Like most wild animals, birds have it tough. Suburban sprawl, buildings, large-scale farming, pesticide use, climate change, wintering-ground destruction, wind turbines, and invasive species are just some of the hazards that are causing the precipitous decline of once common birds. They need our help more than ever. If you want to help birds survive in our human-dominated world, here are ten things you can do:
1. GROW NATIVE PLANTS. The most natural way to provide for our little feathered friends isn’t bird feeders (although there are times when they come in handy, such as in newly planted gardens and during extremely cold weather). One of the most important things for wild birds is to replace native plants that once provided natural food and shelter. If you live near a natural area, look at the native plant communities there and try to replicate them as much as possible in your space. If you’re in the city, try growing native plants that flourish in area green spaces, as well as natives that are doing well in neighbors’ yards. Contact a native plant society, botanical garden, or books if you need help, but keep in mind that even Northwest natives that are not perfectly indiginous to your immediate area may be acceptable and appropriate to the birds in the area. And remember that large conifers are essential to food, nest sites, and thermal cover for wildlife.
2. MAKE GLASS VISIBLE AT HOME AND OFFICE. It’s estimated that windows kill at least a billion birds in the U.S. every year! Birds can’t see glass and strike both large commercial buildings and house windows. Birds that don’t die quickly usually suffer a slow death due to injury, or they become easy targets for predators. Silhouettes placed on the inside of windows don’t work. Instead, install deflections, like Window Alert stickers, on the outside of reflective windows and make transparent windows uninviting, too. The Bird Conservation Network has many other suggestions.
3. TAKE CARE WITH BIRD FEEDERS. Another reason bird feeders aren’t as beneficial as the insects, seeds, nuts, and berries of native plants is that dirty birdfeeders can be deadly, harboring molds, bacteria and other disease-causing organisms that can kill. Infected birds may easily spread disease to others, especially when feeders are concentrated in one area, creating epidemic conditions that could wipe out entire nesting colonies. But even if birds only become temporarily ill, a sick bird is much more likely to be attacked by a predator. If you don’t have the time to keep feeders clean and dry, please do not use them. If you use feeders: Discard any old or molding food and clean all parts of feeders weekly with a brush and hot soapy water. Be sure to rinse thoroughly to remove any trace of cleaner and allow the feeders to dry completely before replacing seed. Feeders may need to be sanitized with a solution of one part bleach to nine parts hot water once a month or so. Be sure to remove old or damp seed from beneath all feeders, too. Tend feeders daily, filling them with just the amount they’ll eat in a day, and rotate them around your yard every few weeks.
4. HUMMINGBIRD SUGAR SOLUTIONS should be changed weekly if the weather’s cool and the feeder is out of sunlight. If feeders receive sun or the temperature’s above 65, change it much more frequently. Do not assume that if the feeder is nearly full that it doesn’t need changing–deadly toxins can contaminate the solution in a short period of time! Hummingbird feeders should also be cleaned with hot soapy water and rinsed well each time the food is replaced, but never use bleach. To eliminate feeder worries, only use hummer feeders during the cold winter months and grow plants that supply natural food for hummers the rest of the year.
5. BUY ORGANIC, NONTOXIC PRODUCTS. Pesticides and chemical fertilizers can be toxic to birds, the food they eat, and other animals. Choosing shade-grown coffee and chocolate is another way to lessen threats to birds. And remember that household chemicals eventually become toxic waste that ends up in the environment, so use earth-friendly cleaners like baking soda and vinegar.
6. A WATER SOURCE is essential year round, and especially during dry periods. Birdbaths should have gently sloping sides or be shallow enough for small birds, or they will not use them (if yours has steep sides, place some thin, flat rocks near the edge so that birds can wade in to a comfortable depth for their size). Birdbaths should be kept as clean as possible, since birds will drink from the same water that other birds have bathed in. Replace the water every couple of days and give them a good scrubbing every week or two. Placement should be at least ten feet from hiding places where predators could lurk. Shrubs a safe distance away make useful perches for preening after bathing.
7. USE ORGANIC GARDENING METHODS. Pesticides can harm birds directly or indirectly through their food supply. Because nearly all North American birds, except sea birds, feed their young with invertebrates, we must not kill the insects that they need to survive. In addition, synthetic fertilizers kill soil life, which seriously affects food webs.
8. GO “WILD”! Instead of cleaning up in the fall or winter, do it in the late spring after new shoots start emerging. Seedheads left on plants may provide a source of food for birds throughout the winter and garden debris, like small twigs and spider silk, may be used for nesting material in spring. Leave hedges unclipped when possible, to provide better nesting habitat. “Down wood,” such as logs, brush piles, decaying stumps, and snags (dead or dying trees) are an essential part of birds’ habitat. And stay away from disruptive, noisy, polluting leaf blowers; instead rake fallen leaves onto your garden beds where they will provide hiding places for beneficial insects and other invertebrates that ground-feeding birds need to eat.
9. SHRINK YOUR CARBON FOOTPRINT by leaning toward a plant-based diet, using human-powered tools like rakes and push-mowers, buying second-hand items, and minimizing driving.
10. KEEP KITTY OUT OF TROUBLE with wildlife as much as possible. Keeping cats indoors is safer not only for the birds, but for the cats themselves. Of course, not all cats are expert hunters and it may be difficult to keep cats already adapted to outdoor life indoors, but if your cats are very young, keep them inside from the start. With a companion cat or two, fresh air, and lots of interesting activities (how about installing a “catio”?), they can live full, healthy lives. Feeding homeless cats? Work to find them good homes and always spay/neuter!
– Eileen Stark BACK to Articles