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Birds in Your Backyard

You wake up in the morning, stretch, and listen to the first sounds of the day. You hear a house finch’s high-pitched melody, a hummingbird’s metallic chirp, and a house sparrow’s rhythmic call. As you listen to the birds in your backyard, you wonder what tales they have to tell. This post touches on the histories of these common species, issues that birds face as a group, and what you can do to help the birds in your backyard.

Male House Finch | Photo Courtesy by All About Birds

Native to western North America, the house finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) spread across the eastern United States after an illegally captured population was released in New York in 1940. House finches have been enormously successful, eating fruit and seeds from both plants and bird feeders. However, their population began to decline in 1994 due to mycoplasmal conjunctivitis, a disease recognized by red, swollen, watery eyes. An infected bird can die of starvation if its eyes become crusted over or swollen shut. Luckily, the disease has shrunk in range since the 1990s, and this species is no longer at extreme risk of decline. These colorful little birds have triumphed in the fight for survival; it is no wonder how the house finch has come to flourish in many American backyards.

Male House Finch with Mycoplasmal Conjunctivitis | Photo Courtesy by William Dalton

Another flamboyant and colorful bird species is Anna’s hummingbird (Calypte anna). This species is the most common hummingbird in California, and similar to the house finch, they flourish in human-modified habitats. In fact, growing numbers of backyard nectar feeders have helped this bird’s range and population expand. Typically, humans directly cause increased animal mortality and population decline, but this species serves as an example of how we can have a positive impact on wildlife.

Anna’s Hummingbird | Photo Courtesy by All About Birds

One of the most infamous bird species in the U.S. is the house sparrow (Passer domesticus). Originally from Europe, house sparrows were purposely introduced to Brooklyn, New York in 1851. These adaptive and aggressive birds have since spread across the United States and thrive alongside humans. Their population growth has not been a benign process, however—house sparrows dominate in their competition against less aggressive native birds and will destroy their nests, eggs, and chicks. Sometimes they even kill the female that was incubating her eggs. Furthermore, house sparrows have more broods (sets of eggs) and larger clutch sizes (number of eggs laid in a set) per season than native birds, which means that they multiply faster than their competitors do. A robust house sparrow population can spell doom for a population of native birds.

House Sparrow | Photo Courtesy by All About Birds

Unfortunately, most bird species are not as resilient as the house finch or house sparrow. Since 1970, there has been a net loss of 2.9 billion birds in North America. This population reduction has mainly been caused by habitat loss, expansion of agricultural land, coastal disturbance, and direct human causes.

The U.S. government has enacted legislation to help mitigate the human impact on birds. The 1916 Migratory Bird Treaty makes it illegal to kill, harm, or possess any native, migratory bird in the United States. These regulations extend to the native birds’ nests and eggs as well. The California Endangered Species Act (1970) and Federal Endangered Species Act (1973) provide further protections for endangered birds, such as the California least tern (Sternula antillarum) and California Ridgway’s rail (Rallus obsoletus obsoletus). The California Fish and Game Code specifically protects the nests and eggs of birds of prey, such as the osprey (Pandion haliaetus) and California condor (Gymnogyps californianus).

These laws act on a large scale, so you may be asking, “What can I do to help?” There are many actions you can take to attract birds to your backyard and help their populations flourish.

The first step you can take is keeping cats indoors. Cats kill an estimated 1.3 billion birds every year. While most of the bird deaths are caused by unowned cats, you can still play a part to reduce your pet’s impact on wildlife. Keeping your cats indoors may encourage birds to visit your yard and provide a safe haven for them and their hatchlings. For every cat kept inside, you will save dozens of birds’ lives.

A great way to have close interactions with your backyard birds is by putting out seed and nectar feeders. However, to help rather than hurt the birds, there are a few things you should keep in mind. The first is to regularly clean your feeders. Wet seeds and old nectar can accumulate bacteria and grow mold. Clean seed feeders at least once every two weeks, and clean nectar feeders every two to five days. The second point to consider is avoiding seed mixes with cracked corn, millet, and milo; these foods are particularly attractive to house sparrows. Instead, put out nyjer seed or suet feeders to discourage house sparrows from taking over the feeder. Lastly, consider using no-mess bird seed, which is seed that has been de-shelled. Regular seeds have husks that are left behind after the birds eat, which are unsightly and can accumulate bacteria if left on the ground. When set up and maintained properly, your backyard feeder could serve as a valuable source of food for birds during harsh times.

For a natural method of attracting birds, consider populating your yard with native plants. Native plants provide birds with the proper food, shelter, and nesting material that non-native plants can’t.

One native plant that would make a great addition to your yard is toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia). Also known as Christmas berry or California holly, toyon is an evergreen shrub native to California. Its bright red berries attract western bluebirds, American robins, and cedar waxwings. Planting a toyon bush not only adds a splash of color to your yard, but it also saves your backyard birds from going hungry during the winter when other foods are scarce.

Toyon | Photo Courtesy by Pete Veilleux

Another good choice for your yard is the California native western redbud (Cercis occidentalis). This deciduous tree grows shiny heart-shaped leaves, clusters of bright pink flowers, long seed pods, and silvery bark. The redbud’s flowers attract hummingbirds, and the seed pods attract goldfinches. Insects that live on and under the tree’s bark entice woodpeckers and nuthatches. The western redbud is a great tree for inviting a large variety of native birds to your yard.

Western Redbud | Photo Courtesy by CalScape

Some birds have benefited immensely from human development while many have suffered. State and federal laws help protect birds from human activities, but everyone can play a small part in supporting native birds. By responsibly setting out feeders, keeping cats indoors, and using native, bird-friendly plants for landscaping, you can create a safe haven for the birds in your backyard. The birds will undoubtedly thank you!

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