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Making a Backyard Bird Sanctuary

A dead tree can be an important element in a bird-friendly environment right outside your window.

"Woodman, spare that tree!" demanded poet-newspaperman George Pope Morris in his 1837 ballad and poem. If you want to manage your homestead for birds, it's good advice, particularly if the tree has seen better days.

"Dead trees provide habitat for more than 1,000 species of wildlife nationwide," says the National Wildlife Federation. A snag — that's the term used for standing dead trees — offers two of the essentials for birds and other wildlife: food and cover. It can also provide the third, water, if it pools in crevices and pockets where limbs have detached.

A bevy of birds — including screech owls, bluebirds, several warblers and wrens — nest in cavities within dead trees. Woodpeckers excavate nest holes in the rotting wood and these, in turn, offer nest sites for other birds after the woodpeckers move on.

Of course, some dead trees must come down. Among the reasons for taking down a snag despite its wildlife value two stand out:

  • It may fall on your house.
  • It may fall on your neighbor's house, which is worse because you could end up in court.

Leaving dead trees standing certainly saves work. So does what I call "non-gardening for birds." Non-gardening enables you to cut down on using noxious lawn chemicals. It stops air and noise pollution from a power mower and leaves you more time to play golf — or watch birds. All you have to do is simply let a patch of lawn grow wild. Leave it alone, except for a cut every spring to keep overly agressive plants from taking over.

Before the end of even one growing season, your unkempt lawn will evolve into a meadow. Forget-me-nots and buttercups will pop up. Birds will come flocking to the enhanced cover and weed seeds.

But there is a rub. An unkempt lawn may cause trouble if you live in one of those up-tight communities that send lawn police to measure the height of grass blades or if you have neighbors so stuffy they demand manicured surroundings.

If you do live in such a place, or if you just have a green thumb, you can garden for birds. Among the trees recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for attracting birds are American holly, balsam fire, oaks in general, red mulberry and flowering dogwood. Shrubs include common juniper, highbush blueberry, hollies, serviceberry and viburnums.

There is no better plant for attracting hummingbirds than red bee balm. Beware, like its relative, mint, bee balm is highly invasive. Other top hummingbird, and butteryfly, attractants are red columbine, butteryfly bush and trumpet vine.

Many garden flowers produce seeds that attract finches. Among them are zinnias, marigolds and black-eye susans. You can grow your own birdfeeders by planting sunflowers and leaving them standing after they produce seeds.

As mentioned earlier, water is one of the essential elements of wildlife habitat. Like humans after a hard day's work, birds congregate around watering holes. A bird bath or other water source can draw as many birds as a well-stocked feeder, particularly in winter if you heep the water ice free with a commercially available bird heater.

Speaking of feeders, it is a good idea to place them near cover. Mine are located near a massive Norway spruce and a huge firebush. Without cover, your feeders can become a cafeteria for sharp-shinned and Cooper's hawks. Both species regular patrol my feedersin search of birds to eat. During the winter, I leave my discarded Christmas tree as extra on the ground near one assembly of feeders. The other day my wife watched several birds take refuge in this year's discard as a Cooper's hawk hopped around it, poking at is branches with its bill in frustration.

Many of the ideas mentioned here are from my book "Backyards Are For The Birds" (Avon). Unfortunely for me, it is no longer in print, although I am shopping around again. You can probably get it used or in a library.

One final tip, hulled sunflower seeds draw bluebirds in droves. Bluebirds cannot break through the shells of sunflower seeds but if these are removed, they devour the seeds with gusto.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Offers Youth Jobs

More than 2,300 young people will have the opportunity for summer jobs at some of the 556 national wildlife refuges and other pulic lands managed by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. 

Many young people in these jobs get first-hand experience working in wildlife conservation. Last summer, Kiara Ford, a sophmore at the University of Arkansas, Pine Bluff, monitored the growth of marsh grass used by tundra swans at the Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refige in Maryland. Isaac Coleman from Atlanta helped protect nesting sea turtles at the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama.

National Wildlife Refuges contain some of the most exciting wildlife habitat anywhere. Learn about jobs at national refuges and internships with the U.S. Department of the Interior at http://www.youthgo.gov/ and http://www.youthgo.gov/employment-program/internships.

The services says young people can also contact refuges in their state for information. In Connecticut, contact the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge.

Peg Welles February 25, 2012 at 10:59 PM
Nice article! Leaving dead trees & other cover for birds, and providing water sources are great ways to attract them to your yard. I love the suggestions of food-producing plants, too. I should add that firebush, or winged euonymus, is a highly invasive plant that, while beautiful in the fall and very popular, is forcing out many of our native plant species.
Robin Franklin February 26, 2012 at 03:08 PM
Love this article! I will gladly transform part of my lawn this summer. Also, you can have open water all winter by digging a pond (2 or 3 feet deep and simply running a pump to keep the water moving. Ponds also attract amphibians, which are great to have in a garden.

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