Bird watching can lead people to become conservationists

Hobby growing in U.S., as more backyard enthusiasts plant favorites of our flying friends, put up feeders

In The Garden

December 28, 2003|By Marty Ross

Bird watching is the perfect hobby for a busy world. You can do it while you're on the phone and while on your way to take the kids to soccer practice. You can watch birds at a bus stop or while you eat a sandwich.

"Bird watching is the fastest-growing outdoor activity," says John Bianchi, a spokesman for the National Audubon Society. About 71-million Americans are bird watchers, Bianchi says, and more than 60 million have bird feeders in their back yards.

While we're enjoying the bright flash of a goldfinch, the antics of a blue jay or the determined progress of a wren as she looks for insects in the fissured bark of an old oak, we're also becoming conservationists.

"We see a definite movement from casually watching birds, and taking vacations that give you bird-watching opportunities, to people seeing what's at stake, how marginalized birds have become," Bianchi says. "That's what backyard bird watching is all about: introducing people to these concepts."

Birds flock to feeders, but a feeder in a well-planted back yard, especially one full of native plants, will attract even more of them. Birds will notice if you plant holly, cedars or viburnum, which all provide shelter and berries. Insects, on which most birds depend, abound in trees and shrubs.

Birds love to visit gardens where black-eyed Susans and coneflowers flourish, and they build their nests in mighty oaks, medium-sized garden trees like crabapples and dogwoods, and evergreens. There is nothing more gratifying than a pretty garden full of wild birds going about their lives.

Jesse Grantham, bird conservation director for Audubon of Texas, has counted nearly 200 different species of birds in or flying over his small city garden in Corpus Christi. Hummingbirds are his favorites.

California gardeners may be able to spot seven hummingbird species. In most of the rest of North America, the ruby-throated hummingbird is the only one you'll see, but in the right situation, you may have half a dozen or more at a time.

For the other birds, Grantham makes his own birdseed mix. He uses black-oil sunflower seed, niger seed, white millet and fine cracked corn and spreads it on the ground. Cardinals like to feed on the ground, but they'll also come to hanging bird feeders, and so will chickadees, blue jays, titmice and nuthatches. If you can't identify them already, buy a bird book or borrow one from the public library.

Birdbaths are even more important to birds than feeders. "Water is critical," Grantham says. "You'll have more birds come in and use water than bird feeders."

The best place for a good-looking birdbath is in an open area a safe distance from shrubs where cats may lurk. A nearby tree will provide a perch, or you could poke a few dead branches into the ground near the birdbath. Some birds will wait in line to have a drink or take a bath.

In cold climates, a heated birdbath provides a reliable source of water all winter long. When the weather is warm, a birdbath with a built-in water line that drips constantly from a tube attached to the side of the bath will make your back yard extremely popular.

Some experts say birds are attracted to the sound of the dripping water. "They're looking for it," Grantham says. "They're tuned into that kind of thing, and you'll draw birds there that you wouldn't have seen if you didn't have a drip system."

Nesting boxes (not called birdhouses any more) allow you to watch birds as they build nests and raise families. The Audubon Society publishes plans for nesting boxes on its Web site (www.audubon. org). Audubon and a number of mail-order specialists also sell ready-made boxes, nesting platforms and nesting pockets, which look like baskets with a hole in front.

The birds will appreciate your efforts, but they remain wild animals, and that's part of the pleasure of bird watching.

"For me, it's having that opportunity to see nature and wildlife up close, to connect to 10,000 years of evolution," Grantham says. "It's the freedom of movement that birds have, the mystery of how all this works, and the opportunity to see it all up close."

Bird Tips

Bird watchers spend billions of dollars on their hobby. But getting started actually does not involve a big investment.

Bird feeders are available in many styles and price ranges. Place them in an open area. If you use a platform feeder or sprinkle seed on the ground or on the snow, put out only enough seed for one day at a time.

Black-oil sunflower seed is the favorite seed of cardinals, chickadees and many other species. Woodpeckers, chickadees, titmice and other birds will come to a suet feeder. Fresh bananas and apples will attract robins, mockingbirds and thrushes.

Sixty-million people have bird feeders in their back yards. To keep the squirrels from snapping up the sunflower seeds, use hanging feeders. Plastic dome covers over the top will thwart squirrels.

Some birdbaths with drip systems continually recycle water, but fresh water is better. Look for drippers that use a trickle of fresh water.

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