As Great Backyard Bird Count nears, Carson-area avian expert offers habitat tips

Courtesy Linda HillerAmerican robins gather at Linda Hiller's backyard birdbath for a drink of water from a heated dish held in place by a rock.

Courtesy Linda HillerAmerican robins gather at Linda Hiller's backyard birdbath for a drink of water from a heated dish held in place by a rock.

On a typical winter day, Linda Hiller sees as many as 30 species of birds in her backyard habitat off Jacks Valley Road in Douglas County.

Hiller, a local bird expert with a degree in zoology, leads birding expeditions and emails a birding newsletter regularly for other enthusiasts.

"I've been feeding birds at this house for 20 years," Hiller said.

Hiller lists some of her visitors: California quail, ground doves, woodpeckers, mockingbirds, flickers, robins, juncos, starlings, mountain chickadees and Western scrub jays.

"They (scrub jays) are one of my favorite backyard birds, and you can tame them to take peanuts from your hand if you take the time and patience to do it," she said.

In fact, Hiller says, she has one scrub jay that lands on her deck railing and stares in the window every day until she capitulates.

"I suspect it's the same individual. I then grab some peanuts in the shell and go out and put them on the deck railing, and as many as 10 jays all come in and take them, one by one, and go bury them in the yard. I am thinking of getting them to plant something useful like sunflowers or peach trees," she said.

Friday is the first day of The Great Backyard Bird Count, an annual four-day event that engages bird watchers of all ages in counting birds to create a real-time snapshot of where the birds are across the continent. Anyone can participate. It takes as little as 15 minutes on one day, or you can count for as long as you like each day of the event.

Participants tally the highest number of birds of each species seen together at any one time and then fill out an online checklist at the Great Backyard Bird Count website.

Bird populations are constantly in flux, and scientists could never hope to document the complex distribution and movements of so many species in such a short time.

Hiller encourages bird lovers to create their own backyard sanctuary and offers these tips:

• Leave as many natural plants as you can. Native birds eat native plants.

• If you want to have a lawn, make it a small one, and don't use pesticides or herbicides.

• Make sure to landscape with wildlife-attracting plants, trees that provide good cover and also year-round food like spruce, crabapple, juniper, pyracantha, Virginia creeper, maple, etc.

• Plant flowers for hummingbirds and butterflies like cosmos, cone flower, butterfly bush, bee balm, purple sage, Russian sage, Russian olive, Rudbeckia - anything with fruit or berries. The red hot poker attracts orioles and hummers.

• Water is the one thing that will consistently bring birds into your yard. Remember to keep it thawed in winter.

Bird watchers who create habitats should be aware that predators also are likely to be attracted to bird feeding areas.

Hawks, falcons and owls are probably the most common natural predators, but Hiller says it's all part of nature.

"A lot of people feel really bad about that, but I try to remember that they (raptors) have to eat, too," she said.

Another not-so-natural predator is the outdoor cat.

"I do not have outdoor cats - they are horrible on birds. Mine stare out the window (at the bird activity). It's like a big-screen TV to them," Hiller said.

"When you create a habitat to invite birds into your little corner of the world and share food with them, you need to be responsible and make sure cats aren't in your yard," she said.

Hiller offers these tips on what to feed backyard birds:

• Niger thistle. Be sure to include a seed sock or two.

• Sunflower seeds. Black oil or striped are good. Get a sunflower seed feeder for those.

• Chick scratch, chicken scratch or cracked corn. Scatter this on the ground for quail, towhees, sparrows, doves and other ground feeders.

• Wild bird seed. This can also be scattered on the ground and put in feeders on the ground. We mix the scratch and the wild bird food half-and-half and store it in a large garbage can with a lid, then scoop it out as needed for ground feeding.

• Suet. In the winter only, this is a good supplement for insectivorous birds including woodpeckers, jays, juncos and chickadees. You can buy it commercially.

• Peanut butter mix. This is simply peanut butter and cornmeal mixed together about half-and-half. The cornmeal makes the peanut butter less sticky on cold bird beaks. Slather on pinecones in winter and hang outside or put on tree bark.

• Hummingbird feeders. Start when you first see hummingbirds in your yard, usually around June. Mix one part sugar to four parts water and put in a feeder. Clean and refill weekly. We usually take ours down in late October, when the last hummer leaves.

The whole idea is to make life a little easier in the winter for the area's feathered friends while enjoying all the avian activity right outside the plate glass window.

"When you get birds coming into your yard, you can start to observe their activities. It's your ornithology laboratory. It gets you to look outside of yourself," Hiller said.


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