RetiredBlaine scientist creates backyard bird oasis

Published on Thu, Apr 12, 2007 by JackKintner

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Retired Blaine scientist creates backyard bird oasis

By Jack Kintner

If you’re thinking about what kinds of shrubs and trees to plant in your garden, one of the best guidelines is to use plants that attract birds. Such plants are colorful, and since they’re more or less native to our area they’re easy to grow. Many can be obtained for free by taking hardwood cuttings where this is allowed.

Birds, especially in the spring when their songs are loud and vibrant, add life to your landscape while consuming large quantities of plant pests and airborne nuisances like mosquitoes.

Attracting birds can reduce or even eliminate the need for pesticides and establishing a mini-sanctuary in your yard helps stem the ongoing loss of habitat that always accompanies urban growth.

This is the message that Al Hanners of Bellingham, a life-long scientist and birder, wants to get across. Hanners, 90, was a field geologist for Texaco for many years after a stint teaching geology at Kansas State University.

“We are losing bird habitat, and hence native birds, at an alarming rate,” Hanners said in a recent interview. “In the quarter of a century I have lived near St. Joseph Hospital in Bellingham, I’ve lost about two-thirds of the native species that used to come to my bird feeders.”

This is in spite of Hanners’ considerable effort in the 25 years since he retired to create what he calls a bird oasis on the edge of a growing number of medical offices and paved parking lots.

Though environmental degradation on a large scale may be beyond an individual’s control, on the scale of a homeowner’s yard a lot can be done, Hanners said.

Every time a tree is cut, land is cleared, a hard paved surface is put down, habitat is lost and with it the landscape’s carrying capacity for birds and other species. The least we can do, he said, is to plant things and design yards that are as accommodating as possible for the birds that are left.

Hanners’ list of best choices

• Red-flowering currant, Ribes sanguineum, a native shrub seldom more than six feet tall, although Hanners has one that’s twice that size. By early March, red-flowering currants are blooming and the red color will bring Rufous hummingbirds into your yard. The males show up first. They’re vigorous birds with a bright iridescent red patch at their throat and sound like a little buzz saw when zooming around. In wild conditions, red-flowering currants grow in well drained places where the soil dries during the heat of summer. Red-flowering currants can be grown from hardwood cuttings.

• Fuchsia, Fuchsia magellanica, also called durable fuchsia, is a shrub with many upright trunks. New stems grow in the spring, and it grows best in moist soil with direct sun for half the day, less if it’s hot. Since fuchsias bloom from June into late summer they’re especially beneficial to the female hummingbirds and their young who remain behind when the males depart for the high country in late spring.

• Wax myrtle, Myrica californica, typically grows in wet to moist soils, but is also drought tolerant. The fruit are purplish wax-coated nuts that will attract bushtits, chickadees, ruby-crowned kinglets, crows, and flickers.

• Filbert, Corylus avellana, is a relative of the locally found hazelnuts but is much more productive. Filberts are alien shrubs but have become common in roadside ditches where Steller’s jays have collected and hidden the fruit in August, in effect planting them to sprout the next year.

• Blue elderberry, Sambucus cerulea, is a native shrub up to about 10 feet tall. The fruits are bluish and ripen in autumn. They are eaten by robins and their relatives such as varied thrushes, and can be grown from hardwood cuttings.

• Red elderberry, Sambucus racemosa, a native shrub up to about 10 feet tall that has red berries when ripe and can be grown from hardwood cuttings will feed robins and other thrushes into late fall and even early winter.

• Mountain-ash, Sorbus aucuparia, an alien horticultural tree up to about 30 feet tall and very productive of small orange fruit, also is a good robin feeder.

• Cotoneaster, Cotoneaster lacteus, is an alien horticultural shrub seldom over five feet tall. Often used to cover a fence or wall, the red fruits ripen in winter and can feed robins when other food is covered by snow.

• Red alder, Alnus rubra, is a well-known local tree that grows west of the mountains and feeds a wide variety of birds, as well as being beneficial in hosting a bacteria on its roots called actinomycete that fixes nitrogen in the soil.

• Spruce trees, genus Picea, are evergreens that bear fruit in the fall that is winter peristent, when birds may be desperate for food, especially migratorygroups.

Aside from seed-bearing cones, evergreen needles are a good source of insect food in early spring. Evergreens planted in hedgerows also provide nesting and refuge from hawks.

For more ideas, check the library or with the cooperative extension at 676-6736.

Food and water

Birds need water, but it almost always works better to put a bath on the ground rather than a pedestal so birds can land and then enter the water.

Songbirds are not ducks.

Bird feeders are not always a good idea, but can be used to invite certain beneficial species if designed to exclude others. Hanners has some do’s and don’t’s:

- Don’t feed mixed bird food because birds will dump seeds on the ground in their search for the seeds they want and defecate on the seeds below, spreading disease. Seeds on the ground attract rats and sunflower seeds can attract black bears in rural locations. Find a way to prevent scattering, such as a feeder that puts the food in a trough rather than a flat surface.

Scattering can also be prevented by hanging tube-style feeders from stiff wire such as a bent coat hanger over heavy (50 lb. test) fishing line with the bottom of the feeders at least four feet above the ground.

That avoids squirrels and lets you easily move the feeders to a fresh spot to avoid building up a pile of cast-off seeds and excrement, a sure way to spread disease.

Suet is a good food, but if it has seeds or peanut butter in it then house sparrows and starlings will squeeze out more desirable birds like bushtits, chickadees, flickers, nuthatches, downy and Pileated woodpeckers, and an occasional Song sparrow.

Putting the suet behind a cage with only vertical bars also helps eliminate house sparrows and starlings, neither of which are native birds. Bushtits and chickadees are the principal birds that consume insects that damage trees and shrubs. If you can avoid using pesticides then you’ll also get butterflies.