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Increasing Backyard Diversity


Southeastern Arizona's great biodiversity
©May 2011, Jon Friedman

by Richard of SearchNet Media

With more species of birds than almost any other region in the country, Southeastern Arizona's biodiversity offers backyard birders one of the best opportunities to attract a wide variety of birds.

The combined number of year-round resident and migrating birds that one can see in the cycle of a year's time is greater than most other regions throughout the continent. However, if you don't devote some time on a regular basis to observing, you may miss some of the migrants which only pass through our area and remain only for a relatively short time.

Southeastern Arizona is also an excellent place to notice quite a few rare and exotic species that migrate through or use our area in spring and summer as their traditional breeding territory.

With relatively little effort and expense, you can easily double and triple the number of species attracted to your feeding stations.

Basic tips
To achieve the goal of increasing the number of species in your backyard, you need to follow a few important tips. Offering a clean and reliable source of fresh water for drinking and bathing, having or creating a suitable habitat for the birds to use, and placing a variety of feeders at different heights and distances bring in more species to anyone's backyard.   

A well-maintained fresh water source is essential, as it is the one thing that almost all birds need and use daily. In our arid climate, a dependable water source provides a handy substitute for the ponds, creeks, rivers that are abundant throughout the rest of the country. Almost all birds have a daily need for fresh drinking water and most of these birds bathe in the same water. Only a few species, such as the cactus wren, prefer dust bathing. So, the importance of fresh water cannot be understated. Because almost all birds depend upon the need for access to fresh water daily, it draws more bird species than any single food source.   

One of the essential requirements for your water feature, besides keeping the water fresh daily, is that the water level should always be shallow. An inch of water is deep enough for most species to enjoy a refreshing and cleansing bath. If the water level is deeper than an inch and a half, most birds will not bathe in it. Very small and baby birds can drown in water deeper than an inch and a half. Even a large hawk can successfully bathe in such shallow water. Moreover, bathing is a very important daily ritual necessary to the bird's good health.

Catalina State Park
by Richard at SearchNet Media

Algae, fresh water
A shallow birdbath made of polypropylene, glazed ceramic or metal proves most effective in retarding algae buildup. Avoid unglazed ceramic, cement, mortar, or conglomerate materials in birdbaths as they are more of a maintenance problem. Fighting algae becomes a daily chore with baths made of these materials. They may seem like hard materials (and they are) but they are porous materials. Once algae takes root, a daily scrubbing with a steel brush proves ineffective as the algae keeps returning. Avoid using chemicals, bleach, or other unnatural methods of keeping the water fresh and clean. Organic enzymes can be used for the same purpose. These compounds are bird friendly but tend to cost more. The best method of keeping your birdbath water fresh is tipping our yesterday's water and refilling with fresh water each day. Having a mister or drip system proves very effective. Having such a water feature will decrease maintenance time as there is a slow but constant supply of fresh water. In addition, activated water, that is water that has an agitated or moving surface (as opposed to still, standing water) attracts more birds and more bird species than standing water. Battery operated water wigglers fulfill this task wonderfully.   

Decorative fountains are widely available in stores that specialize in fountains and other "lawn ornaments". They can also be found in hardware, big discount stores (Home Depot, Lowe's, etc.), nurseries, garden centers and the like.

However, decorative fountains are rarely, if ever, designed with bird use as a priority consideration. Instead, they are designed for human aesthetics foremost. Most of these type fountains are not particularly bird friendly in that they are too deep for birds to actually bathe in and most folks have maintenance problems with these items as bleach, chlorine or other chemicals are most frequently used to keep them algae free and the water clean. None of these chemicals are safe for birds

The worst offenders are fountains made from concrete, mortar, compressed marble dust, and other similar materials. While these materials are hard (and heavy) they are also quite porous. Once algae takes root just below the surface it becomes a maintenance problem that just won't go away without using harsh chemicals.

Most folks who already own such fountains are aware that birds only use the highest level of multi-tiered fountains (where the water comes out) as it offers the smallest but shallowest place for birds to use it. Usually this top level is too small for birds to actually bathe in, and because the water is pump recycled, it is not fresh clean water to drink.

Having a real birdbath (that is one designed for birds to actually use as the highest priority) with any water feature will prove to be a more practical and functional solution to delivering fresh water to birds daily. Adding any water feature, such as a dripper, mister or water wiggler will activate the water surface and birds will find this much more alluring and appealing. The Wild Bird Store carries misters, drippers and water wigglers. Folks who already have these types of water features know from experience that these products do a much better job than almost any fountain could.

Sabino Canyon
by Richard at SearchNet Media

On the cheap (no pun intended) We have several water features placed at different heights above ground level around our house and feeding stations.

We have two baths at ground level (quail are particularly fond of these), two on pedestals, and one hanging from a tree branch.

We also have evaporative coolers that drip excess water directly onto the ground below them. One of the evaporative coolers empties all the water every four hours via a hose we use to channel the water into a flat area where the water pools us and lasts almost the entire four hour period. The other cooler has a slow drip from the overflow pan at the bottom of the cooler. Both coolers provide a fresh water source that the birds use well. We've even noticed some birds like to frolic around the edges, get a little muddy and then bathe. The constant dripping and the resulting ripple effect lures birds in like a magnet. Of course, this method can only be used if you have an evaporative cooler during summer months.

You can, however, create such a natural watering spot by letting your outside faucet drip slightly - just enough to create a miniature pool for the birds to frolic in. Watching birds bathe offers a visual hint that they really do enjoy it. In fact, it has been suggested that bathing is an enjoyable, fun activity on a par with playing.

Perhaps you already have ideal habitat for your birds. Ideal habitat includes the space from the ground up to the tree tops. It means you have some ground cover or a variety of short plants. These can include flowers, grasses, aloes, short cactus', short shrubs and bushes, etc. This attracts the ground dwelling and ground feeding birds such as quail, sparrows, thrashers, wrens, towhees, etc. Medium sized plants can occupy the middle zone. These are any plants that grow between 4 to 10 feet tall. Examples of such plants can include: prickly pear, cholla, and barrel cacti; young native trees (mesquite, Palo Verde, acacia, ironwood, etc.) And lastly, plants that are the tallest, such as larger trees and other large bushes and shrubs.   

Curved Bill Thrasher
by Richard at SearchNet Media

Going native
Hackberry, a native plant, is an important food source for many desert birds and animals. In the wild, it usually grows from multiple stems or branches and is usually anywhere from a few feet tall to tree height. Pruning the exterior stems and only allowing the single most upright stems or two will enable the plant to grow much higher, more into tree size. This is commonly done with hackberry (a favorite plant for many native desert birds) and tree tobacco (a favorite plant for hummingbirds).

Providing suitable habitat is easy enough. Essentially and ideally, birds need vegetative cover from the ground level up. Another way to create habitat is to make a brush pile from clippings and trimmings. Brush piles offer the birds a safe place to retreat to when predators arrive and generally provide a safe and secure place to spend "down time".

While birds will come to feeders even in a bare dirt environment, a variety of vegetation makes it much more appealing for birds to spend more time in your yard. Knowing that native species of vegetation will always prove more popular with the majority of bird species, we advise avoiding exotics whenever you have a choice.

Feeding the birds

Non-seed eating birds
Not all birds are seed eaters. A variety of other feeders fills out the majority of the birds' needs. It is always a good idea to have a feeder or two for Nuts 'n' Bugs, our proprietary insect meal for insectivores. This meal can be used even without a feeder by spreading out some of the meal into the bark of a tree. Insectivores that search trees for insects will discover this spot and return to it regularly for more of this high energy, high protein meal. The Wild Bird Store makes and sells several models of feeders designed specifically for delivering Nuts 'n' Bugs. The multi-feeder has been attracted over 125 species of insectivores over the cycle of one year's time. This is the generic version of an insect meal feeder that all perching and clinging birds can use. We also make a few models of feeders that are specific to the woodpecker family members and that thrashers and wrens can also use. Another model is for orioles, tanagers and mockingbirds. Yet another model is designed for small to mid-sized insectivores (warblers, vireos, flycatchers, gnatcatchers, kinglets, verdin, etc.)

Suet Feeder

A suet feeder quickly proves itself popular with a segment of your bird population. Be sure to use only no-melt suet dough's in our hot, arid region. These are double rendered and have a melting temperature of 166 degrees, unlike regular suets which will melt at lower temperatures and can easily melt, drip and go rancid, potentially causing harm to the birds that are attracted to them. Suet feeders come in different shapes but can also be used for housing nesting materials as well as food. In addition to providing no-melt suets for our birds, we use a wire suet feeder filled with dry dog kibbles. It's surprising how kibble is enjoyed by several species of birds.

A nut feeder for peanuts or other types of nutmeats becomes a popular stop for certain birds, particularly woodpeckers, flickers, thrashers, wrens, cardinals, grosbeaks, etc. We stock several types of nut feeders in both stainless steel and incense cedar.

Fruit and nectar
A fruit feeder attracts some of the most colorful birds we have, such as orioles and tanagers. Warblers and other neo-tropical migrants will also enjoy a taste of ripe, sweet and juicy fruit. We have several fruit feeders are available to choose from. Nectar feeders satisfy hummingbirds and a few other species that can actually access nectar, like verdin, woodpeckers and mockingbirds. We stock over two dozen nectar feeders. Most are designed for hummingbirds but we have nectar feeders that are well used by orioles, verdin, bats, and, of course, woodpeckers. Our hummingbird nectar is simply the best one can get. Our customers know how well the hummers prefer it and they know it has no harmful ingredients, is superior to sugar water, and is more cost effective. If you haven't tried our nectar yet, next time you are in the store pick up a small jar (it makes 240 liquid ounces!) and give your hummers the chance to demonstrate to you that that's what they've wanted all along.

I also use another suet feeder to house materials for nest building. I put human hair, dog fur, horse hair, pieces of cotton and other fabrics into the basket and the birds pull it out to construct nests. If you put up species specific birdhouses, there's an excellent chance they will be used for many years. We carry a good selection of proven birdhouses for the birds of our area. Popular models are designed for flickers, woodpeckers, screech owls, elf and pygmy owls, bluebirds, kestrels, songbirds, flycatchers, etc. We also carry several models of bat houses that do work and are endorsed by Bat Conservation International.   

Game bird blocks are commonly used to attract and feed quail in our area. These are 25 pound compressed food blocks that measure 9"x9"x9". They are quite cost effective and last on average two to three months. They can be placed at ground level or atop a wall or suspended in a tree. Quail will find them no matter their location so put them where it is best for your viewing. And, elevating the blocks will keep them out of range from ground squirrels, rabbits and javelina - which all have a liking for these blocks. Most seed bells and small seed blocks are not very cost effective and only attract the most common of birds, so they don't offer much value.

Pyrrhuloxia & Cardinal
by Richard at SearchNet Media

The wider the variety of vegetation, the better the habitat. The wider the variety of foods, the more species you can attract. Remember to include at least one fresh water source for your station. Bird houses are not only fun (and educational for children) but actually attract birds to live in your territory! Owls take to houses easily and larger owls keep your property rodent free. Smaller owl houses and homes for flycatchers keep many insects from proliferating around your home. So, having birds nest on your property has practical and functional value for humans, too! For more information on any of these subjects, talk to me or any of our friendly, knowledgeable staff members or consult our in-house library which contains several hundred bird books.

Native plants and trees are always familiar to native birds. Native trees have the advantage of requiring less water, offering a host of native insects that also depend on the same plants, ideal roosting and perching locations, nesting spots, as well as ideal observation posts.

We have several water features placed at different heights above ground level around our house and feeding stations. We have two baths at ground level (quail are particularly fond of these), two on pedestals, and one hanging from a tree branch.

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