Spring 1970: Freshman year at Ohio State University. A guy in zoology class asks me to go bird watching. He'll pick me up Saturday, and we'll head south of Columbus to study migrants for his Ornithology 401 midterm.
Pat arrives in a rag-tag Rambler station wagon. It chugs to a state park, and we select a narrow, wooded trail. I carry no-name binoculars redeemed with S&H Green Stamps. Monstrous 20x50s adorn his chest. We walk a few minutes, then he points and whispers, "Rose-breasted grosbeak."
My birding experience is limited to wrens, woodpeckers, and cardinals. Who's this bozo kidding with a name like rose-breasted grosbeak? I aim my glasses in the general direction but have no idea what to expect.
"Do you see it?" he inquires.
"Up there," he murmurs, slipping behind and encircling me with his arms as he lowers the 20x50's to my eyes. Highly magnified branches wiggle wildly. The more I try to focus, the dizzier I become. I realize a man I do not know has his arms around me on a remote trail. I don't want to scream-so I lie.
"I see it."
"Really?" he says suspiciously. "It flew."
Luckily, it perches on a bare branch. When I finally focus on the elusive black-and-white bird with crimson ascot, I gasp. Awed by the moment, I have no clue the man beside me will share more than 35 years of future birding adventures, or that we will eventually attract these breathtaking birds to our yard.
Backyard Habitats Proliferate
In 1970 few people offered more than a simple feeder to lure birds into view. Now, enhancing backyard habitat is tremendously popular. By sprinkling a water feature here or adding plants there to provide food, shelter, and nesting cover, urban and suburban dwellers can convert a barren lawn into an oasis for wildlife.
During the past three decades, Pat and I have learned much about transforming backyards into birding hotspots. We improved yards in Mississippi, West Virginia, and Maryland for a wealth of species, including bluebirds, hummingbirds, towhees, and titmice.
Tip 1: Diversity Matters
Here in western North Carolina, we discovered a languishing mountainside farm, ripe in diversity with fruit trees, pasture, brushy fencerows, thickets, hardwood forest, and clear-running streams. To that nurturing mix, we added native meadow in lieu of lawn; beds of nectar-bearing flowers to please hummingbirds and butterflies; fruit-laden trees and shrubs; and an array of nest boxes sized for species from wrens to owls. As biologists, we know the more diverse our property is, the more wildlife it will attract.
Rose-breasted grosbeaks are generalists in food and habitat requirements, much like their cardinal cousins. Massive beaks allow them to crush and devour wild grapes, cherries, blackberries, dogwood fruits, and weed seeds. While nesting, they consume countless creeping and hopping insects, including tent and gypsy moth caterpillars, cankerworms, even potato beetles. Suburban yards, especially those shaded by maple, oak, or basswood trees, provide perfect places to balance their twiggy nests on forked limbs.
Not all of our avian guests are as easy to please. Eastern bluebirds are passionate about our pasture, returning earlier than other spring migrants to claim choice tree cavities or nest boxes near the grassy fields on our farm. Like grosbeaks, bluebirds switch from winter fruits to a high-protein diet of insects while raising young. Their best hunting occurs in mown grass rather than fields rank with weeds and grasses. Suburban birders are often very successful offering nest boxes to bluebirds because mown lawns (if the neighborhood is not drenched with lawn-care chemicals) are perfect sources of crickets, beetles, and spiders.
On our mountainside, bluebirds choose a favorite box in the south-facing pasture, where insects are prevalent in April and May. When waist-high grasses obscure insect quarry in summer, the bluebirds relocate to a regularly mown area near our garden for their second brood. Why don't we cut the pasture? We also host golden-winged warblers, whose numbers are plummeting because of habitat loss. These lovely birds, recognized by golden foreheads and gold wing patches, inhabit old fields becoming thickets. They nest at the base of sturdy plants such as goldenrod and hunt for spiders, moths, and caterpillars hidden among the leaves of young locusts, dogwoods, or viburnum shrubs. We manage for golden-winged warblers by allowing alternating portions of the pasture to mature for a decade, then clear it and begin anew.
Tip 2: Plant Wildlife Magnets
Most people who enhance backyards for birds do so in hopes of attracting a beloved species. Neighbors in West Virginia were enamored with goldfinches and began their quest to host them by hanging nyger seed feeders near the patio. Later they planted purple coneflowers and black-eyed susans natives with seasonal seeds goldfinches relish. Another friend wanted hummingbirds in her yard, so she planted a spring-through-autumn progression of perennials wild columbine, coral bells, bee balm, jewelweed, and cardinal flower to supply the red, nectar-filled flowers hummers thrive on.
No matter where you live, you can enhance the surrounding habitat with plants that provide fruit, seed, nectar, or shelter all of which act as magnets to entice target birds to your doorstep. All it takes is a bit of research using birding magazines, gardening catalogs, or the Internet to match the species you desire with plants, nest boxes, or water features that will lure them.
Tip 3: Enjoy the View
Adding key plants, growing sheltering trees and shrubs, or installing water features takes more than a weekend. Enhancing your backyard to lure new birds becomes a lifestyle. Before you undertake this effort, look around to decide where the investment makes most sense perhaps near the patio or outside a dining room window. Then train yourself in another important behavior: Pause often to enjoy the view!
Through the years, Pat and I have developed an unspoken rule. Whenever we catch the first spring glimpse of black, white, and rose at our feeder, we grab binoculars and relive the moment we saw the bird that changed our lives.
Freelance nature writer and photographer Connie Toops lives on a 128-acre mountainside farm in western North Carolina (www.lostcovefarm.com). She has authored numerous books and magazine articles, and travels widely to speak on birding, wildlife gardening, and nature photography subjects.