Helping our feathered friends
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife has published many pamphlets on backyard birding. Four of these pamphlets were originally edited for the internet by Terry Ross, of the Baltimore Bird Club. The following buttons will lead you to the pamphlets.
Among the fondest and most memorable moments of childhood are the discoveries of songbirds nesting in the backyard. The distinctive, mud-lined nests of robins and their beautiful blue eggs captivate people of all ages. Likewise, the nesting activities of house wrens, cardinals, chickadees, and other common birds can stimulate a lifelong interest in nature.
As people learn to enjoy the beauty of birdlife around their home, they may wish to improve the "habitat" in their yard so that more birds will visit their property. You can attract birds by placing bird feeders, nest boxes, and bird baths in your yard, and by planting a variety of trees, shrubs, and flowers. These can provide good nesting sites, winter shelter, places to hide from predators, and natural food supplies that are available year-round.
At least ten benefits can be derived from landscaping to attract birds to your yard:
Increased Wildlife Populations
You can probably double the nEnergy Conservationarranging your conifer and hardwood trees, you can lower winter heating and summer cooling bills for your house.
Certain landscape plants can prevent soil erosion.
A good landscaping plan will contribute to a beautiful, natural setting around your home that is pleasing to people as well as birds.
Wildlife photography is a wonderful hobby for people of all ages.
A fun hobby is to keep a list of all the birds seen in your yard or from your yard. Some people have counted over 190 species of birds in their yard!
Natural Insect Control
Birds such as tree swallows, house wrens, brown thrashers, and orioles eat a variety of insects.
Some plants that attract wildlife are also appealing to people. Cherries, chokecherries, strawberries, and crabapples can be shared by people and wildlife.
A good landscaping plan can greatly increase the value of your property by adding natural beauty and an abundance of wildlife.
Habitat for Kids
Some of the best wildlife habitats are the best "habitats" for young people to discover the wonders of nature. A backyard habitat can stimulate young people to develop a lifelong interest in wildlife and conservation.
Every bird species has its own unique food requirements, and these may change as the bird matures and as the seasons change. Learn the food habits of the birds you wish to attract. Then plant the appropriate trees, shrubs, or flowers that will provide the fruits, berries, grains, seeds, acorns, nuts, or nectar.
You can probably double the number of bird species in your yard by providing a source of water. A frog pond, water garden, or bird bath will get lots of bird use, especially if the water is dripping, splashing, or moving.
Birds need places where they can hide from predators and escape from severe weather. Trees (including hollow ones), shrubs, tall grass, and bird houses provide excellent shelter.
The best landscaping plan is one that includes a wide variety of plants. This helps attract a greater number of bird species.
It is necessary to provide birds with food and shelter during all four seasons of the year. Plant trees, shrubs, and flowers that will provide year-round food and shelter.
Habitat components need to be properly arranged. Consider the effects of prevailing winds (and snow drifting) so your yard will be protected from harsh winter weather.
Birds should be protected from unnecessary mortality. When choosing the placement of bird feeders and nest boxes, consider their accessibility to predators.
Picture windows can be death traps for birds. A network of parallel, vertical strings spaced 4 inches apart can be placed on the outside of windows to prevent this problem.
You also should be cautious about the kinds of herbicides and pesticides used in your yard. They should be applied only when necessary and strictly according to label instructions.
When considering plants not native to your area, consult a plant hardiness zone map (they are in most garden catalogues). Make sure the plants you want are rated for the winter hardiness zone classification of your area.
Soils and Topography
Consult with your local garden center, university, or county extension office to have a soil test done for your yard. Plant species are often adapted to certain types of soils. By knowing what type of soil you have, you can identify the types of plants that should grow best in your yard.
Think of this project as "landscaping for birds." Your goal will be to plant an assortment of trees, shrubs, and flowers that will attract birds. If you plan carefully it can be inexpensive and fun for the whole family. The best way to get started is to follow these guidelines:
Set Your Priorities
Decide what types of birds you wish to attract, then build your plan around the needs of those species. Talk to friends and neighbors to find out what kinds of birds frequent your area. Attend a local bird club meeting and talk to local bird watchers about how they have attracted birds to their yards.
Use Native Plants When Possible
Check with the botany department of a nearby college or university or with your Natural Heritage Program for lists of trees, shrubs, and wildflowers native to your area. Use this list as a starting point for your landscape plan. These plants are naturally adapted to the climate of your area and are a good long-term investment. Many native plants are beautiful for landscaping purposes and are excellent for birds. If you include non-native plant species in your plan, be sure they are not considered "invasive pests" by plant experts.
Draw a Map of Your Property
Draw a map of your property to scale using graph paper. Identify buildings, sidewalks, powerlines, buried cables, fences, septic tank fields, trees, shrubs, and patios. Consider how your plan relates to your neighbor's property (will the tree you plant shade out the neighbor's vegetable garden?) Identify and map sunny or shady sites, low or wet sites, sandy sites, and native plants that will be left in place. Also identify special views that you wish to enhance--areas for pets, benches, picnics, storage, playing, sledding, vegetable gardens, and paths.
Get Your Soil Tested
Get your soil tested by your local garden center, university, or soil conservation service. Find out what kinds of soil you have, and then find out if your soils have nutrient or organic deficiencies that can be corrected by fertilization or addition of compost. The soils you have will help determine the plants which can be included in your landscaping plan.
Review the Seven Plant Habitat Components
Review the seven plant components that were described previously. Which components are already present? Which ones are missing? Remember that you are trying to provide food and cover through all four seasons. Develop a list of plants that you think will provide the missing habitat components.
Confer With Resource Experts
Review this plant list with landscaping resource experts who can match your ideas with your soil types, soil drainage, and the plants available through state or private nurseries. People at the nearby arboretum may be able to help with your selections. At an arboretum you can also see what many plants look like.
Develop Your Planting Plan
Sketch on your map the plants you wish to add. Trees should be drawn to a scale that represents three-fourths of their mature width and shrubs at their full mature width. This will help you calculate how many trees and shrubs you need. There is a tendency to include so many trees that eventually your yard will be mostly shaded. Be sure to leave open sunny sites where flowers and shrubs can thrive. Decide how much money you can spend and the time span of your project. Don't try to do too much at once. Perhaps you should try a five year development plan.
Implement Your Plan
Finally, go to it! Begin your plantings and be sure to include your family so they can all feel they are helping wildlife. Document your plantings on paper and by photographs. Try taking pictures of your yard from the same spots every year to document the growth of your plants.
Maintain Your Plan
Keep your new trees, shrubs, and flowers adequately watered, and keep your planting areas weed-free by use of landscaping film and wood chips or shredded bark mulch. This avoids the use of herbicides for weed control. If problems develop with your plants, consult a local nursery or garden center.
Most of all, take the time to enjoy the wildlife that will eventually respond to your efforts at landscaping for birds.
Dennis, John V. 1985. The Wildlife Gardener. Alfred A. Knopf. New York, 293 pp.
Diekelmann, J. and C. 1982. Natural Landscaping. Designing with native plant communities. McGraw Hill. New York. 276 pp.
Gill, J. D. and W. M. Healy. 1974. Shrubs and Vines for Northeastern Wildlife. NE Forest Expt. Station. Upper Darby, PA 180 pp.
Henderson, Carol L 1987. Landscaping for Wildlife. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. St. Paul. 145 pp.
McKinley, Michael. 1983. How to Attract Birds. Ortho books. San Francisco. 96 pp.
Martin, A. C., H. S. Zim and A. L. Nelson. 1961. American Wildlife and Plants. A Guide to wildlife and plants. Dover ed. New York. 500 pp.
Smyser, Carol A. 1982. Nature's Design. Rodale Press. Emmaus, PA. 390 pp.
Stokes, Donald W. 1989. The Natural History of Wild Shrubs and Vines. The Globe Pequot Press. Chester, Conn. 246 pp.
Terres, John K. 1987. Songbirds in Your Garden. Harper and Row Publ. New York. 306 pp.
Backyard bird feeding is a convenient way to enjoy wildlife. According to a recent Census Report, over 65 million Americans, young and old, have given it a try.
What has made watching birds the fastest growing hobby in the country, second only to gardening? What ever it is, watching birds, like watching fish or other animals, seems to make people feel good.
How do our "hand-outs" affect the birds? Little research has been done on that question. But we do know that some birds -- cardinals, mockingbirds and tufted titmice -- have extended their winter range northward, perhaps because of an increased availability of food at feeding stations. There is no indication however that backyard bird feeding has had a negative effect on wild bird populations as a whole.
Backyard bird feeding can, however, have an adverse effect on an individual bird. There may be a higher incidence of disease and birds injured by flying into windows. You can take precautions to minimize these problems.
No matter where you live, you can put food outside your door, and some creature, feathered or furred, will show its appreciation and make an appearance. That's all it takes. Once you get started, it's hard to stop.
Before you know it, you're learning bird names. After awhile, you'll start to recognize individuals and the messages in their behavior and song.
When you get to the point where you want to attract and "keep" a particular species, what you do will be determined by where you live, and the time of year. For example, on any winter day, you're likely to see a cardinal at a sunflower feeder in Virginia, a goldfinch at a thistle feeder in Massachusetts and hummingbirds at a nectar feeder in southern California.
How can you find out which birds to expect? A bird field identification book has pictures of different birds and will help you find the names for the birds you're likely to see.
When the ground is covered with snow and ice, it's hard to resist just tossing seed out the door. But it's healthier for the birds to get their "hand-outs" at a feeding station, off the ground.
Regardless of the season, food that sits on the ground for even a short time is exposed to potential contamination by dampness, mold, bacteria, animal droppings, lawn fertilizers and pesticides.
It's best, for the birds' sake, to use a feeder.
You can start simply with a piece of scrap wood, elevated a few inches above the ground. Add a few holes for drainage and you've built a platform feeder. It won't be long before the birds find it.
Whether you buy one or build one, eventually you'll find yourself looking at commercially manufactured feeders. There are literally hundreds to choose from. How do you make the "right" choice? What makes a feeder "good?"
First consider placement
Where do you want to watch your birds? From a kitchen window... a sliding glass door opening on to a deck... a second story window?
Pick a location that has year-round easy access. When the weather's bad and birds are most vulnerable, you may be reluctant to fill a feeder that isn't in a convenient spot near a door or accessible window.
Also consider the "mess" factor. Pick a location where discarded seed shells and bird droppings won't be a clean-up problem.
Put your feeder where the squirrels can't reach. Those cute little rodents seem to like sunflower and peanuts as much or more than acorns. Squirrels become a problem when they take over a bird feeder, scaring the birds away, and tossing seed all over.
What's worse... frustrated squirrels have been known to entertain themselves by chewing right through plastic and wooden feeders.
If you've seen squirrels in your neighborhood, it's safe to assume they will visit your feeder. Think long and hard before you hang anything from a tree limb. Squirrels are incredibly agile, and any feeder hanging from a tree, with or without a squirrel guard or baffle, is likely to become a squirrel feeder.
In the long run, a squirrel-proof feeder or any feeder on a pole with a baffle is the least aggravating solution. The most effective squirrel-proof feeder is the pole-mounted metal "house" type.
If you must hang a feeder, select a tube protected with metal mesh. Most plastic "squirrel-proof" feeders, despite manufacturers' claims, may eventually succumb to rodent teeth.
If you have the "right" situation in your yard, a pole with a baffle should suffice. Any wood or plastic feeder can be effective when mounted on a pole with a plastic or metal baffle, if the pole is at least 10 feet or more from a tree limb or trunk.
Once you've determined you're going to put your feeder, you're ready to go shopping. In addition to good looks, think about...
- ...how durable is it?
- ...will it keep the seeds dry?
- ...how easy is it to clean?
- ...how much seed will it hold?
- ...how many birds will it feed at one time?
- ...which species will use it?
There seems to be no end to the material used in making bird feeders. You can buy "disposable" plastic bag feeders; feeders made of cloth, nylon, vinyl and metal netting; clear, lexan, colored and PVC plastic tubes; ceramic and terra cotta; redwood, western cedar, birch, pine and plywood; sheet metal and aluminized steel; glass tubes and bottles.
How long a feeder lasts depends on how much effort you put into maintaining it, the effects of weather, and whether squirrels can get to it.
Water can get into any feeder regardless of how careful you are to protect it. Seed will spoil when it gets damp or wet. Cloth, vinyl, nylon and metal netting feeders are inexpensive, but they do not protect your seed. You can improve them by adding a plastic dome.
Most wood, plastic, ceramic and solid metal feeders will keep seed dry, but water can get into the feeding portals. Look for feeders with drainage holes in the bottoms of both the feeder hopper and the seed tray.
Even bowl-type feeders and trays with drainage holes will clog with seed and bird droppings. Add rainwater and you have an unhealthy broth. Look for shallow plate-like seed trays. The purpose of a tray is to catch dropped seeds while allowing spent seed shells to blow away.
Any zookeeper and cage bird owner will tell you, when you feed birds in a confined area, you have to expect bird droppings, feathers, an occasional insect or two and left-over food mess.
While you don't have to wash the feeder daily, you should clean it regularly.
Diseases like salmonella can grow in moldy, wet seed and bird droppings in your feeder tray and on the ground below. It's a good idea to move your feeders (just a foot or so) each season to give the ground underneath time to assimilate the seed debris and bird droppings.
Keeping your feeders clean should not become a major undertaking. The degree of maintenance required is directly related to the types of birds you want to attract.
A thistle feeder for goldfinches should be cleaned about once a month depending on how often it rains. Feeding hummingbirds requires cleaning at the very least, weekly, preferably more often -- two or three times a week. Sunflower and suet feeders may need to be cleaned only once a month.
Feeders made of plastic, ceramic and glass are easy to clean. Wash them in a bucket of hot, soapy water fortified with a capful or two of chlorine bleach, then give them a run through your dishwasher.
Use the same regimen with wood feeders, but substitute another disinfectant for the bleach so your wood won't fade.
The ideal feeder capacity varies with your situation, and the types of birds you want to attract.
If you feed hummingbirds, big feeders are not always better. One hummingbird will drink about 2 times its body weight (less than an ounce) a day. Early in the season, hummers are territorial and won't share a feeder. A sixteen ounce feeder can be wasteful, or indeed lethal, because artificial nectar (sugar water) can ferment in the hot summer sun.
If you see only one hummer in your yard, a two ounce feeder is more than enough. On the other hand, if you live in the southwest, and have 34 hummers in your yard, a sixteen ounce feeder may not be big enough.
If you opt for a large volume seed feeder, be sure to protect it from the weather and keep it clean. If after months of use, the birds suddenly abandon your feeder full of seed, it's time for a cleaning.
How Many Birds
If too many birds at your feeder becomes a problem, you can control their numbers by putting out smaller amounts of seed, by using specialty seeds, or by using restrictive feeders.
If you fill your feeder only when it's empty, the birds will look for food elsewhere. They'll return as long as you continue to fill it.
You can virtually eliminate visits by birds you'd rather not see by offering seeds they won't eat. Be selective in your choice of seeds.
If you use more than one type of seed, put them in separate feeders. This will reduce wasted seeds, as birds will toss unwanted seeds out of a feeder to get to their favorites.
Birds that visit your feeder have very specific preferences, Most prefer sunflower. Some prefer millet. A few prefer peanuts. None seem to prefer the other grains used in the mixes: corn, milo, red millet, oats, wheat and canary seed.
If you want to feed only cardinals, doves and white-throated sparrows, switch from black oil sunflower to safflower. If you want only finches and an occasional dove and white-throated sparrow, try niger thistle. If you want only jays, titmice and white-throated sparrows, try peanuts.
Another way to discourage unwanted birds is to use specialty feeders that for the most part, allow only "select" birds to feed.
The most non-selective feeders are the tray, platform or house feeders.
You can encourage small birds with feeders that restrict access. Wood feeders with vertical bars and feeders covered with wire mesh frustrate the larger birds.
Tube feeders without trays also restrict access to small birds. Remove the perches, and you've further selected only those birds capable of clinging -- finches, chickadees, titmice and woodpeckers.
Add vertical perches to tube thistle feeders, and you'll limit accessibility primarily to the goldfinches.
If starlings are a problem at your suet feeder, you can discourage them by using a suet feeder with access only at the bottom. Starlings are reluctant to perch upside down. Chickadees and woodpeckers don't find that a problem.
The species you attract is determined primarily by the seeds you offer.
Black oil sunflower is the hands-down favorite of all the birds that visit tube and house type feeders. White proso millet is favored by birds who visit platform feeders (doves and sparrows). Ducks, geese and quail will eat corn.
Many of the cereal grains (corn, milo, oats, canary, wheat, rape, flax and buckwheat) in mixed bird seeds are NOT favorites of birds that visit tube feeders.
Watch a feeder filled with a seed mix and you'll see the birds methodically drop or kick out most of the seeds to get to their favorite -- sunflower. Birds will also kick out artificial "berry" pellets, processed seed flavored and colored to look like "real" fruit.
Seeds that wind up on the ground are likely to be contaminated by dampness and bird droppings. If the birds don't eat them, rodents will.
The most effective way to attract the largest variety of birds to your yard is to put out separate feeders for each food:
- starling-resistant suet feeder
- a house feeder for sunflower
- a bluebird feeder
- a wire mesh cage feeder for peanuts
- a nectar feeder
- a tube feeder for thistle
- a stationary or tray fruit feeder
- a house or platform feeder for millet
Tube Feeder with Black Oil Sunflower
goldfinches, chickadees, woodpeckers, nuthatches, titmice, redpolls, pine siskins
Tube Feeder and Tray with Black Oil Sunflower
cardinals, jays, crossbills, purple finches, white-throated sparrow, house finches, white-crowned sparrows
Tray or Platform Feeder with Millet
doves, house sparrows, blackbirds, juncos, cowbirds, towhees, white-throated sparrows, tree sparrows, white-crowned sparrows, chipping sparrows
Tray or Platform Feeder with Corn
starlings, house sparrows, grackles, jays, juncos, bobwhite quail, doves, ring-necked pheasants, white-throated sparrows
Platform Feeder or Tube Feeder and Tray with Peanuts
cardinals, chickadees, grackles, house finches, titmice, house sparrows, sparrows, starlings, mourning doves, white-throated sparrows, jays, juncos
Niger Thistle Feeder and Tray
goldfinches, house finches, purple finches, redpolls, pine siskins, doves, chickadees, song sparrows, dark-eyed juncos, white-throated sparrows
hummingbirds, orioles, cardinals, tanagers, woodpeckers, finches, thrushes
orioles, tanagers, mockingbirds, bluebirds, thrashers, cardinals, woodpeckers, jays, starlings, thrushes, cedar waxwings, yellow-breasted chats
Hanging Suet Feeder
woodpeckers, wrens, chickadees, nuthatches, kinglets, thrashers, creepers, cardinals, starlings
Peanut Butter Suet
woodpeckers, goldfinches, juncos, cardinals, thrushes, jays, kinglets, bluebirds, wrens, starlings
Hanging Peanut Feeder
woodpeckers, chickadees, titmice
Once you get your bird feeding station up and running, you may run into problems with uninvited guests. These visitors fall into two categories -- those interested in the seeds (squirrels and chipmunks, rats and mice, starlings and house sparrows), and those interested in a bird for dinner (cats and hawks).
If you have trees, you will get to know squirrels. You may marvel at their antics, until they take over your bird feeders. Then you'll either love them or hate them.
Those who love squirrels tolerate their visits, and may even encourage them with special squirrel toys and feeders.
When a squirrel is at the feeder, you're not likely to see birds. Squirrels will scare off the birds while they eat the seed, and sooner or later, they'll eat the feeder too.
The simplest solution is the squirrel-proof feeder or pole, and storing your seed in a metal garbage can.
Chipmunks, rats and mice can also become a problem where there's seed spillage under the feeder. Don't use mixed bird seed, and if you don't have a squirrel problem, add a feeder tray.
Crow, house sparrow and starling problems can be eliminated by seed and feeder selection.
Cats are another story altogether. Feral cats and your neighbor's tabby are a serious threat to nestlings, fledglings and roosting birds. Too often, the presence of just one cat on the prowl near your feeder can take the enjoyment out of your backyard bird watching experience.
When a cat sits drooling under your feeder, you're not likely to see any birds. You're bound to feel much worse when you find a pile of feathers on the ground.
If your neighbor is reasonable, suggest a bell collar. If that doesn't work, consider getting yourself a pet -- a dog. Birds don't seem to be bothered by most dogs, but cats and squirrels are.
If there are no cats in your neighborhood and you find a pile of feathers near your feeder, look for a hungry hawk perching on a tree nearby.
Don't get upset. Consider yourself fortunate to see one, right in your backyard. Cooper's and sharp-shinned hawks eat birds and play an important role in the natural community.
Don't put out poisons, or try to trap them, since all birds of prey -- eagles, owls and hawks -- are protected by Federal law.
When's the best time to start?
There is no best or worst time. Start whenever you want to. The birds can use your help in the very early spring when their natural seed sources are scarce. In general, whenever the weather is severe, birds will appreciate a reliable supplemental food source.
When's the best time to stop?
If you enjoy feeding birds, there is no reason to stop. You can do it year-round. Feeding the birds throughout the summer will not make them "lazy," or "dependent." If you keep your feeding station clean, there's no reason for you to stop feeding suet, sunflower, millet, fruit and nectar.
Is it best to stop feeding hummingbirds after Labor Day?
There is no evidence that feeding hummingbirds after Labor Day will keep them from migrating. In fact, it may help a weakened straggler refuel for the long haul. Leave your nectar feeders out until the birds stop coming.
How long does it take for birds to find a feeder?
Sometimes it can seem like forever. It may take more time for birds to find window feeders than hanging or pole-mounted feeders. If you're impatient, start with a feeder full of hulled sunflower. If that doesn't get their attention, wrap aluminum foil around the top of the feeder hanger. Sometimes all it takes is the reflection of light on the foil to catch their attention.
My feeder is full of seeds. I haven't seen a bird in months. Am I doing something wrong?
When birds desert your feeder, it may be simply that a lot of natural food is available nearby. Or something may be wrong, such as your seeds are spoiled or your feeder contaminated. Throw the seeds away and wash the feeder. Take a look at where your feeder is placed. Be sure it's not vulnerable to predators.
Won't birds' feet stick to metal feeders and perches in the wet winter weather?
Birds don't have sweat glands in their feet, so they won't freeze onto metal feeders. There's no need to cover any metal feeders parts with plastic or wood to protect birds feet, tongues or eyes.
Can birds choke on peanut butter?
There's no evidence that birds can choke on peanut butter. However, birds have no salivary glands. You can make it easier on them by mixing peanut butter with lard, cornmeal, and/or grit. Your birds will appreciate drinking water too -- a bird bath or trough.
Do wild birds need grit?
In the winter, you may see flocks of birds along roadsides after the snowplows have passed. They're after the grit. Birds have no teeth to grind their food. The dirt, sand, pebbles, and grit they eat sits in their crop and helps grind up their food. Adding grit to your feeder is helpful year-round, but particularly in the winter and spring. Crushed eggshells do the same thing, and in the spring have an added benefit. They provide extra calcium during nesting season.
Won't suet go "bad" in the summer?
In the winter, raw beef fat from the local butcher is all you need for your suet feeder. When temperatures rise, raw fat can melt, and get rancid. It's safer to use commercially rendered suet cakes in the spring and summer months. Rendering, boiling the fat, kills bacteria. And yes, it's okay to feed your woodpeckers year-round. They will visit your feeders all summer long, and they'll bring their babies.
What is hummingbird "nectar"? Do hummers need nectar fortified with vitamins and minerals?
Hummingbird nectar is nothing more than table sugar and water. You can make your own by adding 1/4 cup of sugar to a cup of boiling water. Hummers eat insects for their protein. There is no evidence that these tiny birds need vitamin and mineral supplements. There is also no evidence that adding red food coloring to nectar will harm the birds, but it probably is not necessary to attract them. Just put your feeder near red flowers. Please remember, sugar water will ferment when left in the hot sun. Fermented nectar is deadly. Do not put out a feeder if you are not willing to clean it at least weekly, preferably twice a week.
How can I avoid bees at my hummingbird feeder?
Bees are usually a problem only in hot weather. It's inevitable that bees will visit your hummingbird feeder. Little plastic bee guards may help keep them from getting nectar but it won't stop them from trying. Don't take the chance of contaminating your nectar by putting vegetable oil around the feeding portals. The safest solution is to add a few small feeders away from where people are likely to be bothered by bees.
How close to your window can you put a feeder?
Birds will come right to your window. Sometimes it takes a while for them to overcome their initial reluctance, so be patient. Don't worry that a feeder on the window will cause birds to fly into the window. Birds fly into the window because they see the reflection of the woods. Window feeders and decals can help break up the reflection.
If you find a bird that has hit a window, carefully pick it up and put it in a box or a large paper bag. Put it in a dark, quiet corner of your house for a couple of hours. If the bird recovers, take the box or bag outside and just let it go. If the bird comes to, but seems injured, call your local wildlife rehabilitation center for help.
I bought some cracked corn coated with a red dye. Is it safe to use?
The red or pink coating is capstan, a fungicide used on seeds meant for planting. If you buy a bag of cracked corn or other seed treated with capstan, return it to the store. It can kill horses, other mammals and wild birds.
I bought a bag of sunflower seeds early in the spring. Over the summer I noticed first worms, then moths. What can I do to keep the bugs out?
It's natural for moths to lay their eggs in sunflower seeds. The eggs lay dormant as long as the seeds are stored in a cool dry place. In the summer, seeds get hot and the eggs hatch.
The best way to avoid this problem is to buy seeds in smaller quantities, or store your seeds in a cool, dry place. It also helps to know where your retailer stores the seed. An air conditioned storage unit is the better choice.
Insects will also lay their eggs in burlap bags. Don't buy seeds in burlap bags. Don't buy seed in paper and plastic bags with patched holes. That may be a sign of insect or rodent infestations.
A Field Guide to the Birds of North America by Robbins, Bruun, Zim and Singer. Golden Press, 1983.
Trees, Shrubs and Vines for Attracting Birds by Richard De Graff and Gretchen Wit. University of Massachusetts Press, 1979.
How to Attract Birds by Ortho Books, 1983.
A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding by John Dennis, Knopf, 1994.
The Bird Feeder Book by Donald and Lillian Stokes. 1987.
Summer Bird Feeding by John Dennis. 1988.
Woodworking for Wildlife by Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, 1987.
Planting a Refuge for Wildlife by Florida Game & Freshwater Fish Commission, 1986.
Problems invovling Birds
Any bird, a cardinal, chickadee or dove, can become a "problem" when it does something unpleasant. What's unpleasant depends on what the bird is doing, and how you react.
A mockingbird's midnight song may be a musical marvel to some, but an annoyance to others. The flicker may be welcome at your feeder, but not if his hammering damages the cedar siding on your neighbor's house. The Canada geese at your pond tempt you to offer them corn, until their droppings foul your lawn.
Birds come to your yard to eat and bathe, to roost and nest. Birds can cause trouble when they eat your cherries, drill holes in your birch trees and fish for koi in your pond.
They can be hazardous to your health when they roost by the hundreds in the trees at the edge of your patio.
They can be a nuisance when they nest in your hanging baskets, on the ledge over your front door or in your clothes drier vents.
What's the quickest, easiest way to eliminate problem birds? The "quick fix" solutions that first come to mind are: Shoot them. Trap them. Poison them.
All wild birds (except pigeons, English sparrows and starlings) are protected by federal and state laws. You may not trap, kill or possess protected species without federal and state permits.
The first step in solving your wild bird problem is to identify the bird and what's attracting it. Your goal is to remove what attracts the bird, or build a barrier between the bird and what it finds so attractive.
Call your US Fish and Wildlife Service Regional Office, your state wildlife officer and (US Department of Agriculture) county Cooperative Extension agent for advice.
Before you take any action, consider these questions:
- What do the experts recommend?
- Could it hurt people, pets and other wildlife?
- Will it reduce or eliminate the damage?
- Is it worth the cost?
Most bird problems do not have a simple solution. What eliminates a bird problem in one case may fail in similar situations. You may find a solution that seems effective, but don't be surprised if it works only for a short time. The secret to solving bird problems is to use several tactics and to vary them so birds don't become complacent.
Each year thousands of homeowners put out suet feeders to attract woodpeckers. These handsome birds reward us by consuming millions of noxious insects, including carpenter ants and carpenter bees.
While it's rare, an occasional woodpecker may single out a house for drumming, or worse, for a nest or dining site.
Each spring, when males set up territories and attract their mates, these woodpeckers make their presence known by "drumming." Normally they pick a resonant dead tree trunk. As more homeowners remove dead trees, woodpeckers may turn to metal gutters, house siding and television antennas.
While drumming may be aggravating, it usually doesn't physically damage your house. You can eliminate the drumming noise by deadening the resonant area. Fill the hollow space with caulk.
Then distract the bird from the drumming site by using scare techniques: balloons, a child's pinwheel, flash tape, and strings of shiny, noisy tin can lids, wind chimes and/or pulsating water sprinklers.
If that doesn't work, create a physical barrier by screening the drumming site with hardware cloth, sheet metal or nylon "bird netting."
You might encourage the bird to leave altogether by creating an alternative drumming site nearby (but away from your bedroom window).
Here's how to make a drum: Fasten two overlapping boards, the back board firmly secured and the front (covered with metal sheeting) nailed to it at only one end.
Serious structural damage occurs when woodpeckers drill holes in unpainted, untreated plywood and cedar siding, window frames and roofing. While no one knows for sure what attracts a woodpecker to a house, your first step in eliminating the problem is to check for signs of insect infestation -- carpenter ants, carpenter bees and cluster flies.
You may want to consult with a licensed pest control operator on how to remove the insects and eliminate future infestations. It may be as simple as caulking their tunnels and painting with exterior latex.
If you can't find any insects, try "scare" techniques.
If you have a bird feeder that attracts woodpeckers, you might think removing your feeder will cause the bird to leave. Just the opposite may be true. Keeping a feeder full of suet may encourage the birds not to look at your siding for food.
If you have dead trees in your yard, you might think removing them (and the insects they harbor) will solve woodpecker problems. Again, the opposite may be true. Cutting down dead and decaying trees deprives these birds of nesting, drumming and food sites, and may force them to take a look at your house.
It's early summer. You've planted your garden. Your trees and shrubs are full of fruit. Before you get a chance to enjoy them, your crops are harvested by birds.
Again, barriers are the most effective deterrents.
Hot caps (opaque plastic "hats" used to cover young plants in the spring to prevent freezing) and inverted crates can keep starlings from pulling up small plants.
Netting may keep starlings, catbirds, orioles, robins, blackbirds and jays from your grapes, apples and raspberries.
Scare techniques may repel birds from gardens.
Placing feeders filled with sunflower, millet, nectar, and peanuts nearby may also distract birds.
Herons and egrets at the edge of a pond create a picture of tranquility. That is unless these and other fish-eating birds (gulls, terns, kingfishers, diving ducks, pelicans, cormorants and ospreys) are dining on your prize koi.
First try scare techniques, then exclusion.
While they may be unsightly, physical barriers can deter most fish-eating birds. For small ponds, complete screening with bird netting may be effective. Properly spaced monofilament lines suspended over a pond may exclude gulls (every 4 feet), mergansers (every 2 feet), and herons (every foot). Perimeter fences provide some protection from wading birds.
You don't have to park your car under a tree to discover why people have no patience with roosting birds. Everyone knows bird droppings pile up under a roost.
An occasional bird perching on a tree limb, gutter or fence may not be a serious concern. But problems arise when pigeons perch on your balcony railing, sparrows select your carport rafter and gulls bask on your boat dock piling.
When starlings, grackles, blackbirds and crows roost by the thousands in trees -- they create a serious health hazard.
Physical barriers may be the most effective way to control birds roosting on buildings.
To eliminate birds on ledges try porcupine wire, stretching a "slinky" toy, or stringing rows of monofilament, one or two inches above each other about two feet apart. Sheet metal or hardware cloth placed at an angle on ledges may also make roosting more difficult.
Pruning may eliminate birds roosting in trees. Removing some cover may be enough to make the roost site less attractive. Scare tactics may provide temporary relief.
Birds often pick what seem to be the strangest places to nest:
- in your gutter, clothes drier or kitchen fan vent (house sparrows and starlings);
- above your front door (barn swallows);
- in a bucket in your garage (Carolina wrens);
- in your hanging basket (house finches);
- a pile of twigs on your window sill (doves);
- in the shrubs next to your front door (mockingbirds).
The federal and state laws that protect wild birds also protect their nests and eggs. You must have a federal permit to disturb the adults, nests or eggs.
The most effective way to eliminate these problems is to discourage the bird before the nest is built by offering an alternative artificial "nest" nearby, but out of your way. If that doesn't work, contact a federal or state agent for advice. Resist the temptation to destroy the nest or harass the adults.
House (or English) sparrows, pigeons and starlings are not protected by law. You may remove the nests, eggs and adults.
Hawks and Owls
The presence of hawks and owls (raptors) may cause problems for people who raise free-ranging poultry and small animals such as rabbits, for people who operate bird feeding stations and for those who allow their household pets to roam at night.
Federal and state laws prohibit the capture, killing or possession of hawks and owls.
The best solution to most raptor problems is prevention. Keep your pets indoors, and your livestock in pens.
If you feed wild birds, expect a visit from a hungry hawk or owl. Raptors at a birdfeeding station are a problem only when they perch nearby, all day. You won't see any birds at your feeders. Rather than get upset, consider yourself fortunate to get a close-up look at these magnificent birds.
Stop filling your feeders for a couple of days, and the raptors will look for dinner elsewhere.
Ducks, geese, swans and cranes can cause problems near rivers, ponds and lakes. They feed on crops, grass and other vegetation.
During their summer moult, flightless birds may create more problems by trampling plants and leaving droppings.
Whatever the problem with waterfowl, immediate action is crucial to successful control.
Farmers are encouraged to use early-ripening and damage-resistant plant varieties. Another strategy, delaying fall plowing, allows waterfowl to feed in harvested fields.
A combination of several frightening techniques may produce the best results: scarecrows, noisemakers, flags, balloons and dogs.
Scarecrows should be of simple construction and move in the wind. Put one in every five acres and move them every two to five days.
Old cars, farm machinery, pinwheels, streamers, fluorescent traffic cones and aluminum pie plates, if they move in the wind and make noise can also be effective waterfowl scares.
Noisemakers. Contact your state animal damage control expert for advice on using explosives as noisemakers.
Flags may be the most effective and least expensive control tool. Make two by three-foot black plastic flags on four-foot posts. Put one flag per acre in fields where waterfowl have been feeding, one per five acres in fields with no damage.
Balloons, if properly maintained and frequently moved, can be effective waterfowl scares. Fill a two-foot diameter balloon with helium and anchor it with a 50 to 75 pound monofilament line.
Dogs. A free ranging dog, trained to chase birds as soon as they land, will discourage waterfowl.
Birds and Window Collisions
Contemporary homes and modern office buildings often use insulated and reflective glass to replace walls. These windows may be aesthetically pleasing to humans, but often they are lethal to birds. Unfortunately, many birds cannot distinguish the difference between the real sky and a reflection of the sky in a window.
In the United States alone, it is estimated that each year during migration, millions of birds fly full tilt into windows and are seriously injured or killed.
You can minimize these collisions by breaking up the reflection on the outside of the window with a window screen, flash tape and bird netting.
Life-size, animate "scares" (plastic falcons, owls and balloons) and falcon or owl silhouettes attached to windows with suction cups are not effective deterrents.
Planting trees and installing window awnings to block the sun from hitting the window may eliminate some reflection.
Migration isn't the only time homeowners have trouble with bird-window collisions. Birds may hit your windows during breeding season, and in the winter too.
During breeding season, male cardinals, woodpeckers and mockingbirds may "fight" their own reflections in windows (and car mirrors). They'll stop banging into the window as the breeding season ends. You can discourage them with screens and other barrier techniques.
Regardless of the season, birds can fly into windows when they're frightened while visiting a feeding station. Either move the feeders a considerable distance away from the window, or immediately adjacent to the window (so birds don't get up to flight speed before hitting the window).
Insecticides and Lawn Chemicals
If you attract birds to your yard, keep in mind that many herbicides, insecticides and fertilizers are deadly poisons.
Ornithologists have known for several years that many lawn-care chemicals kill songbirds and contaminate their food. Mechanical and biological techniques may provide less hazardous pest control options.
Contact your USDA Extension office and the Environmental Protection Agency for information about integrated pest management, biological and chemical pest control safety and pest-resistant plant varieties.
Baby Bird "Orphans"
Sooner or later, no matter where you live, you'll come across a baby bird. You'll have to decide: should you rescue it or leave it to fend for itself?
In most cases, it is best to let nature take its course. Don't interfere.
If the bird is fully feathered, chances are it doesn't need your help. Each spring, baby birds leave the nest and have to learn to be adults. Their parents are nearby. They're best equipped to take care of the babies. You can help fledglings by keeping your dogs and cats in the house.
If the bird is unfeathered, try to return it to the nest. If that's not possible, put the baby in a shoe box and cover it. Get the bird to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. Do not attempt to take care of it yourself. After all, do you know what kind of bird it is? Do you know what to feed it?
No matter what the "first aid for baby birds" books at the library say, you will kill baby birds if you offer them a diet of human baby foods, hamburger meat, tuna, bird seed, milk, hard boiled eggs, bread or water.
Thud. A bird hits the window. You look out and see some feathers sticking to the corner of the pane. You rush outside and find a tiny yellow bird, still alive, lying under the window. It's not moving. What's the right thing to do? Get a towel. Gently put the bird in a cardboard box or large paper bag. Put the bird in a warm, quiet place. Do not offer first aid. Do not offer food or water. Get the bird to a veterinarian or an authorized wildlife rehabilitator (call your state wildlife agency for a referral).
Regardless of your best intentions, if you offer first aid without the proper training, you're likely to do more harm than good.
In the fall of 1990, a study on the effects of cats on wildlife was reported in the scientific and mass media. Researchers estimated that house cats and feral cats are responsible for killing approximately 78 million small mammals and birds annually in the United Kingdom.
Feline predation is not "natural." Millions of backyard birds and other animals are slaughtered by cats each year. Cats are a serious threat to fledglings, birds roosting at night and birds while they're on the nest, at the feeder and using a bird bath.
If you are unwilling to eliminate free-roaming cats, do not attract birds to your yard by putting out feeders, nest boxes and baths. Eliminating free-roaming cats is the best way you can "protect" your backyard birds from cat predation.
Responsible pet owners keep their cats indoors. Most local jurisdictions have enforceable leash laws for cats and dogs. Contact your local humane society for help.
Problems at the Bird Nest Box
Many homeowners invite birds to nest in their yards by putting up nesting boxes. Almost two dozen species will consider a human-made nest.
How do you make sure the "right" animal is using your bird nest?
Learn all you can about the birds you want to attract and offer them a box that opens at the top and the front or side. Monitor the nest box, and evict starlings and house sparrows.
The safest solution to insect infestations is physical removal and soaping the inside top of the box. If insects infest the box during nesting, apply a light dusting of rotenone or pyrethrin. Do not use chemical sprays.
If snakes and climbing mammals are a problem, use physical barriers to deter them. Try a PVC pipe over your metal bird house pole, or metal sheeting on a tree or wood pole. Smear the PVC or metal with Vaseline laced with hot (cayenne) pepper. Avoid automotive grease, it can be lethal to wildlife.
Put a predator guard over the nest entrance hole.
Do not use bird houses with perches below the entrance hole.
If you find birds attacking the adults, eggs or nestlings, what you can do depends on the perpetrators. Eliminate house sparrows and starlings. All other birds are protected by federal and state laws. You may not harass or otherwise harm hawks, owls, falcons, crows, grackles, jays and shrikes.
Feeding Station Problems
More than 82 million Americans feed wild birds. Sooner or later, these backyard bird feeders experience some problems: "wrong" birds at the feeder, no birds at the feeder, sick and injured birds, predators, pests and the "mess." Several factors determine which birds will visit your feeders: the type of feeder and seed you use, the presence of predators and how often you sanitize your feeders.
Tossing a mix of seeds on the ground is an easy way to feed birds. Just about every seed-eating bird in your neighborhood will stop by. So will squirrels, chipmunks, mice and rats. Any bird can feed on the ground, but in the wild few birds other than turkeys and quail find all their food there. Contrary to popular wisdom, large birds like the cardinals and doves are not "ground feeding" birds per se.
All birds will use an elevated feeder. The larger birds, with their larger feet and bodies, require large perches. Cardinals and doves will visit tube feeders, if you add a tray.
And it's healthier for these songbirds to feed at a feeder, not on the ground. Any cage bird owner and zookeeper will tell you that the ground below bird roosts and feeders is not where you want your birds to dine. It's very difficult to sterilize the ground below your feeders.
So resist the temptation to toss food on the ground. Put it in a feeder where it's dry and protected from contamination.
Birds Trapped in Feeders
When they're nearly empty, some poorly designed bird feeders can actually lure the birds inside, where they become confused and may die in a panic. If you're going on vacation, never leave your feeder full. It's better to take it down, than take the chance that a bird will become trapped.
Avoid clear plastic feeders with feeding ports an inch or larger in diameter. Chickadees will squeeze inside to get that last seed, and try to fly upward and out, forgetting the entrance is at the bottom. The same can happen in a wood hopper feeder with plastic walls tight to the roof.
Just about any yard that has trees, is a yard with squirrels. If you feed birds, sooner or later, squirrels will cause problems.
Squirrels will eat your bird seed and, when they "feel" like it, damage your feeders.
That is, unless you use safflower seed. Put it in any feeder. Hang it anywhere. Squirrels don't seem to like safflower, yet.
Who eats safflower? Cardinals, doves, chickadees, titmice and house finches.
Want more bird variety? Use sunflower. Most seed eating birds favor it. The problem is, squirrels do too. If you want to use sunflower, put it in a squirrel-proof feeder.
You can "squirrel-proof" any feeder by putting it on a pole with a baffle (the underside lathered with Vaseline and hot pepper) about ten feet from a squirrel-jumping off point.
Birds are attracted to sunflower because of its high oil content. Some of that oil saturates the shell. If you don't remove the spent shells, rodents are attracted to the smell.
The obvious solution is to rake up the shells. An easier way to eliminate the shell problem is to use hulled sunflower (also known as sunflower hearts or chips).
Regardless of which seed you use, store it in a metal garbage can in a cool, dry place. Seed will turn rancid when it sits in a hot garage or shed in the summer. To avoid insect infestations in warm weather, don't store more seed than you can use in a couple
Problems at the Bird Bath
Water attracts more bird species than any feeder or nest box. Bird baths can become bird problems when they're too deep (small birds can drown in three inches of water) or dirty (birds drink, bathe and defecate at a bath).
Hose out the bath daily and wash it with hot, soapy water at least once a week. Add liquid bleach to the soapy water to help kill algae and bacteria.
Winter is the most important time to offer water. There's no easy way to keep water from freezing. Contrary to some reports in the popular media, glycerin and antifreeze will kill birds.
The only way to keep water from freezing is to add an electric water warmer.
Be careful with electricity and water. Use a UL (Underwriters Laboratory) listed warmer, and connect your appliance to a GFIC (ground-fault interrupt circuit) outdoor socket.
"Prevention and Control of Wildlife Damage," edited by Robert Timm, 1983 Nebraska Cooperative Extension Service, Lincoln.
"There's A Bat in the Attic and a Woodchuck in the Garden: Methods of Reducing Wildlife Problems in Suburban Homes and Yards" by Richard Patterson, 1985. Indian Creek Nature Center, Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
"The Birder's Handbook" by Ehrlich, Dobkin and Wheye, 1988. Simon and Schuster, New York.
"The Expert's Guide to Backyard Birdfeeding" by Bill Adler and Heidi Hughes, 1990. Crown Publishers, New York.
"Backyard Bird Feeding," 1988. US Fish & Wildlife Service, Washington, DC 20240
"Homes for Birds," 1990. US Fish & Wildlife Service, Washington, DC 20240.
Each spring and fall the changes in our seasons are marked by massive movements of birds - migration.
In the fall, more than 350 species of birds leave for Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America, traveling thousands of miles to their winter homes.
Then as early as February and March, the miraculous happens again - the migrants begin their return. It's hard to imagine spring, summer or fall without the color, sounds and drama of our migratory birds.
Few of us think about what we can do to help these songbirds survive their grueling trip, and the stresses that await them - breeding and rearing their young.
Perhaps it's because only a few of the migrants are common in our suburban backyards. Some have names many of us recognize - the ruby-throated hummingbird, chimney swift, purple martin, gray catbird, wood thrush and northern oriole. Others may be familiar to the more serious bird watchers - the ruddy turnstone, yellow-bellied cuckoo, common nighthawk, yellow bellied flycatcher, scarlet tanager, bobolink, red-eyed vireo and Cape May warbler. Collectively, these birds are known as neotropical migrants because they nest in Canada and the United States, and winter in Mexico and points south.
During the 1980's, scientists observed a decline in numbers of migratory birds. What happened to the wood thrushes and cerulean warblers that breed in the large northeastern forests? Where are the hermit and Townsend's warblers of old growth forests; the dickcissels and bobolinks of our grasslands; the prairie warblers and yellow-breasted chats of our shrublands; and the yellow-billed cuckoos and willow flycatchers that nest in trees bordering our western streams?
Ornithologists and backyard bird watchers noticed a similar decline in some populations of common flickers, meadowlarks, field sparrows and belted kingfishers. These "short distance" migrants breed in the United States and Canada, and generally winter north of the Mexican border.
What has happened to these ne to help migre urge you to join us. This publication offers a brief introduction to what you can do to help conserve these avian treasures.
Know Your Birds
Most people can identify a cardinal and a chickadee at the backyard bird feeder. While these birds are important, Partners in Flight is focusing efforts on a less familiar group of birds.
The first step in helping our neotropical migrants is to learn who they are, what they look like, where they live and how they're threatened.
Read a bird identification book. (The Golden Guide to Birds of North America by Robbins, Zim and Bruun is the easiest field book for beginners.) Look at the pictures. Read the text. Familiarize yourself with the birds you're likely to see in your area.
Contact your state wildlife agency, the US Fish & Wildlife Service, and your local bird club for a list of the neotropical migrants that visit your area.
Robbins, Chandler, B. Bruun and H. Zim. 1983. A Guide to Field Identification: Birds of North America. Western Publishing, New York.
Field Guide to the Birds of North America. National Geographic Society, Washington, D.C.
Peterson, R. T. 1961 Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
Peterson, R. T. 1961 Field Guide to Western Birds. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
Borror, Donald. Bird Song and Bird Behavior. Dover Publications, New York.
Walton, Richard and R. Lawson. 1989. Birding by Ear. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
Ehrlich, Paul, D. Dobkin and D. Wheye. 1988. The Birder's Handbook. Simon and Schuster, New York.
Mead, Christopher. 1983. Bird Migration. Facts on File, New York
Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. 1991. Birds Over Troubled Forests. Washington, D.C.
No matter where you live, there are things you can do to get involved in migratory bird conservation: create and restore habitat, eliminate the use of chemicals that poison birds, enact and enforce free-roaming cat regulations and modify your windows to eliminate bird-window collisions.
Protect, Create and Restore Habitat
Getting involved in migratory bird conservation here in the United States or in Latin America can be as simple as writing a check, donating equipment or picking up a shovel. Many agencies and organizations that work to protect, create and restore breeding and wintering habitat for migratory birds are participating in Partners in Flight. You can get involved in this international effort by contacting any of the participants listed at the end of this booklet.
If you are willing to pick up a shovel, you can create and restore habitat at home, at your workplace and in your local park or wildlife refuge. You can make any property attractive to birds by offering water, shelter, food and nesting habitat.
Start first by evaluating your property. Keep in mind that a diversity of habitat encourages a larger variety of birds. Noisy water features attract more migratory birds.
Then think about your lawn. How much lawn do you really need? The things we do to keep a lawn green - lawn mowers, herbicides, fungicides and pesticides - can be lethal to birds.
Survey your yard for dead and dying trees. Top them so they don't fall on your house, but leave the standing trunks and make a brush pile with the downed canopy. Dead trees and brush piles provide shelter, nest sites and food (insects) for migrating birds.
Providing water can be as simple as putting out a bird bath or as complicated as installing a pond with a creek and waterfall. Birds are attracted to water features that are shallow (less than 2" deep), clean (hosed out daily, sanitized with hot soapy water and bleach at least weekly) and noisy (the sound of dripping water is a magnet for songbirds). Water features are most effective when placed out in the open, where birds can see predators coming.
If you put out bird feeders, select a safe feeder and keep it clean. Polycarbonate plastic tube feeders are the easiest to clean. Use one kind of seed per feeder, don't use seed mixes. Wash seed, suet and fruit feeders in hot soapy water and chlorine bleach at least once a month. If you use a tray or bowl feeder, plan to sanitize it more often. To be sure your hummingbird feeders do not harm the birds, do what zoos do; wash in hot, soapy water daily.
You don't have to put out a bird feeder to provide food for our neotropical migrants. Landscape your yard with native evergreen and fruiting trees, shrubs, grasses and vines. Design your garden so that your plants flower and fruit throughout the spring, summer and fall.
Planting A Refuge for Wildlife: How to Create A Backyard Habitat for Florida's Birds and Beasts. Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission, Tallahassee.
Trees, Shrubs and Vines for Attracting Wildlife. by Richard DeGraaf and G.M. Whitman, 1979. University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst.
Landscaping for Wildlife. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, St. Paul, MN 55155-4007.
Backyard Bird Feeding; Homes For Birds; >Backyard Bird Problems. US Fish & Wildlife Service, Consumer Information Center, 3C, PO Box 100, Pueblo, CO 81002.
American Wildlife and Plants: A Guide to Wildlife Food Habits. by A. C. Martin, H. S. Zim and A. L. Nelson. 1961. Dover, New York.
The Experts Guide to Backyard BirdFeeding. American Backyard Bird Society, PO Box 10046, Rockville, MD 20849.
Invite Birds to Your Home. Conservation Plantings Soil Conservation Service PO Box 2890 Washington, D.C. 20013.
The Hummingbird Garden: Turning Your Garden, Window Box or Backyard into a Beautiful Home for Hummingbirds. By Matthew Tekulshy. Crown Publishers, 1990.
Planting an Oasis for Wildlife. 1986. National Wildlife Federation.
The Backyard Naturalist. by Craig Tufts. 1988. National Wildlife Federation.
Eliminate the Poisons in Your Yard
"There was a strange stillness. The birds, for example-- where had they gone? Many people spoke of them, puzzled and disturbed. The feeding stations in the backyards were deserted. The few birds seen anywhere were moribund; they trembled violently and could not fly. It was spring without voices."
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, 1962
Rachel Carson introduced her classic book about the perils of pesticides with those observations in a chapter she called "A Fable for Tomorrow".
"Tomorrow." has arrived. Now, no one would think of using DDT to kill garden insects.
Yet, we assume that the lawn and garden chemicals found on the shelves at hardware stores are safe to use around birds (and people.) Take a close look at the labels. Too many popular pesticides are lethal to birds. And while many pesticides may not kill birds on contact, they can contaminate bird food (insects) and water.
What are the alternatives? Mechanical and biological techniques for pest control provide less hazardous options.
Contact your county USDA Agriculture Extension office and the Environmental protection Agency for information about integrated pest management, biological and chemical pest control safety and pest-resistant plant varieties. For more information contact:
National Coalition Against the Mis-Use of Pesticides 701 E St. SE Washington, DC 20003.
US Environmental Protection Agency (H7505 C), Office of Pesticide Programs Environmental Fate and Effects Division, 401 M St. SW, Washington, DC 20460.
Americans keep an estimated 60 million cats as pets. Let's say each cat kills only one bird a year. That would mean that cats kill over 60 million birds (minimum) each year - more wildlife than any oil spill.
Scientific studies actually show that each year, cats kill hundreds of millions of migratory songbirds. In 1990, researchers estimated that "outdoor" house cats and feral cats were responsible for killing nearly 78 million small mammals and birds annually in the United Kingdom.
University of Wisconsin ornithologist, Dr. Santley Temple estimates that 20-150 million songbirds are killed each year by rural cats in Wisconsin alone.
Feline predation is not "natural." Cats were domesticated by the ancient Egyptians and taken throughout the world by the Romans. Cats were brought to North America in the 1800's to control rats. The "tabby" that sits curled up on your couch is not a natural predator and has never been in the natural food chain in the Western Hemisphere.
Cats are a serious threat to fledglings, birds roosting at night and birds on a nest. Research shows that de-clawing cats and bell collars do not prevent them from killing birds and other small animals. For healthy cats and wild birds, cats should not be allowed to roam free.
Work with your local humane society, veterinarians and state wildlife agency to enact and enforce free-roaming cat regulations. For more information:
Free Roaming Cats. American Backyard Bird Society, PO Box 10046, Rockville, MD 20849.
Cats: A Heavy Toll on Songbirds. by Rich Stallcup. Point Reyes Bird Observatory, 4990 Shoreline Hwy., Stinson Beach, CA 94924.
Is there a Killer in Your House? by George Harrison, National Wildlife Magazine (October/November 1992).
Beware of Well-Fed Felines. by Peter Churcher and John Lawton, Natural History Magazine (July 1989).
Contemporary homes and modern office buildings often use insulated and reflective glass to replace walls. These windows may be aesthetically pleasing to humans, but often they are lethal to birds. Unfortunately, many birds cannot distinguish the difference between real sky and a reflection of the sky in a window.
In the United States alone, Dr. Dan Klem of Muhlenberg College estimates that each year during migration 98 to 976 million birds fly full tilt into windows and are fatally injured.
Dr. Klem says we can minimize these collisions by breaking up the reflection on the outside of the window with a non-reflective window coating, window screens, flash tape and bird netting.
Life size animate "scares" (plastic falcons, owls and balloons) and falcon or owl silhouettes attached to windows with suction cups are not effective deterrents.
Planting trees and installing window awnings to block the sun from hitting the window may eliminate some reflection. Putting a bird feeder on or within a few feet of a window helps to slow birds down and lessen the effect of impact.
Migration isn't the only time homeowners have trouble with bird-window collisions. Birds may hit your windows during breeding season and in the winter too. For further information:
Bird-Window Collisions. American Backyard Bird Society, PO Box 10046, Rockville, MD 20849.
Birds and Windows. Bird Bulletin, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, 159 Sapsucker Woods Rd., Ithaca, NY 14850.
House Sparrows and Starlings
Every Spring, birds that nest in cavities compete with each other for a limited number of nest sites. The neotropical migrants that nest in cavities - purple martins, tree swallows and great-crested flycatchers - have adapted to competition from chickadees, titmice and woodpeckers.
The "rules of competition" changed around the turn of the century when we humans imported two European cavity nesting species: house sparrows and starlings.
House sparrows eliminate nest competitors by attacking the adults and killing the young when they are on the nest. Starlings eliminate nest competitors by taking over cavity nesting sites. Our native birds don't seem to be able to defend themselves from house sparrow and starling attacks. So, if you put up a nest box to help bluebirds, martins, chickadees, titmice, woodpecker, wrens or flycatchers, you must monitor the box and eliminate house sparrows and starlings.
Educate Yourself and Others
Once you know which neotropical migrants are found in your area, why they're threatened, and what can be done - it's time to do something.
There are many ways to educate yourself and others about the problems facing migratory birds. Read. Join local, national and international conservation organizations. Speak out to your friends, neighbors and homeowner's associations. Get children involved through scout, school and youth group activities.
Work with politicians and businesses to develop conservation strategies that will benefit birds and people who live in your community.
Become politically aware and active: write letters to legislators and the news media. Let your voice be heard.
Contact local refuges, parks and forests to learn about volunteer opportunities for adults and children. Purchase a copy of the Volunteer Directory (American Birding Association, PO Box 6599, Colorado Springs, CO 80934) for a complete listing of volunteer opportunities for birders.
Join thousands of volunteers participating in local, national and international monitoring programs each year. While several of these programs require considerable ornithological skill, you don't have to be a bird expert to help with others. To learn more, join your local bird club. Take a bird course at your local museum, nature center or zoo.
To get involved in a monitoring program, contact any of the following programs:
Christmas Bird Count,
National Audubon Society,
700 Broadway, New York, NY 100003
Breeding Bird Survey,
National Biological Service, Patuxent Environmental Science Center,
Laurel, MD 20708
North American Migration Count,
PO Box 71, North Beach, MD 20714
Breeding Bird Census, Cornell Laboratory of
Ornithology , 159 Sapsucker Woods Rd., Ithaca,
North American Ornithological Atlas
Committee, PO Box 157, Cambridge, VT
International Shorebird Survey, Manomet
Bird Observatory, Box 936 Manomet, MA
Hawk Counts, Hawk Migration Association of
North America, PO Box 3482, Lynchburg, VA
Project Tanager, Cornell Laboratory of
Ornithology, 159 Sapsucker Woods Rd., Ithaca,
Work with migratory birds must extend beyond the borders of North America. There are dozens of opportunities to help neotropical bird projects in Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America.
Contact the following groups for information on how you can contribute to their programs, and how you can help school and youth groups link with children in other countries to exchange letters, drawings and stories about the migratory birds we share.
Herb Raffaele,US Fish & Wildlife Service, Office of International Affairs, Washington, DC 20240
Peter Stangel, National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, 1120 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 900, Washington, DC 20036
George Shillinger, Birdlife International, 1250 24th St. NW #500, Washington, DC 20037
Russell Greenberg, Smithsonian Migratory Bird Program, PO Box 28 Edgewater, MD 21037
Laurie Hunter, The Nature Conservancy, 1815 N. Lynn St., Arlington, VA 22209
Susan Carlson, National Audubon Society, 666 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, Suite 200, Washington, DC 20003
The conservation of migratory birds, and all our natural resources, depends on your concern and involvement. There are so many ways to get involved and contribute. Starting and maintaining a bluebird trail, planting trees to restore habitat and covering "killer" windows are but a few. This booklet is an introduction to some of the things you can do. Once you get started, you're sure to discover many more activities just waiting for the right person to take charge. Choose what works best for you - and just do it!
To keep current with efforts in migratory bird conservation, get on the mailing list for the free
Partners in Flight Newsletter
(National Fish and Wildlife Foundation,
1120 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 900,
Washington, DC 20036.)
US Fish & Wildlife Service, Office of Migratory Bird Management, Rm. 634 Arlington Sq., 4401 North Fairfax Dr., Arlington, VA 22203
Pacific Region, Nongame Bird Coordinator, US Fish and Wildlife Service, 911 NE 11th Ave., Portland, OR 97232-4181
Southwest Region, Nongame Bird Coordinator ,US Fish & Wildlife Service, 500 Gold Ave. SW, PO Box 1306, Albuquerque, NM 87103
Rocky Mountain Region, Nongame Bird Coordinator, US Fish and Wildlife Service, PO Box 25486, Denver Federal Center, Denver, CO 80225
North Central Region, Nongame Bird Coordinator, US Fish & Wildlife Service, 1 Federal Drive, Federal Building, Ft. Snelling, MN 55111-4056
Southeastern Region, Nongame Bird Coordinator, US Fish & Wildlife Service, 1875 Century Blvd., Atlanta, GA 30345
Northeastern Region, Nongame Bird Coordinator, US Fish & Wildlife Service, 300 Westgate Center Dr., Hadley, MA 01035-9589
Alaska, Nongame Bird Coordinator, US Fish & Wildlife Service, 1011 E. Tudor Rd., Anchorage, AK 99503
US Forest Service, Fish & Wildlife Section, PO Box 96090, Washington, DC 20090-6090
National Park Service, Fish & Wildlife Section, PO Box 37127, Washington, DC 20013-7127
Bureau of Land Management, Non Game Bird Program Manager, 3380 Americana Terrace, Boise, ID 83706
US Agency of International Development, LAC-DR-E, Room 2242, Washington, DC 20523-0010
Dept. of Navy, Natural Resources Manager, Naval Facilities Engineering Command, Washington Navy Yard, Washington, DC 20364
Environmental Protection Agency, H-8105, 401 M St. SW, Washington, DC 20460
USDA Extension Service, National Program Leader, Rm. 3871 South Bldg., Washington, DC 20250
Soil Conservation Service, RMFRES, 3925 E. Mulberry, Ft. Collins, CO 80524-8507
Animal Damage Control, USDA, 6505 Belcrest Rd., Rm. 820, Hyattsville, MD 20782
Bureau of Reclamation, Environmental Service Staff, D-5002, Denver, CO 80225
Tennessee Valley Authority, 17 Ridgeway Rd., Norris, TN 37828
State Wildlife Agencies
Div. of Game & Fish, 64N Union St.,
Dept. of Fish and Game, PO Box 25526,
Game & Fish Comm., Rt. 1 Box 188-A,
Game & Fish Dept., 2221 W. Greenway Rd.,
Dept. Fish & Game, 1416 Ninth St.,
Div. of Wildlife, 317 W. Prospect,
Ft. Collins 80526
Dept. of Environmental Protection, 79 Elm St.,
Div. of Fish and Wildlife, PO Box 1401,
Game & Freshwater Fish Comm., 620 S. Meridian St.,
Wildlife Resources Div., 2070 U.S. Hwy 278 SE,
Social Circle 30279
Dept. of Natural Resources, 1151 Punchbowl St.,
Fish & Game Dept., 600 South Walnut, PO Box 25,
Dept. Conservation, 524 S. Second St.,
Dept. of Natural Resources, 402 W. Washington,
Dept. of Natural Resources, 300 4th St.,
Des Moines 50319-0034
Fisheries & Wildlife Division, Rt. 2, Box 54A,
Dept. Fish & Wildlife, 1 Game Farm Rd.,
Fish & Wildlife Dept., PO Box 98000,
Baton Rouge 70898-9000
Dept. of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, 284 State Street, State House Station 41,
Dept. Natural Resources, PO Box 68,
Wye Mills 21679
Fisheries & Wildlife, 100 Cambridge St.,
Dept. of Natural Resources
Box 30028, Lansing 48909
Dept. of Natural Resources, Box 7, 500 Lafayette Rd.,
St. Paul 55155-4001
Dept. Wildlife Fisheries & Parks, PO Box 451,
Dept. Conservation, PO Box 180,
Jefferson City 65101
Dept. Fish, Wildlife & Parks, Rt 1, 4210,
Game & Parks Commission, PO Box 30370, 2200 N 33rd St.,
Div. of Wildlife, Box 10678, 1100 Valley Rd.,
Fish & Game Dept., 2 Hazen Dr.,
Div. of Fish Game & Wildlife, CN 400,
Dept. of Game and Fish, Villagra Bldg., PO Box 25112,
Santa Fe 87504
Dept. Environmental Conservation,
Game Bird Unit, Delmar 12054-9767
Wildlife Resources Commission,
512 N. Salisbury St., Raleigh 27604-1188
Game & Fish Dept., 100 N. Bismarck Expwy,
Game Commission, 2001 Elmerton Ave.,
Div. of Wildlife, 1840 Belcher Dr., Bldg. G-3,
Dept. Wildlife Conservation, PO Box 53465,
Oklahoma City 73152
Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, 2501 SW 1st., PO Box 59,
Dept. of Natural Resources, PO Box 5887,
San Juan 00906
Div. of Fish & Wildlife, 4808 Tower Hill Rd.,
Dept. of Natural Resources, 1000 Assembly St., P.O. Box 167,
Game, Fish & Parks, 523 E. Capitol,
Wildlife Resources Agency, PO Box 40747,
Parks & Wildlife, 4200 Smith School Rd.,
Wildlife Resources, 1596 W. N. Temple,
Salt Lake City 84116-3195
Natural Resources Dept., PO Box 4399,
St. Thomas 00801
Fish & Wildlife Dept,. 103 S. Main Street,
Game & Inland Fisheries, Box 11104,
Dept. of Wildlife, 600 Capitol Way N.,
Div. of Natural Resources, 219/250 South, PO Box 67 Ward Rd.,
Dept. Natural Resources, Box 7921,
Game & Fish Dept., 5400 Bishop Blvd.,
American Backyard Bird Society,
PO Box 10046, Rockville, MD 20849
American Forest Resource Alliance,
1250 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 200,
Washington, DC 20036
American Ornithologist's Union,
Committee for NIE, 730 11th St. NW,
Washington, DC 20037
Birdlife International, 1250 24th St. NW,
#500, Washington, DC 20037
Colorado Bird Observatory,
13401 Picadilly Rd., Brighton, CO 80601
Conservation International, 1015 18th St.
NW, Suite 1000, Washington, DC 20036
Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology,
159 Sapsucker Woods Rd., Ithaca, NY 14850
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Association,
Route 2, Box 191, Kempton, PA 19529
Hawkwatch International, PO Box 35706,
Albuquerque, NM 87176-5706
Institute for Bird Populations, PO Box 554,
Inverness, CA 94937
International Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies, 444 N. Capitol St. NW,
#544, Washington DC 20001
Manomet Bird Observatory, PO Box 1770,
Manomet, MA 22345
National Audubon Society, 700 Broadway,
New York, NY 10003-9501
National Fish & Wildlife Foundation,
18th & C Streets NW, Room 2556,
Washington, DC 20240
National Wildlife Federation,
1400 16th Street NW,
Washington, DC 20036-2266
The Nature Conservancy, PO Box 41125,
Baton Rouge, LA 70821
North American Bluebird Society,
P.O. Box 6295, Silver Spring, MD 20906
New Jersey Conservation Foundation,
300 Mendham Rd., Morristown, NJ 07960
Organization for Tropical Studies,
PO Box DM, Duke University,
Durham, NC 27706
Point Reyes Bird Observatory,
4990 Shoreline Highway,
Stinson Beach, CA 94924
The Peregrine Fund,
5666 West Flying Hawk Lane, Boise, ID 83709
Rainforest Alliance, 270 Lafayette St.
Suite 512, New York, NY 10012
Smithsonian Institution Migratory Bird Center,
National Zoological Park,
Washington, DC 20008
Tennessee Conservation League,
300 Orlando Ave., Nashville, TN 37209-3200
The Wilderness Society, 900 17th St. NW,
Washington, DC 20006
Wildlife Conservation International,
4424 13th St., Gainesville, FL 32609
Wildlife Management Institute,
5410 Grosvenor Lane, Bethesda, MD 20814
World Wildlife Fund, 1250 24th St. NW,
Washington, DC 20037-1175
Homes for Birds
It doesn't matter where you live -- in an apartment, townhouse, or single family dwelling, in the city, suburbs or country. Just stand still and you'll hear them: wild birds. It's hard to imagine life without them.
Bird watching is one of the fastest growing hobbies in the country. It's easy to understand why. Birds are fun to watch.
And you can watch them just about everywhere. The most convenient place to start is right in your own backyard. All it takes to get their attention is water, food, and a place to build a nest.
This publication is designed to help you build or buy suitable homes--more correctly, nesting boxes--for birds. Your success in attracting birds will depend on what you know about birds and birdhouse design. This booklet tells you what you need to know to get started:
- which birds nest in houses
- basics of bird-house construction
- proper placement
- good maintenance
- how to deal with predators
Many of the birds that visit feeders and baths may stay and nest in nearby trees. Most of them, including cardinals, doves and orioles, don't nest in boxes. You can still help them by considering their food and shelter requirements in your landscape plans. You can also hang out a wire cage full of nesting materials (fiber scraps, twigs, wool, or feathers) in the spring.
More than two dozen North American birds will nest in bird houses. The following descriptions will help you determine which birds might visit your neighborhood.
If you put up a bluebird house near an old field, orchard, park, cemetery, or golf course, you'll have a good chance of attracting a pair of bluebirds. They prefer nest boxes on a tree stump or wooden fence post between three and five feet high. Bluebirds also nest in abandoned woodpecker nest holes. The most important measurement is the hole diameter. An inch and a half is small enough to deter starlings. Starlings and house sparrows have been known to kill baby bluebirds as well as adults sitting on the nest.
Bluebirds have problems with other animals too. The easiest way to discourage predatory cats, snakes, raccoons, and chipmunks is to mount the house on a metal pole, or use a metal predator guard on a wood post.
Robins are our largest thrushes. They prefer to build their nest in the crotch of a tree. If you don't have an appropriate tree, you can offer a nesting platform. Pick a spot six feet or higher up on a shaded tree trunk or under the overhang of a shed or porch. Creating a "mud puddle" nearby offers further excitement, as robins use mud to line their nests.
Chickadees, Nuthatches, and Titmice
Chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches share the same food, feeders, and habitats. If you put a properly designed nest box in a wooded yard, at least one pair is sure to check it out.
Put chickadee houses at eye level. Hang them from limbs or secure them to tree trunks. The entrance hole should be 1-1/8" to attract chickadees yet exclude house sparrows.
Anchor houses for hatches on tree trunks five to six feet off the ground.
You can encourage these birds to stay in your yard by continuing to fill your suet and peanut feeders through the summer.
Brown Creepers and Prothonotary Warblers
Look for brown creepers to nest behind the curved bark of tree trunks. In heavily wooded yards, slab bark houses will appeal to creepers. Prothonotary warblers also prefer slab bark houses, but theirs must be placed over water.
Wrens don't seem to be very picky about where they nest. Try nest boxes with a 1" x 2" horizontal slot (1-1/2" x 2-1/2" for the larger Carolina wrens) instead of a circle. These are easier for the wrens to use.
Wrens are notorious for filling up any conceivable nest cavity with twigs, regardless of whether they use the nest. Since male house wrens build several nests for the female to choose from, hang several nest boxes at eye level on partly sunlit tree limbs. Wrens are sociable and will accept nest boxes quite close to your house.
Tree and Violet-green Swallows
Tree swallows prefer nest boxes attached to dead trees. Space the boxes about seven feet apart for these white-bellied birds with iridescent blue-green backs and wings. The ideal setting for these insect-eaters is on the edge of a field near a lake, pond, or river.
Violet-green swallows nest in forested mountains of the west; boxes placed on large trees in a semi-open woodland will attract them.
Barn Swallows and Phoebes
If you have the right habitat, barn swallows and phoebes are easy to attract. It's their nesting behavior, not their plumage or song, that catches your attention. These birds tend to nest where you'd rather not have them: on a ledge right over your front door. To avoid a mess by your door, offer the birds a nesting shelf nearby where you'd rather have them.
Many people want martins because, it's been said, these birds "can eat 2,000 mosquitoes a day." While it's true that they eat flying insects, don't expect purple martins to wipe out your mosquitoes. Martins actually prefer dragonflies, insects which prey on mosquito larvae.
Mosquitoes are most active after sunset. If you want to rid your yard of mosquitoes, put up a bat roosting box. One bat can eat thousands of mosquitoes a night.
But don't cross martins off your prospective tenant list because they don't live up to their "bug zapping" reputation. If you need a reason for attracting them, these gregarious swallows put on a show that's better than any television soap opera.
You have the best chance of attracting martins if you put a house on the edge of a pond or river, surrounded by a field or lawn. Martins need a radius of about 40 feet of unobstructed flying space around their houses. A convenient wire nearby gives them a place to perch in sociable groups.
Martins nest in groups, so you'll need a house with a minimum of four large rooms -- 6 or more inches on all sides, with a 2-1/2 inch entrance hole about an inch and a half above the floor.
Ventilation and drainage are critical factors in martin house design. Porches, railings, porch dividers and supplemental roof perches, like a TV antenna, will make any house more appealing.
Gourds may also be made into houses by making an entrance hole and providing drainage. If you use gourds, it's not necessary to add railings and perches. Adult martins will perch on the wire used to hang the houses.
Before you decide on a house, take the time to think about what kind of pole you're going to put it on. Martins will occupy a house that's between ten and twenty feet off the ground. Some poles are less cumbersome than others.
Gourd houses are the easiest to set up. You can string them:
- from a wire between two poles
- from a sectional aluminum pole
- on pulleys mounted to cross-bar high up on a pole.
Light-weight aluminum houses can be mounted on telescoping poles, providing easy access for maintenance and inspection. Because of their weight (well over 30 pounds), wood houses cannot be mounted on easy-access telescoping poles. You'll have to use a sturdy metal or wood pole attached to a pivot post. The problem with this "lowering" technique is that you can't tilt the house without damaging the nests inside. If you put your house on a shorter, fixed pole, ten to twelve feet high, you can use a ladder to inspect and maintain it.
The great crested flycatcher and its western cousin, the ash-throated flycatcher, are common in wooded suburbs. Their natural nesting sites are abandoned woodpecker holes.
These flycatchers may nest in a bird house if it's placed about ten feet up in a tree in an orchard or at the edge of a field or stream.
You can attract all the woodpeckers with a suet feeder, but only the flicker and the red-bellied are likely to use a bird house. They prefer a box with roughened interior and a floor covered with a two-inch layer of wood chips or coarse sawdust. Flickers are especially attracted to nest boxes filled with sawdust, which they "excavate" to suit themselves.
For best results, place the box high up on a tree trunk exposed to direct sunlight.
Most owls seldom build their own nests. Great horned and long-eared owls prefer abandoned crow and hawk nests. Other owls (barred, barn, saw-whet, boreal and screech) nest in tree cavities and bird houses.
Barn owls are best known for selecting nesting sites near farms. Where trees are sparse, these birds will nest in church steeples, silos, and barns. If you live near a farm or a golf course, try fastening a nest box about 15 feet up on a tree trunk.
Screech owls prefer abandoned woodpecker holes at the edge of a field or neglected orchard. They will readily take to a boxes lined with an inch or two of wood shavings. If you clean the box out in late spring after the young owls have fledged, you may attract a second tenant--a kestrel. Trees isolated from larger tracts of woods have less chance of squirrels taking over the box.
In the bird house business, there's no such thing as "one size fits all." You need to decide which bird you want to attract, then get a house for that particular bird.
Look through any book or catalog and you'll see bird houses of all sizes and shapes, with perches and without, made of materials you might not have thought of: recycled paper, gourds, plastic, rubber, pottery, metal, and concrete.
So what makes a "good" bird house? It's a combination of quality materials and design.
Of all the available building materials, wood is about as good as you can get. It's durable, has good insulating qualities, and it breathes. Three-quarter-inch-thick bald-cypress and red cedar are recommended. Pine and exterior grade plywood will do, but they're not as durable.
It makes no difference whether the wood is slab, rough-cut or finished, as long as the inside has not been treated with stains or preservatives. Fumes from the chemicals could harm the birds.
There's no need to paint cypress and cedar, but pine and plywood houses will last longer with a coat of water based exterior latex paint. White is the color for purple martin houses. Tan, gray, or dull green works best for the other cavity nesting species. The dull, light colors reflect heat and are less conspicuous to predators. Don't paint the inside of the box or the entrance hole.
Regardless of which wood you select, gluing all the joints before you nail them will extend the life of your bird house. Galvanized or brass shank nails, hinges, and screws resist rusting and hold boxes together more tightly as they age.
Resist the temptation to put a metal roof on your bird house. Reflective metal makes sense for martin houses up on a sixteen-foot pole, but when it's tacked onto a roof of a wood chickadee house, the metal is more likely to attract predators.
Natural gourds make very attractive bird houses. They "breathe," and because they sway in the wind are less likely to be taken over by house sparrows and starlings.
Grow your own gourds and you'll have dozens to choose from in the years ahead. If you don't have the space to grow them, a coat of polyurethane or exterior latex (on the outside only) will add years to the one you have.
Properly designed pottery, aluminum (for purple martins only), concrete, and plastic houses will breathe and are durable, but don't drop them.
Be sure to provide ventilation, drainage, and easy access for maintenance and monitoring. Concrete (actually a mix of concrete and sawdust) offers protection other houses cannot: squirrels cannot chew their way in.
How elaborate you make your bird house depends on your personal sense of aesthetics. For the most part, all the birds care about is their safety and the right dimensions: box height, depth and floor, diameter of entrance hole, and height of hole above the box floor. Refer to the following chart, keeping in mind that birds make their own choices, without regard for charts. So don't be surprised when you find tenants you never expected in a house you intended for someone else.
Nest Box Dimensions
|Eastern & Western Bluebird||5x5||8-12||6-10||1-1/2||4-6|
|Great Crested Flycatcher||6x6||8-12||6-10||1-3/4||5-15|
|Brown-headed Pygmy and Red-breasted Nuthatch||4x4||8-10||6-8||1-1/4||5-15|
|Tree and Violet-Green Swallows||5x5||6-8||4-6||1-1/2||5-15|
|Bewick's and House wrens||4x4||6-8||4-6||1-1/4||5-10|
|Screech Owls and Kestrel||8x8||12-15||9-12||3||10-30|
|Red-tailed Hawk and Great Horned Owl||24x24 platform|
*Use nesting shelf, platform with three sides and an open front
Now that you have the correct dimensions for your bird house, take a look at how to make it safe: ventilation, drainage, susceptibly to predators, and ease of maintenance.
Without air vents, boxes can turn into bird ovens. There are two ways to provide ventilation: leave gaps between the roof and sides of the box, or drill 1/4" holes just below the roof.
Water becomes a problem when it sits in the bottom of a bird house. A roof with sufficient slope and overhang offers some protection. Drilling the entrance hole on an upward slant may also help keep the water out.
Regardless of design, driving rain will get in through the entrance hole. You can assure proper drainage by cutting away the corners of the box floor and by drilling 1/4 inch holes in the box floor. Nest boxes will last longer if the floors are recessed about 1/4 inch.
Look for the entrance hole (and exit) hole on the front panel near the top. A rough surface both inside and out makes it easier for the adults to get into the box and, when it's time, for the nestlings to climb out.
If your box is made of finished wood, add a couple of grooves outside below the hole. Open the front panel and add grooves, cleats, or wire mesh to the inside.
Never put up a bird house with a perch below the entrance hole. Perches offer starlings, house sparrows, and other predators a convenient place to wait for lunch.
Don't be tempted by those beautiful duplexes or houses that have more than one entrance hole. With the exception of purple martins, cavity-nesting birds prefer not to share a house. While these condos look great in your yard, starlings and house sparrows are the only birds inclined to use them.
Bird houses should be easily accessible so you can see how your birds are doing and, when the time comes, clean out the house.
Part of being a responsible bird house landlord is your willingness to watch out for your tenants. Monitor your bird houses every week and evict unwanted creatures: house sparrows, starlings, rodents, snakes, and insects.
Be careful when you inspect your bird boxes. You may find something other than a bird inside. Don't be surprised to see squirrels, a mouse, a snake, or insects. Look for fleas, flies, mites, larvae, and lice in the bottom of the box.
If you find insects and parasites, your first reaction may be grab the nearest can of insect spray. If you do, use only insecticides known to be safe around birds: 1% rotenone powder or pyrethrin spray. If wasps are a problem, coat the inside top of the box with bar soap.
Here's how to check your nest boxes:
Watch the nest for awhile. If you don't see or hear any birds, go over and tap on the box. If you hear bird sounds, open the top and take a quick peek inside. If everything's okay, close the box. If you see problems (parasites or predators), remove them and close the box.
Here's where a bird house with easy access makes the job simple. Most bird houses can be opened from the top, the side, the front, or the bottom.
Boxes that open from the top and the front provide the easiest access. Opening the box from the top is less likely to disturb nesting birds. It's impossible to open a box from the bottom without the nest falling out. While side- and front-opening boxes are convenient for cleaning and monitoring, they have one drawback: the nestlings may jump out.
If this happens, don't panic. Just pick them up and put them back in the nest. Don't worry that the adults will reject the nestlings if you handle them. That's a myth. Most birds have a terrible sense of smell.
If you clean out your nest boxes after each brood has fledged, several pairs may use the nest throughout the summer. Many cavity nesting birds will not nest again in a box full of old nesting
In the fall, after you've cleaned out your nest boxes for the last time, you can put them in storage or leave them out. Gourds and pottery last longer if you take them in for the winter. You can leave your purple martin houses up, but be sure to plug the entrance holes to discourage starlings and house sparrows.
Leaving your wood and concrete houses out provides shelter for birds, flying squirrels, and other animals during winter.
Each spring be sure to clean out all houses you've left out for the winter.
Limiting Predator Access
Proper box depth, roof, and entrance hole design will help minimize predator (raccoons, cats, opossums, and red squirrels) access. Sometimes all it takes is an angled roof with a three-inch overhang to discourage mammals.
The entrance hole is the only thing between a predator and a bird house full of nestlings. By itself, the 3/4" wall isn't wide enough to keep out the arm of a raccoon or house cat.
Add a predator guard a 3/4 inch thick rectangular wood block, to thicken the wall, and you'll discourage sparrows, starlings, and cats.
Where you put your bird house is as important as its design and construction. Cavity nesting birds are very particular about where they live. No matter how perfect your nest box, if you don't have the right habitat, the birds aren't likely to find it.
Not everyone has the habitat for a wood duck, purple martin, or screech owl. On the other hand, just about anyone can attract a robin, titmouse, wren, or chickadee.
Let's assume you've built or bought the "perfect" house. You put it out in your backyard in February. Months pass, and not one bird has landed on it. What's wrong?
It may be that you don't have the right habitat, or it may be where you put the house.
There's lots you can do to modify your land to attract the birds you want to see. It can be as simple as putting out a bird bath or as complicated as planting fruit-bearing shrubs or installing a pond with a waterfall.
But it's much easier just to identify the birds most likely to take to your backyard as it is and put the appropriate nest box in the right place.
Should you hang it from a tree limb, nail it to a fence, or mount it on a pole or a tree trunk?
There's a wide range between how high and low you can place a nest box. Pick a height that's convenient for you. After all, you'll want to watch what goes on and keep the box clean. If you want to watch chickadees from your second floor window or deck, fifteen feet is not unreasonable but it's a lot easier to clean out a box at eye level.
Here are some tips on where to put bird houses:
- houses mounted on metal poles are less vulnerable to predators than houses nailed to tree trunks or hung from tree limbs.
- use no more than four small nest boxes for any one species or one large box per acre.
- put about 100 yards between bluebird boxes and 75 yards between swallow boxes (if you have both species, "pair" the houses with one bluebird box 25 feet from a swallow box. Put the "pair" 100 yards away.)
- don't put bird houses near bird feeders.
- don't put more than one box in a tree, unless the tree is extremely large or the boxes are for different species.
- if you have very hot summers, face the entrance holes of your boxes north or east to avoid overheating the box.
Nesting birds are very vulnerable to cats, as are fledglings and birds roosting for the night. Bell collars on cats offer birds little protection. Nailing a sheet metal guard or cone to a tree trunk is unsightly, but it may deter less agile felines. Houses mounted on metal poles are the most difficult for predators to reach, especially if you smear the poles with a petroleum jelly and hot pepper mixture.
Pet dogs are a hazard to nestlings in the spring and summer. All it takes is one swift bite and the baby bird is gone. Don't let your dog run loose during nesting time.
Red squirrels, and sometimes gray squirrels, can become a serious menace to bird houses and the birds themselves. If you find your nest hole enlarged, chances are a red squirrel is the culprit. Once inside the box, squirrels make a meal of the eggs and young.
Adding a predator guard of sheet metal to the entrance hole is usually enough to keep squirrels out.
Raccoons and Opossums
Raccoons and opossums will stick their arms inside nest boxes and try to pull out the adult, young, and eggs. Adding a predator guard to the bird house or to its pole support is a simple solution.
Snakes are an important part of the natural balance between predator and prey. If you find one of these reptiles in your bird house, please don't kill it.
Snake-proof your house by putting it on a metal pole lathered with vaseline or hot red cayenne pepper.
House Sparrows and Starlings
If you don't discourage them, these two pest species introduced from Europe will bully or kill cavity-nesting birds. Since house sparrows and starlings are not protected by law, you may destroy their nests. But, remember, other birds are protected by law.
Sometimes house wrens interfere with the nesting success of other birds by puncturing their eggs. But unlike the sparrow and starling, these birds are part of the natural system. They are protected by law. Don't be tempted to intervene.
Many insects lay their eggs and pupate in bird houses. You should inspect your bird houses for signs of gypsy moths, blow flies, wasps, ants, gnats, and bees.
You can keep bees and wasps from attaching their nests by coating the inside of the roof with bar soap. In areas where gypsy moths abound, avoid placing boxes in oak trees, which are favored by the gypsy moths.
Pyrethrin and rotenone insecticides are recommended for killing fly larvae, bird lice, and miles after birds have finished nesting for the season.
Each year your State wildlife agency, private conservation groups, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service work together to acquire and manage millions of acres of wetland habitat--swamps, ponds, lakes, and marshes. These wetlands provide nesting habitat for songbirds and shorebirds, ducks and geese, hawks and owls.
You can help preserve wetlands for wildlife by buying Federal Duck Stamps at your local post office. Money from sales of these Stamps is used to buy more wetlands. For more information write: Director, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C. 20240.
A Field Guide to the Birds of North America by Robbins, Brunn, Zim, and Singer. Golden Press, 1983.
Trees, Shrubs, and Vines for Attracting Birds by Richard DeGraff and Gretchen Wit. University of Massachusetts Press, 1979.
How to Attract Birds by Ortho Books, 1983.
30 Birds That Will Nest in Birdhouses by R.B. Layton, Nature Book Publishing Company, 1977.
The Birder's Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of Noah American Birds by Paul Ehrlich, David Dobkin, and Darryl Wheye. Simon and Schuster, 1988.
The Bluebird: How You Can Help Fight For Its Survival by Lawrence Zeleny, Indiana University Press, 1976.
Planting A Refuge for Wildlife: How to Create A Backyard Habitat for Florida's Birds and Beasts by Cerulean, Botha, and Legare. Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission, Tallahassee.
American Wildlife and Plants: A Guide to Wildlife Food Habits by Martin, Zim, and Nelson. Dover Publications, 1961.
A Field Guide to the Nests, Eggs, and Nestings of North American Birds by Colin Harrison. Viking Press, 1984.
Woodworking For Wildlife by Carrol Henderson. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, St. Paul, 1984
Most of the content in the above pamphlets were combined into a colorful all-encompassing pamphlet. " For the Birds."