Sunday, October 12, 2008

Lawnchair Birding

Robin on Nest at Witty's Lagoon

Crossbills in Garry Oak


By Moralea Milne, with assistance from Darren and Claudia Copley
June 2008

For some people the dawn chorus is greeted with a grumpy stumble to close the bedroom window, perhaps accompanied by a few expletive deletives…for others the melodies or even the raucous calls of birdsong makes us long for more….more birds and many different species. We want to sit on our decks and enjoy their antics, watch their territorial displays, see them collect bits of fur and sticks and grasses for nest building. We want to observe the parents bring small green caterpillars to feed incessantly gaping mouths and we want to rejoice when the first unsteady wingbeats launch a new stage in the fledglings development.
Darren and Claudia Copley, president and editor respectively of the Victoria Natural History Society, are masters at attracting birds to their home and through an amusing and insightful presentation, they shared their experiences with a rapt audience at a Talk and Walk event in Metchosin this May.
My own interest, first in birds and later growing to include all of natural history, began with a simple shelf bird feeder and the arrival of a flock of evening grosbecks. Evening grosbecks are the BC equivalent of a tropical parrot. They are gregarious, colourful and entertaining and once they arrived at my simple feeder, I was hooked.
I’m not the type of birder that makes lists or travels extensively to see new and unusual sightings. I enjoy the everyday interactions that occur within my local landscape and I determined to learn more about birds and how to coax them into my yard.
One thing I slowly discovered is that not all bird attracting advice is appropriate. There are many books written that will tell you to plant a variety of plants, many of which are good for birds but problematic, ecologically speaking. Like letting a patch of Canada thistle (an introduced and invasive species) go to seed, to the benefit of American goldfinches. Imagine how your neighbourhood farmer feels about that, or planting English hawthorns, because the cedar waxwings like the berries. Which they do, but they expel the seeds all over the countryside and pretty soon a lovely meadow is covered in hundreds of thorny nuisance trees that displace our native species; check out the old field near the beach at Witty’s for a lesson in English hawthorn gone wild.
However, there are many ways to encourage birds (and other wildlife) into your yard while maintaining and enhancing the natural environment.
Darren and Claudia’s tag team presentation, (really these two do a great comedy routine!) had the audience nodding their heads, oohing and awwwwing over bird images and chuckling at their jokes and self deprecating humour.
Birds have specific needs that must be met in order to remain in an area . The following is their list of ten ways to attract birds to your yard, without endangering the environment.

Provide clean water.
Birds love it, need it. They use water to hydrate and for bathing, and a shallow birdbath or a small pond with one end that gradually deepens will suffice. Shallow is key because a steep sided, deep, water source will not allow the birds to bath without drowning. Birds will seek out water through sound and if you add the sound of water, say, a container with a tiny hole, dripping into the birdbath, you will entice more birds, more quickly. Don’t forget to refresh the water periodically. Birds also need some cover near the water. They will not feel safe flying to a bird bath in the middle of a lawn, where they are easy prey for a Cooper’s hawk. On the other hand, you don’t want to surround the water source with so much shrubbery that a neighbourhood cat can hide and attack unexpectedly. Leave a buffer of several feet between a bird bath (or feeder) and shrubbery.

Maintain native trees and shrubs in your landscape.
Birds are on the lookout for the perfect home, much like us. Songbirds are generally attracted to a varied landscape, one that has three levels of structure: trees, shrubs, and groundcovers and flowers. Some birds are adapted to build nests in cavities in larger trees, some use trees and shrubs that provide the right placement of branches and enough cover that their nests are not open to predators eyes. Still others are ground nesters, where concealment is even more crucial. Native plants also supply the food birds have come to associate with their diets.

Plant native flowers
Flowering currants with their drooping clusters of red blooms, salmonberries, hedge-nettle and purple flowered hairy honeysuckle and orange honeysuckle vines provide much needed nectar to thirsty hummingbirds. Flowers in the aster family; like the charming, low growing, wooly sunflower; pearly everlasting; gumweed and Douglas’ aster are key sources of food to many pollinator species, which in turn attract an army of predacious spiders, all of whom are food to insect eating birds (all birds, even those more commonly known as seed and fruit eaters, feed their young insects).

Grow native fruit producing plants
Birds have been coming here for millennia, they know the area and they know their food sources. Native trees and shrubs supply the nuts, berries and insects they expect to find. Planting a mixed hedgerow of Saskatoon, Oregon grape, Indian plum, oceanspray, evergreen huckleberry and thimbleberry will provide an interesting feature in your yard and also supply a season long feast for the birds. The dense nature of a hedgerow will also encourage birds to nest within its protective confines.

Keep cats indoors and reduce impacts of livestock
We love our pets. However the sheer number of cats and their natural tendencies to hunt without limits has contributed to a precipitous decline in bird numbers, it is estimated that many, many millions of birds are killed by cats each year. Ground nesting birds like California quail and towhees don’t have a chance to raise their young successfully with cats prowling in the area. I know from my own experience that cats can bring home an astonishing number of birds and small mammals. An improperly located bird feeder is more appropriately called a cat feeder. There are studies that conclude that cats live longer and healthier lives if kept indoors, certainly birds live longer if cats are kept in the house!
Livestock hair and feathers are sometimes incorporated into the nests of birds. The brown-headed cowbird originally adapted its parasitic lifestyle in order to follow the great bison herds. They didn’t stay in any one place long enough to raise a family, so they stealthily lay their eggs in the nests of more stationary birds. Now, with the buffalo all but gone, they have adapted to our livestock, feeding on the seeds that are recycled through the cows’ systems.
In order to keep waterways and wetlands potable and safe for birds, livestock should be kept out of riparian areas, leave large buffers that will clean and purify water that drains from livestock holding areas. Plant or maintain hedgerows that provide habitat for birds and reduce erosion from the pounding of many hoofs. To reduce the likelihood of ground nesting species being trampled, check a field for nesting species before letting the livestock into a new pasture or walk a field before mowing in order to prevent birds and snakes from becoming part of the hay crop. This of course is more practical if you have small fields.

No Lawn
Many of us love a bit of lawn, that green expanse seems to invoke a cultural imperative, indeed there are scientific papers that equate our love of lawns with primitive humankind's association with sparsely treed savannahs. Our artificial lawns are not natural savannahs or meadows however, they are a virtual green desert that supply a minimum of diversity. They also use up precious water resources and in many cases create a perceived need for fertilizers, pesticides and gas guzzling, carbon emitting lawn mowers. If your inner Cromagnum screams that you need some lawn, try to reduce the size and replant much of your lawn area with native plants.

Brush piles, dead tree retention, and woody debris
We think of them as dead and messy and of no use. We burn them or cart them away to the dump. However, trees that are not in perfect health do have an important role in the natural world. Some birds, like the pileated woodpecker are what is known as a keystone species. They excavate new nests every year, by making holes in larger sized trees that are (usually) in the initial stages of decay. These nest holes are then used by various other birds and mammals in the oncoming years. Owls, wood ducks, bats and squirrels are some of the species that might move into an abandoned woodpecker nest. Pileated woodpeckers feed primarily on carpenter ants, so they are a benefit to us too. If a dying tree seems to be at risk of falling into an occupied area of your property and it must be removed, try to leave a portion of it standing, fifteen or twenty feet will still supply habitat for birds. If not standing, then leaving a tree or log to slowly rot in the ground will provide an important environment for birds, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians for many decades or centuries. Sick trees also attract a variety of insects, which in turn are eaten by many species of birds. Brown creepers spend their lives gleaning insects from the bark of trees, especially those with a thick bark like a mature Douglas-fir or Garry oak. Branches that have fallen during a windstorm or been removed for aesthetic reasons can be layered into a brush pile which tiny winter wrens will use for shelter.

Maintain moss in your landscape
Many birds appreciate a cozy little nest as much as we like our Sealy Posturepedics. To that end they incorporate mosses into their nest, providing comfort, insulation and protective colouration. Moss has gathered an unwarranted negative reputation by creeping into lawns and onto roofs. However moss is not your enemy, don’t be afraid to let moss into your lawns and try not to disturb moss growing on rocks and pathways. The birds will thank you.

Pesticide-free landscape
Pesticides have been gathering lots of bad press; there are numerous medical associations that have studied the effects of pesticides on our children and found that there is no safe level of pesticide use. Rachel Carson in her 1962 book Silent Spring, chronicled the devastating effects of pesticide use on bird populations, where thinning eggshells and reproductive failures almost eliminated many of the raptor species. There are many municipalities across Canada that have banned cosmetic pesticide use or advocated for reduced pesticide use. Like oil and water, pesticides and birds don’t mix.

Maintain mushrooms and lichens in your landscape
Lichens are used by birds to line their nests and in the case of hummingbirds, they can successfully conceal a nest so that it is almost impossible to discern. Lichens do not harm the trees on which they are found, they have an entirely friendly relationship with other plants and act to clean and filter air and store carbon dioxide. They also provide an almost artistic pleasure in the tapestry-like effects they produce on the bark of trees.
Mushrooms have been used by some birds as little umbrellas under which they place their nests and some mushrooms can cause ill effects on trees, opening them up to decay and death and, in a natural cycle, making them a more diverse and plentiful habitat for birds and other lifeforms.

If you have trouble remembering these ten suggestions to attract birds to your yard, then try to remember this simple recommendation: Think like a bird. If you put yourself in the place of a bird, become a bird brain in fact, you will be able to understand the needs they have for food, water, nesting sites and security. Have fun from your lawnchair, enjoying the many birds that will flock to your home.

Fenger, Manning et al, 2006. Wildlife and Trees in British Columbia
Campbell et al, 2001. Volume IV, The Birds of British Columbia, Passerines.
Darren and Claudia Copley

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