Is Your Lot For The Birds?
by Chuck Loeffler
One of the most popular backyard and outdoor activities in the USA is that of watching and feeding birds. Millions of Americans participate in this activity, and the production, distribution, and sale of bird food, feeders, bird houses, bird books, etc. is a multi-million dollar industry.
Birds are popular because they are more visible than most other wildlife, the come in great variety, and they are just attractive and interesting creatures to look at. In addition, they can be beneficial by helping to control insect pests. Over 330 species of birds are known to occur in Colorado, and over 70 species have been seen and documented in ponderosa pine forests between Denver and Colorado Springs, such as occurs in the Bent Tree area. Some birds, such as the peregrine falcon, the band-tailed pigeon, and the calliope hummingbird, are rare or unusual visitors or migrants in our area. Some are present but not often seen, such as the great horned owl and the saw-whet owl, because they are secretive or nocturnal. Some are more common and often seen or heard in Bent Tree.
Mourning Dove: A grayish-brown dove, somewhat smaller than a common pigeon. It has a soft, somewhat mournful sounding, coo - hence its name. This bird is a migrant and is only found in Bent Tree during the spring and summer months, when it nests here. It's more numerous at lower elevations, in warmer climates, however.
Broad-tailed Hummingbird: This is by far the most common hummingbird in our area, and in Colorado. The male can be recognized by the ruby-red throat and by the 'trilling' sound it makes with it's wings when in flight. The female has no red on the throat, but is light on the front and green on the back, with some tan and white color in the tail. They build their tiny nests of moss, spider webs, and various other materials, on the branches of the pine trees.
Rufous Hummingbird: This species is not as common as the broad-tailed hummingbird in our area, but you may see some if you have a feeder out. The male has a brown or "rufous" back and a bright red throat, and the female looks virtually identical to the female broad-tailed hummingbird. The rufous males are very aggressive birds and will try their best to keep other hummingbirds out of their territory and away from "their" feeder. All the hummingbirds are migrants and go south during the winter.
Hairy Woodpecker and Downy Woodpecker: These two woodpeckers are almost identical in appearance. The downy woodpecker is just smaller than the hairy. They are black and white with a red mark on the head. The back and breast is white, and the tail and wings are dark, usually with some white speckles on the wings. They can be seen clinging to trees, pecking at the bark in search of insects.
Flycatchers: There are several species of this genus (Empidonax) found in our area, and they are fairly difficult to identify to species. The most likely ones you might see in Bent Tree are the Western Wood Pewee, the Hammond's Flycatcher, and the Western Flycatcher. They are various shades of brown, gray, and/or yellowish-green, and they have relatively long tails and fairly slender bills. They can generally be seen perched on a lower tree branch, where they will watch for and dive after flying insects, and then return to the branch.
Steller's Jay: A fairly large (slightly larger than a Robin) member of the crow family. It is a vivid blue color with a dark head and a dark crest of feathers on the head. It has a somewhat harsh, loud call, and can mimic the call of the red-tailed hawk and golden eagle. It can be seen year-round in Bent Tree.
Black-billed Magpie: A large, crow-sized, bird that's mostly black and white, with some iridescent green and blue color in the wing and in the long wedge-shaped tail. It has a loud, somewhat screechy, call. The magpie is a scavenger and predator, and can often be seen feeding on animals killed on the highway.
American Crow: This all black bird is commonly seen in Bent Tree. They nest in the tops of tall pine trees, and are opportunistic feeders, similar to the magpie.
White-breasted Nuthatch: A small gray, black, and white bird which can be seen scampering up and down the sides of trees, looking for insects in the bark. The top of the head is black, the back is gray, and the underside is mostly white. You may also see the somewhat smaller red-breasted nuthatch and the pygmy nuthatch in our area.
Western Bluebird: The males are a bright blue on the back and head and rusty brown below. The females are grayish above and have some rusty brown on the breast. The bluebirds are insect eaters and nest in tree cavities or in bird houses. Those of you whose houses are in more open areas, with fewer trees, may also see the mountain bluebird. The male of this species is all blue. The bluebirds migrate south for the winter.
These are just a few of the bird species to be found in our area. I'm in the process of preparing a more complete wildlife species checklist for Bent Tree, and hope to have copies of it available at our fall property owners meeting.
Hopefully, by now you are convinced that it's nice to have birds around, and you want to manage your property in a way that is beneficial and attractive to these feathered creatures. Here are a few things you can do to make your lot 'for the birds':
1. Provide and maintain a good natural diversity of vegetation. There is a considerable natural variety of vegetation in our area. Avoid or minimize removing the natural ground cover, which contains many grasses, annual plants, and wildflowers which directly or indirectly provide food for many seed and insect eating birds. The structure of natural vegetation can also be important. For instance, it is not a good idea to trim all of the dead branches off of the pine trees. Trim only the lower branches (up to about 6 feet above the ground) to reduce fire hazard and the hazard to people who may poke themselves on the branches. The remaining dead branches are used as perches for birds. The flycatchers use them as hunting perches, from which they swoop down to capture moths and other flying insects.
2. Landscape plantings can double as wildlife habitat. There are a number of native plants which can be used to beautify your lot - especially the area close to your house, which was disturbed by the construction process - and can also be of benefit to birds and other wildlife. Some of the plants which are good to use in our area include Douglas fir, blue spruce, gambel oak, potentilla (a.k.a. shrubby cinquefoil), choke cherry, and wild plum (the latter two do best in moist sites). Bare, disturbed soil can be reseeded with a native grass seed mix, which is available at most nurseries. As a general rule, it's a good idea to avoid planting exotic or non-native species, as they often don't do well without a lot of care and they tend to distract from the natural appearance of the ponderosa pine forest. I'll try to provide a more detailed article on plantings for wildlife in our newsletter before next spring.
3. Provide water. A source of water can be attractive to birds, especially during periods of dry weather. This can be provided in the form of a simple bird bath or a small garden pond behind your house. Ponds can also be used by chorus frogs, and, if large enough, small fish. If you decide to create a small pond on your property be sure to get information on proper construction, or you may end up with a small mud hole that won't hold water.
4. Provide nest boxes for cavity nesting birds. Several species of birds, such as the bluebirds, the woodpeckers, and the nuthatches, normally depend on holes, or cavities in dead trees for their nest sites. In developed areas, such as Bent Tree, dead or dying trees are generally eliminated for aesthetic and safety reasons. To replace the natural nest cavities we can put up bird houses, or nest boxes.
5. Provide supplemental food - especially in the winter. Backyard bird feeders are quite popular, and can provide an important source of food for wintering birds, such as finches, juncos, woodpeckers, and nuthatches. In the summer we can put up hummingbird feeders which readily attract these beautiful little birds. If you decide to put up a bird feeder be sure you know what, when, and how to feed properly. Without proper care and cleaning a bird feeder can become a hazard to birds by spreading disease.
Bird feeding and watching can be an enjoyable activity which can be pursued conveniently around your home. If you have any questions about birds in our area, please give me a call.