December 18, 2007
Every afternoon at 4, I look out my kitchen window and see six cottontail bunnies, two dozen antelope squirrels, 60 quail and myriad songbirds happily scarfing up chicken scratch, millet, thistle and sunflower seeds in the waning light.
Where is this veritable paradise of wildlife? The “desert wasteland” of Stagecoach.
Like many Nevadans, I’m ashamed to admit that I have an addiction. No, it’s not gambling, cigarettes, booze, or prostitutes, it’s feeding birds. Many times I’ve asked myself, “Why don’t I just hold up three $20s every month and put a match under them?” But I guess that’s a cheap price to pay to fuel a foolish yet insatiable need.
Wild animals require food, shelter and water, and we can help. I provide food, the most obvious lure, in many ways besides seed feeders. I empty my toaster crumbs under the feeders, and put out produce scraps and eggshells for bunnies and squirrels.
In addition to the food, I intentionally let brush piles and logs lie and don’t thin shrubs, in order to provide nesting and denning protection. I throw my hair combings outside for nesting material, and was delighted when my 100-gallon fish pond became a magnet for animals.
WHY FEED BIRDS?
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I have a double standard when it comes to feeding nondomestic animals: I never feed them in the wild, but do everything I can to attract critters at home.
I can see the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest wildlife biologists cringing, but it’s a decision each homeowner must make for him/herself.
In Nevada, it is not illegal to feed wildlife – but highly, highly inadvisable if you live in bear country.
Yes, it’s true that feeding wildlife is tampering with the natural cycle. But it also increases species’ chances for survival and, believe me, it’s tough to make it as a sparrow in Northern Nevada. In my Grass Valley, Calif., yard, I only filled the feeders once a week. Here, in much-diminished habitat, it can be daily.
The hobby of bird feeding has really taken off in the last 25 years in the United States. It has enabled many songbirds whose numbers were diminishing to bounce back, and in some cases allowed them to overwinter in cold climates, greatly increasing their chances of breeding success. Some species have also expanded their ranges due to backyard feeders.
When I bought my Stagecoach land four years ago, I was amazed that I rarely heard a quail’s distinctive “Chi-CA-go!” call. Now I probably have more than 200 individuals on my 10 acres.
There are other, purely selfish reasons to feed birds: the beauty of their songs and plumage, and the delight in watching their antics as they squabble for territory and engage in what I call “bird politics.” Put up multiple feeders, and you’ll see what I mean.
WHAT AND HOW TO FEED
Don’t waste your money on fancy feeders. My friends tease me because I’m always swerving to collect discarded hubcaps, which, with a little wire or string, make excellent, free feeders.
Also, get your millet and sunflower seeds at a feed store, as you’ll pay many fewer dollars per pound if you buy it in 50-pound bags. This is especially true for the very expensive thistle seeds for goldfinches.
I tried to post a seed feeder in Grass Valley, but the deer kept emptying it. So I resorted to giving them cracked corn in buckets. Here, my most popular station is made of castoffs: A metal bowl pierced by a broomstick supported by an old Christmas tree stand.
I have about eight hanging seed-feeding stations, plus a thistle-seed sock. At a riverside rental in Dayton, I had good luck with suet feeders, attracting blackbirds and flickers. Some species love natural (sugar-free) peanut butter mixed with cornmeal then smeared on tree trunks.
I take hummingbird feeders down in late fall to force the birds to migrate. I put feeders back up when the birds’ natural foods bloom. I never color my nectar, and use a 4-to-1 water/sugar solution.
More important than seed in the desert is water. I have six water containers, but in winter, only the heated one for dog water is accessible all day.
CAN BIRDS AND CATS COEXIST?
In spite of having cats, I have always had legions of birds.
In Grass Valley, my seven cats did kill an occasional bird, but I figure birds that are caught by such notoriously bad hunters as domestic cats are too dumb to benefit the gene pool anyway. I console myself with the fact that only 50 percent of songbirds make it to breeding age for a variety of reasons, of which cats are nowhere near the chief one.
In Stagecoach, my two cats go out on leashes for a few hours a day – due to coyote predation – which coincidentally helps protect the birds. Chispa and Rocky have spots under my trees about 5 feet from where sparrows, quail, finches and ground squirrels forage, secure in the knowledge they are just being watched. I’ve also observed unleashed cats that knew an attack was fruitless so just became vigilant “birders.”
ATTRACTING ‘NONTARGET SPECIES’
At least one-third of my bird food goes to mammals, specifically rabbits and squirrels. I have learned to accept this and delight in observing their grazing.
Raccoons are cute lil’ buggers but rapacious. For a while in Grass Valley, when I called, “Kittykittykitty!” at dusk, two adolescent ‘coons would glide up, looking for a handout.
By creating unnatural numbers of birds, you will inevitably attract predators that eat them. Once, with the kitchen binoculars (doesn’t everyone have kitchen binoculars?), we were thrilled to see a Cooper’s hawk merrily ripping apart a pigeon.
Later, all activity and song would cease abruptly and sure enough, there was Mr. Cooper on the clothesline pole or carport rafters.
Last winter, I found in the yard a frozen rare, long-eared owl, which was attracted to the nocturnal kangaroo rats that congregate for the day’s leavings and had probably hit the window.
I don’t think it’s my imagination that I hear more coyotes in the arroyo now, what with the bunny-population increase. Gophers and rattlesnakes coexist in the rock piles that harbor the squirrel colonies. Hey, baby coyotes, snakes and raptors need to eat, too, right?
Once, I plucked a bedraggled and frightened cockatiel off of a feeder – talk about a “nontarget species”!
PLANTING FOR WILDLIFE
Because my gardeners all have four legs, I made a conscious decision not to do battle with the deer and rabbits I was feeding by planting delectable ornamentals – you just can’t have it both ways, folks. If you must garden, fencing is the only solution.
Plant native or food-bearing species for seed-eating birds and bright, nectar-laden flowers for hummers. I put in hackberry and mountain ash trees to provide berries for birds. Finches go nuts over sunflowers.
Come spring, I’ll be listening for the first, incomparably beautiful song of the Western meadowlark. I’ll be happy to know I’ve done my bit to ensure that another generation of their fledglings grace my yard and those of bird enthusiasts in Mexico, where the adults spend their winter.
• Contact Pat Devereux at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Care allows creatures to escape our explanations into their actual presence and their essential mystery. In taking care of fellow creatures, we acknowledge that they are not ours; we acknowledge that they belong to an order and a harmony of which we ourselves are parts.
– Wendell Berry
You can help
The National Wildlife Federation sponsors a Backyard Wildlife Habitat Program with 22,000 certified sites worldwide, from apartment balconies to 6,5000-acre spreads of forest. To get involved and learn more about how to attract wildlife, visit the NWF Web site at http://www.nwf.org/nwf/habitats/index.html.