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Beyond the bird feeder          Send a link to a friend

Building a haven for wild birds on properties large and small

[APRIL 14, 2006]  ITHACA, N.Y. -- Many kinds of birds are disappearing from our world. Loss of habitat is usually to blame. The good news is that private landowners and public land managers can help restore the natural order, one piece of property at a time.

With detailed pictures and instructions, the new second edition of "The Audubon Society Guide to Attracting Birds" leads the way. Author Stephen W. Kress goes well beyond the backyard bird feeder, showing stewards of the land how to create an entire habitat around the things wild birds need to survive. "That means a lot more than just food and water," Kress points out. "It means places to hide from predators, places to perch and sing, and places to build nests." The emphasis is on using all sorts of grasses, flowers, trees and shrubs that are native to a particular region, blending them into a well-planned habitat that will enhance the property and bring in more birds.

"The Audubon Society Guide to Attracting Birds" contains information on habitat-building that applies to all regions of North America. Chapters are devoted to creating and preserving wetlands, grasslands, prairie, forest and backyard habitats. With 80 percent of wildlife habitat now in private hands, it falls to owners of all-sized properties to take the lead in conserving the diversity of both birds and plants. Otherwise these numbers will increase:

  • 25 percent of North America's 800 bird species are on the Audubon WatchList.

  • 29 percent of North American plant species are facing extinction.

Whether planning for an urban yard, county park, highway median or country estate, the reader will find a wide range of techniques available to design landscapes that will benefit wild birds.

"The Audubon Society Guide to Attracting Birds" arrives in stores in mid-April. It is published by Cornell University Press in association with the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

The author is vice-president for bird conservation for the National Audubon Society. He also directs the Audubon Seabird Restoration Program, teaches field ornithology at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and has written many books and papers about birds and habitat.

* * *

Ten spring projects for attracting more songbirds to properties large and small

Compiled from "The Audubon Society Guide to Attracting Birds," by Stephen W. Kress

  • Create a songbird border along your property edge by planting trees and shrubs that meet the needs of birds throughout the year. Select native plants adapted to the weather extremes of your local climate. The border can take the form of a hedge or windbreak, depending on your property size. Plant several of each species adjacent to each other, selecting a mix of plants, with the tallest planted at the edges of the property and shorter species tiered toward your home. Include at least one species of thorny tree, such as hawthorn or raspberry, for nesting. Also include evergreens such as spruce, holly or juniper for cover. Plant berry-producing shrubs such as dogwood, serviceberry and viburnum that will provide fruit throughout the seasons.

  • Plant long-lived native trees like oaks and maples where space permits. Such trees can provide food, shelter and singing perches for birds for centuries to come. Planting a long-lived tree is a gift to future generations of birds and people.

  • Create a brush pile in a corner of your property. Each time a storm drops limbs, heap them up. During spring cleanup, save those downed branches and tree trunks from the community wood chipper. Layer the larger logs as a foundation; then build up the pile in successive layers. In large fields that are growing into young forest, create living brush piles by cutting neighboring saplings most of the way through the trunks, then pulling them into a collective heap. Songbirds will find shelter from extreme weather in such cover throughout the year.

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  • Rake leaves under shrubs to create mulch and natural feeding areas for ground-feeding birds such as sparrows, towhees and thrashers. Earthworms, pill bugs, insects and spiders will thrive in the decomposing leaf mulch and will in turn be readily eaten by many songbirds. In general, overly tidy gardeners are poor bird gardeners!

  • Remove invasive plants from your property. Learn which species are native and which are not. Because most invasive species hail from other continents and have no natural predators here, they often form monocultures and crowd out native species. In contrast, native trees, shrubs, vines and ground covers typically provide a mix of foods that ripen just in time for migrating birds and offer better nesting sites.

  • Reduce your lawn by at least 25 percent to favor meadow plants and taller grasses. Tall grasses provide seeds and nesting places for birds. Cut this meadow just once each year, and let the remainder of the lawn grow 3 to 4 inches tall before cutting. Take the "healthy yard pledge" to avoid lawn pesticides and wasteful sprinklers: Currently, 50 percent of U.S. households treat their lawns with chemicals that kill about 7 million birds each year. These chemicals also leach into our groundwater, where they move to wells, streams, lakes and oceans. To learn more about healthy habitats, visit

  • Clean out old bird and mouse nests from nest boxes in early spring. When setting out new nest boxes, consider the preferred habitat for different species, as well as the size of the entrance hole and its distance above the ground. Face boxes to the east in northern latitudes to provide extra warmth. In forests, play "woodpecker" by using a power drill to create 1 1/4-inch holes into dead snags 4 to 5 feet off the ground. These holes will serve as nest cavity starts for chickadees and titmice.

  • Create a bathing and drinking pool for birds by setting out a shallow birdbath or upside-down garbage can lid. If cats visit your yard, be sure to place the pool on a pedestal. Clean it frequently with a stiff brush to prevent algae growth, and replace the water every few days to eliminate mosquito larvae. For greater success, add a dripping device.

  • Clean tube feeders with a bottle brush and a 10 percent solution of non-chlorine bleach solution. Rinse thoroughly and dry in the sun before refilling. Rake up soggy seed that could grow deadly mold under feeders. Move feeders close to the house to avoid window strikes. Collisions with windows may kill as many as a billion birds in the United States each year. Birds that are at feeders and are spooked by a hawk or other predator will scatter in all directions. Move feeders within three feet of a window. At such close distances, birds are less likely to gather lethal momentum when startled. The birds will be safer, and you'll get a better view!

  • Keep your cat indoors for the safety of both the birds and your cat. There are about 100 million pet and stray cats in the United States. They kill hundreds of millions of birds each year -- especially in the spring when young songbirds are fledging, often on or near the ground. And cats themselves are safer from collisions with cars, predators, diseases and parasites when kept indoors.

[News release provided by Cornell Lab of Ornithology]

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