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Sallie Carlock

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Bob Bird

Improve the Bird watching in your back yard - (by Bill Chitty)

Bird Food
Placement of your feeder
Water features for birds
Bird houses
Backyard Habitat
Bird list for one Florahome backyard

For birding in your own yard, assuming they are in their home range, the variety of birds mostly depends on the variety of available food and habitat. If you are satisfied with seeing Northern Cardinals and Tufted Titmice, all you need is a few bushes, a feeder and a bag of sunflower seed.

In the last two years, I have identified 69 different species [see list] of birds from my yard in western Putnam County, about half way between Palatka and Keystone Heights. I am only a mediocre birdwatcher, so that’s not counting the dozens I’ve seen but haven’t been able to positively identify. So how do I see 69+ species, and someone else in the same area only sees 4 or 5?

Over half those birds are simply because of habitat. But 26 different species were on or in the immediate vicinity of the feeders and bird houses on the property. Most of those 26 bird species can be coaxed into your backyard.

In addition to the big box stores, there are dozens of specialty shops, both storefront and online that carry a wide array of feeders. Most of them work just fine. But choosing your feeder will have an impact on how much you enjoy feeding your birds. In addition to observing that you get what you pay for, I strongly recommend against the large hopper style or other feeders that can hold a huge amount of bird seed. Florida has so many warm humid days all year round that often seed sitting in a feeder for very long spout, grow mold, or just spoil. Any feeder that has the least chance of catching raindrops must have drainage.

There are a few other things to consider. If you do not want crows or grackles on your bird feeder, choose one small enough that those birds will find it difficult to land and feed. Tube style feeders tend to attract smaller birds and only those comfortable with the sideways approach to the feed. Nyjer tube feeders are specialty feeders that have the very narrow slots. Platform feeders are good for any size bird and are especially well suited for using mixes of bird feed. Fly-through feeders are sort of like a platform feeder with a roof. They can be sized to limit the size bird that will land on it too. I started with having three different feeders: fly-through, tube, and suet feeder. As the appropriate birds appeared, a nyjer and hummingbird feeders were added.

Can you squirrel proof your bird feeder? The answer is: sort of. If you make it hard enough on the squirrels, for the most part, they will go elsewhere for food. But they never entirely give up. I’ve had good luck placing my feeders on poles with a stovepipe type baffle (6 inches wide by at least 18 inches long) on the pole (top of baffle has to be around 4 feet off the ground) and placing the pole a little over 10 feet from any squirrel launching point. I’ve also seen hanging feeders with large overhanging hood/roof baffles that seem to work well as long as it is far enough away from a launch area. I’ve had varying degrees of success (about 50%) with so-called squirrel proof feeders. You can do a search and find a large variety. back to top

Bird Food
Black oil sunflower seed is as close to a universal bird seed as there is. Another popular seed is millet; buntings and doves in particular love it and it tends to be less expensive. Birds take a little while to get used to safflower seed, but squirrels might ignore it (don’t count on it). Peanuts are devoured by a host of different species and tend to disappear quickly. I put them out once a week for a treat. I do the same thing with meal worms. You can get dehydrated meal worms that aren’t very expensive. Live ones will disappear right before your eyes once the birds realize you put them out (bluebirds are especially fond of live mealworms). Nyjer seed is enjoyed by many birds. But since nyjer is all imported, therefore expensive, I only use it when American Goldfinch or Pine Siskins are in the area and only put it in specialized feeders for that size bird. In my part of Putnam County (about 2 miles east of Grandin) I usually see them between November and May. I get the best mix of birds by using different feeders for different kinds of seed and one fly-through feeder with a mix.

Cheap bird seed mixes containing a lot of milo (that’s the little orange-ish brown round seed a little bigger than the yellow/white millet) should be avoided. Not many birds other than pigeons and chickens in mid Florida will bother eating it. The better mixes tend to contain sunflower, safflower, peanuts, millet and/or bits and pieces of them. A little dry fruit often helps, but be careful, a little goes a long way, there may not be that many fruit eating birds that will come to your feeder. You may get mockingbirds, thrashers, waxwings, tanagers, or orioles in the right season with fruit here in Bradford, Alachua, Clay and Putnam counties but don’t put a bunch of fruit out there until the fruit eaters are coming. I don’t use a lot of cracked corn, but I’ve watched Wild Turkeys, Northern Bobwhite, Blue Jays and doves at a neighbor’s corn feeding station in Florahome.

Suet is a subject of its own. But take my advice and don’t ever buy it unless it states “no melt” on the package. The Florida sun is too hot, even in January. You’ll end up with a melted mess. Conventional wisdom says most birds tend to be “sight” feeders. Therefore if it doesn’t look like food, it can take them a while to discover. I can vouch that it took months for my suet feeders to get popular and I did throw away a few moldy suet blocks, but now my suet feeders stay busy year round. My experience is that the peanut and beef fat base works as well as any of the others. Varieties with hot pepper will slow down squirrels if they are a problem with your suet.

Don’t forget your hummingbird feeder. For our area (Starke to Palatka to Hawthorne and everything in between) for the most part, hummingbirds arrive the first week of March and leave in early to mid September. Use plain sugar water, four to one mix, no food coloring necessary. Red feeders will draw them faster. As with all your other feeders, be sure to refresh food and clean regularly.

While having a pretty good shelf life, bird food does go bad, dry out, and spoil. Fresh seed will attract more birds. I try to pay attention to how much seed is disappearing and make sure I never buy more than a 3 month supply. I also try to buy bird seed from a retailer with a good turnover in bird seed. Dusty bags are a bad sign. back to top

Placement of your feeder
Most important for backyard birding, place your feeders so you can see them from inside the house. After all, what’s the point of feeding birds if the family doesn’t see the results?

Ideal placement might be difficult, but try to make it a sheltered spot, but not right next to brush. My birds seem to like having a nearby resting place while waiting their turn and thick trees and brush provide cover from hawks that might notice your congregation of birds. Even well fed, declawed, bell-wearing house cats are a threat to birds. Ten or fifteen feet of clear area around the feeder means the squirrels don’t have an usable launch pad, and it gives the birds a better chance to see a cat coming.

Place the feeder where it will be convenient to refill and clean. A heavily used feeder tends to generate a bit of a mess underneath; so if possible, put the feeder where that doesn’t matter. To avoid fatal bird to glass collisions, either locate the feeder right next to the window (within 3 feet) or a significant distance away. If you have more than one feeder with the same feed, try locating them in different parts of your yard and at different heights. Just that placement might produce a wider variety of birds and a little less competition for the food. back to top

Water features for birds
There’s a reason bird baths have been around so long. It’s because they are good at attracting birds, and it is fun to watch birds bathe. I think of a bird bath as an artificial puddle for the birds. Water and the sound of water can be a powerful attractant for birds, especially if you are not close to any natural bodies of water.

Anything that holds water, has a shallow incline with a gentle approach to the water, a more or less non-skid surface, not very deep (2 inches is plenty), can be placed in the open (so the birds can see the cats coming), but close to cover and is relatively easy to fill and clean will work. Birds seem to prefer being able to watch around them while they bathe, so don’t put out something with high sides. I’ve had better luck with smaller bird baths than larger bird baths.

Moving water not only produces sound, it also helps prevent mosquitoes from becoming a problem. Drippers and misters will work to move the water, as will battery operated water vibrators available in many specialty stores. One day I’m going to get fancy and make a fountain out of my bird bath, using a low voltage recycle pump. My experience is that not many birds care for the mister, and the mister wastes too much water. Be sure to clean your bird bath often enough to prevent a buildup of slime or letting the water become foul. back to top

Bird houses (nest boxes)
A lot of nest box shoppers don’t realize it, but most species of cavity nesting birds are particular about the dimensions of their bird house. And it doesn’t take much of an examination to realize that most bird houses in most stores are designed to appeal to the shopper, and not the bird. So, you’ll probably have a much better chance to attract a nesting pair by building your own. Very few store bought nest boxes have the attributes of a good box for our area. Boxes should be unpainted, untreated wood. They should have an overhanging roof (all sides) and include ventilation and drain holes. Rough interior walls or scored wood, especially the wall with the opening make it easier for the fledglings to climb out. Nest boxes should never have a perch (this might be the easiest way to tell if the builder knows anything about providing a good nest box for birds). Last, but not least, there should be a relatively easy way to open it for cleaning. I don’t like hinged tops, just seems easier if one of the sides open up.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has published a useful table showing the preferred dimensions and hole placement for most of Florida’s cavity nesting birds. The United States Fish & Wildlife Service also has extensive information regarding all aspects of size, placement, predator protection and more. Cornell University’s All About Birds has information and plans for numerous species.

Most of the bird house plans I found on-line are generic plans to produce the “store bought” look and will probably produce the same nesting results. I’ve successfully used the building plans found here and here. The plans are simple, boxes easy to build and not to difficult to resize for different species per the table mentioned above.

Most of the sources insist on how specific the species are for floor space, height of the hole above the floor, height of box mounting, overall depth of the box and so on. But since birds never read the books, don’t be too surprised to see wrens and bluebirds in strange store bought contraptions, flycatchers nesting in kestrel boxes or chickadees in a bluebird box. back to top

Backyard Habitat
If you are supplying food and water and have nest boxes, you have gone a long way to providing a bird friendly habitat. But don’t stop there. There are dozens of quality web sites and books on this subject. Before acting on anything you read, make sure your source is referring to our area and our bird population. Narrow your options down to your particular situation in regard to soil type, amount of shade, available space and any possibly legal restrictions. Interlachen to Waldo to Bostwick, we are all in USDA hardiness zone 9A.

Different things work for different birds, but just like the food, the more variety you can manage, the bigger variety of birds you will have. Variety is more than just different plants. You also should look for variety in type plant (vine, shrub, tree, etc.), height, and month of blooming and fruiting.

Non native plants look like they would at least provide cover, but the birds in my yard in Florahome don’t seem to use the non natives for even that. So if you want to produce the seeds, nectar, nuts and berries the birds in Putnam County, Clay County, Alachua County and Bradford County are naturally looking for, PLANT NATIVES. Along that same line, if you have exotics or non native landscaping plants, try to eliminate them as you can, and replace with natives.

Insecticides are a part of life as we try to keep roaches, mosquitoes, and other Florida pests at bay. But for a bird and wildlife friendly backyard habitat, insecticide use tends to mess things up. So as much as you can, reduce the use of insecticides outside. Native plantings should help with this. Organic gardening and other conservation minded books and websites also offer hints on reducing insects without hurting the environment.

Whenever a tree dies in my yard, unless it is threatening the house, I leave it. As much as I can, I even leave it when it falls. Almost all cavity dwelling birds nesting in trees use dead trees only. Dead trees, standing and on the ground, seem to collect insects, many of whom are important food sources.

I have two favorite sources of information and recommendation on what to plant and where to plant it. One is the Florida Association of Native Nurseries [FANN] native plant search by type hardiness zone, plant community, plant type, and wildlife usage (more details). And the other, formatted a little differently with different information displayed is the combination search on the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower center website. The information on this site for Florida is based on FANN’s data. back to top

Whether you do a little or a lot, it is almost sure to improve the bird watching around your house. I would start with a few feeders. If you aren’t close to water, add a bird bath after that. Next add a bird house or two (or three or more depending on the size of your yard). Then look at your landscaping to see if you can improve the overall habitat. back to top

Bird list for one Florahome backyard
On or around feeders/bird houses

Brown-headed Cowbird, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Red-shouldered Hawk*, Wild Turkey, Mourning Dove, Common Ground-Dove, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, American Crow, Blue Jay, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Wren, Eastern Bluebird, Gray Catbird, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Palm Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, Painted Bunting, Chipping Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle, Pine Siskin, American Goldfinch, Great Crested Flycatcher, Black-and-White Warbler,

Seen from inside house or from yard

Double-crested Cormorant, Pied-billed Grebe, Brown Pelican, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron, Green Heron, White Ibis, Wood Stork, Wood Duck, Canada Goose**, Green-winged Teal, Mallard**, Hooded Merganser, Black Vulture, Turkey Vulture, Osprey, Swallowed-tailed Kite, Bald Eagle, Cooper’s Hawk, Barred Owl, American Coot, Sandhill Crane, Laughing Gull, Royal Tern, Barn Swallow, Chimney Swift, Belted Kingfisher, Red-headed Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Eastern Phoebe, Purple Martin, Tree Swallow, Hermit Thrush, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Blue-gray gnatcatcher, American Robin, Northern Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher, Cedar Waxwing, White-eyed Vireo, Eastern Towhee, Anhinga

*preying on other birds, a reminder of the importance of nearby cover

**possibly domestic