"I hope you love birds too. It is economical. It saves going to heaven."
Emily Dickinson

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Go natural when helping nesting birds

A colorful but deadly nest made from Easter grass. Photo by Sue Bulger
Here's my next column, scheduled to run on Saturday in the Orange County Register's Home & Garden section:

It’s nesting season, and birds are busy collecting building materials. Unfortunately, they sometimes find man-made objects, which they weave into their nests with deadly consequences.

One of the worst culprits is plastic Easter grass. The problem arises when birds’ legs or feet become tangled in the long, stringy plastic. With no way to escape, trapped birds die in the nest.

Sadly, Easter grass is only one of the many dangerous materials birds find.

Susan Bulger, who has been a nest monitor with the Southern California Bluebird Club for 17 years, has seen it all: discarded kite string, ribbon, fishing line, yarn, dental floss, shredded strips from baseballs, strings of frayed tarp and even streams of audiotape.

Bulger found silver Mylar ribbon in five of the 12 nest boxes she had been monitoring in a local cemetery. “I was surprised that the shiny strings were so attractive to the birds.” Removing it was very tedious and time-consuming, she said. “I had to wonder how many other species’ nests were dangerously decorated high up in the trees.”

Other bluebird nest monitors have reported rescuing adult females that were entangled in the nest while sitting on eggs. One monitor found a dead chick with a wad of Easter grass down its throat. Many others have found dead bluebird chicks trapped in the nest box by string or hanging from a box by a leg.

Well-meaning homeowners often put out items they think the birds can use for nesting such as strips of cloth, yarn and dryer lint. All of these hold moisture, keeping a nest too wet. In addition, yarn can unravel and the birds can easily get caught in even short strands that are woven into the nest. Dryer lint also holds moisture, and when it does dry out, it becomes hard and crumbly. It can also contain human hair, which acts like string or fishing line to trap birds.

If you want to help the birds, stick to natural materials, Bulger said. “Many of our yards are too well groomed,” she said. “Most of the natural materials such as twigs and grass clippings can be left on the ground, which is exactly what they need for nests.”

Starlyn Howard, a wildlife rehabilitator at the Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center in Huntington Beach, was called out to rescue a young kingbird. Its nest mates had fledged and perched nearby with the parents in attendance. “But when this one fledging tried to fly out, he ended up hanging from his leg that was wrapped in string. We had to climb up, unwind the string from around his ankle and free him,” she said.

“So I guess the moral of the story is that I am not a big fan of putting out material for birds to use for nesting,” Howard said. “I don't think they need our help, they know what to use.”

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