As a scientist who’s passionate about sharing his enthusiasm for nature, I’m always looking for ways to connect with others about animals and conservation. Below is a short list of steps that you can take to care for wildlife in your neighborhood and your yard.
1. Spend time in nature – the best way to gain a better appreciation for animals and nature, is to spend time outdoors. Hike through the woods or mountains, bike around your neighborhood, or sit outside and just watch and listen for a while. Learn how to identify the birds in your yard. There are several free birding apps for smartphones (Merlin and Audubon are good ones). Walk by a creek in the spring and look for frogs and salamanders under rocks. Watch water striders propel themselves against the current.
Enjoy being bitten by crazed insects, stabbed by thorny bushes, and burned by the sun. Wake up to the sounds of robins singing at 3:30 in the morning. I’ve found that being by a lake or bay is very peaceful, as long as you don’t pick a time when there is a jet ski race or when black bears are mating. Watching the sun rise over the water as the birds sing is a rewarding experience.
2. Enhance your environment – there are some easy ways to draw birds and other wildlife to your yard. Provide feeders with good food for birds. Finches love thistle and many birds enjoy eating sunflower seeds. Of course, squirrels and blackbirds love sunflower seeds as well, so you may have to choose feeders that are squirrel-resistant and use striped seeds, which have a thicker shell. For information on what types of seed attract different bird species, check out the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s tips. Putting out a suet feeder in the cold months is another great idea. Woodpeckers and many songbirds will eat suet to fill up on fat, which provides valuable energy in the winter. I’ve found that mockingbirds especially like suet mixtures that contain berries. You can also put out hummingbird feeders in the early spring. A typical solution is four parts water, one-part sugar. Boil the solution for about 2 minutes, then allow it to cool. Make sure to clean the feeder regularly (~ once a week) with hot water and avoid putting water coloring or honey in the feeder, as these can cause problems for hummingbirds. Putting out a bird bath with clean water is also good.
You can also enhance your environment by planting native plants which provide natural cover and food for birds. Finally, consider putting up a nest box. You can build your own or buy one, just make sure which type of birds you’re using it for (bluebirds, chickadees, swallows, wrens, etc.) There are even boxes for screech owls and American Kestrels if you live in a semi-open farmland area with nearby tree cover. If you manage to attract raptors (not the dinosaur kind) to your yard, be happy! Not only are raptors cool and powerful, but they also are great for rodent control!
If you’re interested in building a screech owl or kestrel nest box, click here for instructions!
I’m here to take care of your rat problem.
Photo: Daniel Behm/Audubon Photography Awards
3. Keep your cats inside – this can be a hard step for some people, but the fact is, cats kill and scare off many birds and small mammals. An article published in Science estimated that over one billion birds and over six billion mammals are killed each year by free-ranging cats. Even if these numbers are overestimating the impact, this is a serious threat to native wildlife and local ecosystems. Birds are critical for pollinating plants, spreading plant seeds, and eating insects. Woodpeckers are often important to an ecosystem due to their ability to excavate cavities used by birds and other animals. Plus, many birds are beautiful and sing wonderful melodies. So please, keep your cats indoors or find a cat park near you.
The keep cats indoors rule does not apply to tigers.
4. Don’t litter – recycle instead. This one’s pretty straightforward. Don’t trash up and contaminate the environment. Some animals can choke to death on plastic. In many places, you can request a special bin from the city to use for recycling cardboard, plastics, bottles, paper, and glass. Recycling enables materials to be used repeatedly while limiting the amount of waste in dumps. Recycling is good for animals and for humans!
5. Share with others – tell your friends and family about how they can take simple steps to help support local wildlife populations. Threaten to ground them from coffee or delete their angry birds app if they don’t listen to you.