Birds of a feather not only flock together, they flock to people, too. And with just a little encouragement, so do bats, butterflies, squirrels and other denizens of the wild.
With the growth of environmental consciousness, more and more people are spending more and more time and money to accommodate their fellow residents in nature.
Bird watching and the home feeding of wild birds now are together the second most popular leisure time activity in the country, behind only gardening. Americans spend roughly $1 billion a year on seed and other wild bird foods.
"I find it fascinating. It has a lot to do with urbanization, and the desire of parents to teach their children about the world, and with an agrarian nature we all have inside. It's in our nature to want to take care of other species," maintains George Petrides, a former Peace Corps worker who in 1985 opened the Wild Bird Center in the Cabin John area of Montgomery County.
So popular did the feed-and-shelter store become that in 1989 he began to sell franchises, and the chain now includes 10 stores in Maryland and another 25 across the country. The flagship Cabin John center maintains a mailing list of more than 40,000 customers for its area alone.
"It seems to be becoming more popular, for sure. People are looking for things they can do to help [the environment], and this is a relatively easy one to do in their own back yards," says Robert Mardiney, education director of the Irvine Natural Sciences Center in Baltimore County.
So how can you begin to reach out to wild creatures? And what kind of animals are likely to respond?
Many people make their choice of trees, shrubs and other landscaping flora with an eye toward attracting and sheltering birds and other creatures, notes Graham Egerton of the Maryland Ornithological Society.
"I have a string of cypress trees, for example. The birds line up in the trees and wait their turn to get at the feeder," he says.
"The habitat has to be right," says Mr. Mardiney of the Irvine Center. The facility maintains a garden of such native flora and offers a pamphlet on how to plant with wildlife attraction in mind.
For example, holly trees, bayberry shrubs and other bushes with berries offer some birds a food supply,and dogwood trees provide good roosting. Milkweed and a ground cover called butterfly weed can attract beautiful flying insects.
Homeowners should even consider leaving dead trees standing as a bird habitat, Mr. Mardiney says. Insects that thrive in the dead wood can be food for birds, and the trees provide nests for woodpeckers and other hole-dwelling species.
Twice a year, in spring and fall, the Irvine center sells a limited number of attractant plantings. (The center, off Greenspring Avenue on the grounds of St. Timothy's School in Stevenson, is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sundays; call (410) 484-2413.)
The most popular of wildlife relationships can be as simple as regularly tossing out sunflower seeds into your yard or, better, erecting a simple feeder.
Bird baths (heated or unheated) and progressively larger and more expensive feeding devices attract more varieties. And nesting boxes and houses offer a more permanent abode to many bird species.
Finches, nuthatches, thrushes and, of course, sparrows are among the small birds that flock to feeders. Bluebirds, jays, waxwings, mockingbirds and cardinals are larger species that take advantage of feeders and bird baths. In shore areas, ducks and gulls can benefit from human contact.
Some people in this area can even attract small owls, says Mr. Mardiney. Ray Lane, a partner in the WildBird Center in Perring Plaza, notes one species of hummingbird, the ruby throated, is indigenous to Maryland and can be attracted to special feeders with a simple "nectar," a mix of water and sugar.
Who wants to attract bats anyway? And don't they fly into your hair and cause disease?
"All that folklore is nonsense. They're perfectly harmless," says Mr. Mardiney. While bats can contract rabies like any mammal, in this area they pose a far less serious threat than the ubiquitous raccoon.
Bats are helpful, too, consuming mosquitoes and other nettlesome insects.
A bat box looks like a bird house, but is open on the bottom. The nocturnal mammals roost inside during the day, hanging from slats.
(You didn't know bats lived in this area? Mr. Mardiney advises people to look around the light fixtures of Oriole Park at Camden Yards during night games. The darting figures most fans take to be birds are actually bats, dining on insects attracted by the lights.)
The bushy-tailed rodents common throughout the area split bird-feeding enthusiasts into two camps: those who make war and those who make friends.
L "I certainly try to discourage squirrels," says Mr. Egerton.