February 12, 2005
Our new bird feeder is going over like a Ben Affleck film festival: One day out of its box, our $15 purchase swings lonely and shunned, while derisive chirping is heard from the trees.
Wild birds can be great entertainment. They’re as colorful and quirky as most morning news anchors, but their antics are more entertaining. As the weather warms, painted redstarts, hermit thrushes and Wilson’s warblers will join the curve-billed thrashers, Abert’s towhees and Costa’s hummingbirds on the East Valley’s branches. Many back yards, like ours, long to offer them sanctuary.
But what does it take, an invitation?
THE FYI ON LBBs
"Birds are looking for three things: Food, shelter and water," says Amy Ford of the Desert Botanical Garden. So where should I put my feeder? "Outside," Ford says, laughing. "They’re not real picky."
Basic bird feeding may be as easy as leaving seed exposed, but a diverse clientele requires a varied food supply.
"A lot of people buy basic grocery store seed and wonder why they only get LBBs," says Bob McDonough, coowner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Tempe. LBBs — "little brown birds" — flock to millet-rich, mass-produced feeds "that draw pigeons and doves, who eat millet, and birds like the house sparrow, who eats anything."
Pickier birds like goldfinches and cardinals prefer oiler seeds like thistle or sunflower. Woodpeckers, curvedbill thrashers and cactus wrens enjoy insects or suet (condensed beef fat).
"That gets tricky out here, because suet melts at 80 degrees," McDonough says. "But it’s available, in bricks of no-melt dough."
Backyard birders may also want to consider landscaping.
"The best bird environments are landscaped with native desert plants, which provide shelter and food," Ford says. "Mesquite and acacia trees are good, but for my money, the foothill paloverde or the blue paloverde are among the best native trees for shelter, nesting and the seeds they provide in late summer."
Native plants also attract the insects birds enjoy. "Insect eaters, like cactus wrens and thrashers, will also eat fruit," Ford explains. "That’s why prickly pears are a good choice. They grow quickly, use very little water and birds love its fruit in the summer."
Desert shrubs provide the same shelter/food combo at ground level.
"The desert hackberry and the wolfberry are good shrubs for birds. The hackberry provides berries and offers shelter year-round." Hummingbird fans should consider the gnarly ocotillo. "They’re great for hummingbirds," Ford explains, "or the desert willow tree, which has pretty purple and pink flowers that bloom in late summer."
WORD OF BEAK
Simple structures make the best feeders. Because hummingbirds are drawn to red, people too often buy huge gizmos with enough scarlet to draw a bull. "They also dye the nectar red, which isn’t necessary and isn’t good for the birds," McDonough says. "A little red on the feeder is all you need."
Easy cleaning is important, too: Hummingbird feeders should be changed every seven to eight days in the winter, and every three to four days in the summer.
Placement is a no-brainer. "Close enough to enjoy the birds, far enough to manage the wastes that fall below," he says. Morning and evening are the best watching times. "They fill up before they hit the nest at night, and they’re hungry first thing in the morning."
And, like most of us, they don’t snub a free meal. "It may take a few days for them to discover your yard," Ford explains, "but once they find a restaurant they like, they keep coming back."
A week after its lackluster premiere, our feeder is a mosh pit. Finches and sparrows crowd the tray, while doves graze below. Occasionally, an oversized pigeon will mount the perch, wobble like a sumo on the balance beam, then tumble off. It keeps everyone alert.
"Get a book, so you know what you’re looking at," McDonough advises. And don’t feel obligated to feed them constantly. "Birds get about 87 percent of their food from other sources," he says. "They don’t need you. Load it up on a Sunday morning, when you’re ready to watch over coffee, and enjoy."
KNOW YOUR PEEPS!
"Because this is a desert," says Bob McDonough of Wild Birds Unlimited, "people sometimes assume there’s no diversity of bird life here."
They’re wrong: 800 bird species have been identified in North America, and about 350 of them live in or visit Arizona. While many prefer the forests or canyon lands, eastern Maricopa County still maintains a wide variety of feathered friends.
Here’s a partial list, with their food of choice:
The usual suspects (year-round) Abert’s towhee (anything on the ground, seed, berries, insects) Cactus wren (insects, berries, seed, cactus fruit) Curve-billed thrasher (insects, some seed) Gila woodpecker (insects, suet, some seed) House sparrow (seed, fruit, insects) House finch (seed, fruit) Hummingbirds (nectar, small flying insects) Inca dove (seed) Lesser goldfinch (thistle) Mockingbird (fruit, insects) Mourning dove (seed) Northern cardinal (sunflower, ground seeds) Quail (seed, berries, insects) Verdin (insects, nectar) Coming attractions (spring) Black-headed grosbeak (seed) Hooded oriole (insects, fruit, date palms) Orange-crowned warbler (insects) Spotted towhees (seed, insects, ground feeder) White-winged dove (Cactus fruit, seed) Yellow-rumped warbler (insects) Sources: "Birds of Arizona Field Guide" by Stan Tekiela; Wild Birds Unlimited