Creating backyard bird habitat

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

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

By Barb Gorges

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

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

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

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

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

Shelter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food

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

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

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

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

Water

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

Nest boxes

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

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

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

Hazards

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

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

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

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

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

Housekeeping

Nature is not tidy.

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

Resources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birds Observed in the Seniawskis’ Backyard, 1990-2001

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tree Planting Disclaimer

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

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

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

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

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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, http://nestwatch.org/, 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.

Making birds at home in our urban forest

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 13, 2000, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Making birds at home in our ‘urban forest’.”

2014 Update: For lists of trees and shrubs suitable for Cheyenne, see the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens website, www.botanic.org. Look for “Gardening Tips.” For information on feeding birds, visit http://feederwatch.org/. Search Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website, http://www.allaboutbirds.org, for information about nest boxes (bird houses).

By Barb Gorges

Over the last hundred years, part of the prairie in Laramie County has been converted to forest by the residents of Cheyenne.

Either to remind ourselves of homes back East or to block the wind, we’ve plant trees.

Naturally irrigated areas on the prairie, the riparian zones along streams, rivers and lakes, grow thick sod, cottonwoods and willows. But here in town our lawns and trees grow with the help of irrigation water piped over the mountains or pumped from the ground water.

When we want to attract birds to our urban yards, we mimic the amenities of the forest. Sometimes the improvements benefit us as well as the birds.

First, we plant more trees and shrubs, especially the hardy native species requiring less water. Dense plantings, coniferous or deciduous, give birds places to nest and good protection from bad weather and predators such as roaming domestic cats. They may provide food as well for berry eaters like robins and waxwings.

Shane Smith, director of the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, recommends growing Nanking or sand cherries, woodbine, New Mexico privet and juniper. Other recommendations from the gardens’ website include serviceberry, chokecherry, sumac, and varieties of currant.

Besides giving us a little protection from wind, plantings protect us from views of unsightly garbage cans or compost piles.

Birds help us maintain trees. In the spring, warblers can be seen gleaning bugs from the new leaves. Woodpeckers, including flickers, and brown creepers search every inch of the tree trunks year-round.

A plain, ordinary lawn can also attract the native pest patrol. Grackles will patiently pace your sward of green, shoulder to shoulder, their yellow eyes gleaming like searchlights as they delve with their long, sharp bills into the turf for miscreant grubs.

Your end of the lawn maintenance deal is to switch from chemical lawn fertilizers to child/pet/bird-compatible products. Ken Stevens of Riverbend Nursery recommends “Sustane,” a slow-release, balanced fertilizer with microbes that encourage the natural decay and nutrient cycle.

Pesticides? Why use them, when you are inviting avian experts? As for weeds, healthy grass will crowd them out. Occasional dandelion digging is good exercise, and if you miss one, the seeds will be appreciated by goldfinches.

As testimony to 11 years of organic care, infrequent, deep watering, and grass cutting at the highest blade setting, our lawn has never needed de-thatching or aerating and looks much like the rest of our neighbors’ lawns.

But why settle for a boring Kentucky bluegrass lawn? For the same amount of water, or even less if you practice xeriscaping, why not convert to native grasses or the visual diversity of gardens providing seeds and berries for birds?

The birds attracted to our urban forest are often cavity nesters. Trees have to be old and decadent enough to get cavities, but when they reach that point, we usually cut them down because they threaten our safety.

So we provide bird houses for house wrens, house finches, nuthatches and woodpeckers.

When you are perusing bird house plans, make sure you pick those for species that occur here. For instance, we are not in the purple martin’s normal range. Make sure the entrance dimensions exclude pesky non-native species like house sparrows. Let them build their nests in discount store signs. And erect your house so marauding cats, squirrels and starlings can’t kill nestlings.

For the cavity nesters as well as the branch and bush nesters like gold finches, provide fiberous materials like string and hair from people and pets, but not fishing line or in lengths longer than six inches. And leave some mud for the robins and swallows to plaster their kind of nests.

Bird bath

Water attracts birds, for both bathing and drinking. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Forest birds like water for drinking and bathing, though some prefer dust baths. Realistically, during lawn watering season, there’s always some water slopping into gutter streams or sidewalk micro ponds. But what about the rest of the year?

If you want to provide five-star accommodations, offer a pool. It doesn’t have to be Olympic-sized–I’ve noticed birds using the dog’s water dish. Heated is nice in winter. Moving water is especially attractive, whether a fountain or just a milk jug full of water you hang up and then made leak at the rate of a drip every second or so.

Putting food out is always a popular way to attract birds. It is most successful when water and shelter are also present. Offering sunflower and niger thistle seed right through the summer gives a nutritional boost to brooding birds and parents feeding nestlings. But in warmer weather, it’s doubly important to keep feeders clean and free of deadly bacteria and diseases.

There are lots of selfish reasons for encouraging wild birds to come and live among us: their songs, their colors, their antics and their utilitarian contributions.

Most importantly, birds are still the “canaries in the coal mine” in our age of continuing industry and development. A forest without birds is cause for trepidation.

Book review: “Identifying and Feeding Birds,” by Bill Thompson III

2011dentifying amazonPublished Mar. 14, 2011, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Book Review: New field guide is so much more than its title implies.”

2014 Update: This book is widely available.

By Barb Gorges

Identifying and Feeding Birds (Peterson Field Guides) by Bill Thompson III, c. 2010, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, paperback, 256 pages, $14.95.

“Identifying and Feeding Birds,” new in the Peterson Field Guides series, has a misleading title.

It is about so much more.

Author Bill Thompson III, also editor of BirdWatcher’s Digest, covers the four basics of what birds need: food, water, shelter and a place to nest. The chapter covering bird feeders and different kinds of bird food is what you would expect. He also talks about bird-friendly plants for your yard, the birdbaths rated most popular by birds and how to build a birdhouse and situate it properly.

Thompson writes in a breezy, fun-to-read style and includes his personal backyard bird experience, but he’s not afraid to point out it’s not enough to just hang the right feeder.

Birds don’t usually depend on us to supplement their wild food.

“Knowing (as we do now) that we feed birds so that we can enjoy them up close, we also need to understand that we owe it to our avian friends to feed them responsibly,” Thompson writes. “By this I do not mean simply that we feed them the proper foods in the correct feeders….Rather, I mean that we need to make sure our backyards—feeders and all—are safe for birds.”

Thompson covers safety issues such as cats, lawn pesticides and moldy seed.

Half the book is devoted to accounts, photos and range maps for 125 common backyard birds in North America. This means novice birders in Cheyenne need to check the maps before putting out food meant to entice a species we don’t normally see. Go to http://org.lonetree.com/audubon/cheyennechecklist06.pdf to get a better idea of birds in our area.

But otherwise, as someone frequently asked to give advice on attracting backyard bBillhighly recommend this book and Thompson’s catchphrase: “Feed more birds, have more fun.”