Review: Bird Homes and Habitats

bird homes and habitatsThere are a lot of books out there on how to attract birds to your yard.  The basics of providing bird feeders and housing have been known for over 100 years. So what is to distinguish one bird-helping book from any other?

Bill Thompson III’s Bird Homes and Habitats (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013) is a recent addition that distinguishes itself with several great features:

The AuthorBill Thompson III, longtime editor of BirdWatcher’s Digest and author of many bird books, is a well-known figure in the birding community–as is his wife, fellow author, artist, and bird expert Julie Zickefoose.  Bird Homes and Habitats gives us all another chance to hang out with Bill and Julie as they share their passion and knowledge.  Bill has a relaxed and engaging style that has made him a popular writer and speaker on the birding circuit, and that style is well evident here, making Bird Homes and Habitats a fun read.  Several bonus essays by Julie Zickefoose on being a backyard bird landlord, taking care of orphan birds, and dealing with nest box competition are additional highlights.

Birdy Backyard All-Stars–one of the final chapters of this book profiles 15 yards and yard owners who are doing fun things for birds on their property.  This further grounds Bird Homes and Habitats in real world settings, providing essentially 15 inspiring PSAs promoting bird-friendly yards.  Many of these All-Stars are also well-known writers in the birding community, so it is fun to see where they live and what they are doing for birds.

Photos–As with all BirdWatcher’s Digest publications, we get great photos illustrating the main ideas of book, making for a very attractive and informative presentation.

Troubleshooting and FAQs–this extended section answers many questions that would-be bird landlords may have, as well as providing many useful tips about taking care of birds in general.

All in all, this book is more than just a how-to manual, it is an inspiring and useful resource that brings a lot of heart and soul to our bird-friendly practices.   It is well produced, and provides most of the basics that we would expect about bird nest boxes.

A couple things to add–Bird Homes and Habitats starts the story of efforts to help bluebirds with the Audubon Naturalist Society efforts in the 1970s.  I would have liked to have seen a nod to earlier bluebird trail pioneers such as Thomas E. Musselman, William Duncan, and Oscar Findlay (see that history here).  In addition, the narrative on Purple Martins makes the claim that in the early 19th Century Alexander Wilson observed these birds nesting in gourds provided by Native Americans, and that this note supplies the “first documented record of human-supplied housing being used by birds in North America.”  In actuality, Wilson was a late reporter of this phenomena, which had been detailed as early as the 1670s by English clergyman and naturalist John Banister.  There are many additional reports from the 1700s on Purple Martins and other birds using nest boxes in North America.

These minor historical quibbles aside, I found Bird Homes and Habitats to be a good review of bird housing basics, and very inspirational and informative, and I would recommend it to anyone wanting to get started helping birds in their backyard, and for those more experienced backyard bird helpers that want additional information and especially the personal insights provided by Bill Thompson III and Julie Zickefoose.

Urban Birdscapes on Facebook

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Now it is easier than ever to share urban bird conservation news and notices through a public Urban Birdscapes Facebook Group.  Join the group to be part of the movement to make cities and neighborhoods around the world better for birds and people.

Year of the Starling in the Netherlands

Vogelbescherming Nederland (BirdLife Netherlands) is promoting 2014 as the Year of the Starling.  Here’s one of their promotional posters.


Starlings are urban exploiters, nesting in cities and foraging widely in a agricultural fields. They have declined by over 50% in many parts of Europe.

From 1984 to 2012, the breeding population in the Netherlands decreased by an average of 4% per year. As a result, there currently less than 40% of the population of the mid-eighties . The downward trend has slowed in the last decade, but still exceeds 2% per year.

Agricultural intensification has limited formerly abundant foods, and now they are faced with additional food losses caused by the neonicotinoid pesticides that are wiping out bees.

While not a species of conservation concern in North America, in their native Europe this vulnerable common bird bears watching and protecting.

BirdLife International Survey on the Status of Urban Bird Conservation

bigub survey coverLast week in Ottawa we were able to present our BirdLife International Survey on the Status of Urban Bird Conservation to Marco Lambertini, the CEO of BirdLife International, at the BirdLife International World Congress.  This survey provides a look into the urban bird conservation efforts of 49 BirdLife International partners and affiliate organizations around the world.  Lots of good details, as well as survey results from an additional 25 Audubon chapters across the United States.

Download a .pdf here:

BirdLife International Survey on the Status of Urban Bird Conservation

What the heck is a Birdscape?

The first use of the term “birdscaping” that I can find is in the title of Birdscaping Your Yard, a 47 page pamphlet published by the State of Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection in 1972. The term “birdscaping” is not used in the text itself, where the process of creating wildlife habitat in residential yards is termed wildlife gardening or landscaping.  In 1979, Carlin Kindilien wrote a small booklet entitled Natural Birdscaping: How to Attract Birds to Your Yard Naturally.

In 1994, Rodale Press published Birdscaping Your Garden by George Adams. This 208 page reference work uses the term birdscaping frequently in the text, and also refers to created bird habitats as “birdscapes.”

In 2000, Birdscapes was launched as the all bird conservation magazine of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service.  The Cornell Lab of Ornithology used Birdscapes as the title of a bird song pop-up book in 2008.

In the past decade, the term birdscaping has become much more common. A Google search in 2004 yielded 835 websites using the term, including sites published by Wildbirds.comhavahart.comKVFS TV 12 in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and the Sydney, Australia Birds in Backyards Project.  That same search now brings up over 660,000 hits!

While the term birdscapes and birdscaping are fairly new, the concept of landscaping to attract birds has historic roots in European and Middle Eastern bird-bottle and Colonial American birdhouse technologies, the landscape gardening movement in 18th Century England, the bird-preservation studies of Baron von Berlepsch in Germany in the late 1900s, and the popularization of bird feeding, gardening, and landscaping in America during the early 20th Century “Back to Nature” movement.

The strength of birdscaping as a conservation strategy lies in its inherently positive (you can attract and save birds because you like them) rather than negative (birds are being wiped out so we have to do something) approach. In this sense, it transcends the traditional understanding that wildlife management is typically spurred upon realization of declining populations of valued species.  It is also a strategy that helps us realize the importance of urban areas as habitat for birds and wildlife.

In short, birdscaping is a positive conservation concept and strategy that appeals to nature-loving homeowners in urban and suburban neighborhoods without resorting to doom-and-gloom rhetoric frequently common in talk about the state of the environment!  What’s not to like!?!

Bird City Wisconsin

BirdCitylogoFinalCropped200I first heard about the Bird City Wisconsin program back in 2004 when I was teaching an Urban Bird Conservation course at the University of Texas-Austin.  When I went to work for Audubon later that year, this was one of the ideas I hoped we could get going nationally.  No dice.  At least so far.  However, the efforts are growing.  Bird City Wisconsin is now spearheaded out of Milwaukee Audubon and Steve Saffier who worked with me at Audubon now has a similar program up and going in Pennsylvania.

There are now 60 bird cities in the Badger State.  To become a bird city, municipalities must meet at least 7 of 22 criteria that include creation and protection of habitat, community forest management, addressing hazards to birds, public education, and celebration of International Migratory Bird Day.

In addition to their website, you can check out Bird City Wisconsin on Facebook.

Bird Towns in Pennsylvania

birdtownlogo2010_200Audubon Pennsylvania has a great Bird Town program that helps local  municipalities improve the habitat value of their town, promote environmental stewardship, and recognize their efforts.  Among the criteria to become a Bird Town, a municipality must:

1) Complete a Bird Town Application

2) Agree to work with Audubon to immediately promote their Bird Town status by:

    • Publishing the “Welcome to Bird Town” article in their next newsletter
    • Creating a Bird Town webpage on the municipal website
    • Posting at least five street signs (provided) and one banner
    • Providing Audubon with local press contacts to promote Bird Town Backyard Workshops
    • Making outreach materials available to the public

3) Assign a point person to act as liaison between the “town” and Audubon.

4) Promotion of a Bird Town Festival.  This may be a regional festival, a stand-alone municipal festival, or part of an existing eco-fest or community day

So far there are 19 Bird Towns in 7 Pennsylvania counties.  Another great idea from Audubon PA, a leader in urban bird conservation among the Audubon network in the U.S. Check it out!

Foul Fowl: Bird Pests in Ancient and Modern Egypt

Wish I were able to attend this recent conference in Egypt, and especially to see this interesting presentation by Nicole B. Hansen.

Foul Fowl: Birds as Agricultural Pests
Birds are often thought of by Egyptologists for their frequent appearance as hieroglyphic signs, as a significant source of dietary protein, as animal mummies, or for the reverence shown to them in the ancient religion. Because Egypt was, and still is, an important migratory corridor for birds and a place where they have long refueled themselves before continuing on their journey over sea and desert, they are also one of a number of fauna that posed a threat to the food supply in ancient Egypt, alongside insects, mice, monkeys and even hippopotami. This paper will explore the role of birds as agricultural pests in ancient Egypt, using ancient archaeological, artistic, and textual as well as modern ethnographic and ornithological evidence. The species of birds responsible for such depredations, the food sources (fruit, grain and animal) that they targeted, and behavioral and seasonal aspects will be discussed. In addition, various preventative tactics, means of scaring, and traps used to reduce the damage that birds caused will be covered.

Working with Homeowner Associations

Why should bird conservationists work with homeowners associations?  San Diego Audubon has a great workbook answering this question, and providing guidelines for creating and implementing sustainable, nature-friendly landscaping projects within planned communities administered by a homeowners association.  The 20 page guidebook also includes a case study from the community of Eastlake in Chula Vista, California, where the Audubon chapter was able to work with local partners to plant 472 native shrubs and 16 trees on a 1.4 acre hillside.  In addition, 71 participants came to 4 workshops, and additional sustainable landscapes were created on 14 private and3 community properties were certified as habitat.

Check out the guidebook here:  Community-scaled Conservation in Planned Communities

Green Wall at BirdLife Netherlands

In dense urban environments, were there isn’t a lot of open space for habitat, pioneering urban ecologists have been constructing green walls of vegetation to serve as habitat and improve the air quality and thermal properties of the city.  This week BirdLife Netherlands unveiled their own new green wall, complete with a Great Tit nesting box, as urban bird habitat at their offices in Zeist.  Here’s a local Dutch news story with more picture of the wall and nest box (use Google translate to read it in English) .