Monday, August 25, 2008

Know Your Place

Where do you begin if you want to feed birds in your backyard?

Your first step is to get to know the place where you live. Like any restaurant owner, you need to know who lives in your neighborhood. That beautiful birding book you bought might have all kinds of suggestions on how to feed Northern cardinals and Eastern blue jays but if you live in California it's like putting out Chinese food for Mexican clientele.

For example, you would never find my friend the California towhee in most books on bird feeding. He's only found in California. But his habit of rustling through the underbrush looking for seeds and insects, were good clues that he would be a regular both beneath and at my feeder.

Unfortunately, most birding books and bird feeding guides are written with a focus on the east coast of the Untied States or even Britain. It isn’t a conspiracy, its is just that the U.S.’s best school of ornithology is Cornell University in New York, and the most active birdwatching groups are in the American northeast and Britain. I think it is time the rest of us, stepped up and spoke out for our birds.

To figure out what birds are most likely to come to a birdfeeder, answer these - questions:

Have you seen any birds in your yard or neighborhood?
Yes, crows and pigeons do count, they are birds and even most pigeons (also known as rock doves) are wild. If you see these birds, there probably are other birds in your neighborhood as well. Morning or evening offer the best time to observe birds. Spend 20-30 minutes out in your yard just watching and listening. See who is already visiting that you might not be aware of. Take a walk and keep your eyes open for birds sitting on wires, drinking from puddles, or searching for food.

If you don’t see any birds, ask yourself why. When I lived in Van Nuys, California, our neighbors fed 30-40 feral cats. Wild birds were few and far between. Not hearing bird song in the morning made me feel like we lived in a dead zone. If you don’t see any birds, be a sleuth and search for answers. If the local cat population is large, this will affect where and how you might feed birds.

Where were the birds you saw and what were they doing?
You may not be able to identify the birds you see just yet, but you can take note of where you saw them and what they were doing. For example: Birds on the ground pecking at dirt. A single bird in a tree eating fruit. A bird using its beak to probe into wet grass. A small bird clinging to a dried thistle.

The easiest birds to feed are those that feast on seeds. Birds that appear to be pecking the ground and those that shuffle under shrubs (like the California towhee, above) are most likely seed eaters. These birds tend to be medium-sized and able to eat most wild bird seed. Birds that are small enough to cling to a plant stem while nipping at a seed cluster, may prefer smaller-sized seed.

If you had to guess, about the kind of bird, what would you say?
While you may not be able to tell a mourning dove from a band-tailed pigeon, most people can tell a dove from a hummingbird. Take a guess as the kind of birds you see. Whatever you see the most of will be the best group to start offering food to first. If you can identify just one of the most frequently spotted species, you will greatly increase your bird feeding success.

Why should you feed birds or provide habitat?

A sharp-shinned hawk just dropped in to get a drink from the bird bath, but more on that later.

Other birds in our yard:
Allen's Hummingbird

Thursday, August 14, 2008

A Bird Feeder in Every Yard

A red-shouldered hawk rises from the ground with a large fence lizard clutched in its talons. This isn’t a scene from a nature documentary, this is the view from my kitchen. I don’t live in rural Montana, but rather in the suburbs of Los Angeles, two blocks from one of the busiest freeways in North America, if not the world. How am I so lucky to see wildlife dramas on a daily basis? One main reason – ten years ago, I put out a bird feeder.

I know what you're thinking. “Wait a minute, hawks don’t come to bird feeders and neither do western fence lizards.” And you would be absolutely right, but putting out a bird feeder influenced our entire outdoor living space.

  1. It attracted birds to the yard in a visible way so that I could begin to learn the local bird species.
  2. New knowledge about what different birds were eating encouraged me to reconsider the plants I planted in the yard. I began to relandscape with native plant species to attract birds and butterflies.
  3. We stopped using all forms of toxic pesticides and herbicides in and around our house. Native insects reduced pest insects, lizards and bats moved in to eat the insects.
  4. We added a water feature to provide dependable water to wildlife during drought seasons, a greater variety of birds, including hawks, and rabbits arrived.

Putting out a bird feeder was the beginning of creating a habitat in my yard that supports a wide range of biodiversity. Seven species of birds now nest here - see our hummingbird babies. Two species of lizards reproduce in our garden; western fence lizard. Check out some of the creatures that share our suburban space - Backyard Biodiversity Project.

As I look out my window over the rooftops of track homes, past the Ventura Freeway and the growing amount of pavement and concrete, I take heart in knowing that my yard is an oasis for wild creatures. As cities expand, wild habitat is lost. Birds and animals lose important living, hunting and breeding territory. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can make a difference. Put out a bird feeder. Begin offering a safe place for wild birds to find dependable food.

  • How do you decide on a bird feeder?
  • What food should you use?
  • What about water?

Each week AnimalBytes will take on an elemental question of how to start and be successful in creating habitat. We’ll start with bird-feeder basics.

Around the globe, wild animals are facing survival challenges as human populations expand and climate change alters weather patterns. If you make your yard, patio or even balcony a safe habitat, together we can change the world for the better.