If you feel stuck at home during Covid, a sure way to lift your mood is to encourage nature to come to you. At our house, we have a variety of bird feeders, a bird bath and a small fountain that I can watch from our kitchen window. Each day, we see a predictable parade of regular visitors, and occasionally a few surprises. 

Birds, like us, have routines. They have favorite dining spots and places they like to rest and lounge. They wake up hungry, in need of fuel. For years now, a tightly bonded pair of white-breasted nuthatches shows up every morning. If the feeder mix is lacking sunflower seeds, they chide me with their nasal “wha wha” call that I can hear from inside.

“I’m on it,” I yell, rushing out to add sunflowers to the mix. They wait in the upper branches of a big, old pepper tree, then climb down head-first in classic nuthatch fashion. Each grabs a seed and dashes off. 

Birds have food preferences. In our hanging and platform feeders we offer a premix of seeds with millet, milo, wheat, cracked corn and sunflower. Sunflower seeds are favored, so I buy extra to augment the mix. There are two kinds – black oil and striped. The black oil sunflower seeds are thin shelled, easier to crack open and the kernels have a high fat content, valuable for winter birds. 

Mourning doves, band-tailed pigeons and red-winged blackbirds will eat white millet, milo and wheat. They are messy eaters spraying seeds everywhere. Ground feeding birds like sparrows and towhees pick them up.

For the finches – Lesser goldfinch, house finch and pine siskins, I have nyjer or thistle seed. Nyjer feeders are mesh socks. Birds pluck out the tiny seeds with their sharp beaks. Flocks of finches congregate like colorful ornaments hanging off the feeders. 

Lately, I have been buying dried mealworms for protein for insect-eaters. They attract secretive wrens. I’m hoping for Western bluebirds, but no luck yet. 

We have two extra-large nectar feeders (1:4 sugar to water) called “The Big Gulp” for our Anna’s and Allen’s hummingbirds. Regular washing of feeders to avoid fungus is essential. All feeders and water sources need occasional cleaning to avoid spread of disease. Keep an eye on the poop levels and give them a good scrubbing. 

 

Location matters 

Where you put your feeders and bird baths will determine how many birds you attract. Birds need protective cover where they can watch and wait. They have pecking orders, so some get first dibs while others wait their turn. They make sure the coast is clear before they dart in to feed and must watch for predators like Cooper’s hawks or cats lying in ambush. 

Try to think like a bird about escape routes. Our feeders and baths are by a fence covered with dense jasmine and passionfruit vines so birds can flit in and out. Avoid putting feeders near vegetation that could hide waiting cats. 

 

Water to drink and bathe in

All birds need water to drink, and many love to bathe. Yet birds are sensitive to becoming dinner while bathing because they are heavier and slower when wet. They often bathe at dawn and dusk even in winter. They prefer shallow water, only a few inches deep, that they can wade into. Hermit Thrushes are lovely skulkers who come out in the evening gloom to splash vigorously in our pedestal birdbath before hunkering down for the night.

 

Winter birds 

Hermit thrushes overwinter before returning to mountain forests to breed. Their spotted breasts and rufous tails distinguish them. If you are lucky, you might hear a note or two of their haunting song usually reserved for spring.

Dark-eyed juncos with their little executioner hoods and white flash of tail feathers also spend summer at higher elevations and come down to our area in fall. They like to hang out with white-crowned sparrows, another winter bird.

On cooler days, it’s as busy as LAX around the feeders. The regulars feel like old friends and the silhouettes of hummingbirds taking a long, last drink are the final enchanting vision of the day.

Watching birds in your backyard can be a private pleasure, or you can contribute to citizen science with eBird (ebird.org). John Callender, who leads our Carpinteria bird group said, “I’ve entered more eBird lists from my backyard – 224 of them – than from any other location. A lot of that has been during the past year when I’ve been birding from home a lot more. I was surprised to find that my backyard list is now 87 species.”

Later this month, you can help create a global snapshot of how bird populations are doing with the 24th AnnualGreat Backyard Bird Countthat runsFeb. 12-15. The websitebirdcount.orgexplains how to participate. Last year, backyard birders spotted 6,492 species in 194 countries.

Birds need a constant source of water, food and shelter from enemies and the elements. If you can provide these in your backyard, you will not only help birds survive the lean times of winter, but you will also be richly rewarded by their beauty and behavior.

 

 

Nancy Baron leads communication workshops for environmental scientists and lives in Carpinteria. You can reach her at baron@nceas.ucsb.edu.

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