Tips for a backyard bird oasis

| 29 Sep 2011 | 09:17

MILFORD - A surefire way to attract songbirds - and often other wildlife - to your backyard is by adding a birdbath or small pond. During the dog days of summer, water has almost magical powers of attraction on many birds, because it’s something they use regularly. It’s not that birds are big drinkers, or hygiene extremists. A belly full of water and wet feathers definitely are not conducive to flight, a bird’s chief mode of transportation and first line of defense. Drinking and wading in water can help birds manage their body temperature when the sun is baking backyards and suburban settings. In fact, water can be as or more important than food to some birds when the heat is on. Birds typically do just fine regulating their body temperatures through breathing; they do not sweat. As cooler, fresh air circulates through a bird’s respiratory system, it shuttles away the warm, moist air that radiates from its overheated body tissues. As a general rule, the smaller a bird, the greater its body’s loss of water via breathing - and need to replenish what it has expelled. This can be accomplished through eating juicy fruits and berries, or bugs, or at a puddle or backyard birdbath. “Adding a water source to your backyard will almost always draw birds and provide countless hours of bird-watching pleasure,” said biologist Doug Gross, an endangered bird specialist for the Pennsylvania Game Commission. “Water will pull in everything from bluebirds and American goldfinches to ruby-throated hummingbirds and robins. “The big decision is determining what you want. You can definitely add a commercial birdbath to your yard for under $20. But, you also can spend hundreds of dollars - even thousands - putting in or contracting to have put in a water garden, lawn pond or fountain, and landscaping around it. Remember, though, birds really don’t care about style or originality. They’re just looking for a watering hole!” A water source can be made more attractive to birds by adding a water dripper, mist sprayer or a cascading trickle. Birds seem to key on moving water and the sound of it, particularly when it’s found or heard in an area where water is hard to come by. Once located by birds, a properly maintained water source rarely sits idle. Birds usually wait in nearby trees for their turn to access the water for drinking or bathing. Goldfinches, house finches, blue jays, and grackles often visit birdbaths in small groups. Mourning doves and cardinals frequently come in pairs. Robins often solo, as do catbirds, tufted titmice and gray squirrels. Communal bathing is a necessity in backyard Pennsylvania. But just because the water is shared, doesn’t mean all birds bathe well together. Some do, some don’t, and their tolerances vary, from species to species, and from individual to individual. “Birds are like people in many ways,” Gross said. “They have preferences and peculiarities just as we do. Some don’t handle the close quarters of birdbaths well. Others sit on the rim and absorb tidal-like splashes from bathers. It’s entertaining - and often educational - to watch their behavior and interactions.” Of course, the wild card about having a backyard bird oasis is that water and watering birds attract other birds, often songbirds that you don’t usually see at a birdfeeder. Bath splashing and feather flapping may pull in a Baltimore oriole or Carolina wren, a wood thrush or a Cerulean warbler, or something that you never knew was passing through your yard or your region of the state. One of the great things about establishing a backyard water source when compared to bird-feeding is that you don’t have to figure out what is the best seed-combination, what feeder to use or remove it if bears starting visiting the area. All you have to do is fill ‘er up and refill when needed. With birdbaths, however, it is important to freshen up the water regularly -even daily - in hot weather to reduce bacteria and viral threats to birds. Another maintenance-must for birdbaths is using a scouring pad on the dish area once every week or two in summer to remove algae that forms. Failure to do this will often lead to a thick, slimy deposit in the base of the dish that reduces its appeal, both to birds and people. The general location of the pond/birdbath should be in a low-traffic area of the yard and devoid of hiding places for housecats. Limit or eliminate the bath’s exposure to sun, which will keep the water cooler - and less prone to evaporate - and fresher. It’s also best to avoid placing water sources near large picture windows, to reduce take-off and in-flight collisions. Birds cannot see glass. Birds that are shaking off their bath and preening also desire nearby perches. Some birds do this on the rim of the bath, but if you’re bath has a lot of traffic, or you have a pond - no rim - its closeness to trees and shrubs will make it more obliging and help keep wet birds out of harm’s way. One the most important factors that will influence your birdbath’s ability to attract birds has little to do with design, or even location. But it’s directly related to your actions. If you keep your birdbath filled with fresh water, the birds will come and keep coming; which means you may have to refill it daily or even more frequently,” Gross pointed out. “Birds are quick to recognize reliable watering holes and readily rely upon them. There’s no better time to add one than in July and August,” Gross said. “So get going; do something ‘wild,’ and then sit back and enjoy what you have created. Birdwatching, after all, can be very therapeutic and is always conversational.”