Small Steps for Saving Birds

Junco on icy rocks--no salt, just frozen rain.

Days like today, when it is below freezing, windy and thoroughly nasty, our songbirds are out in droves. I'll end up with the screens of my windows raised four inches all over the house so I can quietly raise a window and stick a telephoto lens through the slot to capture the activity all over the yard. Probably looks pretty strange, if anybody is looking!

Some bird species will park themselves in, on or under the various feeders and stay for a Very Long Time. Others, like Tufted Titmice, will dart in and dash out regularly--far more careful of predators. Today, one of the titmice grabbed a peanut, flew up next to the house and stuffed it into the creeping thyme that was cascading out of one of the potted plants. This is the first time I've ever noticed a titmouse "stashing" peanuts. Evidently, he's been hanging around long enough to figure out that the squirrels will empty the feeder in short order, and he'd better get those peanuts while the getting is good!

Bluejay snagging a peanut from feeder.

Having a lot of feeders can become a threat to songbirds, because all that commotion is going to be noticed by small hawks, owls and house cats. So in addition to cleaning your feeders on a regular basis, you can be kind to your birds by placing feeders close to evergreen trees and tall shrubs to provide them with quick hiding spots. The best shrubs will be pruned up at the bottom so that predators are obvious (if the shrub growth is fairly loose). If your shrubs are more the impenetrable variety, with nasty thorns, then leaving them dense all the way to the ground is fabulous. Predation by cats is one of the top killers of songbirds--of the 500 million birds killed each year, 47% of those fall to the common house cat (includes domestic and feral cats).  Part of my foul-weather-day activity consists of stepping out the back door and throwing rocks at neighborhood cats that are hanging about. I know this is a fairly futile exercise, but it makes me feel better to see them leave, at least temporarily.

Titmouse on "squirrel-proof" feeder with shelled sunflower seeds.

I keep one caged feeder full of safflower seed, which can keep up to 7 months without risk of decay. Most other seeds still in their hulls will last 3 to 4 months. Shelled seed should be purchased in small quantities to ensure that it is consumed quickly. Another feeder, which is squirrel proof, is filled with black-oil sunflower seed--probably the favorite seed of the greatest number of birds. However, the feeder I put it in favors the small birds, since the perches are small and the feeder itself is designed to close its ports if too much weight falls on them. I have another caged feeder that holds two suet cakes. This one is greatly favored by downy woodpeckers, chickadees and wrens, here in my yard. Red-bellied woodpeckers can reach in far enough to work on the edges of the suet, as well. During the summer, I do keep a feeder filled for the hummingbirds. My final feeder is a large ceramic contraption created by a Florida potter that I use to dispense peanuts. I used to use peanuts in the shell until I discovered how efficiently the squirrels planted them. Numerous plants the next spring! So now I only serve shelled peanuts. Bluejays, mockingbirds, nuthatches, wrens, tufted titmice, chickadees and many more will dash in, snatch up a seed and dash out. Squirrels, of course, get rotund. And yes, I do have to put up with starlings. I space out the filling of this feeder so that the associated crowds disperse for awhile.

Mingy beautyberry fruits.

While there is debate about whether feeders are "good" for birds, I have decided that as long as they are kept clean and are located in such a way as to protect the diners, feeders are a good thing. Songbird populations are under such an assault that if having a reliable food source can help survival rates, I am happy to support that cause.

Caged feeders do more than keep unwanted birds out--they can protect the smaller birds within. However, they are STILL most effective at protecting songbirds if they are close to evergreen plants to which the birds can retreat.

In addition to feeders, I get to gloat at this time of year as birds eat the red chokeberries, the American beautyberry berries and the winterberry holly berries off my shrubs. The Beautyberry has been particularly delicious this year, apparently. Just little midget berries left!

Bluebird and American Robin hogging the winterberry holly fruits.

So. After all that discussion, we can chalk up that feeding the birds is a small step you can make to help them out. Planting evergreens is another, even more important step you can take, since the evergreens also provide shelter from storms and nesting spots. What else can you do?

Numero uno on many lists would be a reliable source of water. For the vast majority of the year here in Western North Carolina, a standard bird bath or some such works quite well to provide water to many, many birds (and other wildlife). Today, however, that would be insufficient. Today, one of the reasons I have flocks of birds is because they are fighting over a non-solid form of water--a heated bird bath. Watching the birds drink on an icy day is very satisfying. You can see from this photo, however, that drinking is not the only activity being pursued. Why, in 22 degree weather, they don't have little icicles forming on their feathers I just don't know. (Kidding. Birds, despite being bird-brained, know when it is too cold for them to clean their nasty selves.) A heated bird bath means that birds don't have to use energy warming snow up to a liquid state.

Starlings throwing all the water out of the birdbath.

I have had bird enthusiasts ask if their water feature will work as a bird drinking and bathing area. The short answer is yes--provided the feature has a shallow area the birds can get to safely. Moving water is always better, and more attractive, to birds. I have also had people ask if they should add a little anti-freeze to make sure the water doesn't freeze. The answer is NO, A THOUSAND TIMES NO--antifreeze causes rapid kidney damage and is generally fatal to anything that ingests it. If your radiator has even a slow leak, you are putting numerous critters at risk--if not from direct consumption (licking it up off the concrete) then from when storm water carries it downstream.

Right, then. Food, Cover, Water. What am I forgetting?

Oh, yeah. Just did a post on that. SHELTER.

House wren peeking out of her house.

Vile weather, worse than what we are experiencing today, means our songbirds have to batten down the hatches somewhere. Dense evergreens help to break the ferocity of wind--make sure you have some. Bird houses are readily pressed into service during inclement weather if they are available. You do have some available, don't you? Roosting boxes are also a nice addition for those larger birds like robins.

Some forms of shelter aren't as obvious--but can be hugely beneficial. Racks or piles of firewood are terrific for wrens to dart into. A brush pile of yard trimmings is also fabulous. Do you have a garden shed with a roof that extends beyond the walls? Install a shelf up close to the roof along the wall of the shed and give birds a place to get out of the wind and precipitation.

My main point here is that songbirds are in trouble, and they would welcome some assistance. While we may not be able to do much about the loss of overwintering habitat, we can try to ensure that more birds survive while they are in our zip codes. So don't feel guilty about feeding them, do keep your cat indoors (and spay and neuter, please), and make sure they have some clean water. Do put up a couple birdhouses--and find a spot to leave a pile of branches. And most of all, if you haven't yet planted some habitat plants --evergreens and fruit-bearing shrubs-- talk to your nursery-owning friends now. February is a great month to plant.


New York Times


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Heated Birdbath Tips


The Decline of Eastern Songbirds

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