Along with being an avid wildlife watcher, I’m an enthusiastic gardener, fixated on growing and nurturing plants, especially outside. How joyful it is when the two mesh, like last summer—while watering a row of hanging white geraniums with ivy, a sparrow hopped out of one of the planters and landed on a nearby lilac branch before scolding me for interfering.
I didn’t see the sparrow’s concealed nest until weeks later, after the parents and young had successfully moved on. I just stood there and marveled at its burrowlike construction.
Author and naturalist Stan Tekiela is equally fascinated by the lives and vocalizations of neighboring birds and devoted a beautifully photographed book to them called, Backyard Birds: Welcomed Guests at Our Gardens and Feeders. It’s a winner.
Sixty million U.S. residents feed birds in their yards, which Tekiela says reconnects urban and suburbanites with nature. In his new book, he offers intriguing observations, such as how small birds in forests, who are hard to see, sing complex, loud songs to stand out and attract a mate.
Unfortunately, in the eastern half of the United States, backyard bird populations have declined by 50 to 70 percent, struggling to reproduce with nesting habitat destroyed by the development of homes and shopping malls.
Clearly, habitat preservation is paramount, and the good news is we can help restore it by creating our own wildlife refuges—halting the use of harmful pesticides and converting our backyards into inviting nesting and feeding areas.
Most birds are seasonal feeders. In my backyard in Rowayton, Conn., nuthatches, with extra-long claws on their hind toes, hitch down tree trunks head first as they aim for my bird and squirrel feeder—“defying gravity,” Tekiela says.
Nuthatches actually spend lots of time searching for insect egg sacs during winter, which defies logic to me, but in freezing climates, insects lay thousands of eggs in sacs that survive the cold and hatch in spring.
We’d feel overwhelmed by insects if birds weren’t always hunting and eating them on tree leaves, and wherever else they can be found. During spring and summer, birds like northern cardinals, blue jays and rosebreasted grosbeaks feed their babies as many insects as possible, stacking them in the corners of their beaks.
Tekiela advises, “No matter how much you feed the birds, they won’t become dependent on your food supply. Birds have wings and they know how to use them! They will continue to forage for wild food even though your feeder may be full. When your feeder runs dry, they simply search for food in the wild like they did before you started feeding them.”
In cold climates, birds with regular access to food have higher survival rates—69 percent, and are in better shape in spring when they nest. This is also the time when most songs are heard.
Male chipping sparrows have one simple song and they perch high in trees and belt out a rapid chip note repeatedly—telling other males to stay out of their territory.
In contrast, brown thrashers sing more than 1,100 different songs, twice repeating each phrase. Northern cardinals and northern mockingbirds sing duets Blue jays play a critical role in forest regeneration by dispersing and hiding oak tree acorns, which means some sprout into oak trees— outpacing squirrels as accomplished oak tree planters. Birds also keep forests healthy by consuming leafeating caterpillars and other bugs.
At Friends of Animals, we’re occasionally asked for advice about what to do when you find a bird nest in an unexpected place if the parents are off the nest. The answer is: Look but don’t touch.
Female birds lay one egg per day or every other day, but parents don’t protect the eggs until after the entire clutch is laid. Most backyard birds spend around two weeks in the nest after hatching before they are out and about in your yard learning how to fly. It’s a vulnerable time for young birds, and Tekiela stresses the importance of leaving them alone and keeping pets away from them for a couple of days.
After the chicks learn how to fly, they will follow their parents around for two to three weeks This is one example of the wonder of nature Tekiela captures, while educating readers about our backyard bird neighbors, and the result is an intriguing book I couldn’t put down.
Learn more here.