Do you ever wonder what those birds in your backyard are doing? Do your children ask, “What’s that bird?” There’s an easy way to find out. Just install a few simple attractions like a bird bath, a hummingbird feeder or a wren house. I have all these “amenities” in my Forest Hills yard and have learned a lot of fascinating things about bird behavior. I hope this article will encourage you to get to know your birds up close.
Birds need a place to take a drink and to take a bath, and it does not need to be fancy.
I constructed this cheap bird bath using a styrofoam pot and a saucer. If this is not elegant enough to suit you, there are plenty of places to buy a conventional bird bath.
Where to put it? Pick a site where there is a shrub or tree that the bird can hop into in a hurry. Birds are nervous out in the open in a bird bath – they will pop off at any unusual sign. They also seem to prefer a site that gets shade in the hot part of the day.
Many species of birds come to drink, but some value cleanliness more than others. Robins have a laudable sense of hygiene – they bathe a lot. My catbird visitor loves the water – he or she bathes almost every day. Blue jays are cautious, circling the yard before they come to the bath, but wait and you will get a wonderful look at their blue and white pattern. The cardinals and the wrens are less frequent.
You need to change the water every four to five days. Clean the bird bath if it is dirty. This is not just sanitation – you may be raising your very own mosquitoes if you don’t. Mosquitoes find bird baths the perfect place to lay eggs. Nearly every week I find ten or 20 “wrigglers” – little black threads half an inch long – squirming in the water. It’s time throw it out and refill. This is the larval stage of the mosquito, and soon it will turn into an adult biter.
You often see sparrows drinking, but not bathing. They prefer a dust bath. They sit on the ground in a dry, dusty spot and gyrate around to get dirt in their feathers. Then they fluff it out. I suspect this is particularly good for getting rid of little critters like fleas.
The ruby-throated hummingbirds came back from South America the middle of April. That’s the only hummingbird we see on the East Coast. A feeder will bring them to your yard, and if you keep it filled, you will become a popular stop. Every hummingbird sets up a regular route to gardens and feeders that he or she follows every day. Birders call this a “trap line.” Last summer I realized that my hummingbird came twice a day, once around 11:00 in the morning and again about 5:00 in the afternoon.
They need sugar for fuel – that means nectar from flowers and sugar water from feeders. Sugar water is easy to make – one-fourth cup sugar to one cup water, heat until sugar dissolves. They like red flowers, but mine like honeysuckle of any color, and I think they may know which plants give a lot of nectar. Color is not the only factor.
Feeders come in all shapes and prices, but I prefer the simple ones. This photo shows a feeder that costs around $15 at local stores. It is easy to fill and easy to clean. I hang it from a tree branch in a spot where it is out of direct sun. The sugar water turns alcoholic if it gets too warm -when this happens, I empty it, clean the feeder, and refill. If the feeder seems very dirty or moldy, put a few drops of household chlorine in the washing water.
The most interesting part of having a feeder is seeing hummingbird behavior. You may see the hummingbird chasing another off the feeder, or going after a bigger bird. Females are just as feisty and competitive as males. Mine was quite mean to any intruders. (A female hummingbird is just like the male, but has a white throat, no red.)
Recently I was puzzled to notice my hummingbird sitting quietly for ten minutes in the tree, doing nothing. Then I learned that they are waiting for the sugar to digest to renew their energy. You’ll also see them hunting insects: They need the protein. The bird sits high up in a tree, overlooking the lawn, then suddenly darts out, catches an insect in the air, and loops back to its perch. In birders’ terms, this is called “hawking” – phoebes and flycatchers do it too.
Our hummingbird will be here all summer, but probably will leave around the middle of September for parts south. You can leave the feeder up into October, because migrants from the north come through and need to refuel.
If you put up a wren house, you will enjoy watching the wrens raise their family. Early in April I clean up my wren house and put it up, expecting the male wren in mid-April.
Wrens do not look for a fancy wren house – they want one with a proper entrance hole sited where cats and squirrels won’t bother it. Wren houses should have a hole only one inch in diameter – this size keeps other birds from trying to get in and damage the eggs or kill the babies. One inch is also too small for other birds to use as a nest. Unfortunately, many bird stores and catalogs sell wren houses with bigger holes, so watch out.
Mine is mounted on a pole, but often the wren house comes with a chain and can be hung from a tree branch. Choose a place where you can see it, but at least ten feet from the house. Experts say to face the hole toward the east.
This year my house wren returned April 18th, as usual. He flew immediately to see if the old wren house was in good repair. Satisfied, now he needed a mate. He perched on the roof and began to sing. He has been singing now for three weeks with no takers, but my experience is that eventually one will show up. (Click to listen to the house wren’s song.)
Females generally arrive a week or so later, in my experience. If he interests her, she will look at all the possible sites in the nearby yards, before settling on her choice. Then he will fill the box with sticks, she will throw some out (men are lousy housekeepers), and line the nest with moss, bark, spider webs, etc. Family life has begun.
Once settled, the female begins to brood. She will lay two to eight eggs, which will hatch in about two weeks. From then on both male and female spend all their time catching insects and feeding the babies. Luckily the garden is a wonderful food pantry. The parents will work frantically for the next 15 to 18 days, in and out every few minutes until the babies fledge and leave the nest.
Even then, I often see a young wren sitting in a tree chirping with a watchful parent nearby. And every year one comes back the middle of April – I don’t know whether he’s a parent or an offspring.
Watching bird behavior is a fun activity any time in the day for all family members. Your backyard is open for the opportunity. And if you live in an apartment and enjoy attracting birds with your bird feeder, bird bath, or birdhouse, we would like your story. Email photos and leave your comments below.