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Birds of El Paso County

Backyard habitat


Last updated 1/6/2021 at 10:54am

Doug Harling

A red tail hawk finds some water to drink on a cold winter day. Different types of birds will travel varying distances to find water, but many backyard birds prefer to stay put in order to conserve energy. Providing water for them in your yard helps to accomplish this.

I hope everyone has been well! It is good to be back sharing the love of birds with all of you. I just want to start by saying, I've missed you all and I've missed writing the column. It means the world to me that many readers have been asking for my column to return. I think writing the columns was more beneficial to me than I realized. This issue is my first issue back.

I will be sharing one column a month instead of weekly. The plan is to have a column come out the first week of each month. I will share tips on backyard birding and try to provide guidance in finding, identifying and practicing proper ethical guidelines while viewing the birds in our area.

I spend countless hours following and photographing the birds in El Paso County, and most of you know that raptors are my true passion; however, backyard birds are where my real knowledge lies. My passion for birds started in my backyard and grew from there. I started with a few hummingbird feeders and took pictures with my cell phone.

My wife and I found ourselves in the position to raise two of our grandsons. They were only 5 and 3 years old at the time, and we wanted to do something to make the house feel like their home. I had read about certifying your yard as a wildlife habitat, so I purchased a bunch of feeders and got my backyard certified as a wildlife habitat from the National Wildlife Federation.

From day one, the feeding and maintenance of the birds has been the boys' responsibility. (I highly recommend this if you have young kids at home.) It teaches the kids love and respect for wildlife and nature. It seems like a chore to them at times, but often they come running in to tell me about a specific bird or a bird's behavior. Most of all, they have learned that the birds need us more than we know. As cities expand and land is developed, it becomes harder and harder for wildlife to find ways to meet basic needs.

Backyard birding is the second most popular hobby in the world. Whether it be a yard like mine in the city, a wildlife sanctuary in Africa, a city park in New York or an apartment balcony in Tokyo, Japan, people love to feed and interact with the birds. The goal for a backyard habitat is to create a "faux habitat" meaning to recreate the most natural environment for the birds. The National Wildlife Federation has five requirements to certify a habitat, and yes, even an apartment balcony can be certified if these 5 requirements are met.

1) Food: store-bought seeds, fruits, and plants that provide berries, insects and pollen.

2) Water: I will cover this more in this column.

3) Cover: I will cover this in an upcoming column as we move into spring. Don't cut down old shrubs yet!

4) Place to raise young: Trees, shrubs and nesting boxes. Young birds need a different kind of habitat than adult birds.

5) Sustainable practices: How you manage your garden can be the difference between a few birds stopping by your yard or many birds making your yard their home!

I give educational talks to different groups in our area on backyard birding. No matter what time of year I give these talks, I always start with winter. The best success to a summer habitat full of birds is to maintain a good winter habitat. As we move into spring, I will talk more about why this is so important. For this month, I will end with my best winter tip.

Doug Harling

A bird bath heater, such as the one shown above right, is an easy way to maintain an unfrozen water supply.

The No. 1 hobby in the world is backyard gardening, which kind of goes hand in hand with the backyard birding. With the winters being so cold here, outside activities scale way back. People love to sit to in their yard or at a nearby park and watch and feed the birds in the summer, but gardens die off during the winter and all the color and natural beauty is gone until spring. Many people who love the backyard birds just kind of forget about them when winter sets in. Like I said, earlier: "A key to a successful summer of birds is to take good care of them during the winter." Not all birds migrate, and we are the migration destination for some of the northern species. I said I would talk about water today. I think water is the most overlooked need for the birds in the winter. Often our water lines are winterized, and anything sitting out freezes so fast that water for the birds gets forgotten about. It is hard to make yourself go out and maintain bird feeders when it's 10 degrees outside. Even if you miss a day or two, most birds can kick through the snow and find some food. When it is bitter cold out, water can be impossible to find. This is why a bird bath heater is so very important. I have one image of a local Red Tail Hawk trying to find some water on a bitter cold day. This hawk can fly a few blocks to the creek and find some water. Backyard birds can fly a few blocks to get water as well. However, birds will try to conserve as much energy as they can in the winter so if they have to fly a few blocks for water, that is just where they will stay. Your backyard bird is not going to fly a few blocks for a drink and then fly back.

Bird bath heaters easily take care of that and are easy to maintain. I have included a picture of the type of bird bath heater I use. You can find several different types. This kind is one you just set in your bird bath. They also make bird baths that the entire bath has its own heater inside. If all else fails, even a heated dog water bowl will work. Just go online and search "bird bath heater" or your local garden store may carry some. Before spring comes, I will talk more about why a yard full of birds in the winter will help for a successful summer of birds.

Please feel free to reach out to me with any questions you may have or even with a story you would like to share.

Facebook: Doug Harling

Email: [email protected]

Happy Birding!


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