I thought I’d talk about the difference in my yard and my neighbor’s across town. While we share a great many birds, of course…we each also have birds the other seldom, if ever, sees in their yard.
Case in point, I’ve never seen Bluebirds, they’ve never had Rosy-Finches. I get hundreds of red-winged blackbirds; they get a few. Eurasian Collared Doves don’t seem to be a problem for them, but I get hundreds of them, too. I’ve never seen a Towhee here…but they have several; even an Eastern Towhee visited them! While I regularly have half a dozen Blue Jays, a few Scrub Jays and once a single Steller’s…they get those plus dozens and dozens of Pinyon Jays that I've never seen here. They've never had a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, but I get them every year. Once, I believe they even had a Snipe in their yard! I could go on about the difference in birds. And while I am plagued by squirrels, can count a dozen at about any time and can hardly keep them from destroying feeders…they don’t have a problem with them. We both get bears, though my Akbash keeps them out of my yard; same goes for deer.
Like my friends, it was where I bought that got me into birding. Mine, like theirs, is a very birdy yard. Because of that, and also much like them, I’ve started feeding, watching and counting birds, as well as continued to add more shrubs and trees to increase the ‘birdiness’. I’ve discovered old, native, species plants work best; beautiful cultivars are bred for neither nectar nor seed…just beauty or perfume.
I bought the house where I live now because of the large lot (it’s four, long, town lots: 100 x 150’ or about 1/3 acre). I believe it’s on one of the prettiest streets in town; due to the huge willows, old cottonwoods, and assorted evergreens that surround the area and follow the river through town. And many people have planted different kinds of apple trees…most of them quite old by now. The river, a creek much of the time, flows about 100’ from the back of my house; when it’s high, I can hear it. The rectangular lot has an open back-yard with beautiful, southern exposure.
In spite of all the trees around the perimeter, my lot is actually quite open. While I do conduct what I call 'Turf Wars', there is a good expanse of lawn in the front and back of the house. The house is toward the front; leaving a good-sized open area out back. When I arrived, there was one small Blue Spruce, several old apples (I’ve removed two), a couple lilac, some wild plum, chokecherry, Virginia creeper and a large patch of raspberries. Two, rather small, old Cherry trees are back there, too. Near where I cut down a huge and rather nasty apple tree, I planted a smaller and not so dominating crab apple. I specifically looked for one with 'persistant fruit'; fruit that hangs on all winter rather than making a mess under the tree. When apples freeze and thaw, they make great food for deep winter feeding. This tree has apples not much bigger than coffee-beans; smaller even then the cherries. I love it, as do the birds.
I’ve added a ‘screen’ around the propane tank that sits towards the center in the back of the lot: New Mexican Privet, Low-grow Sumac and Cotoneaster; all of which offer berries. In the corner of the lot is a huge mass of the creeper; climbing where the back and west fence meet. Two more Cotoneaster and a River Birch were planted ten feet or so in front of the two, large chokecherries against the west fence, just up from the 15’ raspberry patch. I hope they make quite a nice thicket; a banquet for birds. Also along that same fence, about 30’ from the house and where the Blue Spruce and apple trees live, I also planted a (thornless) Hawthorn and an Elderberry Bush that’s gotten nearly as big as the huge chokecherry bushes.
Closer to the front of the yard, past the old apple trees next to that Hawthorn, are several Golden Current. At each front corner, on the street-side of my property…there are huge trees. These trees line both sides of the street and are mostly cottonwoods and willows. The bears love to sleep in them. More Virginia creeper lines the lower front fence and a Box Elder grows in the corner, under the bigger trees. I planted some Honeysuckle on the East corner, near the front gate. It offers berries, too, though not as many as the creeper.
Back down the Eastern side of the yard, there are wild plums and on the other side; several more old apple-trees. Past those trees, and all around me, I see more giant cottonwoods, aspen and evergreens, as well as big willows, and more chokecherry thickets and large Maples. Along that fence, near the center of the yard, I’ve planted more Elderberry, Mock Orange, Serviceberry, a cone-shaped little juniper. Curving into the yard behind five or six 50-year old Peonies are now Sand Plums, Mugo Pine, and several Viburnum types. Behind those and towards the very back I planted three, old-variety, own-root roses like the one I had in Denver. It was a huge thing that climbed up over the garage, had clusters of sweet, pink flowers nearly all year…and is thornless! Those three are already about 5’ high; I love that they need absolutely no fussing over. In a couple years they should drape about 25’ of fence. Those are for me, not so much the birds!
Along the back, perhaps 10’ in front of the fence, I’ve planted some goodies I brought down off the mountain where I lived; a foot-tall spruce, an 18” Ponderosa Pine, some Kinnickinnic and Creeping Mahonia. Next to that I’ve added a regular Sumac, and an odd, spiny Cotoneaster. Behind this ‘screen’ are the rather casual compost heap and a brush pile. There is another brush pile behind the two cherries on the other side of the yard. And that’s the loop.
Here and there, especially in the walkway between the house and garage, I’ve planted wild grasses, many native flowers and a couple more Mugo pines. On the little hill where the water-fall starts, I’ve planted several very low junipers, yet another mugo, a Coralberry, two Cranberry cotoneaster, some native, red ‘Hummingbird Flower’ and a sweet clump of what I know of as Sea Oats. Along the water fall is Creeping Jenny, more creeping, purple mahonia (it berries) and other low-growing goodies that I hope fill in and hide the liner. I can see the whole back yard from my big, new kitchen window; even the fish in the pond.
Like my friends across town, I’m protected from winds by both the hill down the street and all the huge trees. My yard stays quite calm most of the time. I’d like to get a few more shrubs, but leave the openness of the yard. Most plants that I buy these days are for bird-food or shelter…and, if possible, 4-season beauty. I like hardy, xeric stuff that I don’t have to mess with. I am an organic gardener; with the water-table less than 3’ below me and feeding birds as I do…how could I be otherwise? I even worry about neighbors spraying as ‘drift’ can kill pond fishes. While I consider the little pond a bird-feeder (there are lots of Kingfishers around), I don’t need a fish kill, too.
Most of my feeders are away from trees; an attempt to keep squirrels off of them. I offer different food in different feeders and don’t offer much mixed seed. I find it a waste of both money and seed; common millet is a filler-seed that most birds don’t especially like. Most of my feeders have Black Oil Sunflower Seed, some have Safflower Seed (Evening, Black-headed and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks LOVE it) and every morning I offer unsalted, in-the-shell peanuts on a flat-bed feeder, along with a cup of large dog kibble for the jays and magpies. Sometimes I also dump leftover bakery goods, cooked pasta and a bit of meat scraps. A bunch of grapes brought in Robins.
Smaller seed on an open feeder would attract flying pigs that decimate the contents in minutes. I also offer home-made suet during the winter and orange halves during the spring along with a small cup of grape jelly. Everything from Grackes and black birds to uninvited doves and starlings mob the suet; but if I can possibly avoid them, woodpeckers, chickadees and the flickers love suet too. Black-headed Grosbeaks, Summer Tanagers and Bullock’s Orioles love both the oranges and the grape jelly. Once, a Baltimore Oriole did, too!
Lastly, several feeders are for small finches only. In those feeders I do use a mix. It’s called Finches Feast and is an equal blend of black thistle, canary seed and sunflower-heart chips. The mix works in any finch feeder and is half the price of the Nyger seed sold as thistle for finches. Oh, and in the spring, when I put out nectar feeders for the hummers, I also make sure all the holes are enlarged enough to accommodate both Orioles and Tanagers, too. They love nectar.
Perhaps this spring, I will offer one feeder (set for only light-weight birds) with White Proso Millet. I understand common millet and milo (sourghum) (cheap birdseed fillers) attract mostly doves and sparrows; White Proso is also favored by finches, juncos, siskins, sparrows, titmice, towhees, woodpeckers and…buntings! I love the Lazuli and Indigos that come through.
Polly Wren who lives just outside of town, amid fields of grazing cattle, nestled amongst the tall trees that follow the river. Their quite different habitat is wilder and thicker than mine, with many trees. Many, if not all, of their feeders hang from or are built beneath the overhand of trees. Their yard is beautiful, and quite different from mine. She writes:
"Our personal property consists of 2.5 acres. Paul's parents own the adjacent 4 acres (all running along the stream) so the family parcel is 6 acres. We have a stream about 100 ft. from the house with a completely natural screening of old cottonwoods, choke cherry, box elder and other shrubby stuff between the house and stream. This provides us with much needed protection from the winds...While the winds might be howling all around us...our yard most times is relatively calm. We are about 7,000 ft. elevation.
In the actual 3/4 acre that we call the yard...we have natural grass, and have planted lilac, aspen, Newport plum, cherry, crab apple, one elm tree, purple and mountain ash, weeping willow...white fir, bristle cone pine and blue spruce...in other words: it's a jungle out there.
The strange thing is we did not set out to make our yard "bird friendly"...we were not birders when we built the place 16 years ago. We became birders because of the birds that would "just show up", and then we have sort of discovered some things along the way.
Deer tend to be a problem here...so we have deer fencing around the base of the trees...this we noticed protects the trees from the deer but is a pain to weed...so we don't...by simply being a little lazy we created great little hiding places for the birds at the base of our conifers and shade trees. We are also pretty lazy about cleaning the brush completely off the property...hence we discovered birds like those "brush piles"...more shelter.
For the most part I think we just really sort of lucked out by building in a place that was already "birdy"
As far as seed goes I discovered these great seed blocks at of all places Safeway. Birdola brand, Deck and Patio blocks...peanut hearts, sunflower chips; no hulls. Nuthatches, Pinyon Jays, Blue Jay, Chickadees, and Goldfinches all love it. Next is plain Black Oil Sunflower Seed, and suet blocks. Beverly turned us on to Purina Mills Wild Bird Chow called Finches Feast. That is about it.
We tend to take the feeders down around the first to middle of June to keep the bears from habituating themselves to them. We put them back up around the 1st of November.
Also as to feed, this spring was the first time we put up oranges around the yard and it really paid off with more that 2 dozen Western Tanagers and over a dozen Bullock's Orioles coming in daily (more than we have ever had before).
Over the years we have racked up quite a nice little yard list of 116 species which does contain some real rarities...again I think this is due to location more than anything else..."
So; theirs is a forest, mine is more open. While I leave brushy, tall grass around the edges, they leave their yard wild, and mow paths through it. They've planted many large trees, I plant smaller trees and islands of shrubbery. I'm guessing habitat makes all the difference...and it's all good. One thing is for sure, their photography is so much better than mine! All pictures here, are theirs. Thank you two, so much!