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Safety First For Wild Birds

Turn your bird habitat into a safety zone for all of your avian visitors.

Peter Stangel, Ph.D.
Posted: April 25, 2013, 12:30 p.m. PDT

WildBird Magazine LogoIt’s a small space — maybe 25 yards long and 10 yards deep — but filled with birds. On one morning, during a quick breakfast, I tallied more than a dozen species: Eastern Bluebirds, American Goldfinches, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Carolina Wrens, House Finches, a raucous group of Common Grackles and even a nice Sharp-shinned Hawk that perched on a limb with a commanding view of the action.

Eastern Bluebird
Eastern Bluebirds visit gardens throughout the eastern United States.
The yard sits just a minute from a busy highway and expansive shopping areas… just down the street from a major jet-engine testing facility…  surrounded by suburbia, yet it teems with birds. That there are so many visitors in this small back yard really is no surprise. Thick shrubs, vines and a nice canopy of trees provide cover (Think songbirds hiding from a sharp-shin!) and nesting sites. A small fountain offers water. Feeders supplement natural food sources.

My sister-in-law Carolyn’s suburban back yard is one of thousands in Greenville, S.C., and millions across the continent.  Like many nature lovers, she decided to make birds and their needs into a prominent feature of her landscaping plan.

The abundance and the variety of species in her small yard goes beyond food, cover and water, however. They also result from an essential fourth ingredient: safety from natural and unnatural predators and from many of the hazards associated with humans.

An Urban Refuge
A tall privacy fence keeps cats, which are abundant and free-ranging in the area, away from the food and cover that the birds covet. The fence also provides protection from other mammals that consume birds and their eggs — such as opossums, raccoons, skunks  — and are unnaturally abundant in urban areas.

Carolyn rarely uses pesticides but only in strict accordance with manufacturers’ guidelines and always away from the birds’ food sources.  Her sunroom boasts plastic windows, and if birds do strike them, they bounce off.  Her yard provides the best
of both worlds for birds — the basic necessities for survival and a refuge from the increasing challenges they face in a human-dominated world.

Cats & Birds Don’t Mix
It seems obvious that providing a safe environment for birds would go hand in hand with enticing them to your yard or patio, but that’s not what I observe in many places. Because so many bird lovers also enjoy pet cats, I often encounter yards where cats have free access to birdfeeding areas. Well-meaning cat owners might consider cat predation on birds acceptable or think that declawing, bells or other methods prevent bird mortality.

Passions run high on the issue of whether or not cats should be allowed to run free outdoors. For my part, I can’t accept that purposely attracting birds to your yard while exposing them to a predator, or any source of preventable mortality, is appropriate. If you invite birds, you should provide them with safe harbor. Keeping cats in an outdoor enclosure offers one solution, as is keeping them inside homes, where they lead healthier lives away from their predators, such as coyotes.

Not Through The Looking Glass
Nearly every birder has experienced that sickening "thud” when a bird collides with a window. If you are lucky, the momentarily stunned bird will fly away in a few minutes. In most cases, though — and we are talking millions of collisions annually — the bird dies or becomes vulnerable to predators, such as cats, in its weakened condition.

Birds strike windows for a remarkably simple reason: They can’t perceive that glass is a hard surface. Birds see the sky or trees reflected in a window, and they think they can fly through it. When you take a quick walk around your home, looking at the windows, you’ll see how the birds are fooled.

Fortunately, we can fix this straightforward hazard. The secret lies in reducing the reflectivity, especially during periods of high activity, such as spring and fall migrations. Many apartments and houses have "problem windows” that tend to produce the most strikes. These are often large windows near vegetation or providing a view through the house.

Stickers and reflective decals can work, but they need to be prominent enough that they really reduce the reflection, as seen from the outside. Closing the blinds or curtains is often a big help. Some people rub the outside surface of the window with a bar of soap to dull the reflection, reapplying after a rain. Specially made screens are available now just to prevent bird collisions. In most cases, implementing these or similar measures during migration can dramatically reduce the potential for collisions at your home or office.

Why does it seem like it’s always the cool species that hit the windows? It’s such a senseless loss. Wood ThrushesScarlet Tanagers and warblers face enough perils on their journeys, and we owe them safe passage past our homes and building. In the unfortunate event that a bird does hit your window, use this as an opportunity to prevent additional mortality by taking quick action to reduce the reflectivity. If a bird hits the window once, others are likely to do so.

Fewer Chemicals Please
Homeowners use an estimated 78 million pounds of insecticides, herbicides and fungicides annually in their homes and yards, according to National Audubon Society. In some cases, a pesticide truly might be necessary to control pest outbreaks.

If you avoid using pesticides near areas frequented by birds, such as feeding stations or open lawns, you can dramatically reduce risks. Always follow label instructions, which usually provide good information about the potential for harm to birds and other wildlife.

In my experience, as your yard or habitat area becomes naturally balanced, you’ll find fewer reasons to need chemicals. Birds are voracious predators on many harmful insects, and abundant birds in your yard become an effective form of pest control.

Safe Havens
Carolyn’s back yard — and yards in general — can’t form the whole solution to our bird conservation challenges, but they can serve as an important thread in the safety fabric that we want to weave on the landscape. It might be too anthropomorphic for some, but I always imagine weary birds — fatigued from the challenges of migration, feeding their young or just stayin’ alive — dropping into these small refuges, breathing a sigh of relief and grabbing some rest or food. It’s an image that keeps me fired up and wanting to do everything I can to help them. Join me? 

Excerpt from WildBird Magazine, January/February 2012 issue, with permission from its publisher, I-5 Publishing LLC. To purchase digital back issues of WildBird Magazine, click here.

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