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Backyard Haven for Birds
by Dr. Oneida Cramer

Perched in a magnolia, on a chimney, or soaring in flight, the mockingbird sings rapturously repeating each phrase several times before going on to the next one. His ?whisper song? is soft and tender. Yet, this Texas state bird is most famous for his mimicry--39 species songs and 50 call notes plus imitations of a cackling hen, a barking dog, even the notes of a piano. And, he?s one of the few birds to sing in the wee hours of the morning.

Besides singing, birds like the mockingbird are noted for eating unwanted pests and helping maintain healthy vegetation while they allow a close up view of wildlife in the urban setting, according to Lou Verner at Texas Urban Fish and Wildlife. In fact, homeowners can enhance their landscapes and, at the same time, increase bird populations by cultivating habitats for nesting in their yards.

It?s a dangerous world out there for birds,? said Ed Barker who works at Wild Birds Unlimited. ?We think of it as romantic. But it?s a rough life--lots of predators, a lot of things they can get into in the city?poisons. Birds don?t live a long time. They can live a long time if they were in an ideal situation.?

Unfortunately, global warming is creating an even more ominous environment for the bird, according to a recently reported study. Scientists found that populations of the black-throated blue warbler, members of the second largest American songbird family (the Warbler Family), decreased during the years of El Nino and increased during El Nina. Scientists predict that if the El Nino cycle gets more intense, as expected, a reduction in songbird populations is likely.

Homeowners can help combat these predictions with ?bird-friendly? yards established in a variety of easy ways--the key being the proper combination of food, water, and shelter, according to Texas Wildscapes, Gardening for Wildlife by Damude & Bender. The first step is to take an inventory of the yard, where you may discover already a number of indigenous trees, shrubs, and/or flowers growing in the black land prairie soil that surrounds Dallas. Native trees such as the oaks, elms, pecans, cedars, maples, pines, ashes, and sweetgums form the canopy of shade trees. And above these trees soar birds like the owls, vireos, woodpeckers, warblers, grackles, and sharp-skinned hawk, a bird about the size of a pigeon found at times in the yard, according to Barker.

?It?s more than just grass and tall canopy trees,? Verner said. ?There?s a lot of intermediate types of plantings that are really most beneficial as far as wild life is concerned.? These plants almost always have fruits, berries, and seeds. For instance, the rusty black-haw viburnum grows multiple stems that bloom creamy-white clusters of flowers that eventually form the black-bluish berries relished by robins, mockingbirds, bluebirds, and cardinals.

Allow bushes to grow; don?t cut everything back into little round balls, advises Barker. ?It?s much better to have a sort of natural looking overgrown shrub in your yard. Besides, birds like the wild look.?

?What birds are really looking for is the proper structure rather than a particular tree,? Verner said. Still, it makes sense that native birds prefer to nest in native vegetation. In fact, some of Texas?s most colorful birds, like the cardinal and the painted bunting-distinguished in the male by scarlet-red under-parts, blue head, greenish back, and red-purple rump, don?t nest in houses. Both birds, which are members of the largest American songbird family (Finch Family), conceal nests in the branches of small trees, bushes, or vines about 4 to 5 feet above ground. There they raise two, three, even four broods over a season, often moving from nest to nest. Other birds may occupy their deserted nests, for example the mourning dove will nest in a cardinal?s nest if the height is just right. Birds that nest in trees and shrubs include the ruby throated humming bird, the western king bird, the sizzertail fly catcher, blue jay, robin, cat bird, mockingbird, brown thrasher, and white-eyed vireo.

Native ornamental trees that attract birds include the rough leaf dogwood, flameleaf sumac, red buckeye, American elderberry, and Mexican plum, according to Verner. Native shrubs include the American Beauty Berry, the False Indigo, the Elbowbush, and the Fragrant Sumac. And don?t forget native evergreens like the yaupon and red cedar. Rhodes Nurseries in Garland and North Haven Gardens in Dallas are good sources for native plants, according to Verner.

But a wooden birdhouse or nest box also makes excellent nesting.

?It can be any kind of shape as long as its got the right size hole and a cavity they?ll go into,? Barker said. Houses for the tiny chickadees are about 5? square with 1 1/8th inch opening. If chickadees are around, most likely, so is the tufted titmouse, which will occupy the same size house or one with a 1 ?? opening. The most versatile house has a 1?? hole, 5? square cavity and accommodates a lot of birds. When placed against the house, this nesting box attracts the house finch; in a tree between five and twenty feet high, the same house is used by the downy woodpecker. For the larger red-bellied woodpecker, choose a 6?square house with a 2? hole and secure it in a tree 8 to 20 feet above ground.

Screech owls are a very nice bird to have around, according to Barker. ?They will bring the babies out at your bird bath at night. If you?re aware that they?re there, you can go out, put a light on them, and see them. And they?ll just look at you. They?re very unafraid.? They also eat large insects, roaches, crickets, and even little lizards. Place an 8? square nesting box with 3? holes high up in the natural fork of a tree between 8 to 20 feet above ground, and most likely, screech owls will come around.

Remember that water should be provided for birds. Almost any form will do--a formal birdbath or perhaps an overturned garbage top. And dripping, gurgling water is highly attractive to passing birds. Near a large body of water will roost the elegant wood duck in a 12? square, nesting box with a 4? hole when the box is placed 5 to 20 feet off the ground. However, do not encourage ducks to nest near swimming pools, cautions Barker, because they can get trapped in the yard unable to get to an adequate food source. So they get sick and deformed, or they may drown in the skimmers of the pool.

-by Dr. Oneida Cramer
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