Oklahomans take an active interest in wildlife. In addition to the consumptive uses of wildlife like hunting and fishing, more and more citizens are enjoying non-consumptive activities such as wildlife observation, wildlife photography, and the study of nature. To enhance the opportunities for viewing wildlife, many people have begun to attract wildlife to their own backyards through feeding and habitat programs.
Because of their flight capability, birds in particular can be readily attracted to a homeowner's yard when it has been designed with wildlife needs in mind. Like all wildlife, birds have three basic requirements for survival: food, water, and cover. Providing the proper combination of these resources takes planning but relatively little effort. Just a few additions or changes can transform your yard into an oasis for birds and other wildlife.
Another method of encouraging a variety of bird visitors is to present food items at different locations and levels in the yard. This arrangement most closely mimics the foraging opportunities birds find in nature.
Some birds, like juncos and most sparrows, are ground feeders, gathering seeds and other plant materials which fall to the ground. Other birds are more adapted for feeding off the seed heads or in shrubbery and seem to feel more comfortable at a feeder set about table top height. Chickadees, titmice, pine siskins and other woodland species naturally feed in the tree canopy. They will readily come to the rims and perches of feeders hanging five to eight feet high. Birds forced to frequent feeders which are out of their natural preferred foraging areas are often ill at ease.
Birds also feel more comfortable at feeders that are located near escape cover (brush piles, shrubbery, or trees). They fly back and forth from feeder to cover. This behavior actually results in less crowding at feeders and allows more lengthy and intensive use. If cats are in the neighborhood, it may be a good idea to keep feeders at greater distances from cover than would otherwise be advisable. A good rule of thumb is that feeders should not be much over five feet from cover of some kind.
The tube feeder is a cylinder of clear glass or plastic. There are usually six or more circular feeding outlets provided with perches. This feeder caters to the feeding habits of small woodland birds like the chickadee and tufted titmouse along with the finches - goldfinch, purple finch, and pine siskin. The perches are too small for accommodating larger birds like cardinals and blue jays. Undesirable birds, such as house sparrows and starlings, feel more uncomfortable on such an unstable hanging feeder. Globe feeders are also too unstable for less desirable species, particularly since perches are not even provided. The food is held in the center of the plastic globe and the birds perch right on the rim of the circular opening.
Hopper feeders usually have a sloping roof, glass or plastic sides, and a small tray where birds can feed. Because of the glass on one or two sides, it is easy to tell at a glance if more food is needed. Larger birds like cardinals feel comfortable at this feeder and it is quite stable, even when suspended.
There are other kinds of feeders, some of which can be attached directly to windows. Some feeders are specifically made for certain food types.
Thistle, or niger, a tiny black seed imported from India, is highly desirable to some species including goldfinches and pine siskins. Because niger seed is expensive in comparison to other seeds, a hanging tube feeder, where the birds can take one seed at a time, is the most efficient. Thistle bag feeders are also available but should not be used where there are squirrels as they are easily damaged.
To save money, particularly during times of heavy visitation, try feeding birds a limited amount several times a day. To limit waste of spilled seeds, many feeders now come with "catch" trays that can be attached underneath. Proper storage of seeds bought in bulk is also important. Leaving seeds and grain in bags invites rodents, insects and spoilage. A galvanized or plastic trash can with a tight-fitting lid makes a good storage container.
Suet is a food that is particularly useful to certain birds during winter because of its high energy content. Suet specifically refers to the fat located around beef kidneys and loins. This fat has the best consistency for attracting birds. It is not a good idea to use suet during the summer or any time that outdoor temperatures are warm enough to turn it rancid.
Many people enjoy making special "suet cakes" by melting down beef fat and adding mixtures of peanut butter, honey, corn syrup, corn meal, or various seeds and grains. Suet cakes are best suited to elevated plastic or metal baskets or within hanging cheesecloth or mesh bags. In locations where freezing temperatures are the rule, it is recommended that metal baskets have a protective plastic coating. Bare metal may be dangerous to a bird's feet, tongue, or eyes in such weather.
Fruit is appealing to some bird species, particularly those which eat insects during the spring and summer months. Mockingbirds are partial to grapes and raisins. Orioles may come to sliced oranges nailed to branches or wooden posts. Apples set out on the ground or on a low-lying platform feeder are likely to attract robins. Squirrels will also be attracted to this offering.
Sometimes birds will wait until the fruit softens before partaking of it, so don't be too impatient with this offering.
A food category which is highly specific to hummingbirds is sugar water. Orioles and a few other species may sample this mixture as well. The best solution is 80 percent water to 20 percent sugar, or a ratio of four to one. Boil the water before mixing the solution and then wash the dispenser with hot water every three days to discourage potentially harmful molds and prevent fermentation. Honey is not recommended for mixing with water; it is a likely medium for the growth of a fungus that can infect the tongues of hummingbirds.
Several types of hummingbird feeders, glass and plastic, are available on the market. A perch at the feeder will encourage hummingbirds to remain there for longer periods of time as well as make the feeder more accessible to other birds.
To increase your chances for success with hummingbirds, be sure to place the feeder near brightly-colored flowers, particularly those kinds that are fed upon by hummingbirds. It is always desirable to provide a natural food source along with an artificial one.
There are a number of ways to provide water. It can be as simple an inexpensive as water in an inverted trash can lid or as elaborate as a small pond. Probably the most common, however, is the commercial "birdbath." Some features to look for in a birdbath are gently sloping sides with an average basin depth of no more than 1 1/2 inches. A rough cement or other coarsely textured finish suits birds' needs best. In winter, there is a problem with keeping the water from freezing. The most convenient way is to use an immersion water heater designed specifically for outdoor use. Several varieties are available in garden centers and hardware stores. Some are meant for water deeper than that usually found in birdbaths and are more appropriate for pools and tubs in the garden, but there are some designed to operate at the birdbath depth of one to three inches. Either type should have an automatic thermostat that shuts off the heating element when the water reaches about 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
Moving water attracts the attention of birds and seems to be highly alluring to them. One of the easiest ways to create moving water is to attach a garden hose to the trunk of a tree and suspend the nozzle directly over the birdbath or pool below. Just a few drips of water at a constant rate is needed. The same effect can be accomplished by hanging a bucket or large plastic bottle four or five feet over the pool with a nail-sized hole punched 1/2 inch from the bottom.
- Choose plants for your landscape plan that are of notable use to birds. These include plants that bear fruit, seeds, nuts, or other foods; plant shrubbery which has the branchy growth ideal for nesting sites or escape cover. Try to achieve a combination of plants which will meet bird needs on a year-round basis.
- Create a "layered" effect in the landscaping by planting some of each of the following: large trees, small trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants. Open areas surrounded by plantings is the important concept.
- Maximize habitat edges where different types of plantings meet. This might be where a flowerbed and hedgerow converge or where a hedgerow adjoins trees. These habitat edges are preferred activity centers for birds and other wildlife.
- Include evergreen trees and shrubs in your landscaping plan. Not only do they function as a year-round privacy screen for the backyard, but they also provide critical winter shelter for many wildlife species during inclement weather.
- Be less energetic in removing dead tree stumps, dead branches, leaf litter or harvested garden plants. Dead trees, or snags as they are called, provide food for insect-eaters and homesites for cavity-nesters. The dead branches offer perching areas. Leaf litter and leftovers in your garden provide sources of food. Try letting the branches of some shrubbery go unpruned. This can greatly improve your bird habitat.
- Include some special habitat features. A sizeable brush pile composed of cut branches is a favorite haunt for native sparrows. Place a brush pile near a feeder which is out in the open and you will be surprised by the increased visitation.
Wood is the best building material for supplemental nesting sites. Metals other than aluminum should be avoided, for they become extremely hot when exposed to a sweltering sun. Rough slabs with the bark left on make ideal material for rustic-looking houses.
Roofs need to be constructed with sufficient pitch to shed water. At least one inch of overhang is needed to protect the entrance from driving rain. Some water may still seep into the house, therefore a few small holes should be drilled in the floor to allow drainage.
Plan for several holes or a slit near the top of the box to provide ventilation in hot weather. The house should be constructed with screws for easy disassembly when cleaning.
Entrance holes need to be near the top of the box and proportional to the size of the bird which will use the house. Houses should have the interior walls roughened or grooved to assist the young in climbing to the opening. There is evidence that birdhouses facing in easterly directions in Oklahoma are most attractive to cavity nesters. Situate the houses where they receive some shade protection. Subdued color tones are best, except for those placed in direct sunlight where white is needed to reflect the heat.
Different species of birds need houses constructed to suite their particular needs.
Chickadees, titmice and nuthatches: These birds seem to prefer rustic homes built to simulate natural abodes. Old orchards and woodland borders are good places for their houses. Chickadees often nest within a few feet of the ground, but nuthatches and titmice prefer higher elevation.
Robins and phoebes: These birds will use nest shelves when natural nesting sites are unavailable. The shelves should be placed in partial shade along main branches of trees or under the eaves of a shed or porch roof.
Swallows: Water near the box will help entice these birds to artificial nests. Open or partially covered nest shelves are best for barn swallows, especially if placed under the sheltering eaves of buildings. Cliff swallows should be provided a narrow shelf under an overhanging roof where they can construct their mud nests.
Wrens: Wrens find almost any sort of cavity good enough to suit their needs. Boxes of small size with horizontal slots for entrance are best. The slot opening permits this small bird to carry cumbersome nesting material more readily. Any partially sunlit spot agrees with wrens. A supply of small twigs about three inches long will aid in nest building. It may be best to place several houses in the immediate vicinity, for wrens often build several nests before completing one to its liking.
Purple Martins: The gregarious nesting habits of martins will allow the builder to employ skill and imagination in construction. Important factors to consider are coolness and accessibility. A multi-storied apartment house will attract a colony of martins. The availability of water will be a factor in enticing the birds to nest. The houses should be situated in an open space and painted white to reflect heat.
Bluebirds: Any type of house with the proper dimensions will suit this birdwatcher's favorite. Orchards and woodland edges are the best location for bluebird houses. The house should be placed four to five feet above the ground.
Flickers: A rough interior is favored by these birds. A quantity of sawdust, ground cork or small chips should cover the bottom so the birds can shape a nest for eggs. Boxes should be placed above immediately surrounding foliage. A dead snag makes an excellent support for their boxes.
How can I keep squirrels from eating all my bird seed?
This is probably the most frequent question from people who want to feed wild birds. Many of us enjoy watching squirrels in our backyards but the expense of keeping up with a squirrel's appetite while trying to feed wild birds can be discouraging. Again, the idea of feeding limited amounts on a timetable, particularly during milder weather, can save you money. Offer squirrels food at an easy access feeder and this will free up your other feeders for your bird customers.
If this doesn't solve the problem and squirrels are still dominating feeders to the exclusion of the birds, there are other alternatives. Some bird feeders available commercially are "squirrel proof." If you don't want the expense of a new feeder, you can squirrel proof your own. With pole supported or hanging feeders you can attach a metal or plastic shield around the access points. Or, suspend your feeders on wires between two supports (beyond jumping distance) and cover the wires with one inch plastic tubing. This makes for very insecure footing for even the acrobatic squirrels.
The challenge in solving the squirrel problem is keeping the feeders out of the jumping range while still close enough to cover needed by the birds.
What should I do for baby birds that have fallen out of a nest?
Generally, it is much better to return an uninjured baby bird to its nest than try to care for the bird yourself. Often young birds that have fallen from the nest and assumed abandoned have actually not been forgotten by the natural parents. Returning these birds to their own nest or placing them off the ground in nearby trees or shrubbery will allow the parents to resume care. A young bird will not be rejected by its parents just because it has been touched by humans. Most birds have a poor sense of smell.
If the young bird has become injured, its chances for survival are questionable. Remember that the loss of individual animals is a normal occurrence in nature. It is sometimes best to let nature take its course.
Northern cardinal nest (Rhonda Provence-Croft/RPS 2015)
How do I discourage the starlings and house sparrows from coming to my feeders?
To solve the sparrow problem, develop your feeding program around small, hanging feeders that offer insecure footing. Avoid offering some of the sparrow's favorite foods like cracked corn, wheat and bread. Sunflower and thistle are also mildly popular with sparrows so they should be offered only in hanging feeders. There is a risk in this method, however, that you may be discouraging other birds like juncos and Harris's sparrows.
Starlings can really be bullies at a feeder. Luckily, they can be more easily discouraged from visiting feeders than house sparrows, without seriously inconveniencing your other guests. Unlike most birds, starlings like to feed late in the morning and early in the afternoon, so try feeding at other times like early morning or late afternoon. Again, avoid bakery items and other scrap type foods if you have problems with starlings. Stick to thistle, sunflower, millet and suet to best encourage desirable native bird species so they can be trapped and removed.