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    Thursday, June 13, 2024

    There’s a colorful world outside your window

    Education Director Kim Hargrave fills bird feeders at the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center on Thursday, March 9, 2023. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    A downy woodpecker and other birds visit the bird feeders at the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center Thursday, March 9, 2023. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    A chickadee visits the bird feeders at the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center Thursday, March 9, 2023. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    A downy woodpecker visits the bird feeders at the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center Thursday, March 9, 2023. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Education Director Kim Hargrave works on filling bird feeders at the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center on Thursday, March 9, 2023. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    One popular form of pandemic-era binge watching wasn’t on TV or computer, but outside your windows.

    The shows featured bright colors, some humor and drama, and the actors changed with the seasons.

    “Bird feeding is the No. 2 hobby in the U.S. after gardening,” said Karen Hughes, owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Flanders. “At the beginning of the pandemic, there definitely was an increase, because everyone was home not doing anything. They took an interest in the hobby.”

    The show continues, even though people have returned to work. Local experts offered tips on birds and native plants to attract them to your yard, whether you live in a rural, suburban or urban home.

    Bird feeding can be year round

    Feeding birds once was thought to be a winter activity for enjoyment or to help birds during barren months of snow-covered grounds. But experts say no matter the season, the birdseed, nuts, suet or nectar people put out really are supplements to birds’ natural food sources.

    “It’s not a case where the birds need us, we need them,” Hughes said. “There are studies out there that it’s good for mental health. It’s very good for relaxing with a cup of coffee watching birds in your back yard. You can do it year round. And seasonally, there’s different birds in your yard.”

    Harlan Hyde, owner of Hyde’s Home & Farm Store in Norwich, said early spring, before flowers and fruits emerge and after much of the winter seeds and nuts have been consumed, is a good time to put out bird feeders. Suet “mimics” insects and carrion for birds such as woodpeckers, bluebirds and nuthatches.

    With spring, birds that spend the winter in Connecticut will soon depart for their northern summer homes. These include dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows, both regulars at bird feeders.

    A host of summer dwellers are returning to the state, including catbirds, rose-breasted grosbeaks, Baltimore orioles, house wrens, neo-tropical migrant species and the favorite, ruby-throated hummingbird.

    Some year-round dwellers look different come spring. Male goldfinches, which favor thistle seed, swap their dull yellow-gray winter color for bright yellow and black plumage.

    The striking black, red and white male grosbeak colors even bring avid southern birders to New England, Hyde said, because these birds have duller plumage down South in winter.

    “The males come early to find the best nesting spots,” Hyde said. “There’s not much for them to eat yet, so they’ll readily come to your feeders. They’ll eat sunflower, black-striped, gray-striped or black oil sunflowers, and any kinds of nuts.”

    He added that grosbeaks eat from platform feeders.

    When the famed cherry trees bloom in Washington, D.C., nectar-feeding birds are on their way to Connecticut, Hyde and Hughes said. It’s time to put out hummingbird and oriole nectar feeders or sliced half oranges for orioles. Catbirds and yellow-bellied sapsuckers also may sip from nectar feeders.

    For birding beginners

    Kim Hargrave, education director at Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center, said if you are new to bird feeding and want to start small, put out a tube feeder, preferably with a platform at the bottom and fill it with black oil sunflower seed. Second, add a suet feeder.

    If possible, place feeders near a natural shelter source, such as evergreen bushes or even a brush pile to offer birds quick hiding spots from predators, Hargrave said. Chickadees, will run what looks like a tag team relay race from the feeder to the bushes.

    In spring, birders can watch parent birds teaching their young “table manners,” at feeders, Hyde said.

    Hyde and Hughes said seed mixes add variety to types of birds attracted to feeders. While larger blue jays and cardinals might shovel smaller seeds, such as millet, to the ground while looking for sunflower, ground feeding birds, such as juncos and sparrows, will eat those discarded seeds.

    For residents in urban area or in apartment houses, there are ways to attract birds. Feed stores sell shell-less seeds to avoid shell waste. Window-mounted feeders are available, and housing complexes that do not allow bird feeders might allow hummingbird or oriole nectar feeders, Hughes said, as they do not attract rodents.

    Heather Snell, nursery sales representative at Hyde Home & Farm Store in Norwich, suggested hanging flower plants to attract hummingbirds, butterflies and pollinators.

    “I love seeing a hummingbird at a fuchsia hanging basket,” Hyde added.

    If you live in a wooded, rural area, you might have a different issue in spring and summer ― bears. Bring feeders inside at night and skip the suet feeders, Hughes said. And look for other bear lures in your yard.

    “People think it’s the bird feeders that are attracting the bears to your yard,” Hughes said. “Typically, it’s your barbecue grill sitting outside, your garbage can sitting outside, your pet food sitting outside. Those are the things that will draw them to your yard.”

    Much more common pests are squirrels. Many bird feeders have anti-squirrel designs, whether it be a cage, weighted closure or baffle to prevent them from climbing the poles. Seeds coated with hot pepper will deter squirrels and not harm birds, Hughes said.

    “You’re going to lose the war on squirrels,” Hargrave said. “You need to just accept that and move on.”

    Bird feeders should be cleaned regularly to prevent rot and mold. Many feeders come apart and are dishwasher safe, Hyde said. In summer, hummingbird and oriole nectar feeders should be cleaned almost daily on hot days. Hyde recommends small nectar feeders.

    The bird feeding experts agreed on the biggest “don’t do” when it comes to backyard feeding: do not let cats outdoors.

    “They are amazing hunters,” Hargrave said. “That’s one of the best things you can do.”

    Hughes said her other top recommendation is to “build up yards to be more bird friendly,” with native plants and shrubs that provide natural food, shelter and nesting sources.

    To reduce window strikes, birders should place decals, hangings or “window collision tape,” a series of small opaque squares. While we see glass, Hughes said, birds see reflections of the trees or open space behind them and can fly straight into windows.

    Perhaps more important than providing food is offering water to attract birds, from as simple as a basic birdbath to elaborate water fountains. A small heater could keep the water from freezing in winter. Place a stick across the bird bath or a flat stone in the center to provide a perch to take drinks or start their baths.

    Frequent cleaning and changing the water is key in summer to prevent mosquitoes.

    “If you think you have tadpoles in your birdbath, you probably have mosquito larvae,” Hargrave said.

    Bird houses, nest material

    Birds of all sizes nest in Connecticut, and many already have chosen their spots. What you can get depends on your conditions. Bluebird boxes are popular, but you could be out of luck if you live in a heavily wooded area. Bluebirds hang in open space areas.

    Hughes and Hyde said people need to pay attention to the size of the entrance hole for the types of birds they want to attract. Wrens and chickadees need smaller entrance holes. Some bird houses have predator guards. Make sure the bird house has a hatch to clean it out easily come winter.

    Some people like to put out nesting materials for birds. Hughes and Hargrave urge people not to place strips of yarn or dryer lint out for birds. Yarn could entangle birds’ legs or necks, and dryer lint contains detergent or fabric softener residue or synthetic fibers.

    Instead, put out dog fur or alpaca hair.

    Beyond feeders: Nature prefers messy habitat

    Don’t forget to look beyond the feeders into the surrounding yard, woods or fences to find birds that don’t come to feeders. Robins, eastern towhees, mockingbirds, sparrows, wrens, swallows or even hawks might be flying about.

    Hargrave advises those with yards, large or small, suburban or city, to refrain from raking away all leaves and twigs. Even a small patch of “leaf litter” or branch pile can make a big difference. If you have a dying tree that stands in a safe area, it can provide a feast of insects for woodpeckers and cavity homes for them.

    “Do a little experiment in your yard,” Hargrave said. “Leave a patch of leaf litter, and juncos will come in and just dig and get all the bugs out of that leaf litter. It’s amazing the difference in the number of birds you’re going to see in your bare yard compared to the spot where you left the leaves.”

    To best attract birds, butterflies and pollinators, plant native plants and remove invasives.

    “One plant at a time,” Hargrave said.

    Hargrave listed some bad ones: Japanese barberry, burning bush, bittersweet, autumn olive and porcelain berry, which has pretty robin-egg blue berries. Porcelain berry is taking over Denison’s Coogan Preserve in Mystic, and burning bush is overrunning parts of Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center woods, she said.

    “You think, ‘the birds are eating it,’ but it’s kind of like a junk food diet for them,” Hargrave said, “because it’s not what they are designed to be eating. Yes, they do eat it, but it doesn’t have the same nutritional value our native plants have.”

    Lists of native plants are long, with varied colored flowers, offering berries, seeds or nectar for birds, butterflies, bees and other pollinators.

    “One of the nice things is if you are creating a pollinator garden,” Hargrave said, “thinking about butterflies and pollinators, you’re actually helping birds as well. A lot of our pollinator plants, whether they’re goldenrods, or asters, or coneflowers, they all go to seed.”

    Hughes at Wild Birds Unlimited offers a brochure featuring native plants that attract “native birds.” Shadblow, New England aster, buttonbush, winterberry, red cedar, bayberry, elderberry and viburnum are listed.

    Snell, the nursery representative at Hyde Home & Farm, will hold a discussion on native plants to attract bee pollinator bees from 11 a.m. to noon on April 29 at Blue Slope Country Museum, 138 Blue Hill Road, Franklin. She offered a list of native trees, shrubs and flowers for Connecticut yards.

    Recommendations for native plants can be found at the Connecticut Audubon Society’s website, https://www.ctaudubon.org, at https://gobotany.nativeplanttrust.org/ and at the Connecticut River Coastal Coastal Conservation District, Inc.

    Protecting broader habitats

    Connecticut Audubon Society manages more than 20 sanctuaries for birds and wildlife across the state. But like back yards, they too have become overgrown with invasive plants, threatening the biodiversity, said Connecticut Audubon Communications Director Tom Andersen. Connecticut Audubon has launched a multi-year effort to restore native habitats.

    “If you don’t maintain the properties, you lose the value you’ve acquired,” Andersen said.

    At the society’s 266-acre Morgan R. Chaney Sanctuary on Turner Road in Montville, workers concentrated on a 10-acre area, where an old stone cabin stands. Workers ripped out invasive vines and multi-flora rose bushes and will manage the area as a native shrub habitat ― “the habitat most lost of my type of habitat in Connecticut,” Andersen said.

    “The birds doing worst in Connecticut are shrub habitat birds: blue-winged warbler, white-eyed vireo eastern towhees, indigo bunting,” Andersen said. “Those birds all have been declining. Blue-winged warblers have declined 75% over the past 50 years.”

    For homeowners, Andersen suggested creating “a stadium effect” of native plants, with native grasses and wildflowers, native shrubs behind them and then native trees. “Create habitats for all kinds of birds and wildlife to feed on and to hide.”

    For those using containers, Andersen recommended planting native wildflowers, bee balm or coneflowers.

    “Nobody should minimize the importance of this stuff,” Andersen said, when you think of all the yards in Connecticut that are underutilized habitats.”


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