Creating an avian mecca in your back yard
PENDLETON, Ore. — Jack Simons doesn’t need television or a good novel for high drama. All he needs to do is step onto the back deck of his Pendleton home and look around.
On a recent morning, Simons stood sipping from a steaming cup of coffee and noticed an eastern kingbird carrying something wiggly in its beak. His interest was piqued.
“I went and got my binoculars and looked closer,” Simons said. “The bird was feeding praying mantises to its babies.”
He watched entranced for the next half hour as the parents delivered 11 praying mantises to their four offspring.
Other days, Simons might notice raptors swooping low to hunt prey or waterfowl landing on the pond.
All of this activity is by design. The bird lover, a member of the Pendleton Bird Club, transformed his 12 acres into an avian mecca of sorts. After he placed nesting boxes, a wood duck set up in one and a screech owl minded four eggs in another.
As Simons wandered recently on his Pendleton-area property, which butts up against the Umatilla River, the sound of bird life ebbed and flowed and eddied around him. A woodpecker made drumming noises. A pair of wood ducks squealed as they shot up from a pond where they had been swimming. Songbirds twittered. Canada geese honked as they flew overhead.
Simons said his strategies to attract birds include growing native plants that produce a variety of berries, seeds and nuts. He placed perches and brush piles, set out feeders and kept dead trees instead of cutting them down. He spreads corn for the Canada geese. Three ponds provide water.
His reward? A steady influx of bird life from kestrels to killdeer, hummingbirds to hawks, barn owls to black-capped chickadees. The most unusual bird was a snowy egret, normally seen much farther south.
You might think you need many acres and a natural source of water like Simons enjoys to create your own avian oasis, but you’d be wrong.
University of Delaware wildlife ecology professor Doug Tallamy wrote “Bringing Nature Home” as a guide for those seeking to attract birds to the tiniest of yards — even those in the middle of cities.
“Especially in the middle of the city,” said Tallamy in a phone interview. “Birds migrate right over cities. They get tired and come down to have something to eat.”
Having native plants is key, partially because birds recognize them.
“Nature is made up of specialized relationships such as the one between monarch butterflies and milkweed plants,” Tallamy said. “Non-native plants haven’t been here long enough to develop specialized relationships.”
Some places, such as Portland, may appear to be paradises for birds, but aren’t because of the preponderance of non-native species. Tallamy said a survey of street trees in Portland revealed that 92 percent of the trees lining the city’s streets are non-native.
“Portland likes to think of itself as a green city, but it created a canopy that won’t support birds,” Tallamy said.
Native forbs, shrubs and trees provide a smorgasbord of insects, a power food for young birds, while non-native species generally don’t. Tallamy cited a study that looked for insects on various native and non-native vegetation. Oaks in his area hosted 557 species of insects, for example, while non-native ornamental species of zelkova, ginkgo and myrtle provided almost none. Birds, Tallamy said, need lots of insects.
“Six thousand to 9,000 caterpillars is needed for one clutch of chickadees,” he said.
Squeamish about insects? According to Tallamy, “You’re not going to notice them.”
Of course, insecticides don’t help, along with our country’s obsession with big, green lawns.
“Giant lawns provide nothing for birds with a small caveat for robins,” he said.
Susan Barnes, a conservation biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, echoed Tallamy.
“Everything starts with the plants and the insects,” Barnes said. “Even birds who feed on fruits and seeds feed insects to their young. Insects provide a concentrated source of energy.”
Barnes and Tallamy recommended additional measures to attract birds. Piles of brush and rocks provide cover. Leaf litter and other organic material left in the yard will help build the soil and host a diversity of invertebrates and bugs that become food for birds.
“Letting part of your yard be messy is good for birds,” Barnes said.
Other suggestions included providing clean water, putting out nesting boxes, hanging a variety of feeders during times of scarcity and keeping cats indoors.
No yard is too small to attract birds, Tallamy said.
“It’s important for people to know their little piece of the world is an important part of the conservation effort,” he said. “What they do at home does matter.”