Bird's-eye view

The Baltimore Sun

Gardeners and birds share more than the same real estate and a mutual interest in insect control.

There is a kind of companionship between the human on the ground and the creature in the tree that grows out of the time they spend together in the garden, moving cautiously around one another.

At some point, the gardener starts to think of ways to accommodate his slightly standoffish friends, with a feeder or a birdbath, or by planting perennials or shrubs that can be shelter or a source of food.

"Bird-watchers are into birds, and that's pretty much it," said Steve Saffier, who helps homeowners create bird-friendly yards through the Audubon at Home program. "But gardeners are different. Regardless of their focus - orchids or native plants - they have an interest in watching things grow and thrive, and a curiosity about the natural world that leads them to birds."

"Part of the joy of being in the garden," said Dr. Stephen Kress, vice president for bird conservation for the National Audubon Society, "is hearing the bird song and seeing the birds." So, it is likely that a great many of the participants in next weekend's Great Backyard Bird Count will be gardeners.

For four days over Presidents Day weekend, Friday-Feb. 16, more than 85,000 reports are expected to flow into the Web site birdcount.org, helping create a real-time picture of where the birds are across the North American continent.

The information - there were 250,000 birds and 162 species counted in Maryland last year - is used to help scientists make conservation decisions and track migrations and the impact of climate change.

"It will eventually be a good index for climate change," said Kress. "If there is less snow, birds won't have to go as far south to find clear ground. Birds will tell us as much as the weather forecasters about where the snow is."

Anybody can go to the site to see which birds were found in his or her state or even neighborhood. But if you want to take part, "you only need 15 minutes and not a lot of experience," said Kress, noting that 9.8 million birds were counted last year. "Our hope is that, from this, people will get engaged in other bird projects."

This is the 12th year of the bird count, which is sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, and from it, scientists have seen both alarming and gratifying trends in bird populations, and even found some new species visiting North America.

But if you want to see big changes in the number of birds in your yard, Saffier said, simply plant a bird-friendly garden.

"You can change the dynamic of your backyard with just a plant or two. A person who puts in a bird garden will see almost-instant results," he said.

Birds require food - seeds and fruit - and water for drinking and grooming. And they need shelter - formal, as in birdhouses, and informal, as in plantings and underbrush, for nesting and for protection against the elements and predators.

When it comes to laying out the welcome mat for birds, gardeners can hang a sack of nesting materials, such as straw, string, dog hair or cotton, and put out sand or crushed eggshells to provide the grit that birds need to help them crush their food. A heated birdbath in winter, when other sources of water are frozen, is a nice touch, too.

Garden catalogs are full of whimsical items that add interest to the winter garden and help sustain birds: wreaths and birdhouses made of seeds; metal cattails and mesh balls that hold seed or suet. Catalogs also carry high-tech devices that let you listen to bird conversations from a distance.

And, during the winter, garden centers seek to draw in paying customers by offering workshops and lectures on how to garden for wildlife.

"People are destroying a lot of the habitat through development and the paving of roads," said Kress, author of the Audubon Society Guide to Attracting Birds. "What we have an opportunity to do on our properties is replace some of that. It isn't the same as a mature forest habitat, but many kinds of birds can adapt, and some of those are declining species."

Saffier trains volunteers to help homeowners create a more bird-friendly backyard, and he isn't surprised that most of them are gardeners, who already have a store of knowledge on plants, shrubs and trees.

"I get more garden people than bird people," he said. "When we look at all the people we are trying to reach, the low-hanging fruit, as it were, are the gardeners because they already have an affinity for the natural world."

Perhaps the most difficult lesson to teach is this: Be a lazy gardener.

"That's our motto," Saffier said. "Stop cleaning up."

Leave the seed heads instead of cutting back all the perennials; they provide food. Leave the leaf piles; they shelter insects and larva, Leave the ornamental grasses; they provide shelter.

Said Saffier: "Tidy gardens don't have the highest wildlife value."

count yourself in

Here's how to participate in the 12th annual Great Backyard Bird Count.

* Plan to count birds for at least 15 minutes on one or more of the days of the count, Friday-Feb. 16. You can count for longer than 15 minutes or, after counting the birds in your backyard, move to a park or some other spot to count. File a different report for each count.

* The best time to count is early morning or late afternoon, when the birds are feeding.

* Count the greatest number of individuals that you see together at one time. Go to www.birdsource.org/gbbc to get a checklist of the winter birds in your area and a data form on which to record the counts. The Web site also has more information on how to count the birds overhead or in a flock.

* To attract as many species to your backyard as possible, begin putting out a variety of foods to tempt them several days before the count: seed, suet, fruit and peanuts. And make sure there is water.

* After counting, go to www.birdsource.org/gbbc and click "submit your bird checklist."

* Go to the site often during the weekend and you will see the reporting maps change as counts flow in.

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