or check the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch and Birdhouse Network sites.

You can make a gift of a Lab membership ($35), which includes several publications, and of course, there’s Audubon and its magazine ($20 introductory offer). Bird Watcher’s Digest ($20 per year), mentioned above, makes learning about birds fun, as does Birder’s World magazine ($25 per year).

For someone who wants to discuss identifying obscure sparrows and other topics of interest to listers, they might be ready for membership in the American Birding Association ($40). The ABA also has a great catalog available to everyone online. It’s filled with optics, gear and every bird book and field guide available in English for the most obscure places in the world.

The ABA tempts members with mailings for trips to exotic birding hotspots, as well as its annual meetings held in different parts of the country. Also check Bird Watcher’s Digest for nationwide bird festival listings.

One subscription valuable to an academic type who doesn’t already have access, is the Birds of North America Online ($40). Every species has as many as 50 pages of information and hundreds of references to studies.

For the computer literate, Thayer Birding Software’s Guide to Birds of North America, version 3.5 ($75), includes photos, songs, videos, life histories, quizzes and search functions.

After the useful and educational, there’s the edible. Look for organically grown products because they don’t poison bird habitat. The ABA sells bird friendly, shade grown coffee and organic chocolate through its Web site.

Coffee and other items are available also at the International Migratory Bird Day web site, and support migratory bird awareness and education.

If the person on your list is truly committed to the welfare of wild birds and wildlife in general, skip the trinkets such as the plush bird toys that sing and don’t add to their collection of birdy t-shirts.

Look for products that are good for the environment. These are items that are energy efficient, solar-powered, rechargeable, refillable, fixable, recyclable, made from recycled or organic materials, or are locally grown or manufactured.

Or make a donation in their name to an organization like Audubon, the American Bird Conservancy or The Nature Conservancy which work to protect bird habitat.

Presents along these lines would be great gifts for your friend or family member, and for birds and other wildlife, any time of year.

American Bird Conservancy: membership, research, advocacy, publications, gear,

American Birding Association: membership, publications, books, optics, gear, travel

Birder’s World: magazine,

Bird Watcher’s Digest: magazine, bird info, bird festival listings and gear for sale,

Cornell Lab of Ornithology: membership, bird info, Citizen Science projects,

International Migratory Bird Day (Environment for the Americas): education, online store,

National Audubon Society: membership, magazine, research, advocacy, directory of chapters

North American Birds Online: Internet data base,

Thayer Birding: software,

The Nature Conservancy: membership, publications, gear,

Building backyard bird houses

Tree Swallow

Tree Swallows will use a nest box when trees with cavities are not available. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published June 24, 1999, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Backyard building is for birds.”

2014 Update: Cornell Lab of Ornithology has information about building bird houses, or nest boxes, at Click on the “Learn” tab.

By Barb Gorges

Porch lights seem to be the choice location for robin nest-building endeavors this year, according to calls I’ve had. One woman wanted to know just how long the parents would continue dive-bombing her. According to “Stokes Field Guide to Birds,” robins incubate their eggs about two weeks and then it’s only another two before the young fledge. But then the robins may raise another brood or two.

The robin’s classic bowl of sticks and mud comes to mind when we use the word “nest.” And then we think of bird houses. Lately, they’ve become a decorating motif, quaint little cottages on the coffee table.

There are plenty of books about building bird house folk art. What separates art from utility is the list of house and entrance hole dimensions and mounting heights for different species of cavity-nesting birds. Two books with lists I found at the public library are “The Bird House Book” and “How to Build Collectible Birdhouses.”

Bird house dimensions are important. In our backyard right now, we have a Cub Scout special filled with four baby house sparrows, a non-native species that crowds out the natives. To encourage another species, I could change the size of the entrance hole and the mounting height.

When building or buying a bird house, it helps to be realistic about future tenants. If you put up a wood duck house far from their usual habitat, you’ll get squirrels moving in. Providing housing for the species already flying through your backyard makes the most sense.

If your yard is forest-like, you probably already attract birds that typically live in hollows or cavities in mature trees. Here in Cheyenne, look for the house finch, house wren, the nuthatches (white-breasted, red-breasted and pygmy), chickadees (mountain or black-capped), swallows (tree or violet-green), woodpeckers (northern flicker, downy, hairy or red-headed) and screech or barn owls.

Don’t forget that part of attracting birds to a bird house means having their preferred food nearby, whether it’s seeds or insects. Attracting owls means, of course, providing their favorite food source, rodents “on-the-hoof.”

Building houses for bluebirds is a popular past-time. The North American Bluebird Society has tested and developed specific plans and recommendations over the years.

Here in the West, bluebird boxes are typically located 100 yards apart on “trails” along fence lines. In southeastern Wyoming we’re likely to see mountain bluebirds at elevations a little higher than Cheyenne. Eastern bluebirds have been seen during spring migration. Maybe they’re checking for something that reminds them of the Midwest before they’ll stay.

There is plenty of advice out there on building and putting up bird houses. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has an excellent free pamphlet titled “Homes for Birds.”

As usual, the Internet has zillions of related sites.

Here is some basic advice I kept coming across.

–Build for a specific species.

–Build out of wood only.

–Don’t paint the inside. Leave the area under the entrance hole rough to help young birds climb out.

–Leave perches off, otherwise predatory species will perch on them and reach in and destroy nestlings.

–Include ventilation holes at the top of side walls.

–Include a drainage hole in the floor.

–Make one part of the nest box removable and clean it out between nestings.

–Protect the nest box from cats and squirrels. Mount it on a pole with a metal cone part way up. Or, what’s worked on our bird feeder, slip on a four-foot, 3” diameter PVC pipe, which is too wide and too slick for squirrels to grab.

–Place the nest box away from heavy cover that may hide agile cats.

–Place away from high traffic areas, human or bird, and not too close to other nest boxes.

–Try orienting the entrance hole north or east, to avoid sun and wind.

–Water in the vicinity will increase chances of attracting swallows. Even a steady drip will attract many species.

–Put up a bird house now and possibly attract a late brood of some sort or at least let it weather and be more inviting by next spring.

As for those pesky, dive-bombing robins, try installing a wooden shelf somewhere protected, but more convenient–to human habitation that is.

Living with flickers

Northern Flicker

Northern Flickers sometimes think wood-sided or stucco-sided houses make good locations to excavate for their nest. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published May 24, 2006, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Woodpecker damage may bring home improvement.”

2014 Update: Every spring this column gets pasted into an email to send to yet another caller with flicker problems. Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Birdhouse Network is now NestWatch:

By Barb Gorges

After receiving half a dozen phone calls this spring from people inquiring what to do about woodpecker damage to their wood-sided houses, I decided to investigate and find the best recommendations available.

The primary culprit in our area is the northern flicker. You can identify it by its size which is about three inches longer than a robin. Its wings have red linings that flash as it flies. It has a white rump patch, black necklace, polka-dotted breast and a bill that looks about as long as its head is deep.

It’s the bill that’s used by the males to drum on reverberating surfaces to proclaim territory ownership and attract mates. Both males and females hammer at wood and even synthetic stucco to excavate a nest cavity.

Wood siding has a nice hollow resonance that reminds the birds of a rotten tree, their natural alternative.

Woodpeckers also drill for insects, but in the case of flickers, they’re much more likely to be seen on the ground probing for ants, their favorite food. Cheyenne’s dry climate is unlikely to produce siding infested with insects.

The first suggestion for avoiding woodpecker damage is to live in a brick house.

The next suggestion is to scare the flickers away. When they started drumming on his house, Cheyenne resident Chuck Seniawski went to that spot, but from the inside, and hammered the wall with his fist. He said it has worked the last two years.

When I searched for “woodpecker damage” on the Internet, I found a short but comprehensive article put out by Colorado State University Cooperative Extension, Click on Natural Resources and look for woodpeckers. The authors recommend taking immediate action, “because woodpeckers are not easily driven from their territories or pecking sites once they are established.”

I also found which offers a complete assortment of deterrents, some of which you could make yourself. Starting at $8 there is the windsock approach, with big eyes printed on bright yellow to evoke a scary predator. Its Mylar streamers flash in the wind.

Then there’s the bucket of wood filler with a chemical deterrent added. Also, for $190 you can get an electronic device that intermittently gives off the sounds of a dying flicker. For $225 you can invest in a 25 foot square net to fence the birds off. You’d only have to keep it up during the courtship and nesting season—beginning about March, based on calls I got, through June.

Then there’s the accommodation suggestion. Put up a flicker nest box over the hole the pair has been excavating in your house. The benefit is you get free insect and ant extermination services all summer.

One of the best sources for information on bird houses is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s monitoring project, The Birdhouse Network [now NestWatch].

Whether you build or buy, Cornell says to keep in mind these recommended features for all bird houses:

–Untreated wood at least ¾-inch thick, pine or cedar.

–Extended, sloped roof for protection from predators and weather; it can be fit into a slot on the back board of the nest box so water doesn’t run down into the box.

–Rough or grooved interior walls so young can climb out to fledge.

–Recessed floor with drainage holes.

–Ventilation holes at top of sides.

–Easy access for monitoring and cleaning, usually a side panel that swings out but latches closed.

–Galvanized screws or nails.

–No outside perches to aid predators.

–Predator guard if mounted on a pole.

–Hole diameter sized for species, 2.5 inches for flickers.

The latest feature in flicker houses you can buy from places like Wild Birds Unlimited is the entrance hole surrounded by slate. It looks like an eighth to a quarter-inch thick square of slate has been drilled with the same 2.5-inch hole as the entrance and then mounted to prevent squirrels from chewing and enlarging the hole and taking over the nest box for themselves.

Cornell has plans for a flicker nest box though it shows a hinged roof rather than the preferred access through the side. All you need is a 2-inch by 8-inch by 10-foot board cut into these lengths: 32-inch back, 24-inch sides (2), 24-inch front (center of entrance hole drilled 19 inches from the bottom), 4.25-inch floor and 10.75-inch roof or longer. You might want to look at the drawing before assembly.

The key to a successful flicker house is to fill it with wood chips. It helps the flickers think they’re excavating a hole in a rotten tree.

Mount the nest box on a pole or the side of your house 6 to 30 feet high with the entrance facing southeast. It would be interesting to know if most damage occurs to that side of people’s houses.

Once the birds decide to move in you can monitor the nest for The Birdhouse Network and viola—the bird problem becomes a home enhancement for both you and the flickers.

Bluebird housing styles

Bluebird nestbox

This example of a bluebird nestbox shows the side-opening panel to make it easy to clean each season. It also has a collar outside the entrance hole to make it difficult for racoons to reach in. Stratification below the entrance hole inside helps fledglings climb out. Photo courtesy of the North American Bluebird Society.

Published May 2, 2002, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Bluebird housing makes a difference.”

2014 Update: The North American Bluebird Society website is

By Barb Gorges

I didn’t grow up with bluebirds. First, because I was a suburban kid. Second, I didn’t look much at birds; and mostly, it was a period of time during which bluebird populations in the Midwest had decreased due to pesticides and loss of cavity nesting places like hollow trees and wooden fence posts.

Notes in my old field guide indicate my first eastern bluebird was July 1975, when I rode my bike out into the countryside between split shifts for the food service at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

Then, in 1978, I reported for the campus paper on a talk by Vincent Bauldry of Green Bay, Wis., who had built a better bluebird nest box. He had 21 years of experience showing that a hole in the roof (screened to keep out predators) had greatly improved nesting success. By the end of the year, Bauldry’s design got national coverage, when I sold the story to Organic Gardening magazine.

Bauldry claimed his design imitated rotting wooden fence posts where eastern bluebirds liked to nest. Added moisture from rain helped the eggs stay hydrated and excluded competing species, such as starlings.

When I mention this “skylight” concept to bluebird box experts out here, they think I’m crazy, maybe because few cedar fence posts on western rangeland rot in the dry climate.

There are, however, other modifications Bauldry used that can be seen in modern bluebird nest box plans today.

A traditional bird house, the kind people now paint decoratively and display in their living rooms, is often cube-shaped with a peaked roof. Bauldry made his with a flat roof and made it more than twice as deep so that eggs or nestlings were beyond reach of a marauding racoon’s arm.

The increased depth, he said, would also keep the young in the nest longer, so they would be stronger when they fledged. He added horizontal saw cuts on the inside of the front wall to help the babies climb the greater distance to the entrance hole.

Bauldry eliminated any kind of twig-like perch sticking out by the entrance, making it more difficult for nuisance birds to find a vantage point from which to harass the bluebirds.

His nest box design is clearly utilitarian, with one side swinging open so old nesting material can be cleaned out between broods, a feature of most modern nest boxes for any species.

I don’t know if it’s Bauldry’s innovation, but his box, and several modern box designs, usually have the back wall extend either below the floor and/or above the roof so there’s something to nail to the fence post or other support. Bluebirds evidently don’t care for the rock-a-by-baby effect of hanging bird houses in trees.

When Alison Lyon of Audubon Wyoming gave a presentation on mountain bluebirds at the Wyoming State Museum in conjunction with the opening of the Wyoming Conservation Stamp Art Competition last month, someone in the audience wanted to know how to attract mountain bluebirds to Cheyenne.

Unless the city expands its limits halfway to Laramie and dedicates the land to open range, and also raises the elevation from the present 6100 feet to something over 7000, the mountain bluebird’s preference, it’s unlikely they will ever do more than pass through during migration.

The most dependable place to see mountain bluebirds close to town is Curt Gowdy State Park, where several Eagle Scout candidates have installed nest boxes or, a little further up Happy Jack Road, at North Crow Reservoir.

Reports of mountain bluebirds begin in the last half of February, making them a harbinger of spring for me. I once made a quilt and re-colored the Flying Swallows pattern to represent them and commemorate this annual event.

It turns out my favorite sign of spring, the spot of sky blue in a gloomy landscape, can be found all winter as close as southern Colorado, though many more head south into Mexico.

By summer, mountain bluebirds can be found from Arizona and New Mexico north to eastern Alaska.

Catching a glimpse of a mountain bluebird is always a treat. I double check to make sure what I’m looking at isn’t a western or eastern bluebird. Much less abundant in Wyoming than the mountain, their ranges extend into western and eastern Wyoming, respectively, overlapping the mountain’s.

With red on their breasts, I always think of these two as the blue-coated versions of the closely related robin, since they are the same general shape, though smaller.

Mountain bluebird males are blue all over and the females are less bright, more gray.

Besides dressing up the landscape, bluebirds eat insects. That is one reason why so many smart people encourage bluebird nesting around their property by installing a series of nest boxes along a “bluebird trail.” Providing nest boxes makes a difference to the birds too, especially for the eastern bluebird, whose population has made progress in recovering.

If you like bluebirds or are serious about building a bluebird nest box or trail, the ultimate resource for information and specifications, such as using a 1 and 9/16 inch entrance hole, is the North American Bluebird Society web site,

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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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

Wyoming Game and Fish Department, 5400 Bishop Blvd., 777-4600,

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ecological Field Services, 5353 Yellowstone Rd., 772-2374. Look for these pamphlets on backyard bird houses and habitat:,

Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, Lions Park, 637-6458, 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, Look for publications and tree planting programs.

National Audubon Society, Audubon at Home program, All about birds in the backyard.

National Wildlife Federation,

The Birdhouse Network,  PO Box 11, Ithaca, NY 14851-0011 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, 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.

12 ways to keep birds safe

Chick in nest

There are many things people can do to keep birds safer. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published April 30, 2008, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “12 practical ways you can help keep birds safe.”

2014 Update: American Bird Conservancy is a good resource: The current website for Audubon at Home is

By Barb Gorges

All winter our relationship to wild birds is confined to observation and, perhaps, feeding them. But now with migration and breeding seasons intersecting with an increase in human outdoor activity, we need to think about bird safety.

1. Litter – The cigarette stubbed out in the driveway disappears, but probably blew onto the neighbor’s lawn where, if it isn’t picked up, it will, like other loose trash, break down and its unnatural components will pollute soil and water. Before that is able to happen, litter could end up in the digestive system of curious babies, puppies and other animals. And remember all those photos of birds hampered by fishing line and other plastic debris.

2. Windows – If you are dreading the annual cleaning chores, skip your windows and tell people dirty ones are not as dangerous for birds. If you do wash your windows and find that one is particularly prone to getting messed up by birds thumping into it, you need to put some stickers on the outside. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Student Conservation Association and Wyoming Public Radio send me those nice static cling type stickers every year so I can advertise my affiliations at the same time.

3. Cats – Nasty winter weather made it easy to keep your cat indoors. Just continue to keep it in and buy a harness and leash for little excursions or build an outdoor pen with a screened roof. If you put a bird feeder outside a window, your indoor cat will be very happy. Just make sure the window screen is strong enough to withstand your cat’s aborted bird attacks. If you don’t have a cat and are tired of the neighbor’s eating the birds that come to your feeder, borrow a cat trap from the animal shelter or get a dog to scare it off.

4. Feeders – Cold winters are marvelous for keeping bacteria in check around feeders. Don’t quit feeding now in warm weather when migrating birds will make feeder watching even more interesting. But be sure to clean your feeders and feeding areas with a mild bleach solution every few weeks. If you see any lethargic house finches, perhaps with warty growths around their eyes, quit feeding for at least a week so the healthy birds don’t come in and get infected.

5. Water – If you provide a bird bath, make sure it has sloping sides or a sloping rock in the middle so birds can wade in. Brush the scum out every day when you refill it. Think about disinfecting it periodically. If you have tanks for watering livestock, make sure they have bird ramps to avoid drownings.

6. Pesticides – If toxic chemicals are sprayed on your lawn, you can keep small children and pets off for the necessary period of time, but birds can’t read those cute little signs. Plus, pesticides wash into ground and surface water used by people and wildlife. Instead, try non-toxic lawn and garden care. Talk to Catherine Wissner and the Master Gardeners at the Laramie County Cooperative Extension Service, 633-4383, or check out Audubon at Home,

7. Mowing – So you bought the house with five acres of prairie, and a riding mower, and you can’t wait to get out there. Please relax, take a hike or go fishing instead, and let the ground nesting birds, including the meadowlarks everyone enjoys, get the next generation started. Give them till at least mid-July.

8. Dogs – During the crucial season for ground nesting birds, late April to mid-July, keep dogs on a leash so they don’t raid nests.

9. Nest Boxes – A birdhouse that is meant to be safely used by birds will have certain crucial features. The opening will be sized precisely for the intended cavity-nesting species: house wren, mountain bluebird, tree swallow, flicker, etc. There’s no perch sticking out below, where starlings can stand while reaching in to raid the nest. Some kind of latch allows the nest box to be opened for cleaning. The box is the right dimensions, has proper ventilation, is not painted a dark color and is situated at the right height. Check the library for a book with particulars or go to

10. Baby Birds – Short of a catastrophe killing their parents, baby birds seldom need our help. It is best to leave them alone. If you watch long enough, you’ll probably see parents bringing food to the grounded fledgling until it gets up the gumption to fly. You can try setting featherless nestlings back in their nest or in a small bucket with twigs and grass hung somewhere safe near where you found them (but not if they are a ground-nesting species). Trying to feed baby birds yourself is usually not successful and deprives other wildlife species that depend on baby birds for their own food supply.

11. Shrubs and Trees – Cheyenne is in the midst of the grasslands and if we are to promote the welfare of the beleaguered grassland bird species which have lost habitat due to plowing and development, we shouldn’t promote planting trees and shrubs away from creeks and lakes. But up against our homes natural shade and windbreaks conserve energy, shelter migrating birds and attract birds we wouldn’t see otherwise out here on the plains. Choose native fruit and seed producing vegetation.

12. Energy – There is no energy source yet that doesn’t have some negative impact on wildlife. Remember, stuff you buy takes energy to produce so recycle and reuse, of course. And if you reduce the size of the house you need to heat and maintain and reduce the amount of stuff you buy that always seems to take additional energy and maintenance, guess what? You’ll save money and have more time to enjoy life and watch birds!

NestWatch has everything under one roof

Bluebird nestbox

This example of a bluebird nestbox shows the side-opening panel to make it easy to clean each season. It also has a collar outside the entrance hole to make it difficult for racoons to reach in. Stratification below the entrance hole inside helps fledglings climb out. Photo courtesy of the North American Bluebird Society.

Published April 1, 2004, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Birdhouse site has everything under one roof.”

2014 Update: NestWatch,, is the current version of The Birdhouse Network.

By Barb Gorges

Ah, Spring! It’s house-hunting season for couples seeking a place to raise their offspring, looking for a safe place to lay an egg, searching for the perfect birdhouse. The most comprehensive avian real estate listings are to be found at The Birdhouse Network Web site.

The birds that use birdhouses don’t usually build their own homes, though they may make some minor alterations. If there’s a shortage of hollow trees or former woodpecker holes because local humans have been too quick to tidy their yards and woods, a birdhouse will do.

Birds that insist on placing nesting materials within a structure, natural or unnatural, are known to ornithologists as cavity nesters. Birds such as robins prefer to build on ledges and branches and the grassland birds nest right on the ground, at the mercy of loose dogs and cats.

Folks at the network have taken pains to distinguish which birds like what kinds of birdhouses and which locations will attract them and allow them to nest successfully.

Birdhouse Network range maps show the most likely species to be found in our area, though they may prefer various habitats: American kestrel, wood duck, eastern screech owl, red- and white-breasted nuthatches, northern flicker, tree swallow, violet-green swallow, black-capped and mountain chickadees, mountain bluebirds and house wrens. House sparrows and European starlings, nonnative species, are cavity nesters too, but do not need encouragement as they frequently steal housing from the other species anyway.

Because birds are particular about what they are looking for in a house, builders have learned to accommodate them and so the network’s website features woodworking plans for each species.

Some of the recommendations for building birdhouses are like building safety codes:

–Use untreated wood at least ¾-inch thick so the nestlings aren’t poisoned and are insulated a bit from heat.

–Build an extended, sloped roof so that starlings or cats can’t perch over the entrance hole and attack emerging birds.

–Leave inside walls rough or grooved horizontally so young birds can get a toehold when ready to climb out.

–Recess the floor and make sure it has drainage holes.

–Drill ventilation holes at the top of the sides of the birdhouse so nestlings don’t cook on warm days.

–Dispense with the idea of an outside perch in front of the entrance hole. It gives predators a place to perch and reach in and grab young.

–Provide a means for opening a side of the birdhouse for monitoring or clearing out old material.

While all this wonderful information is available free to the public, The Birdhouse Network is actually another citizen science program of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, like Project FeederWatch. Network participants monitor one or more birdhouses or nest boxes, as they are also known, and send the data in online.

Joining The Birdhouse Network requires a yearly participation fee of $15 (or $12 if you already belong to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology), and in return, in addition to the already freely available Web site information, you get a subscription to the quarterly newsletter, The Birdhouse Network’s newsletter and access to the continent-wide online database, which in the four years of the program, has accumulated over 40,000 nesting records, helping scientists learn more about birds whose populations seem to be declining.

Cornell advertises this program as perfect for families, so it has made taking part achievable by almost anyone interested in birds. The Web site provides step by step directions, a glossary of bird terms and even photos of nesting materials and eggs so you can figure out what species chose to nest in your birdhouse. If you aren’t a carpenter, there’s a list of sources of readymade shelters.

But most importantly, Cornell has made the network’s Web site fun. Download “Big Bluebird Movie,” a short claymation feature created by elementary students in Caldwell County, Kentucky. It really is cool. Then there are the nest box cams which are not very different from the photos excited new parents might send. And if you join the network, you can compare notes on nestlings with other members through an e-list.

The idea that wild birds might condescend to use a house provided by us is, I think, a bit of fulfillment of the need we have to feel connected to other animals. Sometimes the urge to attract wildlife, especially by feeding elk and deer, is detrimental to them, but in the case of birdhouses, with the decline of natural cavities due directly and indirectly to human activities, it’s the least we can do.

Historically, Cheyenne, built on the nearly treeless prairie, would have had cavity nesters only in the cottonwoods along the creeks.

Now we have a backyard forest already decayed enough to provide for a few chickadees and nuthatches, but birdhouse developments are a kind of urban growth hard to disagree with.