Between a childhood in South Philadelphia and an early adulthood spent in Boston and Brooklyn Heights, I never had much exposure to birds or birdwatching (unless sharing the sidewalk with flocks of pigeons counts). But now, after decades of living in a leafy suburb, the birds of our region have become a regular part of my life.
Our life with birds began in a story-book fashion when my wife Margaret developed a friendship with a cardinal who would scrape its beak against our bedroom window screen every morning until she greeted it. The chickadees of the winter would make way for the robins and blue jays of spring, and autumn would not be complete without spotting at least one procession of wild turkeys crossing the road.
I began to ask my family members, some of whom are real ornitho-enthusiasts, especially my mother-in-law, what the average homeowner could do to help out local birds. Their advice is condensed here.
First of all, the birds need food. The big sack of wild bird seed you can get at the supermarket may disappoint you if you are hoping to see a variety of species. House sparrows, a species non-native to this area, are attracted to the millet in most seed mixes, and they will usually crowd out other birds at the feeder to get to it. They are cute in their own right, but if you want to support other types of birds, the millet has got to go. Finches like thistle and nyjer in special vertical feeders, crows and jays enjoy peanuts, and many other birds like striped shell sunflower seeds.
Once your food is laid out, you need to protect it from squirrels. You have to expect the squirrels to come at your birdseed from every conceivable direction. What seems to work best is to put cone-shaped baffles above and below your feeder, and then position it far enough away from any surface from which a squirrel can launch itself laterally. If this doesn’t work, wild bird supply stores sell a hot pepper oil specially designed to be mixed into bird seed, such as Cole’s Flaming Squirrel Seed Sauce. The birds can’t taste the spice at all, but squirrels hate it.
A few kind souls even set up special squirrel feeders in the hopes of keeping them well-fed enough to leave the seed alone, but I would fear a squirrel invasion if I encouraged them.
Now that your birds are fed, you can offer them shelter. There are many birdhouse-shaped garden accessories available, but to truly help the birds you will want to research the needs of the species you want to attract. Purple martins, for example, want to live close together, and their birdhouses look like apartment buildings. Bluebirds, on the other hand, prefer a single birdhouse on a pole in a sunny field, preferably with a horizontal slit for an entrance. Once again, house sparrows crowd other species, but you can discourage them by looking for entrance holes no bigger than 1½” in diameter.
For all birds, select houses with at least one ventilation hole to let heat out, another one on the bottom for drainage, and a rough-surfaced interior to help the birds climb out. An overhang over the entrance gives them shelter from rain and sun, but avoid a perch in front of the hole which can help a predator gain access.
If you have cats, keep them indoors. Cat predation causes the deaths of millions of birds a year, and an indoor lifestyle is much safer for the cat as well. Hawks and owls need food, too, but if you don’t want them eating your guests, you can help by keeping your feeders under the shelter of a tree or deck.
Finally, think about protecting birds from flying into your glass windows or doors. One of the less visually obtrusive products I have found are window alert decals and UV liquid window markers. The decals and liquid are nearly transparent to us, but birds can see them clearly with their UV vision. They do have to be replaced every six months.
These tips are barely an introduction to all you can learn when you start noticing birds. Eventually the interest can grow into a most rewarding way to reconnect with nature.
Bill Primavera is a Realtor® associated with William Raveis Real Estate and Founder of Primavera Public Relations, Inc. (www.PrimaveraPR.com). His real estate site is www.PrimaveraRealEstate.com, and his blog iswww.TheHomeGuru.com. To engage the services of The Home Guru to market your home for sale, call (914) 522-2076.