BIRDS OF SUMMER RETURNING TO PENNSYLVANIA’S BACKYARDS
HARRISBURG -- One of Pennsylvania’s most treasured seasonal pleasures has been reclaiming its warm weather haunts in the state’s backyards and residential areas. Word is spreading quickly, “The birds are back in town.”
Many of these birds are neo-tropical migrants – birds that breed in North America and winter in the Caribbean or Central and South America. In fact, most of Pennsylvania’s forest birds are neo-tropical migrants. They return in spring by the millions, in a dazzling array of colorful warblers, tanagers, thrushes and swallows. It isn’t stretching it to say the presence of any of them in your backyard will enliven it and make it more appealing.
“It’s always a pleasure to listen to birds as they sing for mates and to watch them hunt for food and tend nests in the comfort of your backyard,” said Dan Brauning, Pennsylvania Game Commission wildlife biologist. “It’s what makes a backyard special, worth returning to over and over. Birds are wonderful topics for discussion, fun to identify and pleasing to share a backyard with.
“Songbirds around the house remind all of us how special wildlife is and what an important part of our lives they can play. I can’t imagine what it would be like to spend a summer without watching a pair of bluebirds tend a nesting box full of young, or being buzzed by a passing ruby-throated hummingbird. These are as much a part of spring and summer as green-up and warmer weather. We look forward to them. We cherish them.”
Bluebirds have been actively shopping for nesting cavities for weeks. In fact, many currently are sitting on eggs or tending young birds. But if your nest box hasn’t been occupied yet, don’t fret. There’s still a good chance bluebirds may use it when they lay their second or third clutch of eggs in the coming months. The box also may serve a house wren or a tree swallow, both neo-tropical birds that recently have returned to the state.
It’s not too late to buy and place a nest box in your backyard to attract birds for the impending warmer weather. The best bets are to place bluebird or wren boxes, but you also may want to consider placing nest boxes for chickadees, titmice and nuthatches, or purple martins, or constructing and placing nest shelves for eastern phoebes, American robins and barn swallows.
“The real secret to attracting birds to nest boxes in your backyard is location,” explained Brauning. “Design, type of wood and color are really secondary considerations that don’t have near the magnetism that a properly placed box provides. For example, hanging a bluebird nest box on a tree might attract bluebirds, but placing it in a quiet part of the yard on a post about five feet off the ground, facing south and in direct sunlight will increase its drawing power substantially.
“Please recognize that any nest box used by a native cavity-nesting bird is a nest box well placed. Bluebirds and other cavity-nesters have come to depend on nest boxes to raise their families, because house sparrows and starlings – both alien species – aggressively compete with them for the natural cavities in dead wood and fence-posts. The return of bluebirds in this state is directly related to the ever increasing use of nest boxes by Pennsylvanians.”
Bluebirds were in deep trouble in the early 1960s because starlings and English sparrows had chased them from the habitat niche that had provided them nesting sanctuary for hundreds of years. Both alien species were introduced in New York City in the late 1800s. As starling and house sparrow numbers climbed, bluebirds declined. Nesting boxes were being used in the early and mid 1900s, but there were not nearly enough afield to reverse the species’ decline. In response, the Game Commission launched an aggressive campaign to rescue the species. The agency made inexpensive nest boxes at its Howard Nursery and passed them on to Pennsylvanians to place afield. Everyone got involved, and the bluebird’s remarkable recovery was started. Today, the statewide population is off the resuscitator, but it still needs our help.
“Placing a nest box in your backyard immediately makes a difference in the bluebird’s never-ending battle with starlings and house sparrows for nesting cavities,” Brauning explained. “The entry holes in bluebird nest boxes are designed to keep the larger starlings out. Boxes, however, should be monitored in the spring to ensure house sparrows aren’t building nests in them. If house sparrows attempt to use your nest box, discourage them from using it by removing nesting materials or taping over the entry hole for a few days.”
The Game Commission offers an inexpensive book that provides plans for constructing nest boxes for a variety of birds. The book, titled Woodcrafting For Wildlife, contains information about backyard birds and mammals, and plans to build and place time-tested nest structures on your property for them. They will make your property more attractive to birds and more fun to hang out in. To obtain the book, which sells for $5.66 plus tax, call 1-888-888-3459 or visit “The Outdoor Shop" on the Game Commission’s website (www.pgc.state.pa.us).
Pennsylvanians are preparing once again for the annual return of the state’s smallest nesting bird, the ruby-throated hummingbird. Nectar-filled feeders are going up everywhere. And they’re being watched closely. Seeing the new year’s first hummingbird, after all, is important stuff.
Dan Brauning, Pennsylvania Game Commission wildlife biologist, said he received a report of a hummingbird being back in the Commonwealth in the second week of April, which, given the colder-than-usual weather, seemed somewhat ambitious.
“Hummingbirds typically start rolling into the state in late April and early May, but they’re obviously not following a flight schedule,” Brauning said. “Given the bird’s susceptibility to cold weather, however, it is important for the birds not to arrive too early.
“Feeders are very important to hummingbirds for the first few weeks after they return to Pennsylvania. They provide high-energy food that replenishes the hummingbirds from their long migration north from Central and South America, and they fill a void created by the limited availability of flowering plants.”
As hummingbirds return, some head to locales they’ve been using for years. Others – and especially yearlings – are looking for territory they can claim as their own. Yards with plenty of edge habitat, spring-blooming flowers or hummingbird feeders usually have the best chance of attracting these small birds as warm-weather tenants.
A yard can never have too many red flowers if you’re interested in attracting hummingbirds. The birds also are attracted to pink, purple, blue and yellow flowers. Specific flowers that draw hummingbirds regularly include begonias, salvia, gladiolus, coral bells, jasmine, or scarlet morning glory and paintbrush. Hanging fuchsias also are particularly effective at attracting hummingbirds. Be warned, though, some songbirds like to use fuchsias as nesting structures.
Hummingbird feeders should be placed in a somewhat shaded area near a flower bed by suspending it with string from a tree branch or a rod-iron stand. Smear petroleum jelly on the string to keep ants from reaching the feeder. If it fails to attract birds, move it or place a few more in the yard.
The feeder should be filled with commercial nectar or a solution containing one part granulated sugar and four parts water. Don’t add food coloring to your homemade mixture. The mixture should be boiled and cooled before filling your feeder reservoir. Store any unused feed mixture in the refrigerator until it's needed. Never use honey in your feeder; it ferments and birds could become ill from consuming it.
Feeders should be cleaned at least once every two weeks in cool weather – once a week in hot weather – to ensure they don't become a breeding ground for fungus that could cause infection in birds. Wash in hot water and dish-washing liquid, wiping all surface areas and thoroughly rinsing. Wash it like you would dishes or silverware.
Once hummingbirds set up shop in your yard, they'll probably nest there. Females – the dull colored ones – primarily build their half-dollar-sized nests, constructed with soft plant fibers and spider web, among the twigs or branches of deciduous trees. Nests are often camouflaged with lichens. The two white, pea-sized eggs laid in the nest hatch after about two weeks of incubation. The hatchlings are under their mother's care for about 25 days; then the young birds are on their own.
Given that Pennsylvania’s black bears recently have emerged from their winter dens, the Game Commission reminds those still feeding songbirds to be aware of the dangers of habituating bears to finding food in their backyard. To avoid such conflicts, the agency offers a few common tips on how to help prevent bird feeders from attracting nuisance bears:
The Pennsylvania Game Commission is encouraging all residents to celebrate and support International Migratory Bird Day on May 10, and to focus attention on the 350 species of migratory birds that travel every fall and spring between nesting grounds in North America to wintering areas in Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean.
“Songbirds, birds of prey and other migratory birds are enjoyed by countless Pennsylvanians,” said Dan Brauning, Game Commission wildlife biologist, “That means International Migratory Bird Day is important to Pennsylvania. It exists to focus attention on our fragile migratory bird populations. It proclaims that migratory bird conservation is a priority for Americans and reminds us that for as much good as we do for birds in the United States, this irreplaceable resource could still become imperiled by what is done elsewhere.
“Many migratory birds currently are in decline because they face increasing threats on their migration highways and in both their winter and summer ranges. International Migratory Bird Day aims to draw attention to the mounting troubles our migratory birds are facing. Only through education and understanding can our migratory birds truly receive the additional consideration they are worthy of and need.”
International Migratory Bird Day (IMBD) was first held in 1993, and, in the decade it annually has been celebrated, it has increased public awareness of migratory birds, and their importance and declining status.
“Migratory birds are enjoyed by almost everyone who spends time outdoors,” Brauning noted. “They are surely some of the most spirited and colorful members of the wildlife community, and entertain us in song and in flight.
“On May 10, take some time to talk to someone about the importance of our wild birds; teach someone how to identify common backyard species; or put up a bluebird nest box or hummingbird feeder in your yard. Show you care. Get involved.”
Several events are being held across the state to commemorate IMBD. The most visible likely will be the North American Migration Count (NAMC), a coordinated volunteer survey that will be conducted in every county of Pennsylvania to develop a one day snapshot of the Commonwealth’s bird-life at the height of spring migration. It has been held the past 12 years.
“Last year more than 1,000 Pennsylvanians participated in the count, which covered 60 counties,” said Bill Etter, NAMC coordinator. “In the 2002 Pennsylvania count, more than a quarter million birds – representing 240 species – were observed. To make the count more effective, we’re looking for more volunteers, particularly in Clinton, Fayette, Fulton, Lackawanna, McKean, Monroe, Pike, Somerset, Sullivan, Warren and Union counties.”
Persons interested in participating in the 2003 NAMC are encouraged to contact Etter via e-mail at email@example.com.
The National Aviary in Pittsburgh has scheduled a huge public event on May 10. Access to the festivities is free with Aviary admission, which costs $5 for adults, $3 for children. The Aviary houses birds representing 200 species, including exotic and endangered species.
“The Aviary will offer an array of interactive activities for kids and adults,” said Amy Padolf-Hall, the Aviary’s Curator of Education. “Participants will visit differing stations where they’ll do everything from making nest bags and bird feeders for their backyards to playing migration hopscotch and jeopardy. There also is a huge free-flight bird exhibit. It’s a really nice, well-rounded experience that will take at least a hour or two to pass through.”
At Presque Isle State Park on May 10, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and Presque Isle Audubon Society are planning activities that include field trips to varied habitats; a backyard bird seminar; interactive kids activities (bird tattoos, bird bingo); conservation displays and some free items. All activities are based at the Stull Interpretive Center, about one mile onto the park on the lakeside of the island.
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