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Fostering Our Feathered Friends

Image Courtesy of Kristin Millslagle

Words by Louise Casini Hollis

Images as Credited

Birdwatching is not just a sport for cats! With so many folks working from home these days, people are looking in their own backyards for entertainment. In fact, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology reported that last year's Global Big Day - an International event in which people from 175 countries report the birds they see - had 50,000 participants, more than they have ever had before. This year's Global Big Day will be May 8th and you can easily participate by downloading Cornell lab's free eBird Mobile app. By participating in the bird count, you can help scientists gain a better picture of current bird populations and how the environment is impacting them.

Of course, you can watch the birds anytime from your own window, and I spoke with three birding experts here in Hampton Roads on how to watch birds, feed them, and foster a healthy environment to promote conservation.

President of the Virginia Beach Audubon Society, Kelly Creger's interest in birds was peaked when he was researching dinosaurs. "A lightbulb went off," said Kelly, "I can look at animals that evolved from dinosaurs!" Kelly says that the easiest way to start enjoying the birds is to "just go out there with your ears and your eyes to start with. You'll actually hear at least half the birds you're going to find that day, just by listening to them." A good set of binoculars also helps too. Kelly recommends starting with backyard birds, and then working your way to the seabirds. "Backyard birds are a little easier to see. You can get close up to them. They tend to be the same colors most of the year. But seabirds, particularly seagulls, will go through 3 or 4 what are called molts as they age. So they can look a lot different at different stages of their life," he observed.

Kelly Creger (third from the right) and members of the

Virginia Beach Audubon Society on a field trip to Mackay Island NWR.

Image Courtesy of Kelly Creger

Emmylou Kidder, a senior at CNU about to graduate with her Bachelor of Science in Integrative Biology, recommends that to enjoy the birds you should, "go out anywhere and just sit, wait, and listen. So many people I see go out to look for wildlife, but they just power walk down the trails and then miss everything. So if you really want to observe birds, just go anywhere, and sit and wait and listen. Look in the trees or on the ground or the sky or the water and - if you wait there for a few minutes - the birds will start to sing and they will start to fly around as they become used to your presence." Emmylou has wanted to be an Ornithologist since age 12. "Ever since I was 12 I've had a little notebook, my life list of birds, where I write down every single bird species that I've seen. So it was definitely an obsession that started early" she explained.

Her "obsession" had served her well. During her time at CNU Emmylou participated in the Presidential Leadership Program, which led her to an internship at The Virginia Living Museum where she's had the opportunity to connect the museum's patrons with Cornell Lab's Project Feeder Watch. She also mentored a group of high school students who are building a floating wet land to install at the Living Museum through a NOAA grant, which will promote the conservation of birds and the environment. Emmylou will continue her passion for bird conservation when she embarks on her Master's Degree in Bio-Security and Conservation at The University of Auckland in New Zealand next March. Through this program, she will be assisting in establishing conservation and management protocols in response to the threat of invasive terrestrial predatorsfor the grey-faced petrel, a sea bird.

Emmylou Kidder holds a Common Murre hatchling at

the Alaska SeaLife Center.

Image Courtesy of Emmylou Kidder

In Hampton Roads we are fortunate to see a wide variety of birds, especially this time of year. Kristin Millslagle, co-owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Yorktown found her passion for conservation and birds when she literally married into it. Her husband, Gregory, opened the store in 2003. "He was already into the hobby," explained Kristin. "So he decided to look into [a franchise] and the next thing you know he opened his own store, and 6 years later I came along and we just had a vision for what it could be and it just took off." Kristin's favorite part of her job? "Getting to bring people and nature together every day - I mean what could be better?"

Kristin's enthusiasm is infectious as she talks about birds,and her message always includes conservation. Kristin says that you can assist birds anytime of the year, but,"there are just certain times of year that are more peak for activity, such as nesting season when they're active building nests, raising young, and looking for reliable food sources to feed their young." She went on to explain that nesting season begins around the end of February. You may see indications of it as the Eastern Bluebirds get agitated with one another because they are claiming their territory to raise their young. However, nesting season really starts to "take flight" in March, "and can really go on clear through August," Kristin explained. "Some birds, like Chickadees for instance, only nest one time of year or they only have what's called one brood per season. Whereas Bluebirds can nest typically anywhere between one and three and in some extreme cases even four times a year. So it really just depends on the bird."

One thing you can do to help? Provide nesting boxes. "Blue Birds, for instance, are what's called second cavity nesters, so they will use abandoned Woodpecker holes to raise their families. Some birds are not cavity nesters, like for instance cardinal or robins, which will build nests in trees or shrubs," said Kristin. To help the birds build their nests you can leave out cotton batting available at nature stores like Wild Birds Unlimited or just leave the sticks that have fallen during winter around your yard so the birds can incorporate them into their nests. One thing Emmylou cautions is that providing synthetic nesting materials such as yarn or non-traditional materials like dog hair, may be troublesome because birds could become tangled in them. "Basically just let them do their thing," she advises, "and try to be as respectful as possible as you're moving about your yard or trying to observe them."

If you are feeding the birds, quality food is the key. Kristin suggests you buy food, "that has the highest level of protein, fat, and calories." Another factor is the time of year. Currently, Wild Birds offers a nesting mix that includes calcium carbonate supplements, which Kristin points out helps to develop egg shells and baby bird bones. Wild Bird's Bark Butter also offers a great supplement for babies. "It's a consistency that literally can be fed to chicks because it's so 'smushy', for lack of a better word, so it's easy for them to grab a beakful and feed it to their young," says Kristin. Other foods you can provide include peanuts, sunflower hearts, and meal worms. "The quality of the seed, the freshness of the seed, the oil content in the seed is the most important thing" Kristin points out.

Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds are another favorite in our area. "Everybody loves Hummingbirds" gushes Kristin, "I mean they're just like little enchanted pixies flitting around." Kristin went on to explain that migrating hummingbirds begin showing up in Hampton Roads around the end of March and the ones that live here in the Summer are all here by May. "What's remarkable about hummingbirds is that often the females will come back to the exact same sight they used the year before. They go all the way down to Mexico to spend their winters there and come all the way back to the exact same site they used the year before," Kristin shared.

Kristin and Gregory Millslagle

Image Courtesy of Kristin Millslagle

To aid hummingbirds you can simply put out nectar, but humming birds also need protein to feed their young, "such as little tiny insects and gnats - like fruit flies, spiders, and spider eggs," Kristin advised. To attract these insects, our experts suggest that you plant native plants and be mindful of this when you are buying plants at the nursery. Kelly notes that non-native plants are, "very ornamental and they don't have any pest problems. All the pests that eat them are back in their homeland. Unfortunately that's not great for the birds, because they need the pests for the food source. So we want to plant material that attracts insects that they can feed on which helps them feed their young and increases their numbers and their longevity." Kristin observed that another reason birds struggle to find food is, "because of people's use of a lot of pesticides, that are really damaging to the insect populations.That's making it much more difficult for birds to find the insects they rely on - in some cases exclusively - to feed to their young."

Kristin also mentioned that you may see a dip in hummingbird activity in May because that's when the females sit on their first clutch of eggs. In July, the first fledglings have taken flight and you should be able to see them flitting about your yard. "It's about 90 days from beginning to end. From the first brood to the second brood," Kristin notes. "And then usually by mid-August Mom's exhausted and she's going back down to Mexico to have a little fiesta for the Winter and relax. And then the juveniles are the last to leave because they have to stay back and fatten up so they can tolerate that journey. So sometimes we can still have hummingbirds here while they fatten up through October before that're actually gone."

Emmylou recommends that, "the most important thing that you can do is to be a steward for your local environments." Kristin echoes this, citing the partnership Wild Birds Unlimited has with the National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat program to encourage people to get their backyards certified as environmentally friendly and to "create a haven for wildlife in their yard" Kristin adds. "What's really kind of neat about it is when we talk to customers about it, we tell them that here's a good chance that if you're not already certifiable, you're probably really close," Kristin explained. "It's really 5 elements: providing food, providing water, providing cover, providing places for them to raise their young, and promoting sustainable practices in your yard or garden to ensure the soil, air, water stay healthy and clean." More information about yard certification can be found on Wild Birds Unlimited of Yorktown's website.

Image Courtesy of Kristin Millslagle

What sparked Wild Birds Unlimited's involvement in backyard habitats was a study published in the September 2019 issue of Science Magazine citing that, "since the 1970s, the continent has lost 3 billion birds." Kristin went on to explain, "that's 1 in 4 birds gone since 1970. And they think the primary cause has to do with habitat loss." Of course, we know from the Bald Eagle's comeback that conservation efforts work. In 1963 there were only around 417 breeding pairs of Bald Eagles in the continental U.S. But, through diligent conservation and laws enacted to protect the environment (such as banning the pesticide DTT), the Bald Eagle was taken off the endangered species list in 2007.

As a further incentive, Wild Birds Unlimited of Yorktown is piloting a program calling for people to be Songbird Heroes. To become a Songbird Hero, simply get your yard certified by the National Wildlife Federation. "This is an on-going project that we want to do on a daily basis to try to inspire people to take these steps to get their yards certified," explained Kristin. So what we wanted to do was have this program that we would basically be putting people in a VIP status, to reward them for getting their yard certified." Songbird Heroes receive a 'goodie bag' that has merchandise with the 'Save the Songbirds' logo, "and then we're going to have specials periodically that are just for our Songbird Heroes where they get extra promotions or freebies. And we're working on finalizing a permanent badge of honor - a plaque with their name - anybody who has had their yard certified - sort of our hero wall we're creating in the store to permanently recognize everyone whose participated," shared Kristin.

Getting your yard certified is one way you can help. Other ways to help our native birds thrive can be easily controlled by humans. For example, keeping your cats indoors is the number one recommendation to protect the bird population. A cat's natural, playful instincts make them want to pounce on birds. By keeping your feline friend indoors, you not only help the environment, but also keep your pet safe as well. The Humane Society notes that, "indoor cats live longer, tend to be healthier, and can avoid some of the predators, injuries, parasites, and communicable diseases to which outdoor cats may be exposed." Cats can also be taught to walk on a leash with a harness or they can enjoy a "catio" if you feel the need to take them outdoors. So keeping your furry companion indoors or within a fenced enclosure is a win-win situation for your pet and the birds.

Window-strikes are also a big problem for birds. An easy fix for this is getting decals or UV film to put on your windows so that the birds know it is not empty space. Also, it may seem obvious, but continue to feed the birds in wintertime. We have year round residents here in Hampton Roads, and providing for them during the time when it is scarce is an excellent way to support our local feather friends.

You also can help the birds during seasonable migration times. Emmylou advises, "in the Spring and the Fall do your best to turn off your house lights at night, especially outdoor lights from your house. [These lights] actually disorient migrating birds and causes them to fly too low over a residential or urban area and they could collide with buildings or get off course from their migration."

Image Courtesy of Emmylou Kidder

Finally, what should you do if you come upon injured wildlife? Emmylou recommends that, "if you come across injured wildlife, first of all you should make sure that it is injured". A lot of times in the spring or early summer, when fledgling birds are just learning to fly and leaving the nest, you might see birds on the ground that maybe look like they're injured. However these are just young birds that are still learning how to fly and should not be captured to take to a wildlife rehabber." If you suspect that a bird is injured, contact a local wildlife rehabber, like one on this list provided by Kelly Creger's colleagues at the Virginia Beach Audubon Society. If the wildlife rehabber asks you to bring the injured bird to them, Emmylou stresses the importance of wearing protective gear such as heavy gloves. "It's really important to be careful," she advises, "because injured wildlife is typically not in a great mood. They're hurting, they're scared and they don't realize when people are trying to help them, they just see them as a threat."

The last thing I asked our experts was what they wished more people knew about birds. Kristin stressed that, "every time of year, depending on the season, produces different results in terms of our potential enjoyment of the birds. It's just the cycles that they happen to be going through." Kelly would like to encourage people to bird-watch, "with like-minded people, and enjoy the experience that they can provide and their expertise." And Emmylou, ever the scientist, shared that, "birds are just actually really intelligent animals. I feel like so many people hear the phrase 'bird brain' and think that birds are not particularly smart or interesting, but some birds actually rival the intelligence of apes. Birds can be tool users, and are incredibly diverse in the behaviors that they exhibit. So birds can be really exciting and interesting to watch -- you might be really surprised at what you see a bird do."

People are attracted to birding for a variety of reasons, and you can find a level of enjoyment that suits you. So whether you participate in Cornell Lab's Global Big Day, feed the birds, or merely enjoy their sounds, our feather friends can provide you a rewarding experience, and maybe you'll learn something from them as well.


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