Backyard Habitat

With spring coming we are approaching the nesting season for birds and many people are working on sprucing up their landscaping. There are a number of actions one can undertake in your own yard to help birds such as setting up feeding stations, building nest boxes, and planting with wildlife in mind. The key elements to attracting birds are food, water and shelter. The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife has a certified Backyard Wildlife Sanctuary program that has brochures giving tips on bird feeding and landscaping for wildlife. Much of the material can be found on the web at http://www.wa.gov/wdfw/wlm/byw_prog.htm or by snail mail at: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Backyard Wildlife Sanctuary Program, 16018 Mill Creek Blvd., Mill Creek, WA 98012.

In attracting birds, hummingbird feeders are the most common in Spring but I continue to use seed feeders throughout the year. During the spring and summer, a sunflower seed feeder will bring colorful goldfinches, Purple and House Finches and mixed seed will bring by towhees and a number of sparrows. Overall numbers will tend to go down during the breeding season but winter visitors are to some extent replaced by summer birds that winter elsewhere like the White-crowned Sparrow.

Bird baths are a great addition in that they attract all kinds of birds, not just seed eaters. 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. Bird baths 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.

Most songbirds and especially the birds returning to the islands in spring are insect eaters, so the landscaping of your property is the major factor in determining the number and variety of birds coming to your place. The most important factors are plant variety and having a multi-layer structure to your yard. 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.

What you actually plant isn't generally as important as focusing on variety in type and size. Using Northwest native plants can be beautiful as well as aiding in ongoing maintenance and water needs. Many plants don't make it through the late July through early September dry spell much of the Northwest gets without a lot of care and watering while native species will come through much easier. Most nurseries can provide a listing of native plants for you. A lot of plants can do double duty, providing shelter and food. Snowberries, hawthorns and hazelnut trees are just a few of the native species that provide both food in the form of fruit or nuts as well as shelter.

Bird boxes are another great way of providing 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 are likely to just end up as starling shelter unless built specifically to thwart them.

Wood is generally 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 late, don't be discouraged if they are not used 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 will sometimes fill it full of sticks and use it as dummy nest. At a previous house, I had a pair do that to the boxes I put up and then nest in the mailbox. In some of the still open, farm or orchard areas of Maury Island, it might be interesting for someone to try putting up a number of bluebird boxes to entice any possible remaining Western Bluebirds.

After a year-and-a-half on the island, I have added seventy-four bird species to my yard list, about two-thirds of which were directly attracted by feeders, the bird bath or specific plants. A bunch have been flybys like the Double-crested Cormorants beating overhead from Tramp Harbor earlier this week but most have been like the Hermit Thrush that was gleaning a green worm of some kind from the hazelnut tree and flycatching for newly hatched flying bugs of some sort. Our yard has some grassy areas, a small orchard, some medium to large shrubs like the flowering currant attracting hummingbirds and a blackberry bramble down one side. A few very tall trees provide masthead perches for birds to land in and check out the yard before dropping in. A dead snag had to be taken out to avoid falling onto power lines but if you have one or two snags that are safe to keep, they provide good perches, food for woodpeckers looking for insects and potential nest sites.