Our daughters used to call me the “Count,” after a character on “Sesame Street” named Count von Count.
By Paul Hicks
Our daughters used to call me the “Count,” after a character on “Sesame Street” named Count von Count. I confess that I am what birders call a “lister”, because I keep a tally of the bird species I have seen, but I am definitely not a “twitcher” (a British term meaning someone who will travel long distances to see a rare bird). I much prefer to have the birds come to see us in our own backyard.
As Ted Gilman at Audubon Greenwich likes to say, the first lesson to learn about birds is that their basic needs are “groceries and real estate.” All that Robins need is a wormy lawn with some dense foliage in which to build a nest, but it helps to have a bird bath or other water source with which they can both make and wash away the mud they need to line their nest.
Watching birds nest and raise their young on or near your property can be fun for young and old. A great way to improve your chances of success is to put up the right kind of nest box that is best suited to your habitat. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a helpful website (nestwatch.org/learn/all-about-birdhouses) with a list of birds and the right kind of nest box to attract them.
One of our favorite birds is the tiny house wren, which is a cavity-nesting species that happily nests in boxes, whether store-bought or homemade. The males, who arrive first in the spring, announce their presence in the neighborhood with repeated songs of effervescent trills. They place twigs into multiple prospective nest holes and then find a mate to take on a house-hunting tour. We have put out several wren houses to increase our chances of success.
The most popular site choices for the female wrens are close to the safety of denser trees or shrubs, but last year the winner was a nest box made by our 8-year-old granddaughter and hung in a cherry tree quite close to our house. Most commentators recommend cleaning out the prior year’s nesting material while leaving a few twigs sticking out of the hole as added attraction.
Along with attracting nesting birds to your property goes the responsibility of making the area as safe as possible for them. It has helped us to have a dog that chases cats out of our yard, since cats are among the biggest threats that birds face in the wild. A recent study estimates that domestic cats kill as many as three billion birds a year in the U.S.; more birds are killed by cats than die from collisions with buildings, towers, or vehicles. One potential solution for bird-loving cat owners is to put a bright-colored soft collar on any cat that be seen by birds at a distance (www.audubon.org/ news/how-stop-cats-killing-birds).
Another safety concern for backyard birders is to reduce window collisions, as birds do not perceive window glass as a barrier since it reflects what appears to be open space. We have placed decals of hawks on glass doors near a feeder that work well, but, unfortunately, not perfectly. You can find many other suggestions online using search words like “bird-window-collisions.”
After taking care of the birds’ needs for safe and sufficient real estate, you then should deal with their need for the right groceries. Although there is obviously a natural supply of food available in the spring and into the summer, we continue to keep our feeders full throughout the year, as does the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
“Birds’ basic needs are groceries and real estate.”
It makes sense to provide food for birds that are at the end or part way through a long migration in the spring, as well as when they are feeding their young well into the summer months. Nothing is more fun than to see the persistent parents bringing their famished fledglings to our several feeders.
We have suet for the woodpeckers (downy, hairy and red-bellied) as well as nuthatches, Carolina wrens and many other species that inevitably include a few grackles and blue jays from time to time. Nyjer seed (spellings vary and previously called thistle seed) is a favorite of goldfinches and other finches, including a remarkable number of pine siskins and one redpoll that visited us during the winter.
Following many fruitless attempts, I finally found a way to keep squirrels from eating the suet by placing a bell-shaped plastic baffle (available at Audubon Greenwich) over the nyjer feeder to which I attached the suet holder with a wire. The whole Rube Goldberg contraption is hanging from a branch of a crabapple tree with goldfinches and woodpeckers dining side-by-side and nary a squirrel nearby.
Equally successful at thwarting squirrels is our new sunflower seed feeder called a “Squirrel Buster Plus”, manufactured by Brome Bird Care. We bought ours at Audubon Greenwich, but it is available online through Amazon, Duncraft, and other suppliers. Its spring weight mechanism shuts the seed ports when squirrels or larger birds attempt to feed, and it comes with an attachable ring that allows cardinals to perch while feeding. The cost savings in lost seed will pay back the extra investment in this feeder. See Brome’s website for useful information at http://bromebirdcare.com.
The songs of nearby birds at dawn can make poets of many of us, but I will defer to Shakespeare who wrote of the wren (the English species is very like our house wren):
if she should sing by day,
When every goose is cackling, would be thought
No better a musician than the wren!