Friday, May 15, 2015

Wild Birds: Attracting without feeding

Corvids are plenty smart enough to deal with urban environments.
That includes this nesting pair settling in near my house;
should lead to interesting bird watching in the coming weeks.

It seems my two-part series on how to attract wild birds is a timely one. Beatrice the Biologist, a popular scientist/artist posted this question today on Twitter: "What is the latest science on putting out bird seed, hummingbird nectar, etc. Good or bad?"

As I mentioned in the last column (Wild Birds: To Feed or not to Feed?), I recently discovered there is a lot of research out there that indicates bird feeding is a complex and mixed-bag endeavor. 

I dug into the topic because I have a blank-slate dirt backyard and love bird watching. I thought I'd learn what kind of seeds to feed and why feeding is a good idea. But instead, I learned that feeding is pretty low on the list of effective ways to encourage migratory native birds to visit my yard.

The research-based recommendations in part two (Wild Birds: Attracting without feeding) take the idea of a bird-friendly yard way beyond a meal, because as the National Wildlife Federation maintains, "Creating a wildlife habitat is about creating a place for the entire life-cycle of a species."

This week's column

In the syndicated column, I explore a handful of research articles that provide great insight into how to effectively create backyard bird habitat. That seems to be the bottom line - habitat trumps feeding (which tends to provide supplemental food, rather than core food, even in the winter).

The following illustrations accompany the column, which is available to subscribers of publications running Drawn to the West as a syndicated column. 

  • Specifically, urban bird feeders do not actually attract a high diversity of native species. For example, nearly 50% of the native species studied by a team of Illinois ornithologists are considered uncommon or extremely rare at bird feeders while almost 70% eat fruits or berries.
  • Our back yards play a critical role – over 50% of the planet is urbanized, and yards comprise approximately one-third of our cities. Inspired by research results, we can create backyard bird habitat that increases biodiversity in urban and suburban areas.

    For example, a multi-national research team found that most urban birds were not the same as those in landscapes surrounding urban areas and that urban bird communities were similar throughout the studied cities. As a result, "local rather than regional factors play an important role in shaping the structure of urban bird communities." 
If you'd like to read the column, let your local newspaper or magazine editor know you want to see an illustrated version of the West in their publication!
A nuthatch I sketched from memory a few
weeks ago, after it made a fleeting appearance 
at the base of my backyard woodpile.

  • What should we do instead of feeding? Ornithologists from North America and Europe have published studies which provide a lot of suggestions. Here are two points that appear paramount:
    1. Plant native plants, particularly evergreens and fruit/berry/nut-producing shrubs.
    2. Keep your cats indoors.
  • Can't give up on feeding? That's probably okay, and a few science-informed adjustments can really enhance your efforts.
  • Want to share? Check out Project Feeder Watch for a neat citizen science project involving tracking the birds that visit your backyard feeders.
A sketchbook page featuring the black-capped chickadee.
This page was drawn many years ago, when I was 
drawing local birds as a (highly effective) way of 
learning to identify common Mountain West species.

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