Building a Backyard Bird Sanctuary

Your new bird sanctuary will only require a few simple changes, and you can take those changes to whatever level you heart desires. Whether you just add a couple of feeders, or you replant your entire yard to create a bird paradise, your visitors will appreciate it.

Varied Diet, Varied Visitors

When someone thinks of feeding birds, the first thing that comes to mind are feeders. If you provide a wide selection of feeders and food types, you'll attract a greater variety of birds.

Many of our common backyard birds are seed-eaters. You may wish to ask birding neighbors what seeds the local birds like. In some locales, the larger, round pinkish seeds (milo) do not go over well. In other areas the birds like it.

The type of mix you buy also depends on the birds you hope to attract. Blue jays, for instance, and doves, will often eat seeds with high concentrations of milo while chickadees, titmice and nuthatches prefer a mixture of millet (the tiny whitish seeds) and sunflower. Some birds also will select the pre-shelled varieties, often sold in ìwaste-freeî mixes, over sunflowers still in the shell.

Many mixtures contain dried fruit. Cardinals and grossbeaks seem to enjoy the berry and cherry varieties. Woodpeckers adore peanuts, which are often included in ìblockî mixtures.

Little birds such as goldfinches love thistle and nyjer seed, sold in ìsocksî or dispensed in special feeders with small slit openings.

You can either buy pre-mixed seeds, mix your own, or provide a separate feeder for each type. Although your local department store may not carry individual types of seed, larger pet supply and feed stores often do. Bird feeders are usually labeled as to the type of seed that works best in them.

Tiny Hover-craft

Hummingbirds are cheeky little creatures who will quickly grow used to your presence and give you up-close entertainment all summer long. Hummingbird feeders come in many sizes and shapes. Those which are easiest to clean and fill are shaped like flying saucers, rather than bottles with spouts on the bottom.

Hummingbird food can either be purchased or made yourself. Some believe that home made hummingbird food, which consists of one part table sugar to four parts water, is not good for the birds. The truth is, if you read the labels of the store bought varieties, the only difference between what you make and most commercial solutions is the artificial coloring. The National Audubon Society recommends the home made mixture.

To make your own, boil the solution above. Stir until the sugar is completely dissolved, and let it cool before filling the feeders. Never offer honey to hummingbirds, as it can cause a mold disease.

Don't Forget the Carnivores

Many birds are meat eaters. Even seed-eating birds raise their young on high protein dietsóessentially, bugs. Although it's tempting to offer protein sources during nesting season, remember that this is the time that nature brings forth abundance. Protein feeds are more important in the winter months, when insects aren't available.

You can provide special meat-based meals for your feathered friends by purchasing suet blocks and meal-worm feeders. Meal-worms can be bought either alive or dried. If you purchase the living ones, the birds will love them, but it's best to offer them away from the house; they have a tendency to escape from the feeders.

Peanuts are also a good source of protein. Many suet blocks include peanuts or peanut butter. Some birds, particularly robins, cowbirds, starlings and blue jays, will also eat cat or dog food. If your kitty is fussy enough to leave leftovers, set them on the ground around your feeding station. Soak dry food in water before feeding it to birds.

Once you begin filling feeders, continue to do so all year long. Birds who grow dependent on a source can starve in the winter months if the food suddenly dries up.

All feeders, whether seed, suet or hummingbird, must be kept clean. Empty feeders, wash, and rinse weekly, using a hot dish detergent and water solution.

Grow Your Own

Flowers, grasses and shrubs that bear seed and nectar are another wonderful way to augment the diets of your visiting birds.

Hummingbirds love trumpet vine and tube shaped flowers. A perennial garden that contains bee balm will be a favorite of your hummingbirds and if you let a corner of your yard go wild, and encourage jewel weed to grow, you'll soon see hummers buzzing about. Lilies, particularly red ones, will draw them, as well.

Seed eaters love sunflowers. No bird-garden is complete without a wide variety of sunflowers. You can plant smaller sunflowers that produce smaller, softer seeds, and giant ones that grow eight feet high and will provide the large, striped seeds that some birds prefer. Even many weeds, such as thistles, provide favorite foods for birds like goldfinches.

Remember the fruit-lovers as well. If you grow berry bushes, orioles and catbirds will lurk in the outskirts of your yard. You may even entice the lovely orioles closer by hanging an oriole feeder or half an orange from the rafters of your back porch.

Your home grown bird food can continue to provide sustenance all winter if you leave the dried sunflowers and thistles in place, and choose varieties of berry that will dry and stay on the vine.

Water, Water Everywhere

Birds need water to drink and especially love to bathe in it. There are many popular types of bird water sources, from elaborate trickling fountains to simple trash can lids laid on or set into the ground. Provide variety: some birds enjoy bathing up high, others at ground level.

Water is particularly important in the hot summer months. Keep the water sources clean, by scrubbing them weekly with a stiff brush, and refill them frequently with fresh water.

Position your waterers in the shade. The water will stay cool and fresh, and the birds will appreciate them even more. Be sure to set some of them in clear view of a window. There is nothing cuter than a whole group of sparrows taking a bath at once!

A Place To Live

Shelter is a main item on the primary needs list of all animals. This includes not only areas to roost and nest, but materials to build those nests.

You can provide shelter for some birds, such as bluebirds, wrens and phoebes, in the form of platforms and nest boxes. Phoebes love to nest near houses, and if you see them around, you may wish to set a platform near your porch light or under the eaves of your home.

Bluebird houses must be suspended at least four feet from the ground, and placed in open areas. Place bluebird houses far apart, for the birds are territorial. Don't be surprised if some of your bluebird houses are taken over by swallows, which have similar nesting requirements.

Larger, community bird houses are available for colony birds like martins, and little tiny wrens love nest boxes with holes just large enough for them, but which the larger birds can't access.

Be sure to clean out your bird houses thoroughly in the fall.

Nature's Housing

Plant brush and shrubs around your property. Provide conifers, such as juniper bushes or spruce, near your feeding stations. Birds which tend to be shy, such as cardinals, will appreciate the extra places to hide as they flutter back and forth to the feeders.

Keep a section of the property somewhat wild, with taller grasses or brush piles for the ground-breeding birds. Wild areas also provide nesting material. Many birds will use dandelion and thistle down to line their nests.

Extra Protection

Always keep in mind that birds are prey. If you have dogs or cats, you may wish to set up your feeding stations in areas that the pets can't access, or consider keeping your cats indoors. More wild birds are killed or injured each year by house cats than any other cause. There is nothing more heart-breaking than working hard to set up a bird yard only to discover that Tabby considers your bird feeders her cat feeders.

Teach children that wild birds are to be respected. Every child has probably tried to catch a wild bird at one time or other, but if the birds view the feeding stations as places where they may be chased or frightened, they will cease to use them.

The Ultimate Enjoyment

For many bird lovers, one pleasure of the hobby is the increase of knowledge. You may wish to purchase a bird watching guide such as the Audubon Field Guide for your area. Pick up a pair of binoculars, or even a camera with a telephoto range. Start a bird journal that will allow you to keep track of the species which visit your yard.

Backyard birding brings pleasure to millions of people the world over. By putting a little extra thought into the environment around your home, you can increase the joy of that birding experience, and give nature a loving hand at the same time.

Enjoy your backyard birds!

This article was written for Paul's Place by Natasi Gayle.