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A ruby-throated hummingbird. (Credit: Chris Paparo)

With an estimate of over 47 million people observing feathered wildlife, birding is quickly becoming one of the most popular hobbies in the country. Whether you are young or old, live an active lifestyle or one of a couch potato, you can be a birder.

For most people it is hard to see the appeal in bird watching. To the non-birder, there are only a couple different “types” of birds (sparrows, pigeons, sea gulls, storks, and hawks/eagles) and with the exception of hawks/eagles, those creatures are commonplace and not worth a second look. Surprisingly though, there are actually 914 different species of birds naturally occurring in North America, each with a unique set of characteristics.  

Unlike other outdoor hobbies such as fishing, boating, SCUBA diving, photography, etc., birding does not require a large investment. All that is needed is a pair of eyes, a bird field guide/app to help identify the species being viewed and a love of nature. As your bird life-list grows (a cumulative record of bird species observed), the purchase of a pair of binoculars or a spotting scope might be necessary to view some of the more elusive species that will not allow you to get close enough to see them with your bare eyes.

In most cases, birding can be done from the comfort of your own home. Even in the most urban of areas, you will be surprised to see just how many different species of birds will visit your backyard throughout the year. Here are a couple simple steps you can take to enhance your home birding experience.

A purple finch. (Credit: Chris Paparo)
A purple finch. (Credit: Chris Paparo)

Providing food in the way of a birdfeeder is a great way to attract a wide variety of bird life to your yard. It is important to decide what types of birds you would like to attract and offer food accordingly, as not all bird seed is identical. If you have ever bought a bag of generic wild bird seed, you have probably noticed that a majority of the seeds end up on the ground, uneaten. Because each species has a specific diet, they will often pick through the mix eating only their favorite food and wasting the rest.

The most popular of bird seeds would be from the sunflower. These oily seeds will attract a majority of the song birds found on the north fork (chickadees, finches, nuthatches, titmouse, cardinals, etc.). They are also enjoyed by several of the more aggressive bird species such as grackles, starlings and blue jays. Thistle seed on the other hand, is too small for these larger birds to feed on, but is a favorite of the finches. Other seed possibilities include safflower, millet, cracked corn, and peanuts.

Not all birds feed on seeds. Many species will feed on fruits, berries or nectar. Planting native fruiting bushes, shrubs and trees is a natural way to entice fruit eaters. There are also several commercial feeds that contain dried fruits and can be placed in a feeder. Fresh fruit such as orange halves on skewers or in an empty suet cage can draw in birds such as orioles. Feeding on nectar, hummingbirds relish a yard heavily planted with brightly colored native flowering plants. In addition, a strategically placed hummingbird feeder will not only lure them in, it will consistently bring them to the same location, making it easier to view these little speedsters.

For the insect eaters, such as woodpeckers, flickers, and brown thrashers, setting out a piece of suet would be a prime food choice. Being that suet is animal fat, it provides a high energy meal that will be especially appreciated during the cold winter months. Suet can be purchased from most butcher shops. There are also many commercial suet “cakes” on the market that are a mixture of animal fat and/or seeds, fruits, insects. Feeders with either live or dried mealworms are another option for the insectivores, especially for those yards in close proximity to open fields (the preferred habitat of bluebirds).

A male house finch. (Credit: Chris Paparo)
A male house finch. (Credit: Chris Paparo)

One requirement that is necessary to attract a plethora of songbirds and is often overlooked is the availability of water. During the heat of the summer, especially during long periods of drought, a water pan will attract more birds than the previous foods mentioned. During the dead of winter, when all existing water is frozen, a heated birdbath can be a welcome treat to our feathered friends.

You have food and water, what about shelter? Birdhouses will not only provide shelter, but hours of enjoyment watching a pair of birds build their nest and care for their young. Although we are currently past nesting season, it is not a bad idea to put up a birdhouse now. Some species such as screech owls will begin to nest in late winter/early spring. By putting a birdhouse up early, they will have plenty of time to investigate and decide whether or not it will make a suitable home.

Now that you have built the ultimate birder’s backyard, it is extremely important to follow a few key steps in order to maintain a healthy environment for the birds. Food should be kept in a dry location to minimize the growth of bacteria and mold. Empty husks and uneaten seeds should be raked-up often to minimize attracting rodents. Water in birdbaths should be replaced daily to provide a healthy drinking and bathing atmosphere. And all feeders and birdbaths should be regularly disinfected to minimize the spread of disease.

All that is left to do now is to sit back, relax and enjoy the little piece of aviary paradise you have created in your own back yard. For those birders who are looking to get out of the house and into the field for some birding, be sure to look for my column next month.

Birding Resources

Long Island Birding

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology

North Fork Audubon Society

Chris paparo