BIRD COLUMN FOR DECEMBER 26, 2004
By Benjamin P. Burtt
TOPIC: Increasing the number of birds at your Feeder by providing shelter
This column contains all the material that was published in the Post Standard in Syracuse on the above date PLUS lots of additional information about the role of shelter in helping make your yard attractive to birds.
When you are finished with your Christmas tree, don't throw it away, but save it for the birds. Collect a few more from neighbors and use three or four to make a shelter near your feeder as described below.
Shelter is important for birds in winter. Feeders that have shelter nearby attract more birds than a feeder in the open.
A thicket of dense shrubbery about six feet from the feeder would provide a resting spot out of the cold wind. It would also provide a spot where they can hide from hawks. Birds are reluctant to visit a feeder that is out in the open.
If you do not have such natural protection near your feeder, plan to do something about it next spring. Planting evergreens in a cluster is one simple idea. Bushes and shrubs that form a thick or dense cluster of branches can help too, even though the leaves drop off in the fall.
In the meantime you can make an artificial shelter. Discarded Christmas trees work nicely. Tie several together at the top to make a tepee-like structure as in Sketch A. below. Add some other evergreen boughs if the cluster is not dense enough.
CAPTION: To provide extra shelter near your regular feeder, tie three or four Christmas trees together (A). Food can also be scattered on the ground underneath. Sketch B is a cat-proof enclosure where seed can be put if cats are a problem. Birds can go in and out, but cats can not. Sketch C is a wind-proof, cat-proof feeding area covered with evergreens. Sketch D is the frame for a hillside shelter that is covered with evergreen boughs so that birds can feed on the ground without the seed becoming covered with snow.
Put the tepee between 6 and 10 feet from the feeder. If it is farther away, birds will still be a bit timid about using the nearby feeder. If it is closer to the feeder, cats may hide beneath the branches and pounce on birds feeding on spilled seed below the feeder.
Such a shelter is especially important to wild birds because it provides protection when they are frightened. Sometimes it is a hawk or a noise or sudden movement that startles them. They stop feeding and dive into the nearby shelter until the coast is clear.
The Christmas trees could also be tied to a tree trunk, a clothes pole, a trellis or to lawn furniture or a backyard picnic table. If you have a feeder on your deck, the railing there is another place to put your shelter.
Protection from the wind
Next to food, adequate shelter is important in helping birds survive the cold weather. The heat produced by the food must be at least as great as the heat lost to the surroundings.
Normally, there is a layer of warm air near the birds body. When the wind blows this away, more heat must be provided by the bird. In weather terminology this is referred to as "wind chill".
When the bird can perch in an evergreen and out of the wind, the food it has eaten will go farther in providing warmth.
Shelter during the night
Birds must find shelter at night. In Central New York, they have a period of about 15 hours when it is too dark to find food. This means they only have 9 hours in which to find food to see them through. If there is proper shelter, they can make it.
Chickadees, wrens and woodpeckers often roost out of the wind in natural holes in trees or in nest boxes. Other species must seek cover where they can find it. Dense evergreens in a sheltered spot meet their needs.
Building a Tree
Instead of tying a few evergreens together, a wooden frame can be used to which many Christmas trees can be fastened with rope or wire.
When my house was new and before my shrubs and trees were grown, I constructed a shelter of this sort that was about 10 feet high and about eight feet in diameter. Through the winter, it looked like an evergreen tree and the birds didn't know the difference. It was placed in a spot sheltered by the house and about 10 feet from my big feeder. Many birds roost there and some nests are put there in the summer.
I have since planted a hemlock in its place. Each year while the hemlock was small, I carefully constructed this "tree" over the area until the hemlock grew up enough to do the job without my help. Some pruning may need to be done so that there will be more little side branches to fill in the gaps.
Feeding Birds on the Ground
If cats are not a problem, you can scatter food on the ground beneath the tepee. If there are cats, then the birds that feed beneath the shelter will need some protection. For this you can construct a box-like structure as in sketch B above. The 2 x 4 inch wire mesh keeps out cats, but birds up to the size of a jay can go in and out of the wire fabric enclosure to eat.
If you wish to put seed on the ground in the open, such a cage
can be put up against the lee side of an evergreen shrub and the top and two sides covered by evergreen branches. The structure can be put in the open and covered on all sides but one, (see sketch C above ). This keeps the wind off and cats cannot pounce on a bird feeding there.
Another way to feed birds on the ground without having the seed covered by snow is to make a lean-to and put the seed under that. Make it from long poles covered with brush and evergreens ( see sketch D above). This will be open on three sides, but if it faces away from the prevailing wind, many birds will be able use it. This lean-to protects the seed from the snow and gives some protection from the wind.
Making a Brush Pile
You may also wish to construct a brush pile for the winter. If you plan ahead during the warmer parts of the year, when you are trimming, save the large branches and cuttings for a winter brush pile.
This pile can be permanent if you have lots of space and don't mind the appearance of it, or it can be just for the winter. Whenever it is there it will help bring more birds to your yard.
A brush pile can be just a heap of brush, but it will be of value to other animals as well if you construct a substantial foundation. There should be a number of tunnels through this pile at the ground level. This allows places for creatures to hide and gain shelter from the weather extremes.
Lay four logs six feet long and four to eight inches in diameter on the ground to form the first layer. Then place four more logs of the same kind at right angles and on top of the ones resting on the ground. Then pile large limbs on top and eventually smaller and smaller branches further up.
The branches should be crisscrossed so that there are plenty of open spaces in between where birds can perch. Lay some evergreen cuttings on top to make a roof. This will provide a relatively dry and safe retreat where the birds can rest in the daytime or roost at night.
An alternative foundation can be constructed from large rocks that are placed on the ground with some space around each rock. You can lay limbs over this foundation. Again, tunnels and crevices and places for the animals to hide will become available. Place another layer of smaller limbs on top the the logs, but at right angles. The pile should be several feet high. Birds will roost in the upper parts of this and go there to rest during the day or when they spot a hawk.
If you do collect a number of Christmas trees, you can lay them on the foundation as well, or cut the branches to lay on the top.
Linda Quackenbush of Waterloo usually reports a very long list of species on the feeder survey. In October she tallied 44 and 34 in November. How does she do it? For one thing, she does have thick shrubbery, evergreens and brush piles. There are lots of trees along the edges of her property.
So, think about how you can provide more shelter for the birds in your yard. Try some of these ideas, and more birds will come there to add to your pleasure.
NOTICE: The January Feeder Survey starts next Sunday, January 2.