Giving Birds a Place to Shelter

So in talking about birding habitat–or any habitat for wildlife–we’ve already covered food and water. And if you think about it, all living things need these–you or I wouldn’t survive for longer than a week or so without sustenance.

We’d also have to find some sort of shelter for ourselves. Birds and other wildlife need to do the same.

And in just the same way that each of us chooses different types of dwellings, birds have surprisingly different requirements when it comes to “shelter.” (I will talk about “nesting,” or places to raise young, on Friday).

If there’s a hawk or other bird of prey after them, any sort of cover will do, of course. They will duck into a shrub, a thicket, a tree with branches near a trunk or even under a rock.

But if it’s winter and they need to shelter from cold winds, evergreens are better protection for this. Evergreens on the leeward side of a building are even better (away from the prevailing winds).

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These 2 pieris andromeda don’t look like much, but I have seen lots of finch, sparrows and cardinals sheltering here. It’s on the south side of my house. I suspect that my cardinals even nest here but I haven’t confirmed that.

Even ornamental grasses left standing can be protection–and can offer valuable seeds–in a pinch.

What’s important is to know the places where your birds do shelter and to try not to let things disturb them. On a cold day–or night–it costs them precious energy to fly. I try hard not to let my dog get too close my large evergreen hollies where I know that birds sometimes huddle for protection. I don’t want her flushing them out needlessly.(You’ll see these hollies in my post on nesting).

Take a look around your yard–or if you don’t have a yard, a park or other place you like to visit. Can you find the places where birds like to shelter?

Providing Water to Birds in Winter

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You saw the photo of my little backyard pond all frozen over–or almost frozen over–last Wednesday. Believe it or not, that’s one of the best ways for birds–and even the squirrels and the chipmunks that pop out of torpor on a warm day–to get water in winter.

Once that pond gets a nice crusty, ice covering, it’s a safe place for birds and small wildlife to approach the small open fountain for a drink.

Obviously when the pond is completely un-frozen, it’s not very wildlife friendly–at least not for drinking! I have witnessed birds flying through the bubbler fountain, but I haven’t seen any really try to drink from it. I did see a mourning dove try to sit on it though. That was funny. It knocked the whole pump/pump box right over!

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Until it gets really cold, I do try to keep these plastic bird baths filled and relatively clean. Once they freeze solid, all bets are off. The stone is to keep them from becoming airborne in our gusty winter winds. It also helps the smaller birds that don’t want to dunk, but merely drink, have a perch.

I haven’t talked about what elements you need to provide to give birds–or any wildlife–a place to survive. There are four and we’ve already covered two. Food is essential, as is water. I will cover the next, shelter, on Monday.

Feeding the Birds

I talked last Friday about how much I loved to feed the birds. There was a time–maybe 10 years ago–when I used to go through 80 pounds of bird seed a week! I really love bird watching and bird feeding.

But as with all things, nature less gotten a little less predictable, and my knowledge of wildlife has gotten better. Let me explain.

I used to think that bears did a thing called hibernation, meaning that they would go into a cave and sleep for a definite period of time–probably December until maybe early March. I know now that that’s not quite exactly right.

Bears–like chipmunks, if you have those where you are–do a thing called torpor. In case you don’t have chipmunks, let me explain what they do. Chipmunks have the amazing ability to quasi-hibernate–to go into their burrows, sleep through cold periods, and if we get a nice balmy day, they pop out and refresh themselves–maybe grab a bite to eat, run around and grab some fresh air– you get the idea. That’s torpor.

Surprisingly, wildlife biologists are learning that bears do just the same thing. Bears don’t take a 4 month nap. They’ll wake up intermittently and even pop out for a snack–and a bathroom break–and maybe even grab a bird feeder or two. Hence my recent aversion to feeding the birds.

But this doesn’t mean that I have to stop providing food for them (and no I don’t mean tossing a handful of seeds on the ground). There are plenty of berrying shrubs and trees with mast (nuts and seeds) that we have on our property that are already feeding our birds.

We have oaks (planted well before I moved to the property 25 years ago) that provide acorns for birds like blue jays and woodpeckers. Our pine trees provide cones with seeds for chickadees, titmice and nuthatches and nectar for hummingbirds. The American dogwood seeds are eaten by robins and starlings. And the crabapple is eaten by robins as well. Even the juniper berries are eaten by robins.

So you see that you don’t need a lot of plants–or exotic plants (in fact, plants native to your region are often best!)–to feed the birds. But you do need something that berries or makes seeds or nuts or acorns.

Next post I’ll talk about something that’s a little harder to achieve in winter–water.

It’s Full on Winter Here–Feed the Birds

I was a “birder” long before I was a gardener–or maybe sort of about the same time. If you click on the “Introduction” tab at the top of this blog, you’ll read that I’ve been gardening since I was 3, when I used to run ahead of my Dad’s push mower (many of you will be far too young to remember that mowers didn’t used to have engines–they were just a set of blades at the end of a long handles. You can still buy these “retro” mowers today). I would pick all the flowers–a type of viola called Johnny Jump Ups (again many folks consider them weeds, but I still love them) out of the lawn, “saving” them from the mower blades.

I also have fond memories of a small wooden bird feeder that my Dad hung in a sycamore tree in our backyard. We filled it with some sort of generic seed and backyards birds came. I don’t really recall having squirrel or chipmunk problems–maybe we did. And I know we didn’t have deer problems.

Even back then, I remember knowing the names of the birds–I was a little older by then, maybe first grade, so maybe 6 years old. And I still remember distinguishing between the house finches and the house sparrows (not terribly hard to do, except maybe for a first grader). My favorite was the bird that was then called the “slate colored” junco (it’s now called the “dark-eyed” junco).

Some things stay with you. Juncos (as I think of them because we really only have one kind here in the northeast) are still my favorite birds.

What’s a little more difficult is feeding them. When I was a kid, we didn’t even worry about deer, no less bears! Where I live now, it’s a wildlife bonanza! Just last weekend, a neighbor was showing me pictures of the neighborhood bobcat!

And while it’s just delightful to have all that wonderful wildlife in the neighborhood, I don’t want to attract it close to the house (or to create an “attractive nuisance” by feeding more than the birds.

So I have created habitat instead. Over the next few posts, I’ll talk about that, and show photos of what that looks like.

And, when I just can’t help myself (which happens less often now) I might toss a single handful of birdseed out on the ground, away from the house. That way, if something other than the birds come, it’s consumed quickly and they don’t get too used to it!

Another Way to Deal with House Plant Insects

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You probably don’t recognize this photo from “Gardening Resolutions #1.” It’s the variegated plant–otherwise known as a kumquat–in the picture–the one that I talked about as having fooled me by dropping leaves. It was the one that had spread spider mites to the whole rest of the plants in the window.

Well, so far so good on the rest of the plants, but this one I am a bit nervous about so I decided to give it the “shower” treatment. That way, any hitch hikers and any new hatchers can just wash away down the drain–no fuss, no muss and no sprays (other than the water) required.

I had read this past fall that Brie Arthur (who wrote the wonderful outdoor vegetable book about incorporating vegetables into your landscaping in the most creative ways! The book is called The Foodscape Revolution for those of you who want to get a head start on some ideas for this coming year’s edible garden) suggested that it was “meditative” to wipe down the leaves of your house plants as a protective way to keep insects at bay.

God bless Brie, but that isn’t going to work for me and my 180+ plants! I prefer to take a single plant (or a windowful, if that’s what’s affected) to my shower, give them a quick, but thorough spray down with some water and let them dry.

It’s easy, it’s chemical free, and it dislodges spider mites (and aphids) quickly and painlessly. A nice side bonus is that the plants get thoroughly watered as well.

But, if you only have a couple of plants, you might want to try Brie Arthur’s method to see if that works for you. Different things do work for different folks–or as I always say, if we all liked the same thing, we’d have a pretty boring world!