For the Birds
By Paul James
The number of birds in the United States has declined by nearly 30% in the last 50 years. That’s a startling statistic, for sure, and contributing factors include habitat loss and pesticide use. But consider this: outdoor cats kill roughly 2.4 billion birds in the U.S. every year! So anyway you slice it, it’s tough being a bird. It’s also hard to imagine life without them.
Despite those disturbing statistics, I’m fortunate to have a yard full of birds — from at least 24 different genera and 31 species at last count. The newest arrivals include a nesting pair of brown thrashers in a dense Burford Holly next to my patio. Thrashers mimic other bird songs much like mockingbirds, but they have a more extensive repertoire, with over 2,000 tunes in their catalog. And they sing their beautiful arias morning and evening.
A pair — soon to be a family — of cardinals are nesting in a large, dense yew about 20 feet away. The male has lost his distinctive red crown (cat attack?) so he looks really weird but he doesn’t seem to mind. After all, he’s in love, witnessed by the way he takes seeds and nuts from my hanging feeder, then flies to the ground and feeds them to his sweetie.
There are also plenty of the usual — sparrows, robins, finches, bluejays, wrens, and the like — but also hawks and owls, the latter of which have scared me half to death more than once by swooping within a few feet of me late at night.
So why the abundance of birds? Well, I live in an older neighborhood with lots of large trees, which provide food, cover, and nesting sites. That helps. I feed birds year ‘round, not just in the winter when natural food supplies dwindle. I fill two bird baths each time I water. I rarely (as in almost never) use pesticides, which means birds have a steady diet of caterpillars, bugs and beetles. And I don’t have a cat.
I do, however, have plants that provide food for birds. The hollies are especially prized by a number of species. There’s a robin that eats exactly seven berries at a time. Seriously, exactly seven. And the cedar waxwings gobble them up like candy. Several species feast on my blueberries, to the point where I settle on store bought. Hummingbirds love my Tecomas (Esperanza), two of which I grow in large pots just off the patio so I get a bird’s-eye view of them while they suck sweet nectar from the tubular flowers.
I could go on and on with bird stories. But I won’t. I will, however, urge you to do everything you can to make your landscape more bird friendly so you can enjoy many of the same experiences. And here are a few tips on how to do just that.
- Set out feeders, houses, and nesting boxes.
- Provide a source of water.
- Choose plants that produce fruits and seeds, and avoid deadheading.
- Plant conifers to provide year ‘round cover and nesting sites.
- Create cascading layers in the landscape with large trees followed by understory trees, then shrubs, perennials, and groundcovers.
- Reduce pesticide use.
- And keep cats indoors!
Happy gardening, ya’ll.
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