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 https://www.wyomingnetworknews.com/keep-birds-safe-this-time-of-year.

By Barb Gorges

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

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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, https://abcbirds.org.

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, https://nestwatch.org/, 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.

 

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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 http://rockies.audubon.org/programs/habitat-hero-education.

Enjoy the bird-full season!

Habitat Heroes wanted to grow native

Habitat Hero banner

“Be a Habitat Hero” – find out more about the program at http://www.HabHero.com.

Published Feb. 8, 2015, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “‘Habitat Heroes’ wanted to grow native plants.”

By Barb Gorges

Sometimes, wildlife issues seem to be out of the hands of ordinary people, people like those of us who are not wildlife biologists, land managers or politicians. Often, it seems futile to write a letter or email stating my opinion.

Connie Holsinger has devised a way for us to do something for wildlife right in our own backyards–literally.

Connie is the founder of the Habitat Hero program which shows people in the Rocky Mountain area how to turn all or part of their yards, no matter what size, even a container or an apartment balcony, into wildlife habitat for birds, bees, butterflies and, may I add, even bats, and other wildlife.

A popular term for this is “wildscaping.” Add to that the term “waterwise” and Connie immediately grabs the attention of everyone who pays an increasing amount for watering their lawns as well as those who recently read the articles in the paper about Laramie County’s finite water supply.

Connie is a native of Maine, in a zone that enjoys 50 inches of precipitation each year, compared to Cheyenne’s 10-15 inches. When she moved to Massachusetts, she discovered birds, as well as the fact she can plant what would attract them to her yard. She volunteered with Massachusetts Audubon’s Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary on habitat improvements.

Next, at her home on Sanibel Island, Florida, she discovered if she ripped out all the invasive vegetation and planted natives, her once quiet yard was suddenly full of birds.

Relocating to the Front Range of Colorado in 1998, she learned what semi-arid means, especially when a major drought was just getting started. And she also learned that some native plants like the semi-arid life–after she killed her plantings of native penstemons two years in a row because she was rotting their roots with too much water.

It’s no surprise that a smart woman like Connie then put “waterwise” with “wildscaping,” a natural fit here in the arid West.

Also, the decline in the numbers of bees and butterflies documented in recent years makes even more important the idea of converting conventional urban/suburban landscapes into nectar and pollen havens, in addition to providing seeds and berries and cover for birds. Not to mention that native plants can take less work and water (read money) than a lawn.

With funding from the Terra Foundation, her private foundation that supports projects restoring the Colorado River Basin, Connie launched the “Be a Habitat Hero” campaign in 2013.

Anyone who would like to pursue the designation of “Habitat Hero” can apply through the website, www.HabHero.org, in September to see if their yard measures up. Last fall, 28 people, including Laramie County master gardener Michelle Bohanan, earned the designation.

While most of Cheyenne’s home owners and renters have mastered the basics of lawn care and keeping shrubs and trees alive, and many have a flair for flowers and vegetables, wildscaping requires a little change in horticultural practices, and a little change in mindset.

Explaining exactly how to transform all or part of a conventional yard or commercial landscape into a wildscape will be the topic of a Habitat Hero workshop scheduled March 28 at Laramie County Community College, 9 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. The $15 registration fee covers lunch, handouts and a tote bag for each participant full of donated items.

The three speakers will be Susan Tweit, plant biologist and author of “Rocky Mountain Garden Survival Guide;” Jane Dorn, co-author of “Growing Native Plants of the Rocky Mountain Area” (a digital version will be given to each participant); and Clint Basset, Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities water conservation specialist.

The major sponsors are Laramie County Master Gardeners, Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society, Audubon Rockies (which now administers the Habitat Hero program), Cheyenne Botanic Gardens and the Laramie County Conservation District.

One of the fun parts of the day will be the panel discussion, when the three speakers take a look at selected yards submitted by participants in advance and make recommendations on how to transform them into wildlife destinations.

Registration is available online at www.BrownPaperTickets.org, key words “Habitat Hero Cheyenne.” Registration will also be available at the door, provided there are seats left. The workshop is limited to 100 participants.

“Plant it and they will come,” Connie has said often.

This approach to landscaping benefits wildlife, but Connie said it speaks to her soul too when she sees the birds, bees and butterflies.

Her biggest aha moment came when she realized, “I can create a habitat in my yard, and take it beyond looking pretty”–making a difference in the world–in her own backyard.

Use light touch with lawn chemistry

Common Grackle

The Common Grackle will patrol your lawn for grubs and any other tasty critter infestations without chemicals or cost. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published June 21, 2006, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Use a light touch with lawn chemistry.”

2014 Update: Sustainable and organic solutions to lawn problems are more available than ever. Contact your local university extension horticultural agent for advice. In our region, check out the “Habitat Hero” program, http://habhero.org/.

By Barb Gorges

A pair of mallards shows up every spring in the ditch that runs below our neighborhood.

I don’t know if they try to nest because I never want to be intrusive enough to find out.

On a recent early morning walk, the puppy and I spotted the ducks swimming while above them a black cat, a tabby cat and a red fox crouched along the grassy edge.

But what may be even more hazardous to duck survival is the water in the ditch.

Because it is meant to collect storm-water runoff for a neighborhood of several hundred houses, the ditch also collects any excess pesticides and fertilizers applied to those hundreds of lawns.

Nationwide, homeowners overapply lawn pesticides to the tune of 78 million pounds annually, up 50 percent over the last 20 years. If the neighbors apply them to the same degree, then pesticides in the ditch water are a given, whether the intended pests were animal, plant or fungus.

So Sally, a water-loving pup, is not allowed to jump in the ditch.

Sally is also fond of rolling on any weed-free, deep green lawns. I drag her off as quickly as I can, remembering what Catherine Wissner said the other day.

Catherine is the horticulturist for the Laramie County Cooperative Extension Service. She explained that lawn pesticides contain neurotoxins which kill pest insects, grubs and other small animals by harming their nervous systems.

She said most people don’t find this news alarming until she mentions that the toxins put children and pets at risk. They are susceptible because of their small body size and tendency to play on the ground and put things in their mouths.

In a study of 110 pre-school children in a Seattle neighborhood, traces of garden chemicals were found in 99 percent of them. I found this statistic online at the National Audubon Society’s Audubon At Home page.

A link there said an estimated seven million wild birds are killed “due to the aesthetic use of pesticides by homeowners,” meaning the use of pesticides to make our yards look nice.

The Audubon At Home program, in cooperation with the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, is promoting the Healthy Yards initiative. This program promotes the idea that our yards can provide wildlife habitat and can make a difference in the health of wildlife, especially since 2.1 million acres are converted to yards every year.

In an Audubon At Home pamphlet on lawn pesticides, New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer is quoted saying, “Pesticides pose health risks, even when used and applied in full compliance with manufacturers’ recommendations and legal requirements.”

The footnotes and references on this subject are extensive, so let’s skip to answering the obvious question: What can a wildlife-loving homeowner do instead of using “weed and feed” and other chemically-based products?

First, remember some of the critters that live in your lawn are beneficial, meaning they eat the destructive ones or help to convert organic matter into food for your grass. So it is important to figure out whether you even have a pest problem.

Even if you do have pests, how many are there? Can the birds keep their numbers in check? I enjoy watching flickers and grackles aerating my lawn while searching for grubs.

Can you manually control the pest? My husband Mark patrols our lawn for dandelions, though if we let them go to seed we might attract more goldfinches.

If we had real pests, we’d confer with Catherine. There are many non-toxic controls available.

Another option is to reduce turf and replace it with native plants. They require less water, less care and attract more wildlife. Ask at Wyoming Game and Fish Department offices for a free copy of “Wyoming Wildscape, How to Design, Plant, and Maintain Landscaping to Benefit People and Wildlife.” [Check their website, http://wgfd.wyo.gov]

Audubon At Home, http://athome.audubon.org/, lists local resources, including our own Cheyenne Botanic Gardens. Visit them in person or online at www.botanic.org.

Mark and I have been lucky not to have any serious lawn pest problems. Or maybe it’s not luck but years of using healthy alternatives.

Mark uses a national brand of organic fertilizer he buys at a local garden supply store. He cuts the grass at the highest setting on the lawnmower to shade the roots and we use the clippings for garden mulch. We water moderately but deeply on the city’s summer watering schedule.

While our lawn is not artificial –turf green–except where Sally adds her own fertilizer, it is green enough that she enjoys rolling everywhere. And we don’t worry about poisons.

Pesticides shouldn’t be used like vitamin tonics. If there aren’t any pests, they are a waste of money, a source of water pollution and a threat to everyone’s health.

As Sally and I walk the neighborhood and observe the little warning signs planted in our neighbors’ yards after visits from their chemically-based lawn care companies, I’m hoping someone with entrepreneurial spirit will fill the niche for alternative lawn care.

It could be, should be, the next big thing.

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.