What to do when small things spook the birds

Some problems have no simple solution.

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All we can do is to share the pain and ease it a bit with laughter. For instance, whyizzit that:

We design the whole yard for birds but make one minor change and they desert?

V.H. called to say, "I hope you can help us. We love the birds in the yard and we've fed them for years, decades. All of a sudden recently, the feeders are ghost towns and we're very sad. What can have happened?"

From the call, came these topics:

The importance of staging areas

Polling the birds for an answer

A test, and a call for comments

More backyard bird topics





Right: We might miss seeing the hawk lurking in the thicket but you can be pretty sure the songbirds in the area have noticed and spread the word. Only very desperate need will bring them out in the open while the hawk's around.

We talked a bit, about things such as how a hunting hawk can make every bird in the area lay low. ("We've had hawks here forever," V.H. assured us. "The birds just hide a while, then come back out later.")Then because prey animals are creatures of habit, rightfully cautious of and unsettled by every change in their environment, we asked about recent landscaping work in or around the property.

"Oh!" said V.H. "We did have a hedge pulled out. It was overgrown and full of weeds. But we planted more, and there is lots of other shrubbery and trees on the property."


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Above: For many birds, the ideal supplemental feeding station is one in a clearing ringed with perches where a wary little bird can scope out the situation from a few angles before committing to a final approach.

The importance of staging areas

That's good that the yard wasn't laid bare in the change. There are few things more likely to discourage wildlife. Nonetheless, that hedgerow may have been where the birds were staging. Staging areas are where birds stop in their approach to scope out a feeding station to be sure the coast is clear.

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Above: Like many birds, the cardinal uses a tip-top surveying perch to announce its claim on a property (left) but stages (middle) for the feeder a bit less conspicuously, lower in a plant. There are often multiple staging areas around a feeder. This downy woodpecker (right) scouted the situation from a neighbor's crabapple before moving to this "on deck" spot on the arbor right next to the feeder. (We may never be able to replace that decrepit arbor since winter would be when we have time to do that job yet it's the worst time to spook the birds -- in winter feeders make the most difference to birds' survival.)

So we've suggested to V.H. that they try what worked for us when a client had a similar problem after new neighbors removed a big tree. Nothing could be done to immediately re-establish the shade, offer new high-rise perches for announcing territory or replace the three story nesting level. But after we planted where the birds told us they would stage, most of the bird traffic returned.

Polling the birds for an answer

Here is what we did:Robin3709.jpg

1) First, we bought a lure: A multi trunked tree, about 8 feet tall -- 10 feet including its big root ball. What it gave us was a wide top with a selection of landing spaces, big enough for at least a few birds to share spots just below the top (like the one the robin's assumed, at right), and leafy enough to create some hiding places within. We could have used a shrub for this, if we could have found one that size. We also discussed using long, much-branched limbs cut from trees but decided against it since that would have complicated steps 2 and 3, and we were going to need new plants of significant size, anyway.

2) We set the tree temporarily. We picked a place where that tree could one day be planted, in the same direction away from the feeders as the lost tree had been, and set the new tree there. We didn't plant it, just set  it on the ground and put blocks under the root ball so it wouldn't tip. (Making it upright and sturdy is the part that would have been difficult to do with a cut tree branch.) We covered the root ball with an old blanket to help it stay moist, asked our client to keep it well watered and to check it every day for bird droppings.

3) We moved it until the birds said, "Yes!" After a few days, if there were no droppings or other signs that a significant number of birds had perched there, we dragged the tree to another spot. We moved it three times, none of them particularly big changes. We hit the right spot the third time, and planted the tree there.


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Above: It may seem like you have only a few birds if you watch a feeder for a short time every day. So how can signs of their passing (please forgive the pun) accumulate in a staging area in a few short days? If it's summer when large birds like grackles are around in numbers, one visit per hour can add up! In winter, small birds may make a great number of trips to and from a feeder each day. A three year study in southern Wisconsin where chickadees with their high energy demands have to feed almost continuously to survive the cold, calculated that at 0°F these birds need the equivalent of 250 sunflower seeds per day (60% of their weight) and probably take 20% of that from feeders, one seed at a time.

(Click here to download that study published by www.birdfeeding.org and made available by Shaw Creek Bird Supply.)

A test of that approach, a call for comment and suggestion

V.H. is going to try the same approach. Meanwhile, we've started a topic on the Forum where we hope others will share what they've done to re-establish bird traffic after a change, or have noticed will spook the birds, to help the rest of us bird lovers avoid any set-backs.

More backyard bird topics

We've written many other articles about the birds that share our gardens. Here is a list of those you might be interested in, about designing for the birds, feeders and natural foods, providing water, the importance of all kinds of shelter, and the inevitable undesirables. Some of these articles already available here on our site, so there are links ready to go. Others are still staging, which means we'll have them here soon and link them in -- they have an *. They can be called forth most quickly via Sponsorship.



Designing for the birds: Food, water, shelter

Birdbrained design; Trees and shrubs for birds; Menu planning for wildlife. What's Coming Up 95 pp. 1- 6

Hummingbird garden design: Growing Concerns 157*

Living  the wild life in a garden: Birds, Butterflies and you. Michigan Gardener September 2009*

Reconciling need for neatness, desire for birds. What's Coming Up 144 pp. 8-9

Winter interest and wildlife, too. BHG Summer 2004*

Plus: Sponsor a Green Thumbs collection of bird attracting tips:
       Can't have it all - birds  mean less Viburnum berries in winter. Growing Concerns 680*
       Christmas trees with southeast face as birds' windbreak. Growing Concerns 338*
       Don't ignore birds during big snows. Growing Concerns 603
       Evergreens at a home's southeast corner are for the birds. Growing Concerns 553
       Feed chickadees for aphid control. Growing Concerns 550
       Foresters advise leave snags when pruning. Green Thumbs section, Growing Concerns 366*
       Hummingbird in the greenhouse. Growing Concerns 579
       Hummingbird votes for Dianthus. Growing Concerns 670*
       Perennials best for bird feeding. Tips section, Growing Concerns 314*
       Why water and stamped snow mean a less buggy spring. Tips section, Growing Concerns 391*

Below, left: Junco tracks in the ornamental grass garden. Design spaces for different types of birds. Juncos are perky additions to any northern landscape in the winter but they need open space on the ground to feed, often jumping up to knock seed loose from short ornamental grasses such as prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis).
Below, right: Designing for wildlife takes in a whole ecosystem, including aspects you might overlook, such as the importance of overhead wires as staging areas. We sometimes consider rerouting "eyesore" overhead wires into underground conduit, but look at this use first where birds are important. This is "just a starling" but we counted a dozen species staging with it on those wires.

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Importance of food diversity: Feeders and natural foods

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Scarlet tanagers (above, right) and robins (right) feed more on fruit and insects than on seed. 

Bird seed makes a good gift. Gift what you covet: For the birds

Drunken birds?! What's Coming Up 95 and Growing Concerns 581

Importance of bird feeders in winter. What's Coming Up 125 pgs. 4-5

Insects are vital bird food. Quotes: Wildlife and ecology

Late summer hummingbird attraction. Growing Concerns 162*

Ornamental grasses as bird feeders. Gardens enrich pets' lives: Organic bird feeder

Serviceberries for the birds. Robinberries

Seedy perennial garden one great bird feeder. What's Coming Up 151, pg. 16

When grocery money's better spend on bird food: Insect control. What's Coming Up 123 pg. 10*

Which Viburnum best for bird food? Growing Concerns 727*

Chickadees and juncos (below, sharing a feeder) move every day between many feeding stations, man made and natural. Knowing many, they are less likely to starve if any one source dries up. Feeders do make a difference in wild bird populations. One study concluded that chickadees with access to feeders had a 69% winter survival rate, compared to those without  feeders, which had a 37% winter survival rate. Some backyard birds are with us a long time. Blue jays have been recorded in the wild at over 16 years of age, even though 1-1/2 years is more typical for the likes of black-capped chicakdee.

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To learn more about various species' food preferences, check used book sellers and jump at American Wildlife & Plants: A Guide to Wildlife Food Habits, by Martin, Zim and Nelson. It's an out-of-print Dover Press book that reprinted a 1951 USDA study.

(Click here to download a study that includes information about winter survival and longevity, published by www.birdfeeding.org and made available by Shaw Creek Bird Supply.)

Clean, safe water

Bevy of bird baths

Mist sprinkler for the birds, invitation to eat leafhoppers. Growing Concerns 724*


Shelter for protection, moving about, raising young

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Above: It isn't only nesting boxes that birds need but safe places to hide, or southeast-facing perches to warm up on a cold morning with the sun on their breasts and dense cover behind.


Grampa gave them shelter, they ate all the hornworms. What's Coming Up 50

Keep your eyes open, wildlife all around. What's Coming Up 50, pp. 7-9

Perennial messiness has an up side: Bundle & stack healthy cuttings to feed birds, shelter overwintering beneficial insects Growing Concerns 630* and Garden enriches pets' lives

Pros & cons of leaving perennials up for birds's sake. Growing Concerns 695*

Robins may herald spring but also stay in winter.Forum: Robins all winter

Our sensibilities say "Keep things neat" but the cardinal needs this thicket, and the marshy area surrounding a redwing blackbird's nest is essential.

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With the good guys come the undesirables

Some of the undesirables are not only a headache for the gardener and competition to the birds, but predators of the birds. This is a busy spot for goldfinches, sparrows and others including a cat and a hawk.

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Dogs grubbing under bird feeders. Bug eating dogs

Geese not wanted, eat corn gluten meal. What's Coming Up 142

Hawks eating the songbirds. Bird worry relief: Worried about our birds and What's Coming Up 132 pg. 8

Squirrels! What's Coming Up 30* and What's Coming Up 47*

Some gardeners try to fine tune the environment to invite the birds they want but close the door to others such as starlings and pigeons. And of course there is the squirrel problem, and eternal battle. We think a diverse landscape with niches for all can broker a balance between the lot of them.

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