“Birds Love Messy Winter Yards!”

Most people don’t like to entertain the word “Messy” or even be associated with “Messy,” but if we are wildlife activists and dedicated conservationists, we might need to rethink that term. It turns out that the survival and reproductive success in the spring for birds and mammals that we enjoy and love, are largely dependent upon the conditions of their winter habitat. It is crucial that all wildlife be able to forage during the winter on seed-heads, shriveled fruits, dried plants, insects (that feed on dead and decaying plant life), fungi and bacteria, and what better place to do that than in a messy, unkept yard! Maybe it’s time to put down the garden tools and go easy on yard work this winter. If you’ve had a garden in your yard, that is a bonus to wildlife. Gardens are alive, no matter what time of year. Whether resident or migrating, finches, sparrows, chickadees, buntings, blue-jays, nuthatches, blackbirds and grosbeaks will be stopping by an unkept garden, and the messier the better. Bird feeders that are kept full and clean are nice and a little extra, but a messy yard or garden provides the opportunity for more natural foraging. Insect eating birds or mammals will discover a smorgasbord in the “galls” of plants, which are bulbous swellings created by insects, such as beetles, flies or wasps, who move in to lay eggs and allow the eggs to incubate until spring. That is unless a hungry woodpecker or mammal finds the plump larvae first and makes a hearty meal out of them! This is a glorious and nutritious find during a bleak winter, which is a great reason to leave our yards messy. Bees also use messy yards to provide habitat and protection during the winter. Piles of dried leaves, decomposing logs or cavities in hollowed out sticks or fallen limbs attract a variety of bees for overwintering. Bees might be accompanied by butterflies who will be encouraged to overwinter as well, if they are offered thick mounds of leaf litter or other cavities to crawl in to weather the cold and harsh elements presented during winter. If butterfly presence is not convincing enough, hundreds of other critters can overwinter in gardens; assassin bugs, praying mantises, lace wings, wolf spiders, minute pirate bugs, damsel bugs, ground beetles and ladybugs. All these insects and arachnids are beneficial to birds as a food source which means that, as a gardener, you benefit from having them around. Most birds are predators because many eat insects, as well as, seeds. American Robins, Brown Thrashers, Eastern Towhees, Crows and White-throated Sparrows routinely flip leaves over in search of food. Leaf cover improves their odds of finding protein-rich invertebrates such as beetles, earthworms and millipedes, which seek shelter under the security of leaves. So, birds are taking out insect pests that, if left unchecked, could become problematic in flower and vegetable gardens in the spring. Also, leaving layers of leaf litter for animals, such as opossums to burrow under in the winter, allows them to get a jump-start on minimizing pesky insect infestations in the spring and summer. Let’s see, how do we encourage messiness in our yards? Here are a few tips; put down the rake and leave your leaves in your yard (in mounds or as a blanket because leaves will rot, enrich the soil and provide places for bugs and birds to forage), create patches of habitat for critters such as salamanders, snails, worms and toads with leaf litter, allow dried flower heads to remain standing (save the seeds and refrain from snipping the stems of perennial flowers. Coneflowers , Black-Eyed Susans , and other native wildflowers provide an excellent source of winter calories for birds), don’t mow your grass as often (allow it to be a little taller), build brush piles with fallen branches rather than remove them which will serve to shelter birds, as well as other beneficial wildlife, from bad weather and predators, do not use chemicals in your yard for they will render the space uninhabitable for birds and other critters (besides, native grasses, shrubs, trees and flowering plants don’t need chemical fertilizers. Grass clippings and mulched leaf litter provide plenty of plant nutrition), leave snags on your property and just delay the whole garden clean-up until spring. Now, if mammals are more your focus, be assured that squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, opossums, deer and others will also enjoy the end of season bounty in the form of dried seeds, unharvested vegetables, or the hardy leaves left widespread for them. So, a messy yard can be a very good thing when you consider the food and shelter it offers birds and other visiting critters during cold winter months. Don’t forget the bonus of a spent garden that will provide nourishment at all levels of the food chain. Besides helping our wildlife survive in our messy yards, we need to focus on continuing the growing awareness of the value of supporting native biodiversity. What is truly beautiful? You decide; is it a clean, tidy yard or the amazing birds and other wildlife that pass through your property or take up residency within your view? That’s what I thought, too! Let’s be okay with feeling a little lazy and celebrate the abundance of activity and beauty that can emerge from a messy yard!


best always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “SAVE THEM ALL

“The Tiniest Need Our Help!!”

Blog_CSMag_BabyBirds_The incubators are filling up at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter (OWLS) in Newport, NC because the tiniest need our help! Baby birds aren’t the cutest little critters to come through the doors of the shelter, but they are the most fragile and definitely will not make it on their own if abandoned or displaced. If they are newborns, we might not be able to make the call on what they are until they develop a little more because many baby birds start life looking quite similar and the smaller the bird species the more similar they look at birth; a skin blob of a body with no feathers, a limp neck trying to hold up a tiny head with a beak that shoots straight up to let Mom or Dad know when it’s hungry. When we admit newborn birds, we might even refer to them as UBBs (unidentified baby birds) until we hear a sound we recognize, the shape and coloring of their beak becomes more pronounced or they start to feather. Then we will know for sure!Blog_CSMag_BabyBird_
Larger song bird babies are easier to identify. When the nursery is full of baby birds, it becomes a full time job for baby bird feeders because these little creatures eat every 30 minutes because their metabolism is so fast and they develop much more quickly than mammals do. Also keep in mind, their meals don’t stop, this is seven days a week! Most people outside the shelter probably do not have the time to devote to this strict feeding schedule. If you add “day olds” or newborns to the mix, the feeding schedule for them is adjusted to every 15 minutes! We also need three shifts (morning, afternoon and evening until the sun goes down) to get the job done because that’s the way their parents would do it! There is no down time for the nursery workers. By the time you finish one round of feeding, it’s time to start all over again. Along with feeding, of course, is cleaning, because just like human babies, baby birds spend all their time eating, sleeping and pooping. Mom and Dad would be cleaning their nest area continually, so wildlife rehabilitators will do that as well. Recently, a nest of five House Finches were displaced when their nest gourd fell apart and the babies found themselves on the ground, four infant Carolina Wrens were discovered in a propane tank, a featherless baby Grackle was found sitting in the road (how that happened is anybody’s guess) and two Nuthatch babies were sighted inside a screen door with no Mom around. When you don’t see how it happened, it’s all speculation and pure wonderment on our part. There will be more baby bird calls and more to join the nursery this summer. Blog_CSMag_I7Z1049__Of course, when someone calls the shelter to tell us they have found baby birds on the ground or their nest is in a dangerous or precarious location, we initially give instructions on how to re-nest the little ones because that would be best for the whole bird family, but when that is impossible, we ask them to bring the youngins in for the care and safety they will need to survive. Wildlife rehabilitators are so important in the equation of raising and giving songbirds the second chance that they definitely deserve because, quite frankly, it’s usually human interference that displaces the little ones and causes a perilous situation for birds that are so important to our ecosystem, and as we are all aware, songbird numbers are on the decline. Blog_BabyBirds In NestWildlife rehabilitators are well trained and licensed, so they possess the “know-how” to provide appropriate species specific diets and habitat, as well as, anticipate and monitor species unique behaviors that when evaluated will let us know when bird youngsters are ready to spend the time needed in an outside enclosure to perfect perching, flight and eating on their own, which is one step away from a wild release. The Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter raises them all! We are not bias on which species to accept. Need is the key word!!! So, in our nursery in any given Spring, we house the tiniest of our feathered friends from Hummingbirds (although rare) to Finches, Wrens, Nuthatches, Titmouse, Warblers and Sparrows and the larger songbirds (who are usually the easier babies to raise because one: they are bigger and two: aren’t as ‘flitty.’) Larger nursery birds would include Eastern Blue Birds, Northern Mockingbirds, Robins, Blue Jays, Brown Thrashers, Cardinals, Gray Cat Birds, Starlings, Grackles, Boat Tailed Grackles, Chimney Swifts, Purple Martins, Fly Catchers, Barn Swallows, Red-Winged Blackbirds and the biggest nursery babies; a variety of Wood Peckers or Flickers, Mourning Doves and Pigeons. They are all so different, and they all have special needs!Blog_CSMag_I7Z1054__ Some are bugs and worm eaters (and we go through thousands of meal worms per week!), while others prefer seeds and berries, then again, some are omnivores and will include all the choices in their diet, but yes, we proudly raise them all!

Please enjoy your Memorial Day and always remember the reason this day has been set aside to be honored by those of us who owe so much to sacrifices made by others.

Best Always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

The Good Mothers (revisit)

ACSMag-BarnSwallowsX_Nursery attendants have shifted into high gear to accommodate the every thirty minutes feeding schedule for the bird newborns and fledglings who now and will claim the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter at 100 Wildlife Way in Newport as their foster home this summer. The incubators are full and the table and counters are covered with crab boxes, waterless fish tanks and netted doll playpens, all housing a variety of infant and juvenile bird species. Same size and compatible youngins like robins, blue jays and mockingbirds can room together, while some loners, who don’t get along with anybody, get their own space. We learned this the hard way when we tried to buddy a Titmouse with a House Finch years ago. We never knew a cute, tiny Titmouse could be so vicious. It was a frenzied evacuation, and we apologized to the terrorized Finch for the rest of the day. Wildlife rehabilitators squeeze in between and around canopied, human baby playpens on the floor used to restrict fully feathered adolescents who are still learning to eat on their own before the big move to an outside enclosure for flight school. Well-meaning people, who do not understand the natural behaviors of wildlife, deliver birdnapped, bobble-headed babies to the shelter every day. Unfeathered infant birds are the most fragile of all babies we receive during spring breeding season. The list of admit reasons is quite extensive; “I think they’ve been abandoned” (probably not) or “the big birds keep flying at me when I go near the nest” (but that’s understandable – protecting their children), or “they leave droppings on my car” (so . . maybe. . . move your car?), or “they nested in my mailbox” (how about . . . using a temporary mail container on top or to the side of the box for a few weeks, just until the little birds wave thank you, adios, hasta luego!). It’s a very slim chance they’ve been abandoned in most cases. Even if something happens to one bird parent the other will continue to bring food to the nest until the newborns are ready to take flight. ACSMag_2starlingsBlogEThe only excuses that really carry weight at the shelter are ” The cat was about to get them” or “I pulled the snake out of the nesting box, but he’d already eaten two.” (Yes, the snake must eat, but two is more than enough.) Living in the wild is harsh, even the semi-wild such as your backyard or workplace. Unfortunately, bird parents do not have the defenses needed to save their young from domestic or feral cats and dogs that injure, kill or orphan millions of birds each year, and they don’t pack the punch to whip up on an aggressive snake, either. Those little hollow legs just don’t have the Disney Ninja kick they need to do business. So, there are some good reasons to disrupt the family unit but not many. Although natural mothers provide better care, nutrition and survival training than any wildlife rehabilitator, we do our best as foster moms for the orphans in our care. We can feed the babies comparable diets, be it syringe fed formula, fruits, crickets, a variety of seed, meal worms and for the robins, juicy earthworms we dig out of the compost pile, but we don’t look like their parents (although some might want to debate that) and try as we might, we can’t teach them to be wild.ACSMag_feedingbirds_0202XBlog They just don’t take us seriously enough. They will have to depend on each other for that. Our golden advice is and has always been; if they are not in danger and there is a possibility the mother is around, wait. There are plenty of good mothers out there, even if you don’t see them. Wildlife mothers (and fathers) are devoted to the survival of their offspring, but Mom must leave the nest from time to time to feed herself and find food for the babies. After fledging, young birds will still hang with their parents and beg for food, much like human babies old enough to leave the nest but smart enough to know a good thing when they’ve got it. Have faith in the good wildlife mothers. They possess instinctive loyalty and tenacity far beyond our awareness. One of the Good Mothers we came in contact with a while back was a Mourning Dove who nested in a hanging plant every year at a hardware store. ACSMag_Good Mothers-1After situating herself, the clerks would pull other plants around her for safety, place a “Do Not Disturb” sign and pile straw beneath her chosen nesting spot to cushion a fall if a baby dove took a dive. One year, during a tropical storm, the torrential rains didn’t let up for hours, and we couldn’t help thinking about her; wondering if the hanging plant could possibly drain fast enough to prevent drowning the babies. A wildlife rehabilitator threw on her rain poncho and headed to the store, which was closed due to the hurricane threat, only to find the Good Mother hunkered down on her nest and although soaked herself, keeping her dependent brood dry. If you come across an active bird nest you feel is in a danger zone or has become a nuisance to you, please call us (OWLS) at (252)-240-1200 or a wildlife shelter close to you before displacing it. The bird world will thank you!
The first wild babies displaced this spring who reached our rehab door were mammals; squirrels, opossums and cottontails. They arrived in all stages of development, and our staff morphed into the Good Mothers needed for each species. We have already released the strong, feisty and ready to go their wild way early borns, and we are prepared to steadfastly stay the course throughout the summer, ensuring all wildlife orphans are properly raised and become strong and cleverly keen enough to live their second chance!

Best Always, (and have a safe and sensational summer!)

Linda Berman-Althouse

Author of  “Save Them All