Wildlife experts: It’s OK to feed the birds

A spotted towhee takes advantage of some winter food.

Water, food and a safe environment are the three things a person needs to attract birds to their yard, according to Washington State University Master Gardener Bonnie Orr.

“If people just pay attention to those three things, they will see an increase in the number of birds they have,” Orr said.

Orr practices what she preaches as she has counted 120 species of birds in her east Wenatchee, Wash., yard. That total includes birds that have flown over her yard, like eagles.

She said water, especially running water, is the No. 1 way to attract birds so they can condition their feathers to fly and quench their thirst.

“They have to wash their feathers on a regular basis to keep them flight ready,” she said.

Bird baths, streams and fountains are examples of water sources birds enjoy.

The water in bird baths should be less than 2 inches deep, Orr said. If the water is more than 2 inches, rocks can be placed in the bird bath to make the water shallower. Ceramic fountains can be problematic because their slippery sides can cause a bird to fall in and drown.

Trees with large leaves, like maple trees, can also be a good water source for small birds.

“After you irrigate it or after it has rained, the little birds will roll on the wet leaves, taking little sponge baths,” Orr said.

She said it is important for people to have shrubs or other hiding places in their yard so birds can take refuge from high-flying predators. Cats are probably the most serious predator to birds in urban environments, so they should be kept inside the home (see the story on Page 6).

Building an environment of plants that attract insects and provide fruit will lure birds to a yard, Orr said. Russian olive trees, elderberries, chokecherries and blackberries are examples of plants that provide shelter and food for birds.

Orr grows cosmos flowers, coneflowers and sunflowers, and she stops deadheading those plants around the middle of September because their seeds attract birds. She also has a mulberry tree, on which she has seen as many as seven species of birds at one time feeding their chicks.

“Birds eat far more insects than they do fruit, because there’s so much more protein in insects than there is in fruit,” Orr said.

People should only feed birds from the first heavy frost in November to around the beginning of April, she said, or when snow is on the ground and no insects are available. People should not place bird food, like seeds, on the ground to prevent diseases and to protect birds from cats and other predators.

Cabeza can be reached at (208) 883-4631, or by email to gcabeza@dnews.com.