Attracting Wildlife to Your Home

Spring makes one of the best times to work on attracting wildlife to one's yard. Many people fail to think beyond putting up a bird feeder in the winter. However, if one thinks beyond just providing food to making a property into a wildlife habitat, then one launches into a year-round activity.

Spring provides a good starting incentive when you feel like you just have to get outside and work in the yard after taking shelter all winter. A lot of us use this time of year to add some new plants, so if you like seeing birds and animals, taking some time to create a landscape that is esthetically pleasing and attracts wildlife goes hand in hand.

What you actually plant isn't generally as important as focusing on variety in type and size. The monoculture, one-level grass yard will basically attract only robins, starlings and House Sparrows. If open grassy areas are mixed with shrubs of different sizes and trees, the multi-story effect will bring a much wider variety of species. Developing a many-layered habitat of low, medium sized and tall shrubs to trees combined with utilizing several different species of plants creates shelter usable by many animal species. Most songbirds, especially the birds returning to the Pacific Northwest in spring, hunt insect prey for food. A wide variety of plants provide many foraging and gleaning opportunities for them. So the landscaping of your property becomes a major factor in determining the number and diversity of bird species coming to your place in the spring and summer.

For landscaping, using Northwest native plants works beautifully as well as aiding in ongoing maintenance and water needs. Many introduced plants, those exotic to the Northwest, don't make it through the late July through early September dry spell much of the Northwest gets. They take a lot of care and watering while native species will come through much easier. Drought resistant plants look like the best plants this year especially with the low snow pack in the mountains and the predicted lower amount of rain. Most nurseries provide lists of native plants to choose from so that it doesn't take a lot of research. A lot of plants can do double duty, providing shelter and food. Snowberries, wild rose and hazelnut trees are just a few of the native species that give both shelter and food in the form of fruit or nuts.

Bird boxes contribute another great way of furnishing shelter. The Audubon Society Guide to Attracting Birds is a good resource to check out from the library if you are interested in putting up boxes. It's important not to just slap something together or depend on the decorative knick-knack houses one often finds in stores. Birds use cavities or holes of specific sizes and it is important to cut the correct hole diameter for the birds you want to attract. Boxes with holes of one-and-a-half inches or larger just end up as starling shelter unless built specifically to thwart them.

Wood generally makes the best material to use because it insulates well, is easily available and blends in well with the landscape. Create a roof with enough slant to drain off water. Drill a few small holes to help with ventilation. Here are some of the basic dimensions for local birds that might use a box.
Bird
Floor size
Depth
Entrance above Floor
Entrance Size
Height
Chickadees
4 X 4"
9"
7"
1.125"
5-15'
Nuthatches,
4 X 4"
9'
7"
1.125"
5-15'
Downy Woodpecker
4 X 4"
9"
7"
1.25"
5-15'
Wrens
4 X 4"
6-8"
6"
1.125"
4-10'
Violet-green Swallow
5 X 5"
6-8"
4-6"
1.5"
10-15'
Tree Swallow
5 X 5"
6"
4-6"
1.5"
4-14'

If you build new boxes this late, don't be discouraged by lack of use this year. It often takes a season of weathering before the new smell and feel rub off. It's generally a good idea to put nest boxes on a habitat edge such as on the side of a field, orchard or forest. Place it in light shade (definitely avoid strong, direct sun) and with the entrance away from the prevailing wind. One nest box per species per yard is enough so that breeding territories of the birds don't overlap. In my experience, swallows and wrens are the most likely to use the boxes. Bewick's Wrens sometimes fill boxes full of sticks and use them as dummy nests. At a previous house, I had a pair do that to the boxes I put up and then they nested in the mailbox.

Besides shelter, wildlife needs food and water. Birdbaths make a great addition to the yard in that they attract all kinds of birds and animals, not just the seedeaters that a birdfeeder brings. Birds actively use the one I have year-round. Every day except for when it is frozen over I see birds using it and I get to see a number of birds like warblers and tanagers drop in that almost never come to feeders. Birdbaths can be very decorative or as simple as bowl or pan of water. They should be relatively shallow, with much of it an inch or less for smaller birds. A number of people also build small, shallow ponds that don't take a lot of room but still provide homes or breeding space for frogs, salamanders and the eggs and young of dragonflies. Ponds take a bit more room and definitely need planning to resolve any potential permit, safety and underground utility issues as well as to decide what animals to attract or not attract.

Feeding wildlife generally occurs in winter when food resources decrease. But I often continue to use seed feeders throughout the year. During the spring and summer, a sunflower seed feeder brings colorful goldfinches, Purple and House Finches and mixed seed entices towhees and a number of sparrows. In winter, add a suet feeder and you might also attract woodpeckers.

Hummingbird feeders make a popular choice for providing food. However, don't use food coloring because the chemicals in it may harm the hummers, just the red color of the feeder obtains the bird's attention. Also, cook your own hummingbird food to the correct proportions: 1 part sugar to 4 parts water (at most). Any stronger a sugar concentration often creates health problems for the hummingbirds. Boil at 1:1 concentration at first to delay fermentation, then add 4 parts water. Hummingbird feeders now bring hummers by at any time of year, so as long as one regularly cleans the feeder and adds new food, birds come year round in many neighborhoods. In the last couple of decades, Anna's Hummingbirds expanded their range north from California and they remain for the winter, making winter hummer feeding possible.

A lot of guides for developing backyard wildlife sanctuaries exist in print and on the web. Besides the Audubon Society Guide to Attracting Birds, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife created an excellent web site: http://wdfw.wa.gov/wlm/urban/index.htm. This site details a lot of ideas and includes many references and links for further information.