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.
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.