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Backyard Birding Do's & Don'ts

Updated on April 3, 2015
Diane Cass profile image

Diane is a lover of all things beautiful; music, art, antiques and nature. Her guides bring insight to topics she cares passionately about.

Titmouse

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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.

Brown-Headed Cowbird

Brown-Headed Cowbird
Brown-Headed Cowbird | Source

Bird Seed

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 Discourage

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Brown-Headed Cowbird MaleBrown-Headed Cowbird Female.Speckled Brown-Headed Cowbird egg in a finch nest.Speckled Brown-Headed Cowbird egg in a songbird nest.European House Sparrow (English House Sparrow) Male.European House Sparrow Female
Brown-Headed Cowbird Male
Brown-Headed Cowbird Male
Brown-Headed Cowbird Female.
Brown-Headed Cowbird Female.
Speckled Brown-Headed Cowbird egg in a finch nest.
Speckled Brown-Headed Cowbird egg in a finch nest.
Speckled Brown-Headed Cowbird egg in a songbird nest.
Speckled Brown-Headed Cowbird egg in a songbird nest.
European House Sparrow (English House Sparrow) Male.
European House Sparrow (English House Sparrow) Male.
European House Sparrow Female
European House Sparrow Female

Tree Swallow in Our Next Box

Buy bird houses with the properly sized entrance holes
Buy bird houses with the properly sized entrance holes | Source

Bird Houses

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.

Sparrow Resistant Bluebird Birdhouse
Sparrow Resistant Bluebird Birdhouse

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.

 
Best Birdhouses for Your Backyard
Best Birdhouses for Your Backyard

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 Box

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Tree Swallow in our bird houseNo landing peg necccessaryTree Swallows and Bluebirds love our custom made birdhouse
Tree Swallow in our bird house
Tree Swallow in our bird house | Source
No landing peg necccessary
No landing peg necccessary | Source
Tree Swallows and Bluebirds love our custom made birdhouse
Tree Swallows and Bluebirds love our custom made birdhouse | Source

Our Birdhouse on the Gazebo

Our most successful birdhouse mounted on our gazebo. It is near our small pond and trees, but not too close to low bushes.
Our most successful birdhouse mounted on our gazebo. It is near our small pond and trees, but not too close to low bushes. | Source

Birdhouse Placement

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

7 Baby Tree Sparrows in our Birdhouse. Can you see them all?
7 Baby Tree Sparrows in our Birdhouse. Can you see them all? | Source

Birdhouse Maintenance

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.

NOT TRUE!

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..

BEFORE WINTER

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

Our gazebo birdhouse
Our gazebo birdhouse | Source

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?

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My Husband's Gentle Hands

Don't be afraid to handle the babies to check on their health.
Don't be afraid to handle the babies to check on their health. | Source

Mythbusting

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.

Have you ever heard of these birding dangers? Did you know about millet or murderous Sparrows?

What do you think?

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    • Diane Cass profile image
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      Diane Cass 2 years ago from New York

      Love that story! I'm sure that last one would have died without your intervention. Good job!

    • delia-delia profile image

      Delia 2 years ago

      Great subject! Before our feral cat came to live with us we had many wonderful experiences with birds nesting. We came back from a long trip in Europe to find a Robin nested in my potted plant right in front of the patio door. Four eggs started to hatch, three made it out, the fourth struggled to open the egg, so I peeled the shell off...it was stuck to the shell. Being a day late the chick was small and ignored by mom. I moved the chick up in front to be fed to no luck. I found a huge worm and it swallowed it whole, thought it would die...well they all made it. Named them Mattew, Mark, Luck and John ;-)

    • jptanabe profile image

      Jennifer P Tanabe 3 years ago from Red Hook, NY

      Didn't know that millet is such a problem - just noticed that our song birds don't eat it! We try to get the better quality bird seed, with a lot of sunflower seeds, and thistle seeds for the finches.

    • annmackiemiller profile image

      annmackiemiller 3 years ago from Bingley Yorkshire England

      I didn't know that about black sunflower seeds, great tip for discouraging the pest birds.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Yes but until you experience it you really need the info you provide. I cleared my yard of the wrong seed. These bad birds will bully what u really want away ! Thanks for the info and more on the quality seed helps !

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I just started a backyard feeding station and this morning our back yard was full of cowbirds and sparrows. It looked like an Alfred Hitchcock movie! I just googled feeders and cowbirds wondering why there were so many and found this article. Had no idea, thanks!

    • Diane Cass profile image
      Author

      Diane Cass 5 years ago from New York

      @anonymous: Those are likely mites. They can be a problem for humans. There is a fact sheet about it put out by the government about it. I will put a link to it on the article.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      hi, i just rescued a baby bird that fell out of his nest, he looked pretty beat up compared to his siblings. I placed him back in his nest as i was doing that i noticed he had a lot of tiny bugs on him, they were tiny and orange in color. Does any one know if that is normal or is that dangerous to him or me?

    • profile image

      livingfrontiers 5 years ago

      Yes, we had sparrows with the millet...thanks for informing and sharing!

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I just purchased a blue bird house and was wondering if I could hang it up next to my bird feeders. I currently fill the feeders with wild bird seed. Should I start filling the feeders with sunflower seeds or take the feeders down all together. Any feedback will be appreciated. Thanks!

    • LittleLindaPinda profile image

      Little Linda Pinda 5 years ago from Florida

      I love watching the birds in our backyard. The ducks come up most days looking for food.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I live on a lake and we have abundant wildlife. I found useful info here. Will definitely use the feeding tips!

    • profile image

      golfspice 5 years ago

      Useful and interesting lens. Two nests in the garden at present built by wrens and blackbirds. I can now put off cutting one hedge even longer!

    • profile image

      Joan4 5 years ago

      I learned some new important facts about birding - Thank you! We will do better now!

    • profile image

      dmboyce 5 years ago

      Great lens and very informative. I hate the "pest" birds. Starlings in particular.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Great information for caring for birds in the backyard.

      Its wonderful to have these residents to cheer our days.

    • Showpup LM profile image

      Showpup LM 5 years ago

      I learned a lot from this lens. I had been feeding millet in my seed for years. We have an overabundance of cowbirds and bluebirds galore but the bluebird numbers have declined as the cowbirds increased. I knew they were nest parasites but didn't know about the food. Thanks! Gorgeous photos, btw!

    • NYtoSCimjustme profile image

      NYtoSCimjustme 6 years ago

      No, I didn't know this and your page was very enlightening on the subject. Great Job and Thank You from my backyard visitors! :)

    • gottaloveit2 profile image

      gottaloveit2 6 years ago

      I created a birdwatching window for my mom. She loves it. Will apply some of your tips to the feeder.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      This is a great lens! Well done!

    • profile image

      whispersoftly 6 years ago

      Nice lens Diane, I have a dove in the Desert Orchid tree on a nest. It is a flat nest and with the wind I don't know how the thing stays there. Looks a lot like a life raft made out of toothpicks. I hope a baby can survive in it. The ravens like to raid the nests around here.

    • Diane Cass profile image
      Author

      Diane Cass 6 years ago from New York

      @KarenHC: You were already doing it right. : ) Good birding to you. : )

    • Anthony Altorenna profile image

      Anthony Altorenna 6 years ago from Connecticut

      Great tips and good advice for responsible birding.

    • tracy159 profile image

      Tracy Smith 6 years ago from Maryville, TN

      Great tips for backyard birds. I have some wonderful birds but had no clue what to feed them.

    • KarenHC profile image

      Karen 6 years ago from U.S.

      Great information! We do get house sparrows, but more during some times of the year than others. I haven't been seeing them hanging around recently. We use both the black oiled sunflower seeds and niger, and also peanuts. I had heard that millet is more of a "filler" bird food and that most songbirds don't like it. I didn't know that it attracted the more pesky birds.

    • Diane Cass profile image
      Author

      Diane Cass 6 years ago from New York

      @Frischy: Hooray! A convert! I told myself that if this lens helped one person make changes in the way they manage their backyard birds that it was a success. Yeah! It's a success.

    • Ann Hinds profile image

      Ann Hinds 6 years ago from So Cal

      There is so much more than I thought. Great tips for future reference. Thanks for the lesson.

    • Frischy profile image

      Frischy 6 years ago from Kentucky, USA

      I've been birding for many years and did not know about the millet. It makes perfect sense, and I do have the house sparrows in my yard, so I will take heed. I do not usually buy the mixes because there is a lot of waste, but I do buy suet cakes in winter that might contain that. Thank you for an enlightening lens!

    • profile image

      jseven lm 6 years ago

      Nice job on this lens about birds. I appreciate the tips about pest birds and all the great pics you posted.

    • hsschulte profile image

      hsschulte 6 years ago

      Great tips for taking care of those beautiful birds.

    • bossypants profile image

      bossypants 6 years ago from America's Dairyland

      Terrific lens! I wish we still had lensrolling capability so I could hook it up with my bird lens! But, I will put in a link module -- just for you!

    • Diane Cass profile image
      Author

      Diane Cass 6 years ago from New York

      @annieangel1: Wow, thank you for the feature and the blessing. Yes, nearly all of the photos are mine. a couple are used by permission. I took up photography a while back and have been busy trying to document the birds in my yard.

    • annieangel1 profile image

      Ann 6 years ago from Yorkshire, England

      well done, I love the photos are they yours? Angel blessed and featured on my Top Bird Lenses Published in June

    • Diane Cass profile image
      Author

      Diane Cass 6 years ago from New York

      @Virginia Allain: Yes, overheating can be an issue. Things you can do to help are what you already did (drill some holes in the top to ventilate the box. The other is to paint the birdhouse white or off-white.

    • Virginia Allain profile image

      Virginia Allain 6 years ago from Central Florida

      Great photos. We're thrilled that the chickadees returned to the birdhouse after a 2 year absence. I noticed that they swoop right into the opening without landing on the perch. Three years ago, the birdhouse was too hot for them and they were panting at the doorway. We made some small ventilation holes under the overhang of the roof. Hope it works better for them.

      Great photos that you've taken for this page.