Where the birds aren't
Birds avoiding your garden? Here's a look at why they're not around. Plus, what you can do to encourage feathered friends to stay around.
Unless you're channeling Tippi Hedren in an Alfred Hitchcock movie, you are probably like most people in believing life would be for the proverbial birds without our feathered friends flying about.
That's why folks like Jeff Walk, a regional science director for The Nature Conservancy, teach classes on how to attract birds to our yards. And why David N. Bonter, assistant director of Citizen Science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., works with the birding community across the nation to track and assess how various bird species are faring.
Yet the ironic thing is this: We may say we love birds, but many of us unthinkingly go about our daily routines in such a way that we literally force birds to blow the coop, whether that be a country home, suburban town house or city apartment.
Ask Walk for a list of avian no-nos and his answer is stark: "How dark are you willing to go"
And, honestly, such a list can get pretty grim because the things we all get wrong are pretty fundamental, from the sort of windows we install to the trees we plant to whether the cat gets to go outside.
Here are things guaranteed to shoo the birds away, as identified by Walk and Bonter, and what you can do to rectify the situation.
Mow the lawn. "Lawn is evil," said Bonter, noting birds will fly elsewhere if more than 25 to 30 percent of your property is lawn. "A perfectly manicured lawn is a desert for birds," he added, because lawn lacks a diversity of food resources and cover options. "The more shrubs you have and the more grasses you let grow up, the better you are going to be in attracting them." Even trees and shrubs that look sickly can provide needed habitat for birds. Leave them standing, Bonter said, unless they pose a safety risk.
On the other extreme, the more pavement on a property means even fewer trees and shrubs to provide shelter or food, he said.
Let the cat out. "Cats kill millions of birds in North America every year," Bonter said. Walk agreed, noting cats can pose a particular threat to migrating species who might not be as cat-smart as the street-wise birds in your neighborhood.
Use chemicals. Pesticides and insecticides kill weeds and insects, both important food sources. While Walk concedes most people don't like either, he encourages property owners to "tolerate" a bit "of rambunctious wildness" in their yards for the birds' sakes. Millions of birds are also killed through accidental poisoning from chemicals and other spills, he added.
Install plate glass windows. "Plate glass is the most effective device devised by humanity to kill birds," Walk said. "Birds collide with the windows because they see the reflection and think it is open space." As many as 1 billion birds are killed by window strikes each year. What to do? Put up something in the window, like reflective tape, that will send a visual cue to the bird that the space ahead isn't clear for flying. Small windows can also pose a problem if they offer a view from one side of the house to the other. Again, hang something in front of the window to break up the view.
Put feeders in the wrong place. Bonter said those situated next to big bay windows are hazardous because birds can fly into the glass and die or be injured. Placing them in areas with large cat populations and no cover also poses a risk. "People may be trying to attract birds, but they're literally setting up a trap," Walk said.
Neglect to supply water. Birdbaths kept consistently clean and filled with fresh water are avian magnets.
Snub native plants. Native plants offer the type of shelter and food local bird species need year-round.
MAP YOUR YARD FOR SCIENCE
Relive the glory days of your seventh-grade science fair without leaving the comfy confines of your own home with a new interactive "citizen science" project called YardMap. You'll help the experts at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University keep track of birds and bird habitats across the country.
In so doing, you'll likely find out how your property is acting — or not — as a haven for various bird species, says Rhiannon Crain, project leader of the lab's YardMap Network in Ithaca, N.Y. That's important. Researchers believe habitat quality not only affects which birds show up in your yard but impacts bird reproduction, she said.
Using YardMap is easy. Sign up at the project website, yardmap.org or http://content.yardmap.org/, watch a short tutorial video and you're off. The project has been up for about a month, and around 1,000 people have already started using the mapping tools, Crain said.
YardMap uses Google map satellite imagery to let you see your property and "fill in" all the various features, from houses to sidewalks to ponds to vegetable gardens and lawns. You can map single-family homes, condos, apartment buildings, your local schools or community gardens.
Lab scientists will be able to use that data in their work on bird habitats, Crain said. You'll be able to "peek" over a virtual fence to see what others in your region are doing with their lawns and whether they attract more interesting birds than you do.
"A lot of people are taking these more wildlife-friendly gardening practices to heart," Crain said. "People will see they're not alone."