Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat: Bringing it All Together with Design

photo of two cats in a garden

Namir and Cookie inspect my gardening.

I’m happily planning out this year’s garden and I would bet those of you who garden and manage a habitat in your backyard are as well, so it’s high time to consider design and layout for this and your backyard wildlife habitat for the coming hear…and remember those sweet summer mornings in the garden with my feline companions.

Design to include pest control

Ick. Slugs. Everywhere. And they weren’t drowning in my beer traps, they were having a pool party and getting the munchies later.

photo of section of backyard garden

The upper section of my garden at prime growing time...and prime slug time.

When I first established my vegetable and flower beds in this yard, I used a number of ingenious methods of “clearing” soil to save time, much of which involved newspapers or other waste papers (those wide computer printouts from the old dot-matrix printers, for instance) covered with straw or wood chips, which I could get for free by the truckload from a friend with a tree service business. This layering killed off the grass and softened up the soil for easier tilling or hand-turning, kept the soil moist in the heat of the summer, and also became a convenient way to set up paths between the beds and walking paths.

The second year, I used some of the same methods to mulch the beds around my plants, and added the brick patio and brick edging on my raised beds.

white cat in garden

Sally of the Garden, sleeping under the Brussels sprouts.

The third year, slugs ate all my seedlings as soon as they came up. I had created the perfect breeding ground for slugs in the damp soil under all that paper and bricks. I had to get rid of the slugs or trying to grow vegetables and flowers was senseless, but I liked my brick paths and mulching. With my feline garden patrol I certainly couldn’t spread slug bait all over my garden and flower beds.

Carrying an armload of my trusty copies of Rodale’s Organic Gardening and all the books I’d purchased over the years to learn the various techniques of raised beds and drip-irrigation and composting along with organic pest control out to the garden, I tried every trap in the book—in all the books.

None was effective, even in combination. I was spending way too much time trying to kill slugs. Perhaps I should just whack them with the big heavy gardening books. Time to look at an alternative.

At about this time, introducing or attracting predator species became a possibility for home gardeners. This was practiced on organic and some conventional farms, but an entire field is a little easier for predators to find and inhabit than a row of green beans in your backyard. So, we just had to work a little harder.

photo of vegetable garden with lawn

The larger part of my garden mulched with newspapers.

Now, what ate slugs, aside from people who called them escargot? Nope, ducks and chickens were out in my community, so it actually looked as if I needed some sort of amphibian or reptile. Well, that would go over big with the neighbors. The neighbor kids would think it was cool, though.

But I didn’t need a big amphibian or reptile, something inconspicuous would do the job. A garter snake! I studied the sort of habitat a garter snake would need but this was early in my backyard’s career, and I had very little groundcover that a garter snake would enjoy.

How about a toad? I have a friend who has a farm and one big puddle in their driveway produces legions of toads every year. We managed to catch two, and I let them go in the garden near one of the three the little toad abodes I had carefully prepared for them. I know that at least one stuck around because I saw it now and then, that year and the next, though it apparently didn’t use any of the abodes I had set up. I didn’t care because the number of slugs slowly decreased.

I also used a variety of methods related to me by long-time gardeners at my nearby Agway which included using copper to zap slugs—on researching I discovered that copper transmits through the slug’s slime and gives them a good zap, not killing them but certainly repelling them. A friend’s father had saved miles of copper wire which I used around small beds and surrounded certain plants with circles of pennies, both of which worked as long as the wire and pennies weren’t covered up with mulch or leaves.

Decide what you want in your habitat, and learn about it

honeybee on goldenrod

A honeybee on goldenrod in later summer.

This, again, was several years before I declared my backyard a wildlife habitat, but it was my first real lesson in working with the system. I hadn’t ever used chemicals, but I was out there trying to use human methods to trap or kill some overburdening pest and hadn’t had any major infestations. Here I had learned about how nature keeps things in balance, and after seeing how well it worked it became my first line of defense and, ultimately, what led to developing my habitat.

You may not be concerned with slug eradication, but you may want to attract Baltimore Orioles, or monarch butterflies, or bats to take care of your mosquito problem, and you always want to attract pollinators like honeybees. The steps to do that are to find out what the species needs and prefers, then to determine how you can add those features to your habitat.

Enhancing your habitat

Consider birds, the most obvious fauna of any habitat. Nesting birds will arrive in the spring, eat, build nests, raise families, eat some more, then migrate South to be replaced by migrating birds coming from farther North. Each group of birds has slightly different needs, as do birds while they are migrating. You may provide for all groups and not even know it.

They all need:

  • cover for protection from predators
  • sleeping areas
  • food for themselves as adults
  • a ready supply of fresh water
sparrows in shrub

Sparrows waiting in line.

You’ve got some brambly shrubs like climbing roses, viburnum and forsythia that provide cover and protection from predators, a spruce where plenty of birds can sleep at night, you put out seed in the winter and you keep your birdbath filled.

In addition, nesting birds, spring through late summer, need:

  • nesting materials appropriate for their species
  • food for their young during nesting time

You’ve left some grasses to grow a little taller, tossed out some old yarn and dog hair for nesting material, and you have loose soil in all your garden beds where parent birds can find goodies to feed their nestlings.

Migrating birds, late summer through early autumn, need:

  • easily accessible, high energy food
  • easily recognizable cover for resting overnight
birds and squirrel at feeder

Birds at feeder with Buddy.

You put out seed and suet in September keep your birdbath filled, and birds can spot that spruce a mile away.

Winter birds, which are migrating from further north, need:

  • easily accessible, high energy food
  • a ready supply of fresh water, even on freezing days
  • cover for protection from predators
  • protected sleeping areas

You keep your feeders filled all winter and also have suet, the dense shrubs are still in place and the spruce is still doing its job.

You are actually taking care of a habitat with all you’re doing now.

But you could generally enhance what you are doing by providing a variety of seeds in different feeders. Goldfinches like thistle seed, which is dispensed in a perforated bag or a feed with tiny little holes. Woodpeckers like the suet, but they love a mix of nuts in their seed and even some dried fruit. Press some peanut butter into the bark of a tree trunk for nuthatches. Chickadees, titmice and cardinals will stand in line for sunflower seeds.

house sparrows

House Sparrows at the winter bird bath.

Also, don’t underestimate the need for water, especially in the heat of summer and the freeze of winter. In my yard in winter, the “winter birdbath” gets as many visits as the feeders. I put my concrete and clay birdbaths away, but use heavy plastic dishes like the bottom dish for a large flower pot or even a foil cake pan and fill it with hot water in the morning. I may fill it again later in the day, too, but I have several dishes and simply bring in the frozen one in the morning and put out a new one. Plenty of birds drink, and sometimes just sit near it for warmth. You can also purchase birdbaths intended for winter use or coils or other devices that keep the water from freezing.

Bergamot flowers attract hummingbirds—and bees.

What about other species?

In the same way as the list above, choose your species and determine what its needs are in all seasons it would appear in your habitat. A few examples:

You practically stand on your head to get hummingbirds to visit your habitat. With their long slender beaks, hummingbirds can reach nectar in the bottom of a tube-shaped flower, but they will also eat from other flowers and are famously attracted to red, orange and pink flowers, such as geraniums and petunias. Consider planting some perennial phlox and adding hanging baskets of red petunias along with your hummingbird feeders.

photo of monarch butterfly on echinacea

Monarch and Echinacea © B.E. Kazmarski (this was not taken in my backyard)

You would celebrate the day a monarch butterfly visited your habitat, but you’ve never seen one though you see plenty of other butterflies. Monarchs center their diet around milkweed, feeding from the flowers, laying their eggs on the undersides of the leaves, and, later, eating the leaves in various life stages. You may not be able to grow milkweed in your back yard, but before milkweed blooms and after it is done blooming they will eat from plants that have clusters of small flowers such as lilac and butterfly bush  or composites such as Echinacea and black-eyed susan.

And the bats to take care of those mosquitoes? Try also attracting other night insects—keep a light on to attract moths and plant fragrant night-blooming plants such as evening primrose and heliotrope. The bats will find the abundance and variety of insects and move right in. They also have the same needs as birds and other animals in shelter and water. Bats are extremely sensitive to chemicals, so don’t use any in your yard, including fertilizers. And keep your cat inside.

photo of rose turtlehead

Rose Turtlehead, there's a bee inside the blossom © B.E. Kazmarski

And I finally got that garter snake to move in when I let the grass and a ground cover called purple-leaf wintercreeper grow all along the fence next to the slope that I’ve let grow wild, so if you want a little snake to eat slugs and catch lots of insects, lit some dense groundcover grow undisturbed.

Other enhancements

Generally, reduce your lawn to a minimum because it’s just not useful to wildlife—it doesn’t provide food or cover, and in fact leaves most species vulnerable. Surround your grassy area with groundcovers, flower beds, and shrubs so that wildlife can quickly take cover if need be, or manage your lawn so that it grows longer and includes native plants instead of just grass.

Put your food and water features near or even in the planted areas. Don’t put the bird feeder in the middle of a grassy yard because it will leave too many birds vulnerable to predators, though it will make it more difficult for the squirrel to get to it. Of course, you want to see all this wildlife that you’ve attracted to your habitat, so don’t hide it in the woods, either.

Consider a pond so that ground-dwelling species can drink as well, and you can include some fish and water plants.

photo of cooper's hawk on brush pile

Cooper's Hawk on Brush Pile, I heard little bird scufflings in the pile when I took this photo... © B.E. Kazmarski

And minimize and eliminate your use of chemicals. Chemical smells mask the smells of food sources for wildlife, and those that come in contact with it will absorb it through their skin, paws, claws or even mouth and nose. My grass is only about half grass because I let grow whatever wants to, but it’s always green because the plants are hardy. I’ve also discovered that all the residents in my habitat keep each other in balance and I’ve only had to use traps and soap sprays on the things that grow in pots on my deck.

Set up a brush pile or two in your yard as well. I use the trimmings from my roses and other shrubs, just piling them in corners for the rabbits and other small mammals to hide underneath, and even the birds take cover when the Cooper’s hawk swoops in.

Try to stick with natives

close-up photo of fleabane

Fleabane © B.E. Kazmarski

Why native plants? We humans forget that every species on earth is not as adaptable as we are. Most species recognize only certain plants and insects as home and as food, but they aren’t able to make the judgment that other similar things may suffice if what they know isn’t available. Planting native species of flowers, shrubs and trees welcomes the species that are native to your area.

This doesn’t mean that non-natives are bad, only that they may not be recognized by all species as viable habitat. I have two huge forsythias directly under or near feeders, and they are constantly inhabited by the most adaptable birds—sparrows, jays, cardinals, chickadees—but I never see the oriole in them in the summer, or the woodpecker or blue bird. I often see them in the climbing roses and the mulberry and dogwood trees, however.

photo of raspberries

Every year it's a race for the raspberries © B.E. Kazmarski

Good for wildlife, safe for your pets

Most of us are owned by companion animals, and they share this habitat as well, to some extent. Not all natives are safe for your pets, though, so this will narrow your list a bit.

But only a bit. Remember that foliage isn’t only for cover and nesting, it’s also for eating, and berry bushes and plants are universally loved by birds and all other wildlife, and perfectly safe for pets—if you don’t mind a few thorns on your raspberry and blackberry canes. Highbush blueberries are about the best you can do, followed by cranberry, huckleberry and a host of other local berries that grow in dense forms with not thorns.

Other shrubs providing food (to the birds, not you) and cover are most viburnums, native hawthorne and native juniper, all perfectly safe for pets and recognized by most species as home.

photo of pink climbing roses

Pink Rose Bower © B.E. Kazmarski

And good old roses, not the hybrids but your grandparents’ fragrant climbing tea roses, provide a dense cover for birds and other wildlife as well as food because many species visit the flower and birds eat the rose hips in the fall as they migrate.

For trees, most species of fruit trees have some toxicity about the bark or the fruit, but I haven’t seen a pear tree on any list, and various dogwoods are native all over the country. I have two mulberry trees and I had heard somewhere that it’s considered the “tree of life” because everything can eat from it, and indeed I’ve seen everything from goldfinches to the groundhog eating in the tree.

photo of dogwood branch

Dogwood © B.E. Kazmarski

And for non-native species that most wildlife can live with, that old-fashioned forsythia and lilac can’t be beat. The species of spirea we use for landscaping aren’t really native to this continent, like bridal-wreath spirea, but they provide cover and are absolutely beautiful in full bloom. I have a variegated-leaf wiegela that small birds love, and hummingbirds visit the trumpet-shaped flowers.

But remember, a dog chasing your wildlife will not encourage it to stay, but most people don’t leave their dogs out all day long and the birds and bees learn to take off when they year the dog, returning when the dog disappears.

And it would be completely unfair to let a cat or two loose in your habitat. In photos of my habitat you’ll see one or two of my cats now and then, but they only go out with me, under my supervision—or rather, I’m under their supervision, but either way, they tend to stick with me, then I take them back inside. I can see what my neighbor’s cats do to my habitat, like little Mimi before I took her in.

A great online resource

photo of house with trees

The southwest corner of my yard with the silver maple, 60-foot spruce, river birch and dogwood (and my pink Escort)

An overall resource for finding native species and answering a lot of questions is www.eNature.com. This will give you a start in finding your local native species of flora and fauna, though it’s not as specific as I’d like it to be.

And am amazing resource in finding indoor and outdoor plants that are toxic to dogs, cats and horses is on the ASPCA website at http://www.aspca.org/pet-care/poison-control/ under both “17 Common Poisonous Plants” and a hugely comprehensive list of over 400 plant species in “Toxic and Non-toxic Plants”, which even has photos.

Good luck with your habitat

Get out that graph paper or that garden design program and take these long cold nights to dream of your summer garden!

About the art and photos used in these articles and on this blog

All the images used in this blog are mine, many from my own backyard. For years I’ve been documenting the flora and fauna here in photography and art, just for my own purposes. All of the images are also available as prints and notecards, some of which I have printed and sell regularly, but I can custom print any image on my site. If you see something you’d like, check my Marketplace blog to see if it’s a recent offering, the Marketplace on my website, which outlines everything I sell as merchandise, or e-mail me if you don’t find it in either place. Please also respect that these images and this information are copyrighted to me and may not be used without my consent, but please ask if you are interested in using something and feel free to link to my articles.

Identifying the fauna in your habitat

Next will be information on looking for and identifying the living creatures in your habitat.

Read the other articles in this series:

Previous:

An Introduction to Backyard Wildlife Habitats

What’s in Your Backyard? The First Step in Planning Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat

What Else is in Your Backyard: The Fauna That Fill It

Bringing it All Together: Enhancing and Developing Your Habitat

Also read about my art, photography, poetry and prose inspired by my backyard wildlife habitat:

Art Inspired by My Backyard Wildlife Habitat

Photography Inspired by My Backyard Wildlife Habitat

Poetry Inspired by My Backyard Wildlife Habitat

Prose Inspired by My Backyard Wildlife Habitat

______________________________

All images used on this site are copyrighted to Bernadette E. Kazmarski unless otherwise noted and may not be used without my written permission. Please ask if you are interested in purchasing one as a print, or to use in a print or internet publication.


Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat: Helping Avian Friends in Snowy Weather

three cardinals in snow branches

Three Cardinals

Clean off those branches, put out some seed and suet if you can, and don’t forget the all-important water!

I’d be remiss if I didn’t keep Cat TV up and running, even in cold and snowy weather! Not only does birdwatching provide my cats with healthy entertainment and environmental enrichment, it provides it for me too—and welcoming birds to my yard helps in myriad other ways of balancing the habitat and pest control.

birds at birdbath with snow

Winter Water for Birds

I first published this during the 2010 Snowmageddon and aside from the photos above, taken just yesterday, all photos are from February 2010; I’m really glad we haven’t gotten that kind of snowfall—yet.

Even if you don’t have a heavy snowfall, snow and ice hamper the ability to forage for any wild creature but birds have it especially difficult. Heavy snow fills the shrubs and brushy areas they use for cover, their little feet can be caught up in ice and landing on the ground just isn’t safe. They can quickly become exhausted just trying to find a place to perch, and if all their food sources are covered by heavy snow their little lives are actually in danger. Birds need to balance filling their bellies with their ability to fly, so “eating like a bird” entails eating just enough, and eating constantly, so they don’t weigh their little bodies down.

Here are a few things you can do for your backyard visitors once you get yourself shoveled out.

Heavy snowfall

photo of heavy snow on picnic table

Wonderland © B.E. Kazmarski

I was entranced overnight as the snow quickly fell and piled on every surface, even tiny twigs. By morning I was ready with my camera, photographing out of windows and emerging on to the deck and porch to capture the rare and magical transformation of a snow-covered morning here in Western Pennsylvania. Shrubs and small trees were bent down and everything, my brush piles and tall natives left in the habitat included, was covered with an undulating snow blanket at least 18 inches deep.

photo of doves on clothes line

Doves Online

Doves were lined up on the clothes line on my deck and wrens and sparrows were perching under the rockers and other chairs, using my deck for cover and no doubt waiting for me to put out the goodies.

However, as I cleaned off the deck and filled the feeders around the railings and the improvised bird bath I saw flocks of birds headed for both the deck and at least one of the feeders at the end of the yard (the other was hopelessly covered by its small tree completely bent over under the weight of snow), but they weren’t using the feeder and they weren’t perching, which was very strange behavior.

photo of song sparrow on rocker

Song Sparrow on Rocker

I had filled the seed and suet feeders and put out some ear corn yesterday afternoon so they would have it first thing in the morning instead of waiting for me to dig out. If the Cooper’s hawk had been around I wouldn’t have seen any birds at all, except perhaps a sacrificial mourning dove.

photo of birds at a feeder

At the Feeder

Then I took another look at this lovely landscape—the forsythia which is usually filled with sparrows, the pussy willow hosting the larger cardinals and blue jays, even the American Hemlock and brushy saplings around the larger feeder on which and in which the birds are usually perching in wait for the feeders, were all covered with several inches of snow which the birds couldn’t perch on. All the tall stems of goldenrod, asters, coneflower and bergamot that I leave standing for the birds to use as both perches and food sources were completely bent down and covered in snow. Even the ground around the feeders was covered with snow the birds couldn’t even land on top of without dangerously sinking in.

They had no place to land and nothing to eat.

photo of bicycle buried in snow

Backyard and bicycle

This was a totally different interpretation of a lovely snowy morning, and potentially fatal to all my avian visitors. Where smaller mammals can and do tunnel under the snow and larger ones travel over it or can walk through it, birds can’t brush away snow and ice before they land or dig through it to get to something underneath. In order to use the feeder they need to land close, then hop to the feeder. Unless they could land right on the feeder, they couldn’t eat from it, and all their natural sources were under snow, not only in my yard but everywhere.

photo of t-square in snow

36" t-square covered to 18"

Well, I’d probably gotten as many photos as I wanted, so out came the broom and I waded in snow that had drifted deeper than the 18 inches I had measured earlier and swatted away at the forsythia, pulling the longer branches out of the snow on the ground so they could swing free. Then I reached the pussy willow from the deck railing on one side, and the lilac from the other side. As I was working a large clump of snow fell from higher up in the trees at the end of the yard and conveniently knocked the snow off of the feeder in the yard as well as the hemlock and saplings. Thanks, nature!

Clean the snow out of shrubs used for cover

I was barely finished with clearing one bush and then the other before the birds were in it, chattering and fluttering. And even though they are familiar with me—the blue jay had announced that I had come out onto the deck earlier, and that’s the signal for birds to gather in the shrubs around the deck anticipating the daily feeder refill—they don’t usually fly right past my head to get to the feeders, but today they did.

wren under rocker

Wren Under Rocker

“Eating like a bird” has been famously misinterpreted indicating a picky eater, but while birds don’t all eat twice their weight in food every day, they do need to eat proportionally much more than humans, especially in cold weather. Imagine having to hop out of bed into a situation you physically can’t negotiate and having to forage for enough quality food to equal about a quarter to a half of your body weight just stay warm and alive for the day and overnight, using only your face and toes as tools.

Tonight is forecast to be in the single digits, and some birds would simply die overnight if they hadn’t been able to find or access any food today. Out in nature, nobody would brush off the trees and fill the feeders, but with songbird populations imperiled because of habitat fragmentation and pesticide use, they could use a little help from us.

High energy food

photo of cat sniffing snow

What is this stuff?

If you do feed birds, put out some extra stuff, especially high-protein, high-energy foods like hulled sunflower, peanuts and even other unsalted or plain nuts you might have on hand; I donated a cup of crushed walnuts, which were a really big hit. Dried fruits are very good for them now, too, even just a handful of raisins snipped in half so smaller birds can manage them. Many birds eat insects as well as seeds, and suet fills that part of their diet when no insects are available. The extra protein will help them get through a cold night and into tomorrow.

All-important water

Don’t forget the water—just a shallow pan of warm water will keep from freezing most of the day and be easy to punch out and refill in the morning. Rising steam from warm water will help attract them to it.

I have articles on making your own inexpensive bird treats in Birds?! Attract them with homemade suet cakes and also a series of articles on Backyard Wildlife Habitats for more information on inviting and feeding wild birds and other wildlife in your backyard.

photo of two birds on swing

Sparrow and dove on porch swing

If you don’t normally feed birds it’s highly unlikely you’d be able to attract them to a new feeder or water source today. But at least knock the snow off of any shrubs with twigs small enough for bird claws to grasp, and especially from any dense shrubs they would normally use for cover. Birds roost overnight in tree cavities and in other protected places, usually huddled together for extra warmth. While snow is a great insulator this snowfall was really unique in that snow is piled on branches where I’ve never seen it, on the lee side of trees, and some shrubs are completely filled with snow, leaving the most typical spots for avian protection unavailable.

For more information, visit my page for Backyard Wildlife Habitats, and enjoy this series of articles:

What’s in Your Backyard? The First Step in Planning Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat

What Else is in Your Backyard: The Fauna That Fill It

Bringing it All Together: Enhancing and Developing Your Habitat

Also read about my art, photography, poetry and prose inspired by my backyard wildlife habitat:

Art Inspired by My Backyard Wildlife Habitat

Photography Inspired by My Backyard Wildlife Habitat

Poetry Inspired by My Backyard Wildlife Habitat

Prose Inspired by My Backyard Wildlife Habitat


Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat: Attract Birds With Homemade Treat Cakes

birdwatching cats

Birdwatching Cats

Among the requirements for my Backyard Wildlife Habitat, I provide food and shelter for native wild bird species all year round because aside from being fun to watch, they are an important insect guard in my vegetable garden.

Red-bellied woodpecker

The red-bellied woodpecker turns to look at me and my cats.

In winter, however, I am compelled to put feeders up everywhere I can hang one, and at least one seed feeder is visible from each window in the house as well as suet feeders, ear corn and water. Not only does it give the birds a safe place to eat, drink and be merry, it gives my cats something to do and it gives my eyes a break while I slave at the computer all day into the night.

Read the rest of this entry »


Helping Avian Friends in Snowy Weather

three cardinals in snow branches

Three Cardinals

Clean off those branches and put out some seed and suet if you can

I’d be remiss if I didn’t keep Cat TV up and running, even in this weather! Not only does birdwatching provide my cats with healthy entertainment and environmental enrichment, it provides it for me too—and welcoming birds to my yard helps in myriad other ways of balancing the habitat and pest control.

birds at birdbath with snow

Winter Water for Birds

I first published this during the 2010 Snowmageddon and aside from the photos above, taken just yesterday, all photos are from February 2010; I’m really glad we haven’t gotten that kind of snowfall—yet.

Nonetheless, snow and ice hamper birds’ ability to feed, and heavy snow even fills the shrubs and brushy areas they use for cover. Here are a few things you can do for your backyard visitors once you get yourself shoveled out.

photo of heavy snow on picnic table

Wonderland © B.E. Kazmarski

I was entranced overnight as the snow quickly fell and piled on every surface, even tiny twigs. By morning I was ready with my camera, photographing out of windows and emerging on to the deck and porch to capture the rare and magical transformation of a snow-covered morning here in Western Pennsylvania. Shrubs and small trees were bent down and everything, my brush piles and tall natives left in the habitat included, was covered with an undulating snow blanket at least 18 inches deep.

photo of doves on clothes line

Doves Online

Doves were lined up on the clothes line on my deck and wrens and sparrows were perching under the rockers and other chairs, using my deck for cover and no doubt waiting for me to put out the goodies.

However, as I cleaned off the deck and filled the feeders around the railings and the improvised bird bath I saw flocks of birds headed for both the deck and at least one of the feeders at the end of the yard (the other was hopelessly covered by its small tree completely bent over under the weight of snow), but they weren’t using the feeder and they weren’t perching, which was very strange behavior.

photo of song sparrow on rocker

Song Sparrow on Rocker

I had filled the seed and suet feeders and put out some ear corn yesterday afternoon so they would have it first thing in the morning instead of waiting for me to dig out. If the Cooper’s hawk had been around I wouldn’t have seen any birds at all, except perhaps a sacrificial mourning dove.

photo of birds at a feeder

At the Feeder

Then I took another look at this lovely landscape—the forsythia which is usually filled with sparrows, the pussy willow hosting the larger cardinals and blue jays, even the American Hemlock and brushy saplings around the larger feeder on which and in which the birds are usually perching in wait for the feeders, were all covered with several inches of snow which the birds couldn’t perch on. All the tall stems of goldenrod, asters, coneflower and bergamot that I leave standing for the birds to use as both perches and food sources were completely bent down and covered in snow. Even the ground around the feeders was covered with snow the birds couldn’t even land on top of without dangerously sinking in.

They had no place to land and nothing to eat.

photo of bicycle buried in snow

Backyard and bicycle

This was a totally different interpretation of a lovely snowy morning, and potentially fatal to all my avian visitors. Where smaller mammals can and do tunnel under the snow and larger ones travel over it or can walk through it, birds can’t brush away snow and ice before they land or dig through it to get to something underneath. In order to use the feeder they need to land close, then hop to the feeder. Unless they could land right on the feeder, they couldn’t eat from it, and all their natural sources were under snow, not only in my yard but everywhere.

photo of t-square in snow

36" t-square covered to 18"

Well, I’d probably gotten as many photos as I wanted, so out came the broom and I waded in snow that had drifted deeper than the 18 inches I had measured earlier and swatted away at the forsythia, pulling the longer branches out of the snow on the ground so they could swing free. Then I reached the pussy willow from the deck railing on one side, and the lilac from the other side. As I was working a large clump of snow fell from higher up in the trees at the end of the yard and conveniently knocked the snow off of the feeder in the yard as well as the hemlock and saplings. Thanks, nature!

I was barely finished with clearing one bush and then the other before the birds were in it, chattering and fluttering. And even though they are familiar with me—the blue jay had announced that I had come out onto the deck earlier, and that’s the signal for birds to gather in the shrubs around the deck anticipating the daily feeder refill—they don’t usually fly right past my head to get to the feeders, but today they did.

wren under rocker

Wren Under Rocker

“Eating like a bird” has been famously misinterpreted indicating a picky eater, but while birds don’t all eat twice their weight in food every day, they do need to eat proportionally much more than humans, especially in cold weather. Imagine having to hop out of bed into a situation you physically can’t negotiate and having to forage for enough quality food to equal about a quarter to a half of your body weight just stay warm and alive for the day and overnight, using only your face and toes as tools.

Tonight is forecast to be in the single digits, and some birds would simply die overnight if they hadn’t been able to find or access any food today. Out in nature, nobody would brush off the trees and fill the feeders, but with songbird populations imperiled because of habitat fragmentation and pesticide use, they could use a little help from us.

photo of cat sniffing snow

What is this stuff?

If you do feed birds, put out some extra stuff, especially high-protein, high-energy foods like hulled sunflower, peanuts and even other unsalted or plain nuts you might have on hand; I donated a cup of crushed walnuts, which were a really big hit. Dried fruits are very good for them now, too, even just a handful of raisins snipped in half so smaller birds can manage them. Many birds eat insects as well as seeds, and suet fills that part of their diet when no insects are available. The extra protein will help them get through a cold night and into tomorrow.

Don’t forget the water—just a shallow pan of warm water will keep from freezing most of the day and be easy to punch out and refill in the morning. Rising steam from warm water will help attract them to it.

I have articles on making your own inexpensive bird treats in Birds?! Attract them with homemade suet cakes and also a series of articles on Backyard Wildlife Habitats for more information on inviting and feeding wild birds and other wildlife in your backyard.

photo of two birds on swing

Sparrow and dove on porch swing

If you don’t normally feed birds it’s highly unlikely you’d be able to attract them to a new feeder or water source today. But at least knock the snow off of any shrubs with twigs small enough for bird claws to grasp, and especially from any dense shrubs they would normally use for cover. Birds roost overnight in tree cavities and in other protected places, usually huddled together for extra warmth. While snow is a great insulator this snowfall was really unique in that snow is piled on branches where I’ve never seen it, on the lee side of trees, and some shrubs are completely filled with snow, leaving the most typical spots for avian protection unavailable.

For more information, visit my page for Backyard Wildlife Habitats, and enjoy this series of articles:

What’s in Your Backyard? The First Step in Planning Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat

What Else is in Your Backyard: The Fauna That Fill It

Bringing it All Together: Enhancing and Developing Your Habitat

Also read about my art, photography, poetry and prose inspired by my backyard wildlife habitat:

Art Inspired by My Backyard Wildlife Habitat

Photography Inspired by My Backyard Wildlife Habitat

Poetry Inspired by My Backyard Wildlife Habitat

Prose Inspired by My Backyard Wildlife Habitat


Today is the Day Songbirds Really Need Your Help

Clean off those branches and put out some seed and suet if you can

photo of heavy snow on picnic table

Wonderland © B.E. Kazmarski

I was entranced overnight as the snow quickly fell and piled on every surface, even tiny twigs. By morning I was ready with my camera, photographing out of windows and emerging on to the deck and porch to capture the rare and magical transformation of a snow-covered morning here in Western Pennsylvania. Shrubs and small trees were bent down and everything, my brush piles and tall natives left in the habitat included, was covered with an undulating snow blanket at least 18 inches deep.

photo of doves on clothes line

Doves Online

Doves were lined up on the clothes line on my deck and wrens and sparrows were perching under the rockers and other chairs, using my deck for cover and no doubt waiting for me to put out the goodies.

However, as I cleaned off the deck and filled the feeders around the railings and the improvised bird bath I saw flocks of birds headed for both the deck and at least one of the feeders at the end of the yard (the other was hopelessly covered by its small tree completely bent over under the weight of snow), but they weren’t using the feeder and they weren’t perching, which was very strange behavior.

photo of song sparrow on rocker

Song Sparrow on Rocker

I had filled the seed and suet feeders and put out some ear corn yesterday afternoon so they would have it first thing in the morning instead of waiting for me to dig out. If the Cooper’s hawk had been around I wouldn’t have seen any birds at all, except perhaps a sacrificial mourning dove.

photo of birds at a feeder

At the Feeder

Then I took another look at this lovely landscape—the forsythia which is usually filled with sparrows, the pussy willow hosting the larger cardinals and blue jays, even the American Hemlock and brushy saplings around the larger feeder on which and in which the birds are usually perching in wait for the feeders, were all covered with several inches of snow which the birds couldn’t perch on. All the tall stems of goldenrod, asters, coneflower and bergamot that I leave standing for the birds to use as both perches and food sources were completely bent down and covered in snow. Even the ground around the feeders was covered with snow the birds couldn’t even land on top of without dangerously sinking in.

They had no place to land and nothing to eat.

photo of bicycle buried in snow

Backyard and bicycle

This was a totally different interpretation of a lovely snowy morning, and potentially fatal to all my avian visitors. Where smaller mammals can and do tunnel under the snow and larger ones travel over it or can walk through it, birds can’t brush away snow and ice before they land or dig through it to get to something underneath. In order to use the feeder they need to land close, then hop to the feeder. Unless they could land right on the feeder, they couldn’t eat from it, and all their natural sources were under snow, not only in my yard but everywhere.

photo of t-square in snow

36" t-square covered to 18"

Well, I’d probably gotten as many photos as I wanted, so out came the broom and I waded in snow that had drifted deeper than the 18 inches I  had measured earlier and swatted away at the forsythia, pulling the longer branches out of the snow on the ground so they could swing free. Then I reached the pussy willow from the deck railing on one side, and the lilac from the other side. As I was working a large clump of snow fell from higher up in the trees at the end of the yard and conveniently knocked the snow off of the feeder in the yard as well as the hemlock and saplings. Thanks, nature!

I was barely finished with clearing one bush and then the other before the birds were in it, chattering and fluttering. And even though they are familiar with me—the blue jay had announced that I had come out onto the deck earlier, and that’s the signal for birds to gather in the shrubs around the deck anticipating the daily feeder refill—they don’t usually fly right past my head to get to the feeders, but today they did.

wren under rocker

Wren Under Rocker

“Eating like a bird” has been famously misinterpreted indicating a picky eater, but while birds don’t all eat twice their weight in food every day, they do need to eat proportionally much more than humans, especially in cold weather. Imagine having to hop out of bed into a situation you physically can’t negotiate and having to forage for enough quality food to equal about a quarter to a half of your body weight just stay warm and alive for the day and overnight, using only your face and toes as tools.

Tonight is forecast to be in the single digits, and some birds would simply die overnight if they hadn’t been able to find or access any food today. Out in nature, nobody would brush off the trees and fill the feeders, but with songbird populations imperiled because of habitat fragmentation and pesticide use, they could use a little help from us.

photo of cat sniffing snow

What is this stuff?

If you do feed birds, put out some extra stuff, especially high-protein, high-energy foods like hulled sunflower, peanuts and even other unsalted or plain nuts you might have on hand; I donated a cup of crushed walnuts, which were a really big hit. Dried fruits are very good for them now, too, even just a handful of raisins snipped in half so smaller birds can manage them. Many birds eat insects as well as seeds, and suet fills that part of their diet when no insects are available. The extra protein will help them get through a cold night and into tomorrow.

Don’t forget the water—just a shallow pan of warm water will keep from freezing most of the day and be easy to punch out and refill in the morning. Rising steam from warm water will help attract them to it.

I have articles on making your own inexpensive bird treats in Birds?! Attract them with homemade suet cakes and also a series of articles on Backyard Wildlife Habitats for more information on inviting and feeding wild birds and other wildlife in your backyard.

photo of two birds on swing

Sparrow and dove on porch swing

If you don’t normally feed birds it’s highly unlikely you’d be able to attract them to a new feeder or water source today. But at least knock the snow off of any shrubs with twigs small enough for bird claws to grasp, and especially from any dense shrubs they would normally use for cover. Birds roost overnight in tree cavities and in other protected places, usually huddled together for extra warmth. While snow is a great insulator this snowfall was really unique in that snow is piled on branches where I’ve never seen it, on the lee side of trees, and some shrubs are completely filled with snow, leaving the most typical spots for avian protection unavailable.


Bringing it All Together: Enhancing and Developing Your Habitat

This is the fourth and final installment in considering your backyard wildlife habitat, plus I’ve published posts featuring the art, prose and poetry which my backyard habitat has inspired—scroll to the bottom for the links.

Ick. Slugs. Everywhere. And they weren’t drowning in my beer traps, they were having a pool party and getting the munchies later.

photo of vegetable garden

My Garden in May (just about prime slug time) © B.E. Kazmarski

When I first established my vegetable and flower beds in this yard, I used a number of ingenious methods of “clearing” soil to save time, much of which involved newspapers or other waste papers (those wide computer printouts from the old dot-matrix printers, for instance) covered with straw or wood chips, which I could get for free by the truckload from a friend with a tree service business. This layering killed off the grass and softened up the soil for easier tilling or hand-turning, kept the soil moist in the heat of the summer, and also became a convenient way to set up paths between the beds and walking paths.

The second year, I used some of the same methods to mulch the beds around my plants.

The third year, slugs ate all my seedlings as soon as they came up. I had created the perfect breeding ground for slugs in the damp soil under all that paper.

Carrying an armload of my trusty copies of Rodale’s Organic Gardening and all the books I’d purchased over the years to learn the various techniques of raised beds and drip-irrigation and composting along with organic pest control out to the garden, I tried every trap in the book—in all the books.

None was effective, even in combination. I was spending way too much time trying to kill slugs. Perhaps I should just whack them with the big heavy gardening books. Time to look at an alternative.
The story continues, keep reading…


An Introduction to Backyard Wildlife Habitats

This is the first in a series of articles on building your backyard wildlife habitat.

male cardinal in snowy forsythia

Cardinal in Forsythia © 2010 B.E. Kazmarski

At dusk a male cardinal, always the last to feed, sat on a branch in the bare lilac outside the north window, bobbing slightly in the wind, sounding his loud, hard “chip! chip!”, his color slowly fading to gray as the light faded from the day and light flurries softened the landscape. I don’t know if he’s saying “good night” or “thank you” or “can’t you turn up the heat” or if he’s not saying anything to me at all, but if I’m at my desk when dusk falls on a winter evening, the cardinal is outside, looking right at me, speaking his piece.

After dark I was in the back yard when the cloud cover parted and the moon, a little past full, shone on the light dusting of snow. The stillness of a bitter cold winter night can be unnerving, the sudden, slight rustle of dry shriveled leaves still hanging on your phlox can seem like a whispered conversation right at your elbow, and the sound of my rubber clogs crunching the snow was so loud I caught myself on tiptoe trying to minimize my disturbance to the night.

It was 11 degrees with a dusting of snow. I’ve no doubt I’ll see the thermometer drop a few more degrees before I decide I’m done for the day.

painting of junco on snowy branch

Snow Bird © 2010 B.E. Kazmarski

I think of the birds and bunnies and squirrels and the others who are supposed to be hibernating but I see their prints and sometimes see them, at this time of day nestled in their preferred night cover, keeping warm with a good day’s food and water in their bellies. I’ve inventoried the winter residents of my little back yard and taken care to provide winter cover and a good varied diet and water for them to drink.

I was outside gathering the plastic dishes, now full of frozen water, to be refilled and replaced outdoors in the morning. It’s part of the years-long habit of maintaining my backyard wildlife habitat.

And enjoying the experience of a cold winter night is as much a pleasure as a warm summer morning as I share the awareness of life in this little piece of wilderness, here in Backyard Wildlife Habitat No. 35393.
The story continues, keep reading…


Birds?! Attract them with homemade suet cakes

woodpecker and wren at feeder

Ms. Wren had better watch her step

My yard is a registered Backyard Wildlife Habitat, deemed so by the National Wildlife Federation. Among other requirements, I provide food and shelter for native wild bird species all year round because aside from being fun to watch, they are an important insect guard in my vegetable garden.

In winter, however, I am compelled to put feeders up everywhere I can hang one, and at least one seed feeder is visible from each window in the house as well as suet feeders, ear corn and water. Not only does it give the birds a safe place to eat, drink and be merry, it gives my cats something to do and it gives my eyes a break while I slave at the computer all day into the night.

Suet cakes, or something like them, are an important part of the diet for insect-eating wild birds because it provides them with appropriate protein. It also provides a medium for mixing in other goodies like nuts and dried fruit and flavoring it with peanut butter or fruit juice.

Yes, I like to spoil my avian visitors–and save a little money in the process, plus use materials that would otherwise be composted or discarded.

woodpecker and wren at suet cake

Bird Breakfast

When suet cakes go on sale at my local Agway, I stock up, but at other times I put together a dozen suet cakes for about 50 cents each. The goodies I add are fresh or dried apple peelings from pies I’ve made for the holidays, older somewhat tired oranges, other fruits that are past their prime, and the leftovers from making pies and jellies in the summer. I have several mulberry trees and collect crabapples from trees near one of my municipal gardens, and I make jelly with these, as well as baking with the crabapples. As each fruit comes into season–raspberries, blackberries, peaches, plums–I bake or jelly with it, or save the less-than-perfect ones to dry for later use. Birds LOVE these fruit treats in mid-winter. And when I find peanut butter on sale and stand there trying to decide if my birds would prefer smooth or crunchy, I know I’m really in deep.
Keep reading…