Saturday, March 5, 2016

The Wild Life: Protecting Songbirds from Predators

When I set up feeding stations on my hilltop, I began watching the air. It was filled with winged beauties--Titmice, Carolina Chikadees, Cardinals, Blue jays, woodpeckers, and the darling finches. As I watched them flit from feeder to bush to tree, the knots in my chest slowly loosened, and I could breathe for the first time in over a year. The Chickadees were surely the souls of babies, and the squirrels reminded me of rambunctious human toddlers. A day can start out poorly, but it can flip around in an instant if you spot a cardinal.

But I didn't realize that I had attracted more than songbirds. I'd brought danger to my yard.

Nature is majestic and healing, but it can also be heartless and flat-out dangerous.

My hilltop is located in an "edge," a place where two or more habitats converge. Everywhere I look, wildness meets suburbia. One end of the property is bordered by taller hills and deep woodlands; the other ends are near multiple subdivisions, and a few are the settled kind with mature trees and shrubbery. Beyond, just a few miles away, is a small Southern city. Above it all, hawks make their rounds (and they do tend to have a visiting route, I've discovered, one that seldom varies), and on warm days, they'll catch a spiral and seem to float high above town. What in the world could they possibly find in downtown Lebanon? Or my backyard, for that matter? It backs up to a tame, landscaped subdivision.

Then one day a red-tailed hawk flew into a window and cracked the pane, leaving a halo of white feathers.

Unharmed, he veered up into a tree and sat on a branch. He stayed for a spell, trying to collect himself. I showed the picture to my master gardener instructor, and he thought the hawk was a male because it was relatively small; females are larger. The hawk had come to pick off one of my little birds, no doubt. And I had led him here by keeping the feeders full all winter. The knots tightened in my chest.

First, I removed all of the "dangerous" feeders, such as platforms and hoppers. The hawk came every day, but I ran outside and chased him off with my trusty Laura Ashley umbrella. Next, I bought squirrel-proof feeders (well, I wasn't fooled by the hype, but I was desperate). At least small birds could slip through the wire cage and feed without being ambushed. 

I found this feeder at Tractor Farm Supply.

I didn't realize that other dangers lurked in my yard.
 These cute little birds are delightful to watch. They are also known as homewreckers, destroying bluebird eggs with inpunity. You can read about that HERE.  Careful placement of your bluebird houses may offer a little protection. Wrens prefer to nest near a woodland, so you can give the blues an advantage by placing their houses in the open, away from the woods. Sadly, no sure-fire solution exists to protect your nesting blues. (As a side note, I've heard that bluebird houses shouldn't face west, as the sun is too harsh). You can read about house-wrecking wrens at the National Wildlife Federation. I learned to clean out my bluebird houses, just in case a wren had claimed it. If you're unsure what kind of nest you are dealing with, wren nests are very twiggy and untidy. The male wren will sometimes "decorate" boxes with twigs, giving his mate a choice of "homes," which would normally be sweet. But I can't bear the idea of crushed bluebird eggs!

I had been on the lookout for other "predators," too, mainly foxes and owls. One winter day, a scruffy feral cat wandered into my front yard. He didn't try to stalk the birds, and he just looked miserable. I felt so sorry for him, I put out food and water. I realized that I could be attracting a possible predator, one that could leap out on an unsuspecting Chickadee, so I relocated the feeders, too. So far, I haven't noticed any feathers or casualties, thank goodness. (The white Persian cat in the left photo belonged to the previous owner, and I was very sorry that she didn't come with the house. I don't think I could have turned her loose outside, though. She was cuddly and adorable.)

 As I was flipping through my textbook, I noticed a whole chapter on building habitats. They can be fancy or simple--the birds will appreciate anything you give them. When you're cleaning your yard, you can create a brush pile (12' wide is best). A Christmas tree makes wonderful mini-habitat. You can also grow ferns and ivy to give ground-feeding birds a place to nest and hide. Rock piles (1 to 3' in diameter) will also provide cover. And don't forget to look skyward. Arbors and trellises provide a "vertical habitat."

I placed feeding stations near the trellises, and this area is very busy. It's a wonderful spot for birdwatching, and the vines and shrubs allow quick "getaways" for the birds, along with places to nest and feed. The copper-topped platform feeder is beloved by the doves and cardinals. Every other day, my squirrels rip out the cylinder seed holder and raid it. 

At my last class, I talked to my instructor about hawks and other predators, and he told me to go ahead and put out my feeders. "Take good care of your birds and enjoy them," he said. But I cannot control nature. The wire-cages around my feeders will help to a degree. 
Since I hadn't seen the hawk make his rounds, I took my instructor's advice. I cleaned my feeders (you should do that once a month), filled them to the brim, and set them out. So far (knock on wood), the hawk hasn't returned, so maybe my crazy lady routine scared him away. 

I put out a little birdbath, too. 

I festooned the bath with all kinds of greenery, thinking it would shield the birds from the hawk. I even wrote a post about it, and I'm so glad that I didn't hit the publish button. My heart was in the right place, but it was a bad idea. The birds wouldn't go near it. Maybe they thought it was a plant or a feeder--or just plain weird.

The birds prefer simplicity! I keep the bath clean, replenishing the water every few days.
Lesson learned.

So far, the caged feeders seem to be protecting the birds. I found a double shepherd's crook stand at the local farmer's supply, along with the feeders. 

The feeders are in a sunny spot, but they are near trees, shrubs, and ground cover. The tube feeder on the far right is the birds' favorite. It's exposed to predators more than I like, but at least hiding places are nearby. The mixed flock will gather in the crepe myrtle and wait for a turn. The upstairs window on the far right is now known as "the hawk window."

In a few weeks, our class will cover wildlife habitats, and I will pass along interesting tidbits. The best information comes from word-of-mouth, birders sharing with other birders. If you have any tips about protecting birds, I'd love to hear them. I'd also like to know which type of seed you prefer and why. 

If you are "watching the air" today, I wish you songbirds and a lightness of being.

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  1. I really enjoyed this post, Michael Lee. I, too, have worried about hawks since we moved to our property. I have spotted two over the last year and was not sure what to do about it. I have seven feeders and two baths for our birds and was upset to think that a hawk could grab them while they dined here. I asked some birder friends, one said place the feeders close to trees so they have some protection. Another said to place the feeders out in the open so they have a better chance to get away if a hawk attacks. Geesh! So, I went with the first idea and tucked them in closer to the trees. I'm still not really sure what the answer is but I do know I can't control nature. I, too, have run out to chase off a hawk from my front maple tree. It would have made a good video. lol As far as seed, I go for the black sunflower seed. They love it here. I also throw a mix down for the mourning doves as they like to ground feed. And peanuts. The blue-jays , nut-hatch and chickadees love them. Looking forward to more of your posts.Deb

    1. My instructor suggested that I buy black sunflower seeds, too. Great minds! I just bought peanuts for the squirrels, but I'll put them in the platform feeders, too. Thanks for the tips and your comment, Deb!

  2. Michael Lee, we back to a green belt along a creek, so we've lots of critters near. The hawks are here and feed on the various rodents along the creek. That's a good thing for nature's balance, but I worry about the safety of our sweet Sadie girl. Between the owl I hear at night and the hawks that soar overhead, I go outside with Sadie. I used to think having the hawks nest in our trees was a positive thing, but not now. We also have coyotes in our neighborhood that have become more and more frequent.

    1. I don't blame you, Sarah. I'd be scared for Sadie, too. I never let my Yorkies go outside without leads. When we find a dog (or he/she finds us), I will still use a lead. Do you have wild turkeys in your green belt? We had a huge flock of them at the Georgian, and they've moved through the woods to a subdivision across the way. I see them every night around 5 pm when I'm driving to town. I would LOVE for them to visit my yard, but I haven't seen narry a one.

    2. No turkeys! We are in the middle of the city, but still lots of wildlife in our hood. Guess this was their habitat first. I don't mind sharing with wildlife, but the coyotes frighten me.

  3. Oh you make me smile and smile when you talk of your new hobby! As one who has watched and fed birds for forever...I understand your angst. But no fear, sweet friend, those birds have been doing their thing for a very long time. They know how to protect themselves from the hawks and other predators. Sure, some will not make it but you have to also remember the circle of life...and how the biggest sometimes win out.
    I have prolly 40 cardinals every afternoon at my feeder that is 2 ft from my sunroom glass 4x8 panes. I have the finches, red birds, woodpeckers and mockingbirds at that feeder as well. I hate to admit that every morning I have to make the walk around the sunroom outside and sometimes pick upll birds who have flown into my windows and not made it. But most of them, hit the window and get stunned, lie on the ground for a while and then fly home.
    Prolly have about 15 bluebirds nesting in a box not far from my cardinal feeder. I love them everso....I watch them every season have babies and raise them to adulthood. I know for a fact that those babies come back each year to raise their own.
    I only ever put black sunflower seeds in my feeder. It's what the cardinals like and keeps most of the sparrows away. I've found that all the other birds love it too cuz they keep coming back day after day!!
    So happy to see the happiness your birds are bringing and cheapest form of therapy EVER!!

    1. I so enjoyed reading about your birding. I had been buying Omega 3 seed, but I was told that it's mainly hype and to buy black oil sunflower seeds. I also have 1 tubular feeder for nyjer, and the finches like it, but I have been astounded by the way they cluster around the sunflower feeders. You are so right--"best and cheapest therapy." I'm slowly coming back to life, eager to meet each day.

  4. We feed birds at our house too, and are members of Defenders of Wildlife and National Wildlife Federation, which you mentioned. A best thing is to plant bushes and trees that provide food for the birds and you can research and plant food sources for year round food for your feathered visitors. Google "shrubs for birds", "trees for birds". I like what you are doing.

    1. That's what I plan to do this year. Planting shrubs and plants that have berries for the birds is the best thing to do. I read that properties with bird-friendly plants have the best variety visiting year-round. You may be interested in a blog written by Margaret Roach. If you google her name her blog should come up. I just can't remember the name of it but she has been birding on her gorgeous property for years and plants all the right bushes and shrubs for her local birds.

  5. I use the cracked sunflower seeds too. I want to get a second feeder for thistle seeds to attract the bluebirds. We get a wide variety of pretty songbirds all year. Here on my mountainside, there are predator birds too. I have to agree with jmac, hawks are beautiful in their own way, and they help keep the mice population to a minimum. We have a lot of forest, so I don't worry about the songbirds. Love your trellises.

  6. We use mealworms for the bluebirds and a seed mix in the other feeders. We also put niger seed in the goldfinch feeder. We had SO many more birds at the other house, being in the woods. I miss all the cardinals we had. But we never had bluebirds there so it is a trade off. I can't wait till Spring gets here so I can sit outside and watch the birds!

  7. Stick to black sunflower seeds. I've tried everything and that's the best one. Striped sunflower seeds and cracked corn attract birds you don't really want and the songbirds don't like it. Millet ends up on the ground because the birds will kick it out and basically only the morning doves seem to go for it. I put out nyger/niger or thistle seed in the spring and the finches love it but they're plenty happy with the black sunflower seeds too. I see others have made similar comments. You can put out corn for the squirrels if you like feeding them. I witnessed a sharp-shinned hawk take out a bird right on my deck. That was the first time I was aware that the hawks come around. I felt bad at the time but decided it's just nature's way. I have turkeys visit too- they like to check out the ground by the feeders to look for leftovers. I'm right next to a tall stand of woods so the bluebirds rarely visit. One of the things I love about where I live is the nice variety of birds I get here. I do enjoy it.

  8. I enjoyed reading about everyone's birding adventures. One thing I have learned is that nature has a mind of its own and nothing we can do can prevent that. Sadly, it is survival of the fittest as God intended. We can however, assist in our own way. I've been feeding birds for years, and I have found that putting the feeders between trees, especially pine trees really helps as they have a place to sit, assess and then go feed. I buy my seeds from Wild Birds Unlimited as I feel they have the freshest seeds. The people who work there are so knowledgeable also. I have tube feeders for Niger, black oil sunflower seeds and their no mess seeds. No mess seeds don't have any filler grains like oats, wheat and milo that birds don't really care for. They don't have shells which is why they're called 'no mess'. I also have a feeder for suet blocks that my woodpeckers love! Just put it all out there and watch the wonders of nature. I look forward to hearing more of your birding experiences.

  9. Thanks so much for this great information. I have many many birds in my yard. I have about 20 hummers and they keep me busy filling their feeders everyday. I have three feeders and they let me know when they are empty. We have chickadees, house wrens, mocking birds, sparrows, orioles, parrots. The dogs keep the cats away in the back yard.

    So glad that you are enjoying your yard and birds.
    Have a wonderful week.

  10. The best part of spring in Chicagoland is when the birds return. We have had chickadees and wrens all winter, but now the cardinals, titmice, goldfinch, red-wing blackbirds and yes, even robins and doves are crowding the feeders. We feed all winter long---and once in awhile have hawks. But we have a trusty fake owl or two around the property and in the back yard we have a cover over the feeder station.

    Great article and don't forget fresh water, not just for bathing but for drinking, Sandi

  11. My mom has two hawks that visit her birdbath and she does a crazy lady dance that scares them off too. They haven't been back since last month, so I think it worked for her. I hope it does for you too :)

    I use a mix bag off of Amazon that got 5 stars and it seems to work really well. I have all kinds of different birds everyday. And I don't mind the squirrels and the little chipmunks eating some of it. They all seem to get along.



  13. My East Palatka holly tress seem to attract birds. They love eating the berries from them and I enjoy watching them. You're such a gentle soul, Michael Lee. I've had a visit from a hawk on numerous occasions, but for me, they're a sign from heaven. The hawk will stay in a tree in my tiny yard for up to two hours.

  14. I have always fed the birds wherever I've lived and have attracted all kinds of critters including: rats, bats,turtles, butterflies, squirrels, chipmunks,opossums, a fox, and a family of raccoons. The mom would leave the babies to curl up and sleep in my deck planters. The babies became a little too friendly coming up the back deck stairs and would wait at my feet like cats when I put peanuts out for the squirrels. Eventually they grew older and moved on. There is an owl we hear him at night. I do have hawks here but they have been playing nice so far. They will even hang out with a bunch of ravens we have here. We also have a couple of nests of rabbits one in the back which has a wooded area birds can hide in. The other is in the front under the boxwoods-no babies yet. The most excitement I got was a battle between a raven trying to carry away a very long snake in my backyard. I would have been happy if the raven had won and took the snake away...but the snake won that day and slithered back into the woods. I even rescued a little deer mouse who had fallen into my recycling bin. I love watching nature.

  15. We've seen hawks come after our birds too. We try to keep our feeders out in the open because of the cats. We don't want the cats to sneak up on the birds that eat the food that falls to the ground.