Helping birds by providing natural nesting material

The other day while I was relaxing on our front porch, I had a chance to watch a female robin work on building her nest. She was collecting mud and other muddy debris from the edge of a water puddle to use to cement her nest materials together. She’d look around for the right bit of mud and scoop up a big mouthful then fly off to her nest in a tree on the other side of of our yard. She’d work with the mud and when was done with it, she’d fly back to the puddle for more.

Watching that robin reminded me that nearly all songbirds are in the process of making their nests right now. Although they are perfectly fine on their own, we can help make it easier for them by providing natural nesting material.

Different species of birds use different materials for their nests. It’s usually a specific size of material that they are looking for. Some larger species may use primarily sticks and twigs, other birds may prefer pieces of grass. Many species line their nest with soft material.

Birds will collect all kinds material for their nest. The latest research however suggests that made-made materials such as cloth, string, or drier lint among other things, may cause harm to hatchlings or in some cases even adult birds. So what can we do to help?

The easiest the thing is to let a corner of your yard go wild.  Encourage helpful plants such as shrubs that provide small twigs; milkweed and thistle that produce down for nest lining; grapevines have stringy bark that birds remove in strips for their nests; pine needles are a favorite for many birds; lengths of fine grass are a very attractive building material.

Many bird species like to line their nests with moss.
Many bird species like to line their nests with moss.

Invertebrates such as spiders will set up shop in your wild area and begin to spin webs. Those webs in turn will be used by hummingbirds as nest building materials.

Consider leaving a bare patch of soil in your natural area that you can soak with water to make mud for birds to use.

As an alternative to having a natural wild area in your otherwise manicured lawn, you can collect the aforementioned material yourself and leave it in a spot where birds can easily get at it.

Many species of birds lay more that one clutch of eggs through the summer therefore need nest building material on and off during the summer.

Although birds will sometimes cause a gardener problems by damaging fruit, the good they do by eating harmful insects outweighs the bad. Plus, it’s a lot of fun watching birds as they work on building their nests.

Bob

If you can, save dying trees for woodpeckers

I spend a lot of time outside and one of my favorite sounds this time of year is the drumming of woodpeckers. In our neck of the woods we have mostly hairy woodpeckers and downy woodpeckers.

We live in a rural area and there are plenty of trees around to provide nesting sites for woodpeckers. If you remember, woodpeckers only nest in holes that they carve in tree branches. When looking for a likely nesting spot, they always choose dead branches first because the wood is softer due to decay making it easier for the bird to excavate a hole.

These woodpecker holes are in a branch that is about ten inches in diameter and about twenty-five feet off the ground. They were probably made by hairy woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers prefer smaller diameter branches.

Unfortunately, people don’t always think about birds when it comes time to cut firewood or tidy up the woodlot. Often, dead or dying trees are the first ones that get cut down. That reduces the number of nesting opportunities for woodpeckers.

When there is a lack of trees, woodpeckers will look for other places to build their nests. The outside wall of a house can be tempting for them, especially if it is covered with wood siding. They can be fairly destructive if they drill into a wall to make their nest.  More dead trees left standing may draw woodpeckers away from homes and back to their preferred habitat.

It’s not only woodpeckers that benefit from standing dead trees, other species of songbirds and small mammals will move into old woodpecker nests once the woodpeckers have eventually moved on. If you decide to leave a damaged tree standing, just make sure it is in a location where it won’t cause any damage if the branches, or even the whole tree, falls.

Bob

Netting on grapes

We had to get our bird netting on the grape vines this week.

The grapes have been turning purple very quickly and are getting sweeter by the day. That whole process  of ripening is known as veraison  in the wine making world. But for me and the neighborhood birds, it’s just plain ripening.

The birds are starting to sample the grapes and I can tell more fruit was missing every day. They are not eating a lot of grapes just yet. Even though the grapes are becoming a deep purple color they are still not sweet enough. Birds start eating grapes when the sugar content reaches about 15%. Grapes need to be around 22% in order to make wine. A little simple math tells us the grapes will be long gone before they ever get sweet enough to make wine or even grape jelly for that matter.

We use Concord grapes for making jelly.
We use Concord grapes for making jelly.

Really, the only way to keep birds from decimating a grape crop is to install a barrier so they can’t reach the fruit. That’s where the netting comes in. This year we invested in new, premium polypropylene bird netting. The netting is 14 feet wide and 45 feet long — two panels will cover the row.

We unroll, then drape the net over the vines. Then we fold the bottom edges up and fasten it back on itself to enclose the entire  grapevine.

Once we get the vines covered and they are protected from the birds, we’ll be able to taste test the grapes at our leisure and pick them once they have sweetened up to our liking.

Bob

 

 

Join the Million Pollinator Challenge

While you’re deciding on what plants to add to your garden and landscape this year, think about pollinator friendly plants. By now most gardeners are aware of the steady decline in the number of pollinators over the past several decades. Bees, butterflies, moths, beetles and other pollinators have all taken a hit.

A large percentage of the foods we eat, over thirty percent, depends on pollinators. Plus, add to that, all of the different wild plants that depend on pollinators and you can see why it is such a problem. Even the federal government has acknowledged it be a matter of national security.

Planting even a few pollinator friendly plants in a garden will help, however more is better in this case.

Even though the situation is serious for pollinators, helping them doesn’t have to be a drag. The National Pollinator Garden Network has come up with a fun way to help us help pollinators. It’s called the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge. The organization hopes to register one million gardens, both existing and new,  that are pollinator friendly.

They suggest six simple to understand guidelines to help you with your pollenator garden. And if you want to take it to the next step, their website has loads of information to guide you.

Our own Michigan State University has been scientifically studying the pollinator decline and has a wonderful website tailored to the three general ecosystems in our state: Southern Lower Peninsula; Northern Lower Peninsula; and Upper Peninsula.

When you register with the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge, your garden site is pinned to a map of North America. It’s fascinating to see all of those pins on that map and where the gardens are.

Our area of southeastern Michigan looks under represented to me. I’m not sure if it’s because of a lack of gardens or if it’s because gardeners are unaware of the program.

Let’s make our gardens pollinator friendly this year, get pinned on the map and show the world how much our region cares about helping pollinators.

Bob

Protect backyard chickens from migrating hawks

Urban chickens are not making as much news as they were a few years ago but plenty of people still keep chickens in their backyard. Chickens, in a lot of cases, have become just another part of the garden.

Right now the fall wild bird migration is in full swing. It is not just song birds and waterfowl that fly south for the winter, hawks and other predatory birds are making their way south too. On some days, thousands of hawks will fly over certain areas during the migration.

That is causing big problems for some chicken owners, including me.

Last week while I was crouched down in the driveway working on my car, something compelled me to turn around. What I saw was a large hawk getting ready to latch onto one of my chickens.

I have about 75 hens in my flock and usually they are quite vigilant in spotting predators. At least one or two hens out of the 75 will spot a hawk and warn the others even if the hawk is quite a distance away. Even the blue jays will screech out a warning call to the rest of the birds in the area when they spot a predator.

This time however, a hawk was able to silently swoop down without anyone noticing.  I’ve observed that hawks don’t usually bother my hens when there are people close by. The hawk didn’t see me until I stood up and turned around. I surprised it enough that it took off without a chicken and landed in a tree about a hundred yards away. By that time all 75 hens were making quite a ruckus.

That hawk never did come back to try again. I’m sure it looked for another meal as it continued flying south.

This hen wasn't paying attention and almost got nabbed by a hawk.
This hen wasn’t paying attention and almost got nabbed by a hawk.

Don’t think that just because you are in a populated area that your hens are safe from hawks. I live in a rural area but have heard reports of chickens being attacked by hawks in suburban and even urban areas this fall.

Free range chickens are the most vulnerable because they often wander far away from cover that could protect them from attack. The best thing to do is keep your hens locked in a pen or chicken run covered with protective netting until the migration is over.

Keep in mind that hawks are protected by law. It is illegal to capture or kill them without a special permit.

Bob

Flowers attract hummingbirds

Bees and butterflies are fun to watch but, I think hummingbirds are the most fascinating visitors to a garden. No matter how many times you see them, they never fail to surprise and amaze.

Hummingbirds use a huge huge amount of energy in relation to their size.  Sugars found in flower nectar is source of this energy. Everyday they eat their body weight in nectar so they are constantly on the lookout for nectar-producing flowers.

You can encourage hummingbirds to visit your yard by planting the flowers they’re looking for.

They prefer red and orange tubular flowers but will feed on most brightly-colored flowers with nectar. There’s plenty of flowers that meet these requirements.

Hummingbirds like tubular flowers such as petunias and nicotiana.
Hummingbirds like tubular flowers such as petunias and nicotiana.

Here’s a partial list to consider: monarda, red salvia, agastache, honeysuckle vine, fushia, verbena, phlox, butterfly bush, daylily, trumpet creeper, cypress vine, coral bells, heirloom petunias, penstemnon, morning glory, bugle weed, red-hot poker, and many others.

Like people, hummingbirds also need protein and fats in their diet. They get those nutrients by eating gnats, mosquitoes and other small insects. So, having an area of wild plants — weeds — nearby will provide space for these small insects to grow.

Finally, hummingbirds need trees and shrubs to provide a place for them to nest and to escape from predators.

If you look around, you’ll probably see that most of the things hummingbirds need are already in your neighborhood.

Planting the right kind of flowers is the best way to get hummingbirds to hang out in your backyard.

Bob