Backyard Birding Do's & Don'ts
Do Backyard Birding Responsibly - Avoid Common Dangers and Mistakes
Backyard birding is one of America's most popular hobbies. Bird lovers fill feeders and place birdhouses in their yard, hoping to attract the winged jewels to their yard. What most people don't realize is that some of the things they are doing could actually be harming the birds they are trying to help. Learn the simple changes you can make to provide a safer, healthier environment for your backyard birds.
Do's and Don'ts on Feeding the Birds
DON'T USE COMMERCIAL WILD BIRD SEED MIXES!
Commercial wild bird seed mixes contain up to 70% fillers. Most of that filler is in the form of millet, both red and white. Millet is the single most dangerous thing you can put in your yard. It is a favorite food of predatory birds that can seriously damage the population of our native songbirds. Millet is the favorite food of Brown-Headed Cowbirds and European House Sparrows.
Brown-Headed Cowbirds are nest parasites. They lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, like finches or cardinals, and then leave the egg to be raised by the unsuspecting songbird. . The Brown-Headed Cowbird baby will hatch and then push all other eggs or baby birds out of the nest to die. The songbirds raise the Cowbird as if it were their own, never suspecting that it is actually the murderer of their own children. Brown-Headed Cowbirds have been a major source of the decline of songbirds in North America.
European House Sparrows are murderers, plain and simple. They are very aggressive and seem to have a vendetta against Bluebirds in particular. They will take over a Bluebird nest, killing the babies and the mother sitting on them, and then will build their own nest right over the top of their corpses. This has actually happened in our own backyard. We are now at war with these stupid, non-native pests. The simplest way to keep them out of your yard is to only use birdseed that does not contain millet.
DO PROVIDE BIRDSEED TO DISCOURAGE PEST BIRDS!
Black Oil Sunflower Seed it the single best seed you can provide to your backyard birds. It is a favorite of most all of our songbirds and pest birds either don't like it, or can't open the seeds so they don't eat it. When we switched to providing all Black Oil Sunflower seeds, the Cowbirds disappeared from our property and the European Sparrow's visits to our yard were greatly reduced. Other seeds that will attract songbirds and deter pest birds are; Black Thistle (Niger) Seed for finches and Safflower Seed for other birds..
Pest Birds to DiscourageClick thumbnail to view full-size
Tree Swallow in Our Next Box
Do you have the right bird house to keep your birds safe?
DON'T USE THE WRONG BIRD HOUSE
Every bird has it's own style of nesting and specifications for a bird house. If you don't pay attention to the size of the entrance hole of the bird house, you could be putting your songbirds in danger. If the hole is too large, it will allow marauding birds like European Starlings and European House Sparrows access to the nest and babies of songbirds. Both of these birds will kill any birds nesting in a bird house and take over the nest.
DO USE BIRD HOUSES WITH THE RIGHT-SIZED ENTRANCE HOLES
Cavity nesting birds, like Bluebirds, Chickadees, Tree Swallows, Downy Woodpeckers and Wrens are the most vulnerable to aggressive pest birds. Make sure you either buy an approved bird house built especially to the specifications of one of these birds, or build one with the appropriately sized entrance hole. Entrance hole specifications for desired birds are as follows...
Bluebirds, Tree Swallows and Downy Woodpeckers - 1.5" to 1.75" diameter
Chickadees and Wrens - 1" to 1.5"
If you find that a pest bird is trying to enlarge the hole in order to gain entrance, glue or screw a metal washer, with the required diameter inner hole, over the entrance. That will stop the pest birds and keep them out of the nest. See "Sparrow Proofing Your Bird House" below for detailed instructions on other methods of keeping House Sparrows out of your bird houses.
DON'T use pegs or landing platforms on bird houses. Our native songbirds don't need them to use the bird house, and they will only attract pest birds.
Shocking Murder by a Brown Headed Cowbird
Approved Bird Houses
Use bird houses specifically designed for the birds you are trying to attract.
This unique design is the result of research by the University of Kentucky. Called the Kentucky Bludbird House, it was specifically designed to discourage European House Sparrows. Their research showed that European Sparrows don't prefer slot entries to their nest, whereas Bluebirds don't mind them. This birdhouse is also more shallow, also a turn-off for the Sparrows.
If you like to do your own woodworking, you will LOVE this book. We have made a number of the designs. The instructions are clear and easy to follow. You can put together a Bluebird house in a couple of hours out of one piece of wood.
Views of Our Nest BoxClick thumbnail to view full-size
Our Birdhouse on the Gazebo
DON'T provide only ONE birdhouse, even in a small yard. This creates unhealthy competition for the nest space.
DO provide two to four birdhouses per acre of property. Place birdhouses at about 20' apart. Birds will tolerate other birds nesting nearby, as long as they are either a different species or the birdhouses far enough apart. Our Bluebirds happily nest hear our Tree Sparrows, the Wrens near the Chickadees. We have four birdhouses and all the birds happily coexist.
DON'T mount birdhouses too low to the ground.
DO place birdhouses at least 6 feet high. Most songbirds like their nests at that height. Some birds prefer them a little higher.
DON'T mount birdhouses near low shrubs and bushes. This provides cover for predators that can pounce on the unsuspecting birds.
DO mount the birdhouse near trees or outbuildings. Birds like to have a high perch near their nests so they can survey the area for hunting and watching for predators.
DO use metal poles for mounting. They are the best protection against predators trying to get at the nest inside.
A Word on Bird Mites
,Bird mites are tiny pests commonly found on birds. They are orgish-red in color after a blood meal, and have eight legs, being part of the arachnid family.
Birdhouses can become infested with them during nesting season, and can migrate into homes and affect people. They can be a real health problem, causing itching, swelling, and possible secondary infections from scratching. To help prevent a home infestation, keep birdhouses away from your house. Discourage nesting under eaves or on walls or under roof tiles.
If you suspect you have an infestation, contact professional extermination services.
Baby Tree Sparrows in Our Birdhouse
To Clean or Not to Clean, That is the Question?
A common misconception is that once you place a birdhouse in your yard, all you have to do is leave it alone and the birds will come.
A dirty birdhouse can become infested with mites, ants and other pests that can put the baby birds health at risk. Birdhouses need to be maintained in order to ensure a healthy environment for the birds. Here is a list of things that we do on a regular basis to keep our birdhouses clean and free of vermin.
BEFORE NESTING SEASON BEGINS
1 - Clean out anything that has accumulated over the winter. Birds and other animals often use birdhouses left up for the winter as winter shelter. I have found our birdhouses full of feathers and sometimes a mouse has completely filled the box with milkweed down, creating a warm wintertime apartment. Remove all of this and wipe the inside of the box with a diluted solution of 1 part bleach to 10 parts water.
2 - Inspect the condition of the birdhouse. Check joints to make sure they are tight. Make sure there are no cracks or rot forming in the wood. If there is, you may need to repair it or get a new birdhouse.
DURING THE NESTING SEASON
Inspect the birdhouse at least once a week. Regular visits to the birdhouse will not disturb the birds or their babies. In fact, your vigilance can save them from insect invasions, health issues or marauding pest birds.
1 - Make sure the babies look healthy and well-fed (full crops, fat tummies). If you find any dead birds (as happens sometimes, sadly) remove the body to keep the nesting environment clean. If the babies look under fed and sickly, there may not be enough food in the area. The parents may abandon the nest. Try offering meal worms to bluebirds or tree swallows. Provide plenty of food for seed eating birds. Don't let the feeder run dry.
2 - Count the babies each time you inspect the box. If any are missing, you may have a nest robber on your hands. If birdhouses are too shallow, crows raccoons, and squirrels (yes squirrels) can get at the babies. You may need to watch the birdhouse for a while to see who is accessing the box. Take measures to protect the babies. If the problem is a pest bird, like a crow, you may need to either modify the entrance so that only a small bird can get near it or adjust the floor of the birdhouse (if adjustable) so that the nest sits deeper in the box. If you don't have a birdhouse with an adjustable bottom, you may need to buy a deeper designed birdhouse, like the Peterson's, or Audubon. If the problem is racoons or squirrels, install a squirrel baffle on the pole, and or move the pole so that the birdhouse cannot be reached from the trees. Squirrels can jump up to 15 feet, so a good distance is 20 feet from the nearest tree..
There is a debate about whether or not to leave the birdhouses up over the winter. Some people (like my husband) feel that the birds don't need them anymore, and the winter will age them faster, so he likes to take them down. I, on the other hand, like to leave them up. I know for a fact that birds in our area use them sometimes for shelter on cold nights during the winter. I've seen bluebirds hopping in and out of them in the dead of winter with snow all around. Even if the birds don't use them, other critters will. I don't begrudge a field mouse a warm place to hole up for the winter.I have won this debate, so now we leave the birdhouses up all winter. Just give it a good cleaning and let it sit from fall until before the first Robins return in spring.
Our Backyard Gazebo
I would love to know if you do or not. Please leave a comment too. If you have birdhouses, are they successful? Do birds use them? What kinds of things to you do to attract the birds to your yard?
Do You Have Birdhouses in Your Yard?
My Husband's Gentle Hands
Common myths about birds
Myth #1 Don't touch the baby birds or the parents will abandon them.
This is a complete falsehood. Birds do not have a strong sense of smell. They can't "smell" your scent of their babies. If a baby falls out of the nest, go ahead and put it back.
Myth #2 Throw away seeds that get bugs in them.
No, no, no! Birds LIKE bug snacks. Let them have buggy seeds. They will love you for it.
Myth #3 Hummingbirds need red nectar or they won't drink at your feeder.
False! Make your own nectar out of plain sugar and water (4 parts water, 1 part sugar) . NEVER use red food color dye, honey, brown sugar or jello.
More Ideas for Backyard Birding
Tips for attracting birds with food plants and easy decorations for your birdhouses.
Other Articles by Me on Attratking Birds
- Flowering Crabapple Trees - Four Seasons of Beauty
Flowering crabapple trees are not only beautiful, but provide vital food for wildlife during the long winter and early spring. Here's how to find varieties that keep their fruit over winter.
- Easy Backyard Birdhouse Painting Project
Easy Do-it-Yourself designs for beautiful birdhouses.
Have you ever heard of these birding dangers? Did you know about millet or murderous Sparrows?