Category Archives: Bird Feeding and Watching

Backyard Birding New Year’s Resolutions Anyone Can Keep

I’m not usually one for New Year’s Resolutions but as I reflect on my birding adventures over the last year I realize there were several things I wanted to do but never got around to.  Attending the Festival of Cranes and celebrating the return of Sandhill cranes to Bosque del Apache is one terrific example. And I can’t for the life of me remember why I didn’t make that event.  So this year I’ve decided to be more intentional in my birding pursuits by proactively planning activities I know will enhance my birding adventure!  And I’ve decided to make sure I do one new thing each month.  So, with the New Year upon us, here is my list of self-promises for the year:

  1. Maintain and update regularly our range map of the birds in our backyard, tracking the bird species that visit each month and then comparing those visitors to last year’s visitors in the same month.
  2. Keep an eagle eye out for new bird species visiting our backyard and learning as much about them as possible.
  3. Visit a local birding hot-spot over a weekend or day trip and identify birds we don’t usually get in our own backyard.
  4. Attend a birding festival I haven’t been to yet, and more specifically attend the Festival of Cranes!
  5. Encourage new species to visit our feeders by placing out a feeder designed just for them.
  6. Attract new bird species to our backyard by adding a new and different food source; this year I’ll try fresh fruit.
  7. Determine to see a bird I’ve been wanting to see and make the necessary arrangements to do so; the Barn owl is coming to mind at the moment.
  8. Join a local Audubon chapter and get involved in their events and activities.
  9. Plant a bird-friendly hedge, tree, or climbing plant that is native to our region.
  10. Learn to make a DIY food source like home-made suet.
  11. Freshen up our backyard by adding a new garden accessory, like a new bird house, feeder, or bath.
  12. Visit a birding retail store and see what’s new on the market.

What do you think?  Any of these resonate with you?  If so, feel free to borrow any of my resolutions for yourself.  I don’t mind.

And from my backyard to yours… Happy Birding!

Make Your Own Backyard Birding Range Map

Educating myself about the birds in my backyard is a priority. I want to make sure I know who’s coming to dinner and when!  As a result, I frequently consult numerous field guides and online sights. And I’ve found that range maps are a great tool for helping identify specific bird species. Some of the resources I consult are exceptional. However, I’ve found myself disappointed with some of the generalizations made for my area. For example, local resources indicate that the Cassin’s Kingbird will squawk loudly back and forth in my backyard in July, but I’ve yet to see a Cassin’s Kingbird. Likewise, the European Starling has been noted as a common bird in my area and so far they’ve been as scarce as a hen’s teeth. (That might actually be a good thing.)

Fact is, no one can tell me what bird species are expected to be in my backyard better than the birds in my backyard. So, I decided to listen to the birds. I created an Excel spreadsheet this year to notate which birds visit my backyard and during which months in the year. An Excel spreadsheet is practical for me because I’m on the computer almost every day, but I could easily do this in a lined journal or on graph paper. A few times every day, I take a few minutes to observe what bird species are in my backyard and I make an entry of those species in my spreadsheet.

I’m nearly half way through the year now and I’m finding that my spreadsheet (see below) is more accurate that many of the other well researched range maps available to me. It’s easy enough to update and its accuracy allows me to better anticipate the food sources I’ll need at different times of the year for the different bird species. That’s good news all around.

My advice: don’t believe everything you read. Listen to the birds instead, and they’ll think your backyard is paradise, too!

Birds: The Unsung Heroes

Have you ever noticed how connecting with Birds just makes you feel better? Emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually? When we take time to admire the birds, we admire their beauty, their song, and their ability to fly.  We also admire their importance to the ecosystem. That’s right. Birds provide many direct and indirect contributions to the environment.  But what exactly are those contributions?

I pondered this question myself and I have to confess my embarrassment about not having a more elegant or scientific response. Other than just thoroughly enjoying every chance I get to observe the birds in my backyard and experience a deeper connection to God through them, I am sometimes at a loss for words to explain to others why birds matter so much. (Tell me I’m not alone in that! Lol).

In an article posted by the Audubon, I learned some interesting facts.  Did you know…

  • Birds contribute to the diversity of plant life through seed dispersal (most song birds) and pollination (900+ bird species worldwide).
  • Birds control insect outbreaks by consuming large quantities of mosquitoes, caterpillars, beetles, and moths, and are known to have saved many potato fields, fruit orchards, organic wineries, and cranberry bogs from insect devastation.
  • Birds help rid the world of disease through scavenger “clean-up” services, including roadkill produced on our roads and highways.
  • Birds stimulate economies and tourism in many parts of the world, spending some $41 billion annually on birding activities (including travel, technology, and education) in the U.S. alone.
  • Birds serve as indicators of environmental health and change to climate, habitat, and weather.
  • Bird as a hobby, including watching and learning their names and how to identify them, improves both cognition and mental health.
  • Birds serve as a subject of poetic meditation and focal point for various art forms, including water colored paintings, cross-stitched linens, antiqued brooches, and porcelain china.

The last ten years has seen an explosion of research on this subject, resulting in a strong body of evidence to support bird protection. “For better or worse, economic arguments tend to get more attention in political debates,” says Geoffrey Heal, a microeconomist at Columbia University Business School. The new research, he says, strengthens the case that “most environmental conservation, if well structured, actually does pay off directly.”

It turns out birds aren’t just luxuries for hobbyists or environmental fanatics. They’re actually unsung heroes.

Of Course Birds Have Facial Expressions!

On my flight from Albuquerque to Houston last week, I read a fascinating little ditty in Southwest: The Magazine (October 2016) about horses having 17 distinct facial expressions.  I was intrigued to learn that humans, by comparison, can make 27 discrete movements, chimpanzees 13, cats 21, and dogs 16.

I sat back in my seat (well, as far back as one can sit in an airplane seat) and wondered… how many facial expressions do birds have?

After several hours of online investigation, I found myself disappointed by the lack of research and expert opinions; seems information on this subject is as scarce as hen’s teeth. Eventually I found solace in an article by Jessica Bridgers, “Rats Understand & React to Facial Expressions of Other Rats, but What About Birds?

Jessica explains, “A quick search of Google for ‘facial expressions in birds’ brings up many descriptions by those familiar with birds that confirm my observation: Yes birds do indeed have facial expressions. However, using the same search terms on Google Scholar shows that science has not yet caught up with this notion. This underscores the fact that just because an idea has not yet been scientifically tested does not mean that it is not true, and prods us to use the precautionary approach where hard evidence for animal sentience and cognition is not yet available.”

Her comments resonated with me and surprised me at the same time. I see hundreds of social media posts each week featuring photographic images of various facial expressions on birds, and that alone begs the question – why hasn’t there been any research on this?  There is research on migration patterns of birds, the impact of birds on the environment, and how to save threatened bird species.  Why has there not been any research on how birds use facial expressions to communicate with each other (let alone with us humans)?

After much thought and a few more searches, I finally agreed with Jessica’s conclusion that “just because no one has investigated whether birds have facial expressions yet does not mean they do not have them.” While research on this subject may be inconclusive, my gut tells me that birders around the world will agree that birds do have facial expressions. And I have pictures to prove it.  Don’t you?

Plant a Hedgerow and the Birds will thank you for it!

Birds cannot survive on sunflower seeds alone! In fact, birds cannot survive on anything provided by man alone. They also require natural sources of food, water, and shelter if they are to nest, raise their young, and prosper.  Soooo…

I decided to plant some native shrubs to our area and provide natural food and shelter for the birds. Yep!  I decided to create a hedgerow.

What’s a hedgerow?  A hedgerow is a hedge of wild shrubs and trees, typically bordering a road or field. And, hedgerows, if designed properly, can be an attractive and functional place for birds to nest or feed!

And, because planning is a critical first step to any success, I had to do some research. I wanted to identify the plants best suited for my design and since we already have plenty of seed-bearing trees on our property, and tons of juniper trees, I knew I wanted something that would bear more fruit. I also wanted shrubs that would provide for nesting, and I needed plants that were hardy for our garden region zone, zone 6.

After assessing the size of shrubs, zone hardiness, and blooming seasons, I narrowed my list to the following:

  • Serviceberry
  • Mountain ninebark
  • Western Sandcherry
  • Skunkbush Sumac

Doing some online research helped me make the final decision: the Skunkbush Sumac (3-leaf).

Then, I needed to design my hedgerow. On a recent flight back to New Mexico I carefully pulled out my favorite journal, set it delicately next to my plastic cup of red wine on the pull down serving tray, and proceeded to sketch out a few design options and location strategies.  I mentally thought through the size and spacing of my plantings, whether or not staking would be required, how visible my design would be from our front patio porch and windows (for observational purposes and photographs), and what we could afford in terms of investment.

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Next steps will be to walk my property to determine the best location and if my “plan” will work without major changes.  And then a trip to the nursery!

The 411 on Injured or Sick Birds

If you’re a birder like me, then you are likely attracting birds to your backyard or garden. Unfortunately, that also means you are increasing the odds of one day coming across an injured or sick bird.  Fear not.  You can be prepared for when that time comes.

I suggest first contacting your local veterinarian, humane society, or county/municipal wildlife agency for a referral to the nearest qualified wildlife rehabilitator.  Write down that individual’s contact information should you need it in the future.  Post it where you’ll remember to find it during an emergency.  I keep my information with my bird food, that way I know where it is at all times.

If you find an injured bird, place the bird in a dark box and put the box in a warm and quiet place.  Do not disturb the bird or offer it food.  Do not try to nurse the bird back to health yourself.  It’s actually against the law to keep a bird – injured, orphaned, or otherwise – unless you have proper permits.  Also, injured birds will often require specialized attention to survive and be reintroduced back into the wild.  So, keep the bird safe and let it rest until you can contact your nearest qualified wildlife rehabilitator that can take and treat the bird.

If you find a sick bird, do not handle the bird without disposable gloves, and keep the bird away from your family and pets.  Have a box ready to hold the bird before you try to capture the bird as the capturing process may be traumatic for the bird. (It might be traumatic for you, too!)  Make sure your qualified wildlife rehabilitator can take a sick bird, as not all clinics have facilities to isolate sick birds from the others.

If you have witnessed someone injuring or killing a bird, immediately contact your nearest US Fish and Wildlife Service Law Enforcement office.

Sickness and injury can be terrible for birds, let alone terrifying for us. So, be prepared.  Preparing for the worst is one way we promote the welfare of birds and their environment.  This is how we practice positive birding ethics!

An Apple a Day Holds True for Birds Too!

I had read about feeding apples to birds but hadn’t tried it until just this last week, and to my surprise, they loved it! I was especially delighted to watch a bright red cardinal take frequent nibbles from the bright red apple I stuck on top of my shepherd’s hook out back.  That cardinal scurried back and forth, to and from the apple, all in an effort to feed his starving youngsters.

While fruit is a major food group for humans, it’s also an important dietary supplement for birds. I guess the old saying is true:  an apple a day keeps the doctor away. As an exceptional source of sugar, fruit in general is essential to a bird’s energy level, especially during periods of breeding, migration, and keeping warm during those cold winter months. But which birds do fruits attract?

Woodpeckers, jays, robins, bluebirds, and mockingbirds will venture out towards just about any kind of fruit buffet. Simply scatter a variety of fruit pieces on a tray, or nail a few hardier pieces to a tree, and they’ll come running. The good news is that all fruit suitable for humans are nutritious for birds. And, birds will eat fruit that is overripe as well as damaged and not safe for humans. I find that just amazing!

The most popular fruits for birds include (and notice which one tops the list!):

  • Apples
  • Cherries
  • Elderberries
  • Plums
  • Oranges
  • Mulberries
  • Crabapples
  • Concord grapes
  • Serviceberries
  • Blueberries
  • Raspberries
  • Raisins

Ripeness and type of fruit will attract different bird species. Some birds might eat the flesh of the fruit or just sip the juice. And small fruits are sometimes swallowed whole. If you are planting fruit trees for reasons other than attracting birds, you may be sorely disappointed, as birds will eat fruit before they are fully ripe, leaving you none to sample for yourself.

If your backyard is all about wildlife and birds, like mine is, then grab those apples and other mixed fruits from the kitchen and let’s see who comes to dinner next!

Adding to Your Bird Habitat? Think Junipers!

A habitat consists of the combination of food, water, shelter, and space arranged to meet the needs of wildlife, or in our case birds. Planning is necessary for an attractive and productive habitat, and trees and shrubs are the backbone of any landscaping design important for shelter. Many tree and shrub species are also excellent sources of food, and proper selection of plant material can meet both the aesthetic needs of the homeowner as well as the food and shelter needs of birds.

I read recently that junipers are a must have for birding habitats and in any location. In fact, the National Wildlife Federation calls them “tough trees for tough times” and credits them for giving birds a boost during the winter months by providing a rich supply of food and shelter from harsh winds and cold temperatures. Junipers are a top ten plant for wildlife in that even one juniper in the yard will help birds greatly.

And, junipers are rugged and easy to care for, making them desirable to the human population as well. Able to grow in poor soil, their ornamental shapes and foliage are attractive as a garden asset.  Just imagine splashes of blue against a snow white winter background!  Grow junipers as a shrub or a tree and look for blooms in the spring.

The berries might not be very tasty, as birds tend to ignore them in the fall. However, in winter, when food is scarce and birds become less finicky, the juniper berries can become very popular.

Plant a juniper in your yard and look for these bird species:

  • Bluebirds
  • Grosbeaks
  • Jays
  • Mockingbirds
  • Robins
  • Sapsuckers and Woodpeckers
  • Thrushes
  • Thrashers
  • Warblers
  • Waxwings

We have natural junipers on our property in the mountains in New Mexico. They are a hardy plant at 7600’ in altitude with harsh winters, and we enjoy jays, robins, and woodpeckers year round.  During migration, they attract grosbeaks.

Check with a local nursery to determine if junipers are suitable for your area. If so, then what are you waiting for?

Here Birdie, Birdie! Four Main Ingredients for attracting Birds to Your Backyard

Wild birds are attracted to backyards that have four main ingredients: food, water, shelter, and nesting sites. If these four things are present (either naturally or provided by you) your backyard will quickly become your very own birder’s paradise.

1.  Food is the most important ingredient on the list and can be naturally occurring or supplemental. And offering a variety of food will attract a variety of birds. Popular bird foods include the following: seeds, suet, nectar, fruits, insects, scraps, and nuts. Sun-flower seeds and peanut suet seem to be the favorites in my backyard

2.  Water is crucial to every bird’s survival, and adding water to your backyard habitat will quickly attract birds. Moving or flowing water is irresistible to birds because birds can hear the water from a distance. Also, offering water especially in the winter months will attract birds because about 70% of a bird’s non-fat body tissue is water and needs to be maintained to avoid dehydration. Here are some options to consider and remember to keep your water sources fresh, clean, and chemical-free: bird baths, misters, ponds, waterfalls, and streams.

3.  Shelter encourages birds to stick around once they arrive by helping them feel safe – from both natural weather elements and predators such as cats and hawks. Common bird shelters include: trees, shrubs, scrub brush piles, and overgrown grassy areas. Also, birds aren’t especially attracted to well-manicured lawns, so feel free to let your yard get a little messy to provide more shelter (read my earlier post on why having a messy yard can be a good thing).

4.  Nesting Sites will attract more permanent birds and while many birds prefer to nest in natural locations, some will enjoy attractive man-made bird-houses. Here are some examples to consider: trees and shrubs, brush piles for ground nesters, simple nesting boxes, and functional or decorative birdhouses.

It doesn’t take a huge investment in time or money to create a sanctuary the birds will love. Remember to include all four of these critical elements and you’ll be well on your way to enjoying your own backyard birding paradise!

Backyard Birding Ethics

 

As a bird-lover, I want my birding experience to be gratifying – for both me and the birds. I want to enjoy their company while making sure my presence doesn’t cause them harm.   And I’m not alone.  In fact, Ornithologists, Audubon members, birding organizations and festivals, and nature tour operators from around the world have communicated various and extensive guidelines and protocols for watching and photographing birds, all of which beg the question: How aware are you of the “bird” in birding?

From the plethora of suggestions I have a few personal favorites, especially for adhering to in the privacy of my own backyard.

Do:

  • Promote the welfare of birds and their environment
  • Ensure that feeders, nest structures, and other artificial bird environments are clean and safe for the birds
  • Turn your cell phones off and keep noise levels down
  • Use artificial light sparingly for filming or photography
  • Walk away if your presence adds stress to the birds
  • Avoid from handling birds or eggs as much as possible
  • Share your sightings and pictures

Don’t

  • Make sudden movements that might startle the birds
  • Flush birds or disturb them to make them fly
  • Trample sensitive ground cover or break branches to take pictures
  • Keep parents away from nests during incubation or feeding
  • Use audio playback near nesting or heavily birded areas, or to attract threatened or endangered species
  • Keep tired and hungry migrants from resting or feeding
  • Announce to the public the location of a rare bird before alerting the appropriate birding organizations first

 

Great suggestions! Looks like I’ll need to update my backyard birding manifesto!

 

Having a Messy Yard Can Be a Good Thing

Something recently started chewing on a wicker basket I kept outside next to the backdoor step. A few days later I observed a wren tugging and pulling at the straw and then dashing off with what it could carry in its beak.  My husband pointed to the basket and asked if it needed to be tossed in the trash.  He thought it “messy”.

M-E-S-S-Y.

Interesting word and I remembered reading an article about a woman who was arrested for having a messy yard.

Wait. What?

I recalled the article and wondered if having a certified wildlife habitat was grounds for messy. What would the judge rule in that case?

Messy Yard 2I’d have to explain how messy is exactly what attracts birds, or other wildlife, to one’s yard. Birds are always on the lookout for a great source of cover and protection during bad weather, in addition to nesting places, and they are not particularly attracted to a well-manicured lawn.

If you’re looking to attract more birds to your backyard, let it get messy:

  • Messy Yard 3Leave snags for nesting places
  • Stack down tree limbs to create brush piles
  • Leave dead, dying, and hollow trees, and use old logs and stumps in your landscaping
  • Avoid straight lines and perfect symmetry in your garden or habitat design
  • Provide curves and clumps of vegetation to encourage birds to come out into the open for viewing

Messy Yard 1We let our holly berry bush ramble over the bed to provide covering for the birds that nest there. We allow our ground covering to spill over onto the sidewalk to provide additional protection.  We even leave out chewed up wicker baskets for the birds to use for building their nests.

Yep. I’m good with messy.

Running Water and How the Birds Just Love it!

The weather has been gorgeous in our backyard these past few weeks, so I spent some time out back engaged in some early spring cleaning and purging. I took down our weathered and worn tent canopy and replaced it with outdoor silk ivy. I cleaned out and refilled all the bird feeders, and hung up a few new ones. And I cleaned out and turned on our outdoor patio fountain. I call her Brooke, because she babbles on and on just like one.

That got the party started!

There is no better way to attract birds to a backyard than by providing fresh water. Birds need water not only to hydrate, but also to clean their feathers for remaining in top flight condition. But the real fun begins when the water has movement. That’s because moving water, or the noise of falling water, draws birds in like a moth to a flame. They can actually hear water moving.

During the winter months, fresh water is more important than ever. Birds can melt snow to drink, but doing so uses the energy needed to maintain their body temperature.

Our running water is a small solar water pump with noise enough to bring the birds to the two pedestal baths nearby. I watched in delight as doves, finches, jays, and a particular female red-bellied woodpecker stopped in for a drink. But I jumped for joy when the yellow-bellied sapsucker decided to wet his beak… not once, not twice, but three times! This was a first ever sighting in my backyard. Woo hoo!

Woodpeckers bathing collage

During spring and fall migration, moving water in your yard can attract species not normally found in your area. According to Bird Watcher’s Digest, the top 10 birds to attract with water include:

  1. Warblers
  2. Rose-breasted Grosbeaks
  3. Indigo Buntings
  4. Painted Buntings
  5. Bluebirds
  6. Hummingbirds
  7. Tanagers
  8. Orioles
  9. Cedar Waxwings
  10. American Robins

I’d be honored if any of those birds stopped by for a quick visit. I’m even now considering investing in some additional drippers and misters, and already investing in several solar powered water pumps for our backyard in New Mexico.