Need And Value Of Attracting Birds
( Originally Published 1910 )
THE reasons for attracting birds around our homes are twofold : first, the protection of the birds, and second, the resulting benefits that accrue to man, both on account of the great economic value of these birds to the farmer in his struggle with injurious insects, and also on account of the pleasure derived in helping and watching the birds.
During the winter season the opportunity offered for studying birds, at a time when Nature's activities are at their lowest ebb, is most welcome, and especially so because the birds may become so tame that they will feed from the window-sills while one is sitting just inside the window, thus affording opportunity to observe them at close range.
Destruction of Nesting-sites
With the rapid increase in population in our cities and large towns, and their corresponding growth countryward, roadside shrubbery, orchards, decaying trees, and other nesting sites are steadily disappearing as the real-estate agent extends his operations and begins to " improve" the land.
In the suburbs of cities, birds that nest in cavities are forced to hunt very closely to find a nesting-site. One spring, on entering a little shed which had remained closed for several months, the author found inside two pairs of dead bluebirds, which had evidently entered a knot-hole on the side of the building in their quest for a nesting-place, and had not been able to find their way out again. Wood ducks, screech owls, and flickers have been found dead in stove-pipes leading from tile chimneys in summer cottages and workshops. Bluebirds have been found drowned in water-barrels in the country, having entered through holes in the conductors.
Even in the country, sometimes the farmer thinks he must clear up the shrubbery and the tangles by the roadside and along the fences, which, however, furnish one excellent means of inducing the birds to remain and nest, and thus aid the farmer in his struggle with the insects.
The excessive demand for wood, both for fuel and for building, is causing the rapid cutting of trees both in large forests and in small lots, as a result of which the birds which seek shelter or nesting-sites in the woods are each year finding it more difficult to secure the conditions necessary for their maintenance.
The winter is a season, when, from the birds' standpoint, assistance in obtaining food is particularly welcome. When heavy snows lie on the ground, much of the supply of the seed-eating birds is hidden; and when the tree-trunks are covered with ice, insect-eating birds find it difficult to break through this coating, to secure insects and their eggs in the bark beneath. Under ordinary conditions our birds can withstand quite cold weather if they are well supplied with food ; but this is digested so quickly that birds require a large amount and frequent access to it. Many birds perish from exposure to severe storms and weather, as well as from starvation, so that shelter as well as food is necessary to protect the winter birds.
Winter Mortality among Birds
In order to emphasize the need of furnishing food and shelter for the winter birds as a practical means of protecting them from the inclemencies of the elements, a few statistics are given showing the effect of the winter of 1903 and 1904 upon the birds. This summary is taken from a report by Edward Howe Forbush, based upon observations of seventy-five correspondents in Massachusetts, and fifteen from neighboring states. While this winter was an unusually severe one, yet these reports suggest the dangers to which birds are exposed during average winters, as well as the extreme perils of an occasional severe one.
During the first half of the winter birds were present in about their usual numbers, but as the severity of the weather increased the number of birds began to decrease, till about the end of the winter a very noticeable mortality was universally reported, and many birds were found dying of cold and hunger ; and it was the opinion of those best fitted to judge that most of the birds which usually wintered there were either starved or frozen.
Among the greatest sufferers were the bob-white, partridge, meadowlark, and flicker. In some localities the bob-white was apparently entirely exterminated, Mr. Forbush estimating that it had been reduced at least ninety-five per cent.
Effect of feeding Birds
The important part of the report is that which shows the protection afforded the birds by feeding them. Mr. Forbush says : "Reports that have come in from all portions of the state lead to the conclusion that large numbers of birds have been saved from starvation during the winter by people who have fed them. Most of the reports indicate that where birds were well fed, nuthatches and downy woodpeckers wintered very well; else-where they had a hard time. The trees were frozen so hard that drilling into them for insects was difficult, and woodpeckers have been operating on cedar rails and posts, and under the eaves of log and slab shanties in the woods. My own experience indicates that nearly all birds were scarce except where they were fed. Many people were feeding them, and they were attracted to these feeding-places, so that they appeared at such places to be in their usual numbers.
" The mortality seems to have been least among those familiar species that seek the habitations of man, thus finding the food exposed for them ; and greatest among those like the meadowlark and quail, that have most reason to fear man and therefore usually keep at a safe distance from human habitations."
Value of attracting Birds to the Farm
The farmer will find it a profitable business undertaking to make efforts to attract birds' around his dwellings and orchard for the return which the birds give in destroying the insects that attack his crops. The real practical value to the farmer, from a business standpoint, of taking the steps necessary to encourage the presence of birds around the farm, is generally unappreciated. The progressive farmer does not be-grudge the expense entailed in securing a spraying outfit, and the annual outlay involved in its use. With an expense so small that it hardly needs to be taken into account, the farmer may have very efficient insect-destroyers in the flocks of birds which may be attracted around the farm, — destroyers which do not require the time and supervision of the farmer to render them effective, but which of their own accord are constantly at work from sunrise until sunset, freeing the farm from its insect enemies. Some enter-prising farmers are taking steps to attract birds around their farms. A successful fruit-grower in Georgia has erected a series of tall poles in his peach orchard, from which are hung gourds for the martins to nest in.
Not only may there be freedom from large insect outbreaks and the expense involved in keeping them in check, but under the ordinary conditions, when insects may do only slight dam-age, undoubtedly even this slight amount is lessened and the quantity of crops harvested correspondingly increased, through the activities of the birds.
There are on record enough instances to show the resulting benefits, when systematic efforts are made to encourage the presence of birds.
Mr. Forbush cites an instance of four young apple trees which were infested with plant-lice. Two of the trees, which were located near houses containing families of bluebirds and chickadees, were almost entirely cleared of the lice by these birds, while the other two, which were some distance away, finally died from the effect of the pests.
Evidence of the value of attracting birds also comes from Germany, where systematic experiments have been carried out. In the spring of 1905 the larvae of a moth attacked a large wood, near Eisenach, and stripped it almost entirely of its foliage ; while in a neighboring wood at Seebach, in which nesting-houses had been systematically placed, the trees were uninjured. A similar effect was noticed in the orchards. At Seebach the trees always escaped the devastation of insects, while the neighboring orchards frequently suffered from their attacks. The inhabitants of the neighboring villages noticed this difference and began to hang up bird-houses, as a result of which a decrease in the caterpillar plague was noticed.
Those native birds which may be induced to live in artificial houses or around buildings are very valuable from the economic standpoint of the farmer. In tabular form below are given the essential facts regarding the food-habits of these birds, and also a table showing the frequency with which the young are fed. It is especially at this time, when the birds are feeding their young, that they are of great value on account of the enormous amount of food required by the nestlings. For the first days of their existence they eat more than their own weight of food in a day, and gain in weight from twenty to fifty per cent during the same period. The work of feeding begins at sunrise and continues without intermission until sunset, food being brought to the nestlings every four or five minutes. This consists almost entirely of insects, even for the young of the seed-eating birds.
Value of Winter Birds
Not only in spring and summer may the birds be of great value to the farmer, but during the winter as well; so that efforts should be made during this season to attract birds around the orchard, that they may feed upon the eggs of the insects during the winter, and remain in the spring to attack the larve that may hatch from the uneaten eggs.
A very instructive experiment was tried by Mr. Forbush in Massachusetts. An old neglected orchard was selected, and during the winter months special effort was made to attract the birds by means of suet and other food. By this means chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, and creepers were attracted to the orchard, remaining during the winter months. Observations of the feeding-habits and examination of the stomach-contents of a few chickadees showed that they were eating large numbers of eggs of the fall canker-worm moth, and the larva and pupa of other injurious insects. In the spring, when the female canker-worm moths appeared in the or-chard, the chickadee fed on these. While the trees in the neighboring orchards were badly infested with the worms, comparatively few were found in the orchard which had been frequented by the winter birds, and the few which did appear were easily disposed of by the summer birds which came to the locality. The trees in other orchards were almost .stripped of their foliage, while this one retained its leaves, and with one exception was the only orchard in the neighborhood to produce any fruit. It should be noted that the exception was the nearest orchard to the one on which the experiment was tried.
Mr. Mann, a pear-grower of Rochester, New York, reports that one year the tree psylla had destroyed his entire crop, and that he thought there were no prospects of a crop the following year ; but nuthatches came and worked in flocks in his orchard all winter, and in the spring he could find hardly an insect. Thus these nut-hatches saved him thousands of dollars in one winter.
Such facts as these are worthy of the careful consideration of every fruit-grower and farmer.
Problems of Bird Life
The chief problems in the bird's life have to do with the securing of food and water, the rearing of the young, and protection at all times from the dangers to which they are exposed. Effective means of attracting birds must take all these problems into account. The food-requirement may be partly met by feeding birds in win-ter and planting shrubs and trees which provide fruit. The demand for water may be met by providing fountains which may serve for bathing as well as drinking purposes. The problem of rearing young may be solved by furnishing nesting-houses, nesting-material, and by planting shrubs and trees which provide nesting-sites. The question of protecting the birds may be partly met by furnishing shelter in the winter, and must always be taken into account in using the means mentioned above to attract birds around our homes, to see that they are not unduly exposed to such dangers as are found around human habitations.
In the following pages of this book the various means of meeting these demands of bird life are discussed under the following headings: nesting-houses and nesting-material ; feeding winter birds; drinking- and bathing-fountains; shrubs, trees, and other plants to attract birds.