Nesting Places for Birds

I’ve lived in my house 25 years. By now, I know where I am likely to find birds nests. Every so often one will surprise me–but for the most part, there are several trees–small trees–and shrubs where I know that I am likely to find birds needs if I just pay attention.


I will always find at least one, if not two, American robin’s nest in my American dogwood (cornus florida). Interestingly enough, they also like the Japanese maple and the japanese holly–so it’s not an “american” thing.


I will also find various other birds nesting in these topiary blue spruce we have. We have several (don’t blame me–I inherited them). They stay because they birds like them.


The japanese holly is another inherited shrub that I tolerate because it’s good for the birds. As I mentioned in the last post, it’s wonderful shelter for them (it doesn’t berry–I don’t think we have enough sun) and they do nest in it so I am not likely to remove it even though it is a bit of an overgrown monstrosity.

As for other nesting places, I was foolish enough to think that you needed nest boxes. Silly me. We must have at least 10 pair of nesting birds on the property at any one time all summer long. I attribute that to providing habitat (and of course, no pesticides).

You saw 2 nest boxes in the dogwood. One is pretty much decorative. The other is a working wren house and it’s used every year. I fledge ( actually the wren parents fledge) at least 2 broods of baby wrens each year. And they get mighty irate if I try to garden underneath.

But the trees and shrubs are the true nesting stars. My bird population relies heavily upon them to perpetuate their future.

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).


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


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!


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!

A Break from All Things Christmas…..

For weeks now I’ve been posting about Christmas greens and trees and plants. I thought I’d take a little break from that–at least for a few days–so that those of you that don’t celebrate can have a bit of a breather.

For those of us up here in the colder parts of the country (which lately seems like most of the United States most of the time!) Christmas is a lovely way to forget the fact that you can barely walk out the door without encountering some kind of nastiness. I know in my particular part of the country last week, we had a Nor’easter that brought first an ice storm, then buckets of rain, and then that was followed by a full day of snow. Interestingly enough, the snow didn’t stick–thankfully. But for those of us that celebrate, why wouldn’t we want to think about something other than weather like that?!

But winter isn’t always that way, of course. And there are lots of great things to see in the winter that are obscured on sunny summer days.

For one thing, so long as you are properly dressed, winter is a great time to watch birds (and really, if the cold bothers you, you can always do this from indoors through a window with a cup of something warm to drink!)

This is why the birding organizations run their counts in winter. Audubon has their famous Christmas Bird Count over a period of a few weeks this time of year.

And the Cornell Lab begins asking folks to observe birds in their yards–or at their feeders if they have them–in early November right through the beginning of April. They call this Project FeederWatch. You can learn more about that here.

I’ve always believed that most gardeners were secretly birders at heart. How can you not be? We’re out there everyday while we’re gardening and birds are all around us.

Perhaps this is the time to learn a little more about birds. You have all winter to do it!

It’s Time to Count The Birds!

I’m going to step away from the house plants for a moment and talk about birding for a very important reason. It’s almost time to count the birds!

Actually, it’s not quite time to count the birds–the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) begins at 7:00 am on Friday February 14 (how’s that for showing the birds some love?). The count continues through Monday February 17. It’s always held President’s Day weekend.

For those of you who aren’t yet familiar with this adventure, all you need is a computer (and I use an old fashioned paper and pencil to keep track of my daily bird tallies before I enter them into the computer–but I tend to use a paper calendar too. I’m not fully into the electronic age yet!).

There are easy instructions here. There are also apps. If you’re an experienced birdwatcher and are already submitting counts on eBird (and those of you who are will know what I mean) the counts you submit through eBird will apply for purposes of the GBBC.

Now if you wonder why folks might want to get involved in any of this nonsense, let me try to help with that. For one thing, it’s fun and surprisingly addictive. Don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it.

For another, birds are absolutely amazing. And it is so wonderful to see such fabulous signs of life in this ridiculous frozen winter most of us are having–at least across a good part of North America, anyway.

And it doesn’t take much to get a lot of birds–a single feeder and some good quality bird seed will get you a lot of birds. If you’re able to put out fresh water–even if you can’t keep it from freezing, some water that you change every day, in a plastic saucer perhaps–is a great way to attract even more birds. It’s not a requirement, though.

I could go on to talk about all the things that make a yard–of whatever size–a habitat, but that perhaps is a much longer post or series of posts. Suffice it to say that one speaker I heard at a horticultural symposium a week or so ago described it this way: places for nesting and resting and breeding and feeding.

In other words, the birds want pretty much what most of us want in our lives– a nice place to make a home. Make your little corner of the world attractive to them and they’ll reward you with their beauty and song.

Red Tailed Hawks and Winter Birds of Prey

Our most common hawk is the red tailed hawk, although I have counted as many as 4 other different hawks on my property alone. I’ve even seen a Bald Eagle in my maple out front–not because there’s anything so fabulous about my property, really, but because there’s a body of water across the street where they will occasionally fish in the winter. But to see an eagle in a tree on your own property–that was a sight I hope I never forget. And it wasn’t that it stayed for too short a time to photograph. It stayed quite some time. But it was past dusk and no photo would have come out. Besides, sometimes, these things are best remembered with “the mind’s eye” to quote Hamlet.

As any of us drives around Connecticut in the winter, all we need to do is to glance up to notice our most common bird of prey, the red-tailed hawk. According to Cornell, it is possible to see one on a car ride almost anywhere in North America!

Here in Connecticut, the light stanchions will be the place to find them. They perch, observing the fields alongside the highway, looking for an easy meal. If you are the passenger and can observe for a moment, it is often possible to notice the way the hawk’s head swivels. It really is a marvel of a thing–the human head can’t swivel like that!

To me it seems as if its head is swiveling almost all the way around, but of course that’s not so. It certainly can look further over its shoulder than most humans.

Cornell says that most hawks do not visit suburban backyards. I must live in an exceptional place. Not only do I have a pair that regularly visits, but the female has a spot that she regularly “stakes out”–under a very low-branched magnolia. This same pair breeds in my neighborhood each spring and raises its young–we can tell the young by its screeching call, very different from its parents.

I know I have talked about the male before as well. He is not a terribly good hunter. I have watched squirrels chase him away and I have watched him try and fail to catch squirrels on more than one occasion. The female appears to be deadly accurate and I have found the detritus of several species in my yard to prove that.

The other hawks I have had are sharp shinned (for awhile one year, a sharp shinned visited every week, only on Friday. It was the strangest thing. I wondered if he kept a calendar somehow–and yes, he was a male), a Merlin, a Coopers hawk and on one instance the Peregrine falcon. It must have come in from Hartford, where it nests.

I feel blessed to have all these birds of prey visiting. They do enliven my winter bird watching!

Great Backyard Bird Count

It’s almost time for the Great Backyard Bird Count.  For those with long memories, you may remember me mentioning this event last autumn in my posts on birding and Project Feeder Watch.

The Great Backyard Bird Count (or GBBC for short) is a joint project sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Audubon, and some commercial sponsors.  It’s an all-online bird count that takes place over the 4 day President’s Day weekend, which means that the count officially begins at midnight tomorrow.

There’s an official web site where participants and would-be participants can learn more about it–and if you decided to participate, you can enter your bird counts there.

The way this works, and it’s pretty simple really, is that you decide where your count site will be–most folks choose their yards, but if you’re an apartment dweller, then you can choose a park or some other site nearby–and you choose a time that convenient for you to count birds that you see, and the  you merely record the number of birds that you see at that place each day.

The number one question, of course, is “How can you count birds?” and the web site explains it quite well.  But I’ll take a stab at it too.  You count birds by counting the highest number of birds you see at any one time.  So say I see 4 juncos when I start to watch.  And then another joins them.  Now I have 5 juncos.  Then something happens and they all fly away.  A few minutes later, two come back.  I don’t count those–they could be part of the original group.  But if 6 more join the 2 that are now there, then I record a total of 8, because that is now the highest number I’ve seen at one time.

So it’s pretty simple, it’s fun, and it’s very necessary to help those who study birds figure out what’s going on with them.  Join in, won’t you?

Canada Geese

[Photo from]

You may wonder why we call them “Canada Geese,” or as some folks call them incorrectly, canadian geese, when they don’t seem to have much to do with Canada but they stay right here in the United States.

Well, only some of them stay here.  One of the signs that fall is coming to most parts of the country is the migratory flocks of Canada Geese flying over, in their classic “V” formation, honking their little heads off.

The “V” formation actually helps them achieve better speed and less wind resistance–I learned that from a biology professor who stated that no action in nature is ever wasted.  He didn’t really have an explanation for all that honking, though–that seems like wasted action to me.

There are 3 distinct populations of Canada Geese–two are migratory–the honking “V”s we see flying over–and one has become resident.

The resident population is actually protected by Federal law from hunting.  Special exceptions must be made to allow hunting of the non-migratory geese.

It is not exactly known what has caused the resident population to become migratory but protection from predation and hunting, and the proliferation of their habitat–grasslands in suburbia and office parks surrounded by lakes and ponds–is believed to be the cause.

I’ve been a birder since childhood but I’ve only recently learned the story of the 3 distinct populations of Canada Geese.  I read about it in my state wildlife magazine, Connecticut Wildlife, I heard a very good story about it recently on Bird Note, on NPR and of course I’ve had the biology course where I heard about “nothing being wasted in nature.”

There are some very good resources out there for amateur naturalists to learn more about nature and wildlife.  It’s always good to get more informed about these things.