Providing a safe and inviting habitat for birds in your backyard is simple and will help our feathered friends thrive in the summer and survive during the winter. I have had a certified Backyard Wildlife Habitat in every home I've lived in. My Montana home is Certified Wildlife Backyard Habitat #197,214. All you need to provide is four things: food, water, cover, and places to raise young.
Providing water in the summer is not as critical as in the winter. In the winter, many natural sources of fresh water are frozen, but birds still need clean, fresh water for drinking and bathing. Finches, sparrows, warblers and towhees will eagerly visit a birdbath in the winter. To prevent the water from freezing, install a birdbath heater or a “water wiggler,” or dump out the water in the evening before it has a chance to freeze. Either way, change the water frequently. To keep the birds healthy, scrub the bath with a stiff brush every few days. If it is really soiled, use a dilute vinegar solution or mild soap and water to clean it. Just be sure to thoroughly rinse it.
Food is easiest to provide by hanging a feeder. There are many different types, and each feeder is designed to replicate a specific feeding niche in the ecosystem. The most common feeders are tubes filled with black-oil sunflower seeds that attract house finches; thistle sock feeders that attract colorful goldfinches; and suet feeders that attract flickers, sapsuckers and some woodpeckers. These feeders can be purchased in most nurseries and garden centers.
Cover is any place a bird utilizes to perch, seek shelter or escape predation. Just about anything can be used for cover, including living plant material, snags and rock or brush piles. But, the best way to provide cover is by planting a diverse selection of perennials, annuals, grasses, shrubs, vines, and of course, trees. Grasses are especially important because they provide cover during the winter. Leaving spent flowers and stalks through the winter will also provide cover.
Installing a nesting box is the best way to provide a place for your backyard birds to raise their young. Birds can be very choosey when it comes to selecting a nesting place. It pays to do some research and provide a nesting box with the appropriate size and dimensions. There are local stores that specialize in birding and wildlife habitat, as well as online sources. An excellent resource for information on nesting boxes is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website section devoted to nesting box characteristics, http://www.birds.cornell.edu/birdhouse/instructions/. It provides bird-specific nesting box requirements and downloadable plans on how to build your own box. Building nesting boxes is an excellent woodworking project for the entire family. They also make wonderful handcrafted holiday gifts.
Providing habitat for our native birds not only helps them survive, but it can also bring us great joy and contentment, as we watch them frolic in our yards. However, be aware that attracting small wildlife to your yard can also attract larger wildlife, such as deer or bears, so always be cautious. Once you have all of the critical habitat pieces in place, you can get your backyard wildlife habitat certified by the National Wildlife Federation. The online application is available at http://www.nwf.org/backyard/.
This is a reprint of an article I wrote when I was the commercial horticulture program coordinator for the western area of University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.
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