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Spring brings seasonal sights, sounds of chirping baby birds

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Bluebirds have been at it for weeks, and hummingbirds will be at it soon – nesting and feeding baby birds.

It's part of the magic of the spring season, an annual ritual that never grows old or boring.

Why do birds nest where they do – in shrubs, tree cavities, houses or the flowering basket on your porch?

"Why birds select certain nesting sites and materials is only known to them," says Rock Moeslein, assistant education director at the Virginia Living Museum in Newport News.

"The selections have worked for hundreds of thousands of years so the process is now hard wired and instinctive to the birds. It happens because it works."

If you find a baby bird on the ground during nesting season, the best thing for the bird is to leave it alone, advises Moeslein.

"The parents are aware that the young bird is not in the nest and will feed it," he said.

"Most birds leave the nest before they can fly, because the nest is an egg holder, not a holder of hungry, moving, pushing young birds. I have seen young birds barely covered in feathers being fed by their parents away from the nest."

If a nest is on the ground with young birds or eggs in it, you can gently place it in a nearby tree. Wear gloves because some nests could contain feather lice, Moeslein said.

If the eggs were exposed to the weather for any length of time, they will probably not be alive. The parents will generally build a new nest elsewhere. If there are young birds, check the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries Wildlife Rehabilitators and locate a licensed animal rehabilitator for information. Go to http://www.dgif.virginia.gov/wildlife/injured/rehabilitators.asp for a list of licensed rehabilitators.

To welcome birds to your yard, you can help with nesting needs. Items such as clean, soft pet hair, wool or cotton fibers and dryer lint are often available at home, and can be put outdoors where birds can easily find the material, Moeslein said. Similar items can be purchased at local birding, gardening and pet stores.

In addition, you can install functional birdhouses that also add decorative touches to the landscape. Make sure the boxes are easy to clean annually, and select houses meant for the birds you want to attract.

You can also garden for the benefit of birds by avoiding chemicals that kill the insects they like to feed on, and landscape with plants that benefit their needs for shelter, food and nesting.

"The greater variety of wildlife living in our neighborhoods generally means that the environment is a healthier one for them and for us," Moeslein said.

"Growing a variety of plant life in the area will also encourage a healthier number of different birds for all of us to enjoy."

Best nesting birds

How some of the more common local birds nest and what they like for nesting materials along coastal Virginia, according to the Virginia Living Museum, include:

Brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum)

•Nest habitat: thickets, brushy fields, hedgerows and wood borders where the nest is placed inside heavy foliage.

•Nest materials: dry leaves, small twigs, grass stems, grapevine, inner bark and rootlets.

Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus)

•Nest habitat: natural cavity, hollowed gourd or birdhouse.

•Nest materials: mass of leaves, twigs, mosses, rootlets, fine grasses, feathers, hair and occasionally cast-off snake skins.

Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis)

•Nest habitat: soft, rotted tree that the adults excavate or a woodpecker hole, but they will easily move into a birdhouse built to their needs.

•Nest materials: moss, animal hair, rabbit fur, feathers, down of thistle and milkweed.

Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

•Nest habitat: dense shrubbery, small deciduous or coniferous trees, thickets, vines or briar tangles.

•Nest materials: vines, twigs, hair, grasses, bark strips and weed stalks.

Pine warbler (Dendroica pinus)

•Nest habitat: horizontal limb of pine trees usually 30–50 feet from the ground; nest is well concealed and completely hidden from ground sightings.

Nest materials: weed stems, bark strips, pine needles, and spider webs and lined with fern down, hair, needles and feathers.

Note: While you can't provide most warblers with nest boxes, you can encourage them by feeding them mealworms purchased at bird, garden or pet centers.

Ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris)

•Nest habitat: variety of trees 6-50 feet above the ground; nest attached to a branch or twig that slants downward. It is sheltered by leafy branches above and is open to the ground.

•Nest materials: fine grasses, plant down, spider or caterpillar silk, bud scales, mosses and lichens.

Note: To encourage hummingbirds to remain in your yard, provide hummingbird feeders or native plants with high nectar-producing flowers. If your yard features a reliable food source found during migration, they are more likely to remain there.

Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis)

•Nest habitat: open areas, farmlands, fields, open woods and constructed in the natural cavity of a tree, old woodpecker hole or bluebird house. Bluebirds do well with maintained bluebird houses.

•Nest materials: loosely made of fine grasses and weed stalks. Additional information can be found by contacting the Hampton Roads Bird Club (www.hamptonroadsbirdclub.org), the Williamsburg Bird Club (www.williamsburgbirdclub.org) or the Bluebird Society of Virginia (www.virginiabluebirds.org).

Contact Kathy at kvanmullekom@aol.com.

Birding events

There are several upcoming birding events at the Virginia Living Museum in Newport News. Register in advance at 595-1900, Ext. 217, or 595-9135 or http://www.thevlm.org.

Tuesday, April 1: "The Hummers are Coming" seminar. Explore the world of hummingbirds from 6-7:30 p.m. $7.

Friday-Saturday, April 11-12: Birding Cup Challenge. This event is a timed search for as many species of birds that can be found within a 24-hour period. Counting begins at 6:30 p.m. April 11 and ends at 6:30 p.m. April 12. Teams of three to five members may count in any or all of the following six areas: Newport News, York County, Hampton, Poquoson, Williamsburg and James City County. Prizes will be given to the experienced and novice birding teams that count the most species of birds and the individual with the largest contribution. The event ends with a dinner at the museum.

Tuesday, April 15: Birding on the Boardwalk. 7:15-8:30 a.m. Before the museum opens to the public, take a morning walk with assistant education director and avid birder Rock Moeslein around the boardwalk to see what kind of bird life activity is happening there. After the walk there will be a short bird lesson. Ages 18 and above. VLM members free, non-members $5 (does not include museum admission).

Saturday, April 26: Earth Day Celebration. Learn ways to help the environment by reducing, reusing and recycling waste. Visit the Goodson Living Green House and Conservation Gardens for green building and gardening tips, including plants for birds. Several environmental organizations will have displays and information about conservation measures. Earth-friendly vendors will show and sell green wares. There will also be crafts, eco-friendly giveaways and earth-friendly animal shows. Watch the museum's animals receive toys, treats and other enrichment activities to stimulate natural behaviors. The animal playground will be open all day with several special guests. Bring batteries, cell phones, cosmetic kits and old sneakers for recycling.

Shop plant sale

Virginia Living Museum's spring native plant sale features plants that attract wildlife, including birds, bees and butterflies, April 19 and 26-27. Sale held rain or shine. Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 4 p.m. Admission to sale is free. The museum is located at 524 J. Clyde Morris, Blvd, Newport News; call 595-1900 or visit http://www.thevlm.org.

Best birding plants

These bird-beneficial native plants will be available at the Virginia Living Museum's plant sale April 19 and 26-27:

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis). Blooms July-September with tall spikes of scarlet-red tubular flowers; likes sun-part shade and average/wet well-drained soil. Do not cover with mulch; reseeds on wet ground. Benefits hummingbirds, moths and bees.

Strawberry bush (Euonymus americanus). Blooms May-June with pale green flowers in spring, followed by red "strawberry" shaped seed pods in fall. Likes part shade-shade and average/moist-dry soil. Showy fruits and good fall color, considered "deer candy." Benefits songbirds and mammals.

Wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera). Blooms September-April with fruits on female plants; berries used to scented bayberry candles. Needs light sun-part shade and average-poor/dry-wet soil. Evergreen shrub with fragrant leaves grows 30 feet tall tolerates low salinity. Need male and female plants to get waxy, grey-blue berries. Provides nesting sites and fruits for songbirds.

Beautyberry (Callicarpa Americana). Blooms June-July, August-October with pale lavender flowers, then hot raspberry pink fruit clusters that persist after leaves fall. Needs sun-part shade and average-poor/wet well-drained soil. Flowers and fruit form on new growth, cut back every few years after fruit is gone to maintain size and good fruit set. Benefits birds, especially catbirds and mockingbirds.

Coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens). Blooms March-June as a semi-evergreen vine with terminal clusters of red, yellow-throated tubular flowers. Needs sun-part shade and average/moist-dry soil. Drought tolerant and deer resistant; blooms on new growth from second-year wood. Benefits songbirds, including hummingbirds.

Gardening symposium

Learn how to attract birds and butterflies in organic, native-friendly gardens and shop plant sales during the 17th Gardening Symposium 7:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday, April 12 at the Ferguson Center Music and Theatre Hall, Christopher Newport University, Newport News.

Speakers include:

•Dean Rust of the North American Bluebird Society on how to attract and protect bluebirds.

•Bob Goodhart of Goodhart's Gardens on what plants attract birds and butterflies.

•Lisa Ziegler of The Gardener's Workshop on organic, sustainable gardening techniques and easy seed starting tips.

•Marie Butler of the Virginia Zoo on garden design and containers for wildlife.

Cost: $30, optional buffet lunch $15. Bluebird house kits with instructions for assembling them in afternoon workshop, $15. See the full schedule and register online at gardening.cnu.edu or call 269-4368.

Best book

The booklet "Landscape Plants that Attract Birds in Hampton Roads" by local birder and gardener Connie Sale is available for $4.99 at Wild Wings Nature Store, Hidenwood Shopping Center, Newport News. 595-3060 or http://wildwingsnnva.com.

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