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For the birds — and for people who want birds

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Two approaches to birding: 1. Go to where the birds are. 2. Get the birds to come to you.

A few weeks ago Rob Stavinga, whose day-job is watershed resources technician with Kawartha Conservation but whose full-time passion is birds, demonstrated the first. He led two groups on “owl prowls” at Ken Reid Conservation Area, where, as of January, 2019, a total of 176 bird species have been reported.

Last week he addressed that second approach. After a nudge from his wife, he reluctantly put down his binoculars (he’d been checking out redpolls at his feeders) and made his way to Ops Community Centre to present a “Backyard Birding” workshop, one of a number of educational events being sponsored by the Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust.

A group of 25 awaited him: youngsters and parents, Fleming students and their instructor, and a goodly number of us Rob delicately referred to as “in the second half of their lives”; some in the group were novices and some had more experience.

Two hours later we all left with a clear picture of what a backyard designed for the birds would look like, a 12-step strategy for creating that welcoming space, and an appreciation of some maybe unexpected benefits of doing so.

Assuming you weren’t among the 25 in the audience, here, in digested form, is the recipe for success.

Finding food is what drives birds. It’s why they migrate and how they spend most of their days. And when we think about attracting birds, we think of bird feeders. You’ll be most successful with a squirrel-proof feeder and black-oil sunflower seed, which will attract a wide variety of birds, including cardinals. Thistle (nyjer) seed doesn’t interest squirrels and attracts finches (a group that includes his redpolls). You can add hummingbird feeders filled with a sugar-water solution. Suet served through suet cages is a valuable source of protein in winter.

But feeders are, according to Rob, like fast food restaurants. Convenient for birds, but not a sustainable resource. They require maintenance — regular filling and regular cleaning to avoid, for example, mould. And they don’t satisfy any of the other bird needs.

So, the most important and most constructive measure householders can take is to simulate the birds’ natural habitat.

With that, he launched into his 12 steps to a successful natural bird garden. (Reader advisory: If you’re a fan of manicured lawns and croquet, this may not be for you).

  1. Recreate the layered habitats found in local natural areas. If you have mature trees in your neighbourhood you’re fortunate. The City of Kawartha Lakes is largely agricultural, so pockets of mature trees form oases that will attract birds, especially during migrations. In descending order, the layers under the mature tree canopy should be smaller trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants and groundcovers, all of which could be incorporated into backyards. Each layer plays roles for a variety of birds.
  1. Include plants that provide food in all seasons. The seed-filled cones of pine or spruce feed many bird species, including nuthatches, finches and chickadees, and persist over a long time. The nectar of flowers such as beebalm and hollyhocks will attract hummingbirds. Seed-producing flowers such as purple coneflower, globe thistles, and sunflowers left standing are food even in winter.
  1. Plant small trees and shrubs in clumps. This concentrates the food source and makes it more visible. Roughly 35 species of birds enjoy the fruit of serviceberry.
  1. Make one of the clumps conifers. In addition to the food supplied by the cones, these evergreens are shelter for birds in winter and during storms and are preferred roosting and nesting sites.
  1. Leave a dead tree if you can. Seems like an odd idea, but dead trees are perches, have insects for woodpeckers, and cavities for nesting.
  1. If you have fences, grow vines along them. You’ll often see birds emerging from or disappearing into vines. They can provide food (wild grapes, for example, or insects) and can be used for nesting or perching.
  1. Limit — ideally eliminate — lawn. Sure, you’ll see robins on a lawn (especially when rain brings worms up to the surface), but few other birds have any interest or use for them.
  1. Avoid invasive non-native plants. Birds evolved to use native plants for food and shelter. Invasive plants such as garlic mustard, dog-strangling vine, and goutweed displace the native plants and reduce birds’ food sources.
  1. Supply water. Water is as important as food. The sound of water is a great bird attractor; even a slow drip can do the trick.
  1. Provide nest boxes or platforms. Robins, phoebes and others will make use of cavities or shelves. Avoid nailing a nest box to a tree trunk, though: that makes them vulnerable to squirrels (most urban bird nests fail because squirrels get in and eat the eggs or newly-hatched birds).
  1. Leave fallen leaves or rake them onto garden beds. Many insects overwinter under the leaves and are food for birds in spring. Some thrushes like to hide in the leaf litter.
  1. Avoid pesticides. Some harm birds directly, others indirectly when they eat insects.

One more recommendation: keep cats out of your backyard. According to one website cats kill over 2.4 billion birds in the U.S. every year.

Few of us could possibly follow all 12 suggestions and create this perfect space, but the more you can do the better for you as a bird-watcher and the better for the birds you’re watching.

Additional benefits? You’re helping the environment (#12) and engaging in good gardening practices (#11, 12).

You’re also saving yourself the chores of lawn-mowing (#7) and raking, bagging, and delivering leaves to the landfill (#11), which gives you all the more time to sit on a deck and enjoy watching all those birds.

On Saturday, May 4th, from 9 a.m. to 11:30, Rob Stavinga will be offering an Introduction at Ken Reid Conservation Area. Cost is $10 + HST for adults; children 12 and under are free. For more details and to register visit the Kawartha Conservation website.

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Jamie is a retired teacher and Chair of the Kawartha Lakes Library Board. For The Lindsay Advocate he is reviving the 'Friends & Neighbours' column he wrote for the Lindsay Post, as well as writing a column on the library’s contributions to the community.

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