by Michael & Kathi Rock
The Irish author Robert Lynd says, “In order to see birds it is necessary to become a part of the silence,” and we have discovered that this is definitely true. Birds are clearly smaller in size than we are, but they are also much bigger in spirit, and seeing them provides a priceless connection to the beauty and majesty of nature and mindfulness in our lives—the special relationship we have discovered between birds and the wonderful people involved in watching them has been endlessly fascinating and far-reaching.
We became interested in creating a wildlife sanctuary in our suburban backyard almost by accident, and then it became our destiny as the years went on and our involvement and commitment to birds, especially hummingbirds, grew. The life of birds is determined by the cycles of nature, and we have found ourselves tapping into those cycles to learn about and appreciate the richness that birds can bring to our lives and our mental and physical health.
Seeing birds can certainly be a unique challenge in the frozen north. What can we do to invite birds into our yards? Many birds, such as hummingbirds and tanagers, are only with us during the warmer months and require special routines to draw them into and keep them coming back to our gardens. Generally, once a bird finds your property and something desirable about it, you can usually be guaranteed of return visits. As we’ve learned with hummingbirds, this activity is definitely a building process, with each successive year becoming better and stronger.
The most important thing we have learned about birds is that you must take steps to meet their basic needs when you “put out the welcome sign” for them to keep them coming back again and again. For most birds, those needs will include dependable:
? Shelter ? Food ? Water
A property containing large, mature trees and bird-friendly shrubbery will generally be an ideal habitat for most birds. If you have no trees or dense shrubbery (an ideal roosting and protective spot for smaller birds) in your yard, planting the largest plant specimens you can find will be an important first step. Birds require a place to sleep at night and something to escape into when being pursued by a predator. A brush pile or discarded Christmas tree also helps to create a valuable home for your bird friends. Some birds require special accommodations such as a nest box or house. For example, we would not be enjoying our Eastern screech owl during the winter without a specially located nest box (identify a place where squirrels cannot get into it and take it over) or those busy house wrens in the spring without birdhouses.
Food can be quite different for each bird species—think of it like “setting the table” for your bird friends! Some birds, such as cardinals and chickadees, eat mostly seeds, and some birds, such as robins, cedar waxwings, warblers, and tanagers, eat insects and worms. Our winter woodpeckers depend on suet, and, of course, hummingbirds (hummingbirds also devour huge numbers of small gnat-sized insects, so don’t use pesticides in your yard and plant lots of flowers) and orioles love sugar water feeders (Orioles also eat fruit and insects.). Hummingbirds eat from special tubular-shaped flowers, and you must plant a succession of nectar-filled blooms for them from early May through mid-October—a combination of feeders and the best flowers will ensure the presence of these magical birds in your garden.
To enjoy a wide diversity of birds, it is essential to provide and encourage the presence of many different types of food, and you must make sure that wildlife such as squirrels and raccoons cannot eat the food before the intended bird can find it (think squirrel-proof feeders, out-of-reach locations, and alternate foods for squirrels for best results). Sugar water feeders must be kept clean and fresh for the safety of the birds, and seed feeders must be filled and periodically cleaned. Providing food for birds is a little like having a pet—while birds can find food on their own because they are wild, if you want to enjoy watching and developing a special relationship with birds, you must spend time and care providing clean and safe food and designing your habitat.
Water can be a very challenging element to provide unless your property backs up onto a moving stream or river. Moving water on your property will always bring a greater diversity of birds (especially during spring and fall migrations), and we have absolutely found this to be the case since we first began creating a wildlife habitat. Additionally, the relaxing and rhythmic sound of the water is soothing and meditative, especially at the end of a long workday or during a stressful or difficult time in one’s life.
We decided to purchase a small pond kit (the pond is very shallow with a small waterfall and a mister and dripper device) from the Internet, and while it is a lot of work to install the pond in the spring and disassemble it in the fall, the payback in terms of enjoying birds of all kinds is huge. For several springs we had families of ducks enjoying the pond, we’ve seen hummingbirds bathe in the pond, and virtually every other bird in our yard uses the pond at one time or another (red-wing blackbirds, that beautiful harbinger of spring, especially like our pond when they first arrive from their wintering grounds), such as bluebirds and rose-breasted grosbeaks. There are many creative solutions to establishing a source of moving water that are less time intensive and expensive than a pond, and they are all worthwhile in your quest to enjoy birds. A properly maintained birdbath is wonderful for many small songbirds, but many birds such as hummingbirds will unfortunately find the water to be too deep and stagnant.
Birds are always doing something interesting, and their fascinating routines and arrivals and departures provide endless entertainment and stress relief during the average day (seeing that first hummingbird in late spring or an adult cardinal feeding a juvenile bird is simply priceless!). Nothing in life could duplicate our excitement of seeing the face of our Eastern screech owl appear in the hole of our nest box for the first time this winter or an indigo bunting at our bird feeder last summer. We regularly have a red-tailed hawk fly through our yard, and every time it is an awe-inspiring sight because of the sheer wingspan of the bird. It is therefore very important to place feeders and boxes and plant flowers where you can easily see and enjoy the birds from your home. We can think of endless days of stress and illness when the sight of certain favorite birds was immensely therapeutic—this is one reason why you will see bird feeders at places such as nursing homes and hospice centers. Birds can brighten up a bleak, frigid winter day or bring hope and peace when times are rocky and dark.
We begin and end our lives, our days, and our seasons, with birds—unlike us, they can fly, hover, and disappear into the sky where our dreams float free. As J. M. Barrie writes, “The reason birds can fly and we can’t is simply because they have perfect faith, for to have faith is to have wings.” We encourage you to have a little faith and to invite a few birds into your garden this spring so that you can discover the magic of birds for yourself!