Fall is the perfect time to turn your backyard into a bird-watching paradise.
Migratory birds are on the wing making their way through Birmingham on their way to Mexico or points farther south.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has found that one in four American adults enjoy some sort of bird-watching, whether it’s getting as involved as taking an ecotourism trip to see birds or as simple as putting up a feeder.
Bird-watching has been found to decrease stress and increase productivity, so filling your feeder can be a boon for you as well as the birds.
Mid-October is peak migratory season for many of the songbirds that would stop at a feeder in Alabama.
A water feature is also a big hit with birds, said Greg Harber, who teaches bird-watching classes in Birmingham.
He said in his own Southside backyard attracts all manner of birds in its urban setting, just with a two-foot-by-three-foot water feature with a little drip.
He suggests sealing a soda bottle full of water and then poking a tiny hole in it and hanging it off a limb over a pan. Something that simple can attract birds, although stores that cater to bird-watchers feature more sophisticated drips or spray mists to attract birds.
Feeding birds is especially important during migratory season because the birds are fattening up for a trip south and need all the reserves they can muster. In cities, it’s especially important, because the birds have been robbed of so much of their natural habitat.
Migratory songbirds are declining at a rate of 2 percent a year in North America, so they need all the help they can get. Forest fragmentation, loss of habitat here and in their wintering spots, pesticides and other factors are believed to be at fault.
Harber also encourages people to plant berry bushes or trees to grow fall berries. It’s win-win, he said. “Who wouldn’t want a beautiful dogwood in their front yard?” And in the fall, the berries attract thrushes and other beautiful forest birds. During the year, birds eat a more varied diet, but in the fall they have been found to rely heavily on berries. Scientists say birds can eat three times their weight in berries when they’re fattening up for migration.
Pokeweed and other native plants are also good sources of fall bird food.
That’s not to say a well-stocked feeder with seeds, mealyworms or suet wouldn’t also be appreciated by your feathered friends. Suet attracts woodpeckers all winter.
And consider stepping out of your backyard to look for migrants. Any of the area parks are prime places to spot migrating birds right now. Harber said he has spotted 110 species in migration in the Birmingham Botanical Gardens alone.
He said he recently had the unexpected sight of a sora, a type of rail that is found in wetlands, because there is a tiny wetland in Railroad Park, right in urban Birmingham.
“Believe me, it would not otherwise have stopped in downtown Birmingham,” Harber said. “For that sora, it was exactly what it needed.”
Other birds passing through right now include such colorful songbirds as goldfinches, purple finches, red-breasted nuthatches and rose-breasted grosbeaks.
And some birds are here to stay, like the yellow-bellied sapsucker, which comes to the American South to winter. That brings up another advantage of backyard birdfeeding: Birds that winter here may set up housekeeping in your backyard, giving you a visual feast for your eyes for a whole season.
“The amazing and fascinating thing about bird migration for me is that these small (and sometimes not so small) creatures move intercontinental distances as part of their lifestyle, and they do this annually,” said Hans Paul, president of the Birmingham Audubon Society.
“We have this amazing phenomenon happening in our midst twice a year, and most people are totally oblivious to it and probably also ignore that it is happening,” Paul said. “We just need to open our eyes and observe it as it is happening and let people know.”
The Birmingham Audubon Society offers field trips that are free and open to the public.
For details, go to www.birminghamaudubon.org
Katherine Bouma is publicity chair for the Birmingham Audubon Society.