Can you imagine a life without birds? Witnessing their singing, feeding, and nesting, their courtship rituals with the funny little dances they do, and of course their amazing flight! Ah, the magic of a bird's flight Ė graceful, fanciful, quietly floating on air...
Birds are delightful to watch, and they have been for many centuries. The magic of their flight was studied and analyzed in medieval times by the great Leonardo DiVinci, and to this day it fascinates cultures the world over.
History is rich with tales of ancient Rome where birds were viewed as omens, their flight foretelling the future. In India, the flight pattern and arrival of birds can indicate the success or failure of the crop season.
And stories about simple homing pigeons abound, including the important role they played in communications during World War II.
Even today, scientists study important shifts in bird population as indicators of the relative health and deterioration of our environment, helping mankind maintain a beneficial relationship with nature.
People of all ages enjoy watching birds, and for many of us it has become a passionate hobby. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, over 51 million Americans are enthusiastic bird watchers, and that number is increasing all the time.
Did you know that over 57 million Americans enjoy feeding birds? Itís second only to gardening as the most popular hobby in the US!
The beauty of bird watching lies in the fact that you can do it wherever you may be, whether you're in a city or town, out in the country, in an apartment building, or right in your own backyard!
Watching birds go about their everyday lives is often taken for granted, but it shouldnít be. Forests and scarce breeding grounds are being swept away by new development and urban sprawl, severely threatening the natural habitat of birds and their ability to breed.
Bird houses provide nesting places to replace those lost to development. Recent studies indicate that the population of certain bird species, like Bluebirds and Tree Swallows, have actually increased due to the popular use of man-made bird houses, as well as volunteer programs that track their breeding habits.
So if someone asks you why you place bird houses and bird feeders on your property, tell them because the birds need us as much as we need them.
Attracting birds to your property
If you build it, will the birds come? Not necessarily. If you donít attract them, they wonít.
If you wish to attract birds to your lawn or garden, you must first determine which species are common in your geographical area.
One way is by observation of birds in your area. A better way is to procure a quality field guide and a pair of binoculars. A regional bird guide, specific to your location, is an excellent starting point.
Later you can expand your interest to cover a wider area since it is quite common for birds from one region to show up in several others.
I recommend that you buy a guide illustrated with drawings instead of pictures. Photos can be misleading because birds can vary a bit from one another within a given bird species.
Field guides usually provide the range of a species, which is a general reference that defines the seasonal geographical area that a particular bird species inhabits.
Habitat is a bit more specific, defining where a particular bird actually lives, such as meadows, forest edges, parks, and the like.
Although scientists have established general ranges for specific bird species, they can vary, shift, or decrease due to environmental changes, climatic shifts, or human alteration of the environment.
And often, a bird may have more than one range. Quite often you'll see a particular bird only once on your property, never to be seen again!
Aside from the appropriate physical characteristics of a bird house, the most important consideration for attracting birds to your property is an environment that includes food, shelter, and water.
Water can be provided for birds in a variety ways, with a birdbath being the most common. Food can be offered from commercial sources, or it can simply be provided in nature by the judicious use of plants, trees, and shrubs in your garden.
Another effective means of attracting nesting birds is to provide them with their preferred nest-building materials. Grass, twigs, plant stems, bark, feathers moss, pine needles, cotton, string, and yarn are all of interest to the feathered architects.
With so many natural food sources available, you may wonder why food is so important in attracting nesting birds. Consider this: baby birds need to eat up to 1.5 times their weight each and every day.
With several little mouths to feed, adult birds have an exhausting task keeping them all fed. With a ready food source nearby, it makes their task much easier.
Okay, now that you have provided food, water, and shelter, when can you expect your first bird to nest in your bird house?
Well, I forgot to mention one thing: patience. It may take several seasons before birds find your bird house or feel safe using it. On the other hand, it could easily happen the first season out.
Then too, you could just be lucky! My sister put the bird house I gave her in the worst possible location, she didnít provide food or water, didnít offer nesting materials, and still she had a nester within a week! This goes to show that birds are unpredictable.
But donít dismay. Birds not only use bird houses to breed, they also use them to keep warm on cold nights, so who knows what valuable service you might be providing.
Cavity nesting birds
Iím sure youíve seen books that provided lists of birds that will nest in your bird house, but why do these birds use nesting boxes, while others donít?
First of all, not all birds use bird houses, because they donít all nest the same way. In North America, there are about 650 known bird species. Of those, only 85 species build nests in natural cavities, and even fewer will actually use a bird house.
The species that will use bird houses are known as secondary cavity nesters because they will use the holes made by other birds, or those found in nature due to decaying trees known as snags.
Primary cavity nesting birds are capable of making their own holes and usually create a new one with every breeding season.
Itís the secondary cavity nesters that are known to use man-made bird houses, and therefore they're the focus of our attention.
Other bird species are known as open nesters. As the name implies, they may build their nests on the ground, in trees, or in bushes. While open nesters won't be interested in your bird house, you certainly can attract them to your lawn or garden!
Birds that nest in cavities have different physical and behavioral characteristics than open nesters. Cavity nesters have strong feet which help them cling to vertical surfaces of trees or nesting boxes.
Cavity nesters also have an innate inclination to enter and explore small, dark spaces. On the other hand, an open nester (such as a robin) wonít venture into a small, dark hole.
Although only a tiny percentage of known birds use bird houses, we provide them for good reason. Studies indicate that up to 80% of birds bred in bird houses will successfully raise at least one offspring, as opposed to open nests that have only a 20% to 40% survival rate.
As pointed out earlier, another good reason for providing bird houses is the increasingly short supply of available nesting areas.
During mating season, good shelter is becoming harder for the birds to find. The once inviting nooks and crannies of old trees are becoming extinct. Forests are being cleared of old trees because they donít look good, or they're being harvested early for monetary profit.
In urban environments and private gardens, old trees are seldom left standing and inactive branches are usually pruned. We humans have a real desire for neatness.
There is strong evidence from wildlife biologists and ornithologists that natural cavities for nesting birds are becoming increasingly hard to find.
To meet the rising need, bird house placement programs have been initiated to fill the void and track the breeding habits of birds (especially bluebirds).
My wife and I participate in such a program in our area, and there is nothing more rewarding for us than to open a nesting box and find bird eggs, or see the stretched out mouths of hungry nesters.
Here are a few tips for selecting appropriate bird houses for your area and the bird species that reside there:
Providing food and shelter for your feathered friends will make their lives easier while enriching yours. Buy or build some bird houses and make your lawn and garden come alive!
- You shouldn't install a Purple Martin bird house unless you are sure there are actually martins in your area. If you do, it will most likely become inhabited by House Sparrows.
- In general, most types of lawns and gardens will support different bird species, for example, a pair of chickadees, a pair of flickers, and a pair of robins.
- Each bird species will attempt to keep others of its own kind out of its territory, but will not usually be bothered by a different species.
- You should place several different sizes and types of bird houses around your property in order to attract a variety of nesting birds.
Richard T. Banks is an award winning architect and artist who designs and makes unique birdhouses. Visit him at www.architecturaleditions.com.
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