By Laura Hopkins, Travis Audubon Master Birder
These past few months have forced a lot of us to slow down and spend more time at home. And that has introduced a lot of folks to what some of us have known for a while – the joy in watching the birds that visit our backyards.
There are a multitude of reasons for creating an inviting backyard haven for our feathered friends. They keep bug populations in check, many species are pollinators, they are endlessly entertaining, it can be educational for kids and parents, and they can use a little helping hand due to loss of native habitat are just a few that I can think of off the top of my head.
Getting into backyard birding need not be an expensive or complicated activity. Birds have the same basic needs that we do, shelter, water, and food. Our native birds, bugs, and plants all evolved together, so providing native plants is an easy way to provide the shelter and food birds need.
Some birds prefer to nest in bushes and trees so dense shrubs such as Texas Mountain Laurel, Yaupon, and Agarita as well as trees such as our Live Oaks, Ashe Juniper (aka Cedar Trees), and Cedar Elms can provide excellent nesting sites. Other birds are cavity nesters and will easily take to nest boxes. Plants provide roosting sites for when the birds are not nesting. Plants also support bugs like butterflies and caterpillars and some have berries for food sources. Just to maintain their populations, Chickadees require a site that is 70% native planting (Audubon, 2018).
Nest boxes can be provided for our cavity nesting songbirds – Chickadees, Carolina and Bewick’s Wrens, Titmouses, Eastern Screech Owls, Eastern Bluebirds, and some flycatchers. These birds all have slightly different requirements in terms of nest box placement, dimensions, and size of the holes. Protecting the nest box from predators is important and can be done using baffles, hardware cloth, or netting. Nestwatch.org is an excellent source of information on species preferences. As with everything backyard birding, cleanliness important. Nest boxes need to be cleaned out and washed between each brood.
Water is also essential, especially here in Central Texas. Providing water can be as easy as keeping shallow dish filled with water to more complex water features and fountains. Birds are particularly vulnerable when their feathers are wet, so it is essential to have your water feature near shelter. We have had success with placing our birdbaths under tree canopies or near shrubs, but not so close that predators can lay in waiting and create problems. It is also important to make sure the water is fresh and whatever you use to hold it, is clean.
Augmenting native food sources benefits both the birds and us! Sites with bird feeders attract more birds over time than those without feeders (that’s good for us!). Birds with access to feeders are in overall better health that birds without feeders, including lower stress levels and better body condition. Birds that have regular access to feeders produce more young and their survival rates are 38% higher in areas where bird feeders are present (Millikin University, 2011 – 2013).
There is a wide variety of seed that will attract birds to your yard. Black Oil Sunflower seed is the gold standard wild bird feed, one that all nearly all the visitors to your feeders will enjoy. It has a high oil/fat content and lots of protein that the birds need for energy and a relatively thin shell that even small birds can handle. Using a seed blend can attract a greater variety of birds, but we generally recommend that if you are going to do so, it’s a better value to get one from a specialty shop instead of a big box or grocery store. Inexpensive blends are often loaded with filler that songbirds won’t eat. This filler seed ends up kicked out of the feeder while the birds search for the more desired seeds. What ends up on the ground can attract the critters you probably don’t want in your yard. Besides Black Oil Sunflower, here are some seeds that work well for Central Texas:
- Millet for buntings, grosbeaks, and migratory sparrows.
- Shelled peanuts for Jays, wrens, woodpeckers, chickadees and even cardinals on occasion. Whole peanuts (in the shell) are also a favorite with Blue Jays, Woodhouse’s Scrub Jays, and American Crows.
- Safflower is a favorite of the cardinals and is also well-liked by chickadees, titmouses, and finches. And perhaps the best part of feeding Safflower is that squirrels do not like it.
- Nyjer is a favorite with our Lesser Goldfinches and American Goldfinches and Pine Siskins join them on Nyjer feeders in winter.
Suet is a good option to provide in winter through early summer. Some have luck feeding it all year, but the birds in our yard give up on it during the heat of the summer.
There are a variety of feeders that you can use but providing songbirds with feed can also be as easy as spreading enough quality seed for the day on the ground. As with providing water, keeping your feeders clean is key to preventing the spread of disease. Here are some of the different types of feeders to consider using:
- Mixed seed tube feeders – these are easily used by the smaller songbirds and if you are having dove problems, it’s difficult for them to use a tube feeder.
- Hopper feeders – this type of feeder generally has a larger seed capacity. Seed is gravity fed down onto a small feeding platform. This type is popular with nearly all songbirds and Northern Cardinals can easily feed on these.
- Tray feeders – birds love tray feeders; they are similar to feeding on the ground. Tray feeders are versatile, you can use seed in them, whole peanuts, fruit (Northern Cardinals in our yard are eating grapes), suet, pretty much anything a bird will eat.
- Nyjer feeders – these are specially designed for Nyjer seed. They can either be a tube feeder with small portals they can be mesh.
- Squirrel proof feeders – yes, such a thing exists. They are available as hopper feeders and tube feeders.
Regardless of how you choose to entice birds to your backyard, you will find a little calm, a little peace and a whole lot of joy as you watch them your yard.
Photos by Laura Hopkins. Featured image is of Lesser Goldfinches at a bird bath.