If your yard is home to birds, they'll repay the hospitality with their song and beauty

March 20, 1994|By A. Cort Sinnes | A. Cort Sinnes,Universal Press Syndicate

When most folks think about a back yard, they think of it as a fairly tame, cultivated place. In reality, your back yard is a small piece of the earth's surface, the natural home for a variety of wildlife. And in addition to the ground below, any back yard possesses the "air rights" above the yard, as well. As such, every back yard is a little slice of heaven and earth, with a small sampling of all the wildlife in between.

Birds are among the sweetest representatives you can invite down from that space between heaven and earth, and wonderful reminders that back yards are, indeed, wild places. Enticing birds to take up residence in your back yard involves only four requirements: water, food, places to nest and protection from predators.

The most common predators of birds are cats; it has been estimated that every domestic cat annually kills 50 birds! If you have cats, and you're interested in attracting birds to your yard, affording the birds some protection is no small matter -- at least not from the bird's point of view. Once a bird has been attacked or killed in a specific location, that information is communicated to other members of the flock. It may take months for members of that species to risk returning to your yard.

Bell the cat

Attaching a small bell to your cat's collar is the simplest, and perhaps only, way to protect birds from a cat's natural instincts. It won't stop the cat from attacking birds, but it will give the birds fair warning a cat is lurking nearby.

In addition to protecting birds from the family cat, you can make your yard more attractive to birds by supplying ready hiding places near bird feeders and birdbaths. While few birds feel comfortable eating or bathing in the open for very long, both bird feeders and birdbaths should have some open space around them -- say, six feet or so. Medium-sized shrubs at the sides of the open space will give birds a place to duck for cover should danger approach, and increase their sense of protection. Once birds know a specific back yard is a safe haven, studies have shown they will return to the same location, year after year.

As an attraction, water is surprisingly important to birds. Even if all their other requirements are not met, birds are quick to choose a back yard with a ready water supply, and will travel great distances to find it. Birds need water for drinking and for bathing. Old-fashioned, shallow, concrete birdbaths are ideal as they afford some protection from predators by being above ground level, and their slightly rough surface provides a "non-slip" entry into the water.

Most important of all is to keep the water in a birdbath fresh and clean. Birds are not attracted to stagnant water, so be sure to refresh the birdbath on a regular basis -- probably every day during warm spring and summer weather.

Because of the wealth of insects, seeds, fruits and nuts during the warm-weather months, don't expect birds to flock to your feeders in the spring and summer as they do during the winter when their favorite foods are in short supply. The most regular customers at your feeder during the spring and summer will be birds that have chosen a nearby spot to nest and rear their young.

A birdlike consistency

If your yard is large enough, you can have more than one feeder, but keep them approximately 50 feet apart. Once you've found a location that the birds seem to like, don't move the feeder: Birds like consistency when it comes to the location of their food supply. And as with birdbaths, be sure to place the feeders near shrubs or dense trees, in case they need to seek cover quickly.

When it comes time for birds to construct a nest, few yards offer much in the way of suitable sites. You can encourage birds to nest in your yard by building a few birdhouses and placing them in strategic locations. Ortho Books' excellent "Building Birdhouses & Feeders" (widely available at libraries, bookstores and garden centers) offers the following guidelines for birdhouse construction:

* The most critical dimension of any birdhouse is the diameter of the entrance hole. The common house sparrow, for example, will readily take over any birdhouse with an opening 1 inch or larger in diameter. If you're trying to attract species other than sparrows -- say, wrens or chickadees -- make the hole 7/8 inch in diameter.

* The area below the entrance hole inside the house should be a bit rough so the birds can get a grip when climbing out.

* Include ventilation holes in the top of the walls.

* The roof of a birdhouse should extend well over the front and sides to keep water away from the entrance and ventilation holes.

* Be sure the roof fits snugly over the entire box so that water will not seep in. A mounting board should be screwed or nailed to a completed birdhouse in such a way that it does not prevent the roof from fitting tightly over all four sides.

* One piece of any birdhouse should be hinged in some way to

allow for cleaning (after the young

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