With Flying Colours

Credit: Bruce Whittington

Spring is, as they say, bustin’ out all over, and some of the most visible activity in our gardens comes not from the plants, but from the birds that have chosen to nest in our yards.

Our province’s resident birds, including chickadees, robins and wrens, have had a head start on rearing their families, with some on the coast, like the Anna’s Hummingbirds, beginning as early as January. Some of these residents will nest two or three times through the spring and summer, while migrants generally begin to nest in May and June. Throughout this protracted breeding season, there are some things we can do to accommodate the birds, and also minimize disruptions to their breeding, even as we spend more time in the garden.

Often, it is not our own watchfulness that alerts us to breeding activity. Sometimes we are startled as a female House Finch flushes from the nest she has built in the hanging basket we are watering. Other times we hear the call of nestling sparrows in the rows of vegetables we’re weeding. No matter how the birds attract our attention, they remind us to be more watchful when we’re weeding, or pruning or mowing. No one wants to be responsible for destroying nests, but it is also illegal to disturb nests that contain either birds or eggs of native species.

If you do come upon a nest, try to avoid drawing attention to it. Crows, squirrels and cats are all nest predators, and they are all extremely watchful. Also avoid the nest as much as possible. If you must water or weed in the area, do so quickly and quietly and then leave. The birds have invested a great deal of energy in their broods, and they will not be quick to abandon them. Continued disturbances, however, are much more likely to cause a nesting failure.

Depending on the species, most nests will be active for about a month or six weeks. Many bird field-guides will have more information, so check your library or local naturalists’ club to learn more about the nests you find.

About 25 per cent of our breeding birds nest in cavities. These may be woodpecker holes, or natural or artificial cavities, including nest boxes. If you have nest boxes in your garden, they should be cleaned out in the spring to reduce the number of parasites that become established.

Clean out the nest material and scrub the inside of the box with a solution of 10 per cent bleach. Finish with a thorough rinse of clean water. Do it again in the fall, and you’ll be ahead of the game for next spring.

While the birds are nesting, take a little time to watch them as they go about their affairs. Can you tell if the male and female take turns incubating? See if the adults are removing eggshells from the nest, a sure sign of hatching. You may also spot some birds carrying away small white pouches of excrement known as fecal sacs. When you watch to see what they bring to the nest to feed their young, that’s when you’ll become fast friends.

The vast majority of songbirds, regardless of what the adults eat, feed their young a high-protein diet of insects – the larvae of Cabbage White butterflies, leatherjackets and more. The swallows feed exclusively on flying insects, including mosquitoes and other nuisance insects. One bird eats many insects, but a family of four or five rapidly growing young can become a real asset in the garden.

As the young grow, sometimes things can go awry, and you may find yourself face-to-face with an “orphaned” baby bird. This is a distressing situation for homeowners, but there are several steps you can follow to help avoid a tragedy.

The first step is to ensure that there are no predators in the area, and that generally means cats. Then you need to take a little time to observe the baby bird. Is the bird really an orphan? Is it feathered? If it is, it may be in the first stages of leaving the nest. Remember that some birds spend most of their time on the ground, and this may be part of their training. The bird will likely be calling so that its parents can locate it. Watch to see if the parents return to feed it. If you do not see them for an hour or so, you may have to take some action.

If the parents do not return, or if the bird is obviously too young to be out of the nest, try to locate the nest, and replace the bird in it. Don’t worry about touching the young bird. Most birds have no sense of smell, and the parents will not reject it. (One exception is the Turkey Vulture, and you don’t want to mess with a mother Turkey Vulture.) If you cannot locate the nest, you can fabricate one using a small berry basket and paper towel. Fasten your makeshift nest in the tree nearest where you found the bird, and wait to see if the parents return.

If it appears that the bird really is orphaned, your next step would be to contact a wildlife rehabilitation centre. Your local SPCA or veterinarian should be able to help you find one, or try the website of the Wildlife Rehabilitators Network of B.C. (www.wrn.bc.ca). If you have no such resources nearby, and you want to try to raise the bird yourself, you may be able to find information in the library or on the Internet, but it can be a challenge.

There are three other things gardeners can do in consideration of their avian visitors. The first is to be cautious with the use of pesticides. A caterpillar dying of bug poison is easy prey to a bird, which can then take the pesticide into its own system. Do your research very carefully, or better yet, do without the chemicals. Secondly, keep cats under control. Young birds can be stupid and clumsy, and millions of them are killed by cats each year. If your cat is not an indoor pet (it will live three to four times longer if it is), at least keep it inside during the early morning, when the birds are their most active. Finally, during the dry days of summer, make some water available to the birds for drinking and for bathing. You will also be rewarded with the opportunity to watch their antics as they perform their ablutions.

I consider it a great blessing when I discover nesting birds in my garden. It’s a privilege to watch them go about their lives, and it’s a sign that this little ecosystem is healthy, and a little more complete.

Bruce Whittington is president of the Victoria Natural History Society and executive director of Habitat Acquisition Trust.