Backyard Birds Creating a Sanctuary

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The image flashed before my eyes for only a split second. But once seen, it cannot be unseen. Despite years of trying, I cannot shake my horror at realizing I’d foolishly delivered a lovely little chickadee on a silver platter for my cat’s supper. It happened like this: My friend Joyce Coleman is a brilliant bird photographer. Awed by her masterful bird photos, I sought her advice on tricks of the trade. She shared that she placed her bird feeders outside the window by her office desk and kept her camera ready for when a flicker came into her peripheral vision. The birds, emboldened by her benign presence behind glass, didn’t flutter away when she took up her camera to snap shots.

Duly impressed and in haste to follow suit, I didn’t account for my desk being on the front of the house, the “high side” of our property (house placement that Hill City folks understand). Since these windows were our closest to the ground, a six-foot pole to hold the bird feeder put it at the right height for photos. And also perfectly situated for Shadow, our athletic young farm cat, to take advantage of another failure in my planning. The feeder pole was nestled in mature boxwoods, which gave Shadow excellent cover for easy hunting at the feeder.

As a farm-toughened old gal who’s witnessed firsthand how the food chain works, I’m not naïve about predator-prey relationships and don’t swoon when nature takes its course.

But when I saw Shadow’s fully extended claws clinging on each side of the feeder and his fangs sink into that unsuspecting little bird, my heart stopped. I knew this wasn’t just nature at work; the poor bird didn’t have a chance. I’d set him up for the kill. Joyce kindly comforted me with the reminder that this is what cats are wired to do, but still…

Placement of Feeders
So, lesson #1 about creating a wild bird sanctuary is to attract them with sensibly placed feeders. Needless to say, I immediately moved that front yard feeder to a more cat-proof location and placed it on a longer pole. I found an excellent pole system with extenders at Wild Birds Unlimited (wbu.com), and I moved the feeders around the yard several times before deciding on just the right spot.

Through trial and error, I ruled out under the large old oak tree with branches that hung over the deck and terrace. While feeders at the edge of the terrace provided fine viewing from both outdoor and indoor vantage points, the oak branches that hung high over the terrace to provide lovely summer shade also served as an appealing perch/staging area for birds queued up for the feeders. The problem? Bird droppings on our seating/eating area.

After other attempts with various shortfalls, I finally found the ideal home for our feeders to launch a successful wild bird sanctuary that co-existed peacefully and safely with our four cats—the one gymnast and three others considerably less aggressive and agile. The location was the back yard near sunroom windows for pleasurable viewing. This required considerable pole extension/bracing, which made the feeders safe from predators—cats and others—but it put them out of reach from the ground for the required twice-daily replenishment during the winter “busy season.”

Placing the poles and feeders close to windows was the answer.

With his long reach, Tim got the job of opening the windows, removing empty feeders from their poles, and carrying them about eight feet to the deck for refilling. And Shadow got the job of watching the now-safe birds through the sunroom windows.
We called it his “kitty TV.”

Squirrels were never a problem for our bird feeders because squirrels didn’t venture from the plentiful woods surrounding the cow pastures that encircled our farm house and yard. If you want a bird sanctuary but battle squirrels snatching the bird seed, squirrel-proof locations and feeders (such as those that close access to contents when the weight of squirrels lands on the base) are necessary.

Bears are another matter altogether, and conventional wisdom is to remove your bird feeders if bears are an issue in your neighborhood.

Shelter
As with all creatures, birds need shelter for resting and nesting, as well as for safe access to food. I attribute our success in creating a wild bird sanctuary largely to the great feeding location we finally established after my front-yard fiasco. Our eventual—and permanent—location of feeders was within a few feet of a mature native viburnum bush that provided an ideal perch for birds to queue up for access to the feeders. Cardinals, finches, red-winged blackbirds, tufted titmouses (or is it titmice?), juncos, blue jays, house wrens, sparrows, chickadees, towhees, red-headed woodpeckers, and many more all flocked to the upper thicket of viburnum twigs to wait their turn.

Dozens of birds of all varieties somehow worked out the order of the queue and rarely squabbled over their place in line. Well, occasionally a bossy blue jay or red-winged blackbird would flex his muscle and shoo smaller birds away, but it was a remarkably orderly procession of birds all day long, especially in extreme cold or snow. The viburnum filled with birds lined up for a feeding frenzy was a sure predictor of wintry weather! And is there anything more gorgeous than a vibrant male cardinal (or a flock of them) on a snowy day?

Years of bird watching confirmed that this native viburnum offered respite and release from fear of predators that were too heavy to ascend to the bird queue on the twiggy level. And being able to hide in a thicket of twigs kept bully birds from zooming in and intimidating smaller, less confrontational birds.

Our old-fashioned volunteer native red cedars along the backyard fence line, a sure sign of old farmland, provided a perfect nesting/breeding place for many of our wild birds. Other wild birds preferred our yard oaks, magnolias, and other trees, while bluebirds enjoyed nesting, laying eggs, and nurturing their young until they fledged in human-crafted bluebird boxes. Our bluebird boxes on six-foot poles were also challenged by our Shadow’s jumping skills, but we foiled his attempts at levitation to raid the nests with numerous tricks that mostly involved creating an unreceptive landing platform.

Food and Water
Your bird food and feeders will, of course, reflect your preferences for which birds you attract. We maintained five feeders: Two were general feeders primarily loaded with store-bought sunflower seeds (with black oil sunflower seeds most valuable in winter) or a general high-quality birdseed mixture (carefully staying away from less nutritious feeds with high “filler” content). We also added suet in blocks affixed to the ends of one of the feeders to fuel the birds during hard winter.

To truly invite birds into your yard, fill your gardens with native plants that offer birds their flower nectar, berries, and seeds, as well as host insects, for feeding them as designed in nature. Grow your own native sunflowers, asters, purple cornflowers, liatris, hyssops, and many more. One of my all-time favorites is winterberries, since we could enjoy our share for holiday decorating and leave the rest to the birds who’ll swoop in for a feast when the berries are past their toxic stage and perfectly ripe.

Our two finch feeders offered Niger seed that was well-appreciated by our finches when nothing in our garden was of greater appeal. If natural seeds are available, such as native rudbeckia (black-eyed Susans), finches will flock to them first and abandon the feeders for weeks, returning only after the garden supply is exhausted. After all, natural/local/native seeds were what they survived on before we “birders” started providing store-bought supplements. Native seeds continue to remain their preference, so it’s important to leave them when tidying up and putting the garden to bed for winter.

My fifth feeder was for hummingbirds. After buying a commercially prepared red sugar solution in my early birding years, I learned that the solution didn’t have to be red to attract them.

So we switched to creating our own sugar water, which worked just fine and, as we learned later, is safer. Again, as with finches and Niger seed, hummingbirds will enjoy your offering of sugar water, but they prefer nature’s own nectar when they can get it—and it’s better suited to meeting their nutritional needs.

Hummingbirds especially like garden plants with trumpet shaped flowers, such as penstemon, trumpet vine, beebalm, cardinal flower, red columbine, trumpet honeysuckle, and more. Most hummingbirds migrate south during our winters, but we can enjoy them during their times with us and be prepared to offer them a garden feast supplemented by sugar water while they grace us with their presence.

We all know water is essential to life for birds as well as humans, so if you want to sustain your bird habitat, a consistent source of fresh water is necessary. At our farm/bird sanctuary, we had a pond not too far from our yard and kept a pedestal birdbath filled with water in the backyard. Plus we had water bowls for our outdoor cats and dogs that were safely shared with birds whenever our feline and canine pets were napping, enjoying a sojourn indoors, or otherwise not lurking about in a threatening manner. Birds are very clever and quick at taking advantage of these opportunities for both garden foraging and water.

Everything in Its Season
I’m amazed at how easy it is to attract birds and create a thriving wild bird habitat if you just take the time to observe their behavior and create a habitat that consistently meets their needs. My years at the farm taught me how to slow down and detach from everyday cares to find peace, joy, exhilaration, and wisdom in nature and the fascinating world of birds.

One important lesson learned from our gardens and creating a bird sanctuary is that everything has its season, and every season inevitably gives way to the next. We know this in our heads from childhood, but it doesn’t truly sink into our hearts and souls until we’ve lived it ourselves. My 22-year season for intensive gardening and building a bird habitat closed in 2016 when Tim and I moved from our beloved farm into a condo in Lynchburg.

And now my four-year-plus season for writing garden stories and sharing photos with Lynchburg Living is closing with this 25th and final story. How fitting that I’m writing it on a beautiful snowy day since snow days were always my time at the farm to watch serenely the majestic parade of birds at our feeders and marvel at the spirited red cardinals against the hushed whiteness.

It has been a privilege and a pleasure to share my love of gardens, flowers, birds, conservation, nature, and of building community through gardening. I’m deeply grateful to Lynchburg Living for honoring me by publishing my garden stories in each of the past 25 issues. And I thank you, fellow garden-loving readers, for your encouragement and support, advice and photos. I hope you’ve taken away tidbits of knowledge and wisdom, a deeper understanding of our shared place in the natural world, and inspiration.

My next season will be devoting more time to caring for my beloved Tim and, when time permits, picking up my paint brushes—another love of my life from a previous season over 30 years ago.

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