Thumbnail image: Kyle Tansley/Macaulay Library
[Chelsea Benson] Welcome to today’s webinar, everyone, from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. We’ll be discussing actions you can take around your home to help birds as they migrate through.
My name is Chelsea Benson. I’m on the Visitor Center team at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and I’m going to be facilitating today’s conversation. I wanted to welcome our guests if they could pop on and say hello.
And so welcome to our panelists. With us today, we have Becca Rodomsky-Bish She’s the project coordinator for the Great Backyard Bird Count and the Nest Quest Go! programs here at the lab. Hey, Becca.
[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] Hey, Chelsea. Thanks for having me today.
[Chelsea Benson] Thanks for joining us. We’re also joined by Holly Grant. She is the project assistant with the lab’s NestWatch Citizen Science program. Hey, Holly.
[Holly Grant] Hello.
[Chelsea Benson] And our final panelist is Marla Coppolino. Marla is the course developer for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Bird Academy program. Hey, Marla.
[Marla Coppolino] Hi, good to be here.
[Chelsea Benson] Thank you all so much for taking the time to join us today. We’re going to be hearing more from our panelists in just a minute. I’m going to make a few quick announcements, and then we’ll start our program.
Today [AUDIO OUT] is hosted from Ithaca, New York. And I’m going to read a statement acknowledging the Indigenous people as the original inhabitants of this area. Cornell University is located on the traditional homelands of the Gayogohó:no’ the Cayuga Nation.
The Gayogohó:no’ are members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, an alliance of six sovereign nations with an historic and contemporary presence on this land. The Confederacy precedes the establishment of Cornell University, New York State, and the United States of America. We acknowledge the painful history of the Gayogohó:no’ dispossession and honor the ongoing connection of Gayogohó:no’ people, past and present, to these lands and waters.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, we are home to a community of researchers and supporters from around the world who appreciate birds and the integral roles they play in our ecosystem. Our mission is to advance leading edge research, education, and citizen science that help solve pressing conservation challenges.
Today’s webinar is part of our two week migration celebration. It’s the lab’s largest online event of the year. You can check out our other virtual programs and watch our recorded webinars on the migration celebration website, which is being shared in the chat.
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All right, that was a lot of announcements, so thank you for bearing with me. If we can bring our panelists back in– yay– I’d love if you could take a minute to introduce yourselves and who you are at the lab and also share what’s your favorite tip since this webinar is all about practical tips. If you could pick one or two top tips to support birds as they migrate nearby your home, what would they be? So Marla, if you could start us off, and then Becca and Holly?
[Marla Coppolino] Sure. Yeah. I’m a big proponent of keeping areas of your property as natural. So that means parts that you don’t mow, parts that you have natural leaf litter and fallen debris from your trees because that forms habitat that supports a lot of small organisms that birds seek as food, especially during migration when they need food that has high fat and protein content.
[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] Nice. I love that one, too, Marla. I really love, of the same kind of vein and theme, leaving all of my flowers even when they get dry and shrivelly and, some people might say, start to look a little ugly or drab. I leave them. I don’t cut them. I leave them in the garden where they are.
And I benefit. Because almost every time I walk out my door– I grow a lot of flowers– huge flocks of goldfinch and sparrows fly out of my gardens because they are enjoying all of those deadhead seeds that I am leaving in my garden. So that’s my favorite thing to do.
[Holly Grant] I have very similar things that I do in my yard. I keep tabs on my nest box all year round because I will learn later how helpful that can be to birds even in the non-breeding season. I keep my feeders full especially during this time when birds are needing that vital energy. And I keep my garden just as messy as Becca does.
[Chelsea Benson] Those are great. Thank you for sharing. I’d love to dig in a little bit deeper, Becca, because I know you’re super passionate about plants, especially native plants as an avid gardener. Why do native plants matter so much to birds, especially during the migration season?
[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] Sure, I’d love to talk about that. It is one of my favorite topics. So native plants, similarly to microbes and soil, are really foundational to any and all ecosystems. And this goes for anywhere in the world. I did see somebody from Sri Lanka is tuning in. So no matter where you are in the world, plants are critical.
They are the base of many, many, many of our food chains. And they’re arguably what’s most important to keeping our environment thriving. Whether it’s the seeds and the fruit that birds might be eating, or the pollen or the caterpillars that they’re harvesting off of those plants that they’re either eating themselves or, in the bottom corner, this catbird is feeding to their offspring, they’re critical. The resources that plants provide are critical.
And the theme of the talk is migration, right? So this cute little yellow-rumped warbler in the corner, I see these birds as late as November, right? So there might be snow flying.
So they land in my yard, probably touching down to refuel and get something for their journey as they continue south. And they’re going to look around my property, and they’re going to try and find resources that they can utilize. So plants are just super important, and we need to have as many as possible that are native.
And the other good piece of news is that birds know, and they’re paying attention. This was research done in Massachusetts. And they were able to find, in areas where there were lots of invasive, multiflora rose combined with other things like viburnum and dogwood, that the thrushes in particular were choosing the native plants. So they are looking for these resources when they touch down on their long migration trips.
Also, in terms of native plants, there are some powerhouse native plants to really think about. Oaks are one of the standouts. Any species of oak that’s native to North America or wherever you are in the world oaks that are native to your area are going to support a lot of biodiversity. So about 934 species of moths and butterflies will lay their eggs on oaks. And that means lots of extra food for the birds, like this little one right here that scored two caterpillars.
And a lot of this research comes out from Doug Tallamy, who’s an incredible academic that does a lot of research on this topic. He loves his oaks, and he loves to talk about native plants and the integration with birds. So I highly recommend the audience that’s new to this topic to check out some of his literature. He’s got some very solid science about why we need native plants, what native plants we need, and why they’re very important.
And then for those that are also new to this idea of, OK, native plants are important, but I have no idea where to start. Where do I begin? There’s a couple of resources that I really want to tune people in to learn more about native plants that could be beneficial.
Audubon has an excellent native plant database. You type in your zip code. This works for North America. And you get a list of different plants corresponding to the birds that those plants will help support. And then one of the neatest parts is you can look at local resources, meaning nurseries in and around your area that may carry these native plants.
And that’s critical, right? Because it’s great to plant native. But if you don’t know where to get them, you need to know where to go. And so you can call nurseries and inquire using this resource whether they carry native plants.
And then also it’s really important to just do your homework. Find out where you live. This is what’s called an ecoregion map. And as you can see, ecoregions are very diverse. And one state like New York, which is where I am, has many different ecoregions, right? So what’s maybe going to grow in downstate isn’t going to grow in upstate, isn’t going to grow in the Adirondack Mountains– so really getting a sense of where you are at so that you know what kind of native plants will do well and are native.
And a great guide to help with that is this Pollinator Partnership. The link is up in the corner of my presentation. But I think [Sarah] might drop it into the chat, too. This is a really neat resource. It works for North America and Canada. I apologize if you are not in those areas. I’m sure there are resources in and around your area where you can inquire.
But you can enter in your zip code, and it will provide you with a beautiful printout. It’s 22 to 24 pages of different plants to consider adding that support the birds, bees and butterflies in your area, so really great resources for those of you who are new to this content and you want to get more information about how to familiarize yourself with native plants.
[Chelsea Benson] Awesome, Becca. That was so thorough. And I always love getting a refresher on those guides because they’re just incredibly helpful at getting yourself started thinking about native plants. Because, oftentimes, at least I know, it’s overwhelming to me the amount of resources that are out there and trying to decide what plants. But just taking those little steps, looking at the pollinator guides and the Audubon page, it just really can get you started in the right direction. So thanks for sharing that.
[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] Sure.
[Chelsea Benson] And I love oak trees, so very fun. Marla, I’d love to ask you a question because I keep hearing this phrase messy is beautiful. And to me, it just is don’t rake your leaves, you know, which is great. But I feel like there’s a bit more behind that concept. And now that it’s fall, at least here in the northeast of the United States, and leaves are coming off the trees and we’re thinking about fall migration, what does that concept mean, messy is beautiful, when we talk about our yards and gardens?
[Marla Coppolino] Sure. I’m going to share some slides myself now. Let’s see, can you see?
[Chelsea Benson] Yeah.
[Marla Coppolino] You see my slide? Yeah. So creating what to us humans may be a messy habitat is the perfect habitat for birds. Think about, first, what birds’ natural habitats are without humans. So nobody’s cleaning up or planting lawns where the places that they naturally live. So we can learn a lot from the natural habitats and environments for what birds needs are, first of all.
And to segue and add to what Becca just was demonstrating to us, your locally native plants to your area are definitely best to support not only birds, but pollinators and other wildlife. So something just as simple as a Coreopsis plant, this is local to our particular area. Once those petals– they make quite a show. And just a few weeks ago, this is what my Coreopsis looked like on the left. And then over on the right, you can see that, after the flower heads start to die and the petals are missing, then there’s seed there, which goldfinch love.
And then not only, if you leave the flower heads up and don’t cut them off, also be mindful to leave stems up. Because this may be something that the very neat gardener might want to trim and discard, but no.
So this is a goldenrod gall. And the gall is inside the stem of the goldenrod, which we have many species native to North America. And there’s a tiny larva within that that caused that bulge in the plant stem. And that larva is from a small goldenrod gall fly.
And it’s chock full of fats and proteins. And a lot of birds, including a lot of sparrows and the downy woodpeckers love it. And they’ll hang on and peck in and get the tasty treat inside. So don’t discard those. Leave them up.
Lawn, we talk in terms of having a bit of a messy yard. It doesn’t mean that you have to let everything grow wild, but if you keep dedicated parts and portions of your property dedicated for birds. So in this case, this part of my property I mow a path through it.
And the path, it’s great because we can enjoy walking along that and looking at the plants. And then there’s a lot of native plants that just popped up on their own. And it’s just a wonderful food bar for birds because it’s supporting all kinds of insects and spiders and other invertebrates that birds eat. So that’s an easy thing can do.
Also, not everybody wants to keep a lot of leaf litter on their property, but it’s really simple practice to just to rake that into a dedicated portion of your yard where it’s more natural habitat for them. Leaf litter is a habitat for lots of invertebrates that birds eat, and some of them might be surprising to you. So a lot of our migrating birds, including the thrushes and certain sparrows and warblers, will go through the leaf litter and pick out things they want. Some of them will pick out seed items and nut items, like this northern flicker at the bottom.
But then you’ve got– well, not insects. In this case, this is another invertebrate. A centipede is also a favorite food of a lot of birds. And hermit thrushes will also go in and grab all kinds of little grubs and things like that for food.
It’s amazing. Some of the birds, it’s quite humorous. You’ll see them just kind of stuff their bills with as much as they can possibly hold out of these natural areas. And it looks like they just went on a grocery shopping spree, everything from all kinds of insects to spiders here, and flies, and crane flies, and lots of larva. Larval insects will be finding habitat in the leaf litter.
And some big surprises, too– now, these were photo of this photo on the left is actually a little bitty Carolina wren is wrestling down an anole, which is a type of lizard. This photo was taken in Florida. Thanks to the photographer.
And on the right, we have a little yellow warbler who’s picked up a snail in its bill. And so these other noninsect, nonarthropod are also good food for birds. I’m a huge proponent of leaving some leaf litter somewhere on your property. It’s a natural thing that has so many benefits. So you’ve got habitat there and microhabitat really that’s supporting all sorts of levels of biodiversity within. You’ve got life cycles going on.
And it’s really doing a good job of taking nutrients that come from the fallen leaves and getting them back into the soil through these food webs and processes and ultimately giving you healthier land to grow more trees and more native plants, protect your soil from erosion, and, as I repeated several times, as food source for so many birds. You can find lots of little things in leaf litter. Sometimes if you’ve looked in, you might find the spiders and the beetles and such.
But most people don’t know there’s lots of tiny, teeny, little snails. So that photo in the lower left I made to show just how many. These are pretty common snails, but they appear in leaf litter. And they live their lives there. And they help break down the dying leaves and vegetation. And in turn, they become great food source for a lot of birds that know to find them in there and pick them out. It’s kind of a good secret.
No matter where you live, if you’re not in an area of deciduous forest– these photos were supplied by friends of ours who are across the North America. So everywhere from Arizona and Southern Cal to Nova Scotia, if you are supporting part of your habitat keeping a little messy with native plants, you’re going to get what’s native there as support for the birds. So that’s it.
[Chelsea Benson] That’s really great. I have a follow-up question that somebody put in the Q&A. Whoops, I just lost it. Susan was asking, if people kind of make huge piles of leaves, could it prevent the birds from getting to the insects?
I know I’m guilty of subtly raking my yard. I won’t go like full bore. I’ll leave some on the ground, but I also rake some up. And then I might push them off into the woods, but they might end up in a big pile. Is it best to spread them out so that the birds can get to the insects? Or what do you recommend in that case?
[Marla Coppolino] It’s more natural to have it even for sure. I wouldn’t feel guilty if you have a pile of leaves around because, certainly, there’s insects and animals that are finding their way into that, too. But when in doubt, think of what’s natural.
[Chelsea Benson] Yes.
[Marla Coppolino] So that helps.
[Chelsea Benson] So my giant pile of leaves, spread it out a little bit.
[Marla Coppolino] Have some fun and jump in them first.
[Chelsea Benson] I should put my kids out in the woods to jump through them all. And another question that came up about critters in the leaf litter, are birds– this is a good question for you, Marla, because you study snails and things. But the birds eat this the slugs or just snails?
[Marla Coppolino] Slugs, too.
[Chelsea Benson] Yes.
[Marla Coppolino] We actually have some recent proof in a very crude video that was taken quickly of a catbird rustling down a quite large slug. So you know, what’s interesting about these sorts of interactions, they’re much harder to find, to photograph, to be in that moment where you have your camera ready, but they do happen. We have a lot of gaps in our knowledge just because they’re quick, they’re in leaf litter, hard to see. So it’s hard to capture. But yes, it happens.
[Chelsea Benson] So cool. Thank you so much for sharing. It’s just fascinating to all that’s going on the forest floor and just right down in the dirt. So thanks for sharing that with us, Marla.
[Marla Coppolino] Yeah, of course–
[Chelsea Benson] We’ve been taking a lot of time talking about plants and gardening and leaving things natural. Now, I want to shift gears a little bit and talk about some other ways that we can support birds. And Holly is an expert on feeding birds with Project FeederWatch where she worked previously and, also, NestingBirds. And I’m seeing lots of questions in the Q&A and the chat about how do we support birds during the strenuous time when we think about feeding them. Let’s start there first.
[Holly Grant] Yeah. So bird feeders, obviously a lot of people are familiar with that practice. You go to a big box store, you’ll find sunflower seeds, all sorts of things that you can provide for your birds. I’m here to say that’s definitely a great idea, especially during this time of year when those birds need that extra energy to make those huge flights that they’re making down to South America and other parts of the world.
Some of probably most nutrient-rich foods are going to be suet, sunflower seeds, peanuts, niger seeds, and thistle. If you don’t find those, you’ve got other foods that are still going to help, but those seeds are probably going to be the most energy-rich.
Another thing that we really like to point out, too, is that just because you’re providing food doesn’t mean that that’s going to prevent the birds from moving on. The birds’ migration is initiated by the length of daylight and a lot of other factors.
So if, let’s say, you’ve got your sugar water out for your hummingbirds and you keep seeing hummingbirds for weeks and weeks and weeks, that’s a good thing. It’s probably those very, very northern hummingbirds finally making their way all the way down to your feeders on their way for a migration. So don’t worry about putting it out and preventing them from moving on. They probably really, really appreciate that little extra bit of energy. Yeah.
[Chelsea Benson] What we think about when we– migration I always think of warblers. It’s like such a classic scenario. But warblers– not so much seed eaters. And they might not come to feeders. But are there any supplemental foods? I know Becca and Marla just talked about all the plants and the insects that they can provide them, but are there any supplemental foods that people could add that would maybe help those type of species?
[Holly Grant] Yeah. I mean, you could definitely put out fruits and sugar water for some– like I said, sugar water can attract hummingbirds, as we all know. But also, it’ll attract some woodpeckers and orioles if they’re on their way through. Fruit is always a great idea.
You can put out mealworms, and those are kind of an option for insect eaters. But this is one of the reasons why we support these native plants in your yard, too, because seeds aren’t going to help all of the birds that come through your area. So a mixture of the two is definitely going to be helpful.
If you have a really great yard full of native plants, maybe you don’t need to put out so many seeds. If you’ve got a pretty barren yard or maybe the yard needs to have a little bit more– you’re still waiting for those plants to bloom, put out some seeds. And that can kind of supplement that for a little while you’re waiting.
[Chelsea Benson] One other thing that just popped into my head as we’re talking about this in supplemental feeding, could you give us the quick tips on keeping feeders clean? Because a lot of people are worried about disease and things like that.
[Holly Grant] Right. Yes. So, yeah, disease is definitely something that we always get questions about. There’s eye disease, which affects feeders all across the country. It’s not going anywhere. So the best thing we can do is to keep those feeders clean on a somewhat regular basis.
Usually, our recommendation is every two weeks or so. We ask folks to scrub the feeders clean, make sure all that debris and the little nasty bits of leftover seed are washed away. And then you can soak it in a weak bleach or vinegar solution to really try to take care of most of the microbes that are on your feeders.
Having feeders that are easy to take apart or aren’t as absorbent– like, sometimes wood feeders can be harder to clean. It’s not to say that you shouldn’t use them. It’s just going to be something to keep in mind when you do initiate those feeding– sorry, cleaning those feeders. But, yeah, I think cleaning on a regular basis and making sure they’re dry completely before you refill them with fresh seed is going to be your best bet.
[Chelsea Benson] Same with that folks are providing water because I know water is a super important resource for birds as well. So if you’re putting out a bird bath, same cleaning guidelines that Holly just recommended or maybe even more frequent especially if it’s warm.
[Holly Grant] Yes, definitely.
[Chelsea Benson] So you work with NestWatch, which is a citizen science project that asks people to go and look for bird nests and report them back. So we want to talk a little bit about, if people have nest boxes, what should they do in the fall. And also, I’ve heard the term roost box. And I’d love to know more about both of those topics.
[Holly Grant] Yeah. So nest boxes, as it sounds, they’re just the same– it’s a different word for bird house. So it’s something you can put up in your yard to attract cavity nesting birds to nest in your area. It’s something great.
This time of year is actually a really great time to install them for the following season because we just find that birds seem to be a little bit more attracted to nests that have been weathered a little bit. They’ve gotten time to get used to them in their habitat, that kind of thing. So we’ve got a lot of construction plans on the NestWatch website for those who are interested in building.
But roost boxes are specifically made for the more colder weather months. They usually have fewer ventilation holes. Their entrance holes are at the bottom rather at near the top. They have optional perches inside and roughened walls or maybe hardware cloth so that birds can cling to the inside. And they’ve got this kind of warm little cozy spot to spend those really harsh winter nights.
Roost boxes are not something that you need to make specifically. A regular nest box will work just the same. So if you’re short on materials, you can just use your nest boxes and just kind of keep monitoring them all year round. But roost boxes, we do also have specific plans for building those as well on the All About Birds website. I’m sure a link will be thrown in the chat there.
[Chelsea Benson] Yeah, my colleague, Sarah behind the scenes is throwing a link in the chat with an article about roost boxes if you’re super interested in them and want to see some plans for them.
And I think you said it, but I just want to clarify because I saw it come up in the Q&A. You do recommend cleaning out those nest boxes then before the winter, right? We don’t want them full of– or is it variable depending?
[Holly Grant] Yeah, it’s variable, I guess. So what we generally recommend for folks is to clean out those nest boxes at least once a year. Often, we recommend that being sometime this time of year in the fall because you want to clear out the– birds make a bit of a nest when the nestlings are in the nest there. They have a lot of fecal sacs. Sometimes it gets really, really dirty. So just kind of cleaning it out with mild detergent and water is a good idea.
And then the birds are going to use those boxes as roost boxes. If they are going to use it, it doesn’t matter whether they’ve got some cushion in there or not. Remember, we’re looking to mimic nature. And a natural cavity in a tree doesn’t always have a nest already in it. And they work just fine for the birds, so.
[Chelsea Benson] Great, thank you for that. Before we switch to our next question that I have for Becca, I just wanted our panelists to kind of touch on what should people do if they live in an apartment. Maybe they just have a patio or a balcony. Are there any tips that you have for folks that are living without a garden or a yard available to them?
[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] Sure. I can start, and then please jump in, Holly and Marla. Yeah. That’s a very, very good question. Not everybody has a piece of property that they can choose exactly what’s going in and out of it in terms of plants or even putting nest boxes and so forth up.
My recommendation is all birds need water. So one of the best things you can do is put a water dish out, a thin dish kind of like a planter size depth, no more than about 2 inches or so. And you would be surprised.
Birds that are flying through may just land on your balcony and want to get a sip of water, and that would be huge. You can put flowering plants on your balcony if you have a balcony. So don’t hesitate to consider some native plants in your pots and put them out there and let them go to seed.
And you could serve a little bit of a foraging space there, too. And you could put feeders out, as Holly was just articulating. Bird feeders are a great resource.
And perhaps, arguably, one of the most important things you can do in a city if you have a tall building or even just a modestly sized building is to protect your windows. And I’m going to talk a little bit more about what that looks like in a minute.
[Chelsea Benson] Great, thanks so much. Yeah, I think that’s a good segue, even just providing water, if you can put out potted plants as well. There’s lots of different ways.
And if you have absolutely no space for any greenery, there’s community gardens. You can get involved in clubs. And so there’s lots of different ways to get out and test out your green thumb even if you personally don’t have any land available to you that you own or rent, so, yeah, lots of options out there.
So Becca, we’ve been talking about lots of great resources, but you just kind of touched on one really simple thing you can do is treat your windows. I’d love if you could share more about how to keep windows birds safe. Maybe talk about turning off lights during migration and how we even know when peak migration is happening in your area.
Because I think we keep talking about migration, but when is it coming through? Is it really a big time right now here in Ithaca, New York, or in South Carolina, wherever you may be? So if you could share some resources and some tips about that, I would really appreciate it.
Oh, Becca. I think you’re muted there.
[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] Sorry about that. Yes, I am so glad to talk about this topic. And I saw somebody throw in the chat about turning off lights. And that’s absolutely 100% what we want you to do, and I will talk about why that’s important.
So for the audience who this may be kind of newer concepts or ideas to you, birds are migrating. They’re migrating right now. And a lot of people wonder why songbirds are more common in terms of collisions than some of the big migratory birds, like geese and ducks and so forth. And this is a beautiful artistic piece that was done by a Bartels intern, Megan Bishop, a couple of years ago.
And you can kind of get a snapshot here of why it is that songbirds tend to be the ones that collide with our buildings and our windows more so than the bigger birds. And as many viewers probably know, many birds, not all, but many birds, actually migrate at night, right? So things are dark naturally. The birds are looking for dark skies, and they have lots of very sophisticated navigation tools to use. So this is just a little bit of a background about why, and who is migrating.
But as Chelsea pointed out, birds are moving at different times. And we are so lucky that our science is becoming very sophisticated where we can really start to strategically understand when and where birds are migrating. And this is going to help us, as people who care and love about love birds, to make really specific choices at different times of the year to help as many of those migrants as possible.
And the tool that has emerged from the lab is called BirdCast. And I highly recommend people checking this out. You can literally watch birds in wherever you are in North America where they are when. And I should specify the United States. We’re working on Canada, but right now we have most of the data for North America. And all those green spots are radar stations.
And as you can see, this was taken last week. I just took a picture because I happen to notice there was lots of migration happening all over North America. There was a lot happening in the Pacific Northwest, in the Central Plains and Rockies, and also along the East, so lots of movement happening.
And you can see those orange arrows. Lots of that movement is moving down towards the Gulf. Lots of birds use various flyways.
The Gulf is one of the more popular and common ones. And there’s also birds that use the coastal navigations as well. So knowing when birds are moving will allow you to make decisions about your lights.
So, oh, wow, there’s a lot of birds moving right now. Maybe I should draw my blinds tonight. Maybe I should turned my lights off. Maybe I should turn my floodlight off tonight to really provide the darkest sky possible for these birds as they’re undergoing these really, really energy intense tough migrations.
And then a real practical thing you can do– this is really great for people that live in areas that maybe have lots of windows, whether it’s your home, or your business office, whatever. You can put things up on your windows. You can do this year round. It’ll always help minimize collisions, but it’s super helpful during migration.
And it can be easy as tempera paint. If you have children, you want to do an art project for spring and fall migration, put up some beautiful patterns and colors. And that will break up the window for the birds, so they don’t mistake it as a tree or a cloud.
Birds literally see how we see. So if you go outside and you look back at your house and all of your windows look like forest or clouds, that’s what birds are going to see. And that’s why they collide into our windows.
You could also use sticky notes. I always love this picture. Somebody took a bunch of sticky notes and stuck them up on their window and made a neat pattern. You could use tape, just masking tape along your windows.
So these don’t have to be very expensive. It can be pretty straightforward. Some people love window decals. So you can also invest in decals as a way to break your picture your window up.
And then some of the more sophisticated are long thin wires. These are attached to the outside of windows. About two inches apart is how most of them need to be. And then, again, that’s just enough of a break in the image that the birds aren’t going to mistake your window for some kind of a natural scenery or sky that they want to move through. So protecting your windows no matter where you are– most of us are in buildings of some capacity– is a great thing that you can do to help migrating birds.
And then I just wanted to bring up this one really neat initiative that’s growing. And we hope to grow it across, hopefully, the world eventually it would be fabulous. But we’ve started in Texas. And as I articulated, the Gulf is a really popular migration route. And because of that, so many birds move through Texas.
So there’s a Lights Out campaign that started in Texas, Audubon, and the lab and various other organizations in Texas are working together. And strategically in the spring and the fall, large office buildings and residential areas in Austin and Fort Worth and Dallas are turning off their lights during periods of time when lots of birds are moving through.
And this is an indigo bunting that I have up here. And I will just show this beautiful eBird status and trends maps, how indigo buntings are moving.
So you can see this is the summer. They are up here where we are, many of us who are watching. And then they’re going to slowly start to move south. And by November, December, they’re almost completely into their winter range.
So these birds are so tiny. And they are undergoing these massive movements all the time. And anything that we can do– turning off lights, protecting our windows, providing resources– is really going to be beneficial to these wonderful migrants.
[Chelsea Benson] I always love looking at those maps. They’re just so gorgeous and such a great illustration of the migratory flyways for birds and the patterns during migration. So thanks for sharing that, Becca.
I did have a clarification about the windows and treating windows. Does it have to be on the outside? What happens if you’re on the 10th floor of a building? You absolutely can’t get to the outside. What do you what do you recommend for people?
[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] Outside is the best, but it’s not the only. If you cannot get to the outside of your windows, don’t stop that from painting them, putting stickers up, et cetera, et cetera. A lot of the blinds that are the more sophisticated thin lines, they tend to be the most effective when they are installed on the outside. But don’t be limited to that.
Another thing I forgot to mention is screens. Screens are very helpful. They do the same thing. Screens are good. Draw your curtains. I know those are on the inside, but better than nothing.
And then one of my favorite comments in a past talk was, oh, kind of like leaving your garden messy, I’ll leave my windows messy. I won’t clean them until after migration. And that’s true. The dirtier and streakier they are, the birds are less likely to hit them.
[Chelsea Benson] That’s so funny. So all those fingerprints and dog noses or little smudges on the windows, just leave them. It’s great. There was another clarifying question because it’s a little confusing.
A lot of bird species migrate at night, but we’re asking people to turn out the lights, especially in city areas and, wherever you are, to turn out your lights. But the person is asking, wouldn’t it be helpful to birds to have the lights on so that they can see where the windows are?
[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] Good question. I did skip that part of this conversation. So the reason why we want people to turn the lights off is because the birds will be drawn to the light, right? So a lot of them will come into the cities in the evening, and they’re drawn to that light. They might land on a tree in your city park or outside your apartment building. And that’s where they’re going to maybe hang out overnight.
And the next morning is when they become really disoriented. And they can’t figure out how to get out. Because they look around and they see all the sky, but they’re building windows, right?
So lights draw birds in. They can act as kind of a trap to bring the birds in. And then they can be disoriented the next day when they try to exit. So we don’t actually want to leave the lights on. Birds are very good at navigating. And they’re very good at navigating without light.
And I saw somebody asked if all birds migrate at night. They don’t all migrate at night. Hummingbirds, in particular, do not migrate at night. They tend to migrate during the day. And they tend to migrate solo. A lot of these birds are migrating in larger groups, but not all birds do. Some birds migrate solo.
So there are some variations. But no, the light is an attractant. And we don’t want them landing, and getting disoriented, and then being more likely to hit windows the next day.
[Chelsea Benson] Great. Thanks for clarifying that. I think kind of it seems a little counterintuitive. But once you realize that the birds are really attracted to that light– and there’s this sad video of that phenomenon happening with the Twin Towers tribute in New York City with the beams of light going up into the sky. And literally thousands of birds circling the beams because they’re just drawn into that light. And then they use a lot of energy flying around and being confused and disoriented.
So now, luckily, thanks to a project with the Lab of Ornithology and the American Bird Conservancy, those lights are turned off during peak migrations, which we now know. We can look at the forecast to know when those are happening. So all the dots are being connected.
All right, we have so many questions. And you can just tell this is a topic that people are really excited about. So I’m trying to just kind of scroll through and figure out where to start. And Becca or Marla and Holly, I don’t know if you saw any questions in there that stood out to you that we should start with while I’m kind of scanning through?
I’ll start with Holly. Let’s go back to the nest boxes for a minute. So you said you recommended, for nest box cleaning, to use some soapy water, right, to clean out nest boxes.
And people are asking, what about masks and gloves? And what should you do with the innards, the leftover nest and fecal sac? Is it OK just to dump it in the woods? So what are your recommendations from NestWatch about how to do that?
[Holly Grant] Yeah, that’s a great, great question. I did skip over that. So mask and gloves is probably not a bad idea, especially if you end up finding a mouse has made a nest in your box while you weren’t looking.
So I’m never going to say that that’s a bad idea. Especially if you’re immunocompromised or something, you’re going to want to make sure that you’re taking all those precautions. You shouldn’t have to worry too much, but it’s always better to be safe.
When you do take those innards out, usually what we recommend is kind of disposing them far enough away from the box so it’s not going to attract a predator to find that box. Because those raccoons and even sometimes mice, chipmunks, there’s a whole bunch of mammalian predators that would come, remember where that box is, and maybe next year maybe suddenly your eggs disappear or you’re nestlings. So it’s definitely good to dispose of those contents far enough away from the box, maybe nearby woods or the edge of your yard if your box is in the middle of your yard, that kind of thing.
But another way to help prevent predators, while we’re on the subject, is to add predator guards to those nest boxes. So if you’ve got a nest box on a pole, adding a cone baffle or a stovepipe baffle– you can usually find them in the bird feeder section of a store. It’s just a metal something that you add to the pole to prevent climbing predators from getting to that box. And those can be added, again, to bird feeding poles as well to help prevent access by animals that you kind of want to discourage from getting to that.
[Chelsea Benson] Great. Marla, I’m seeing lots of plant questions and about leaving things messy and things like that. So one of the questions was, are there types of plants that should be left uncut?
So let’s say, for example, somebody’s gardening. And they might have tomato plants or beans or other things in their garden. Should we let that go, too? What about mums I saw was an example. Or are you just mostly focusing on native plants?
[Marla Coppolino] Well, I think most of our focus is on native plants. And usually for winterizing your garden, you do remove those things so that you get a better situation for your soil to recover if you’re growing vegetables, of course. So I see those personally as two different things. Becca, you are also another gardener and vegetables as well. What is your thought on that?
[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] Yeah. Thanks, Marla. So I absolutely recommend people getting specifically tomatoes out, a lot of your cabbage family plants, mums probably as well mostly because of disease. So you don’t want to overwinter things that might have disease either in the plant itself or in the root based system. So I definitely always pull things that look like they’ve been sick or diseased to minimize the chance that that’s going to be in my soil the following year.
It’s not 100%. You know, tomato diseases in particular are very bad. And it’s very hard to get them out of your system. But removing the debris is a good thing.
[Chelsea Benson] Great. And thinking about plants, we talked a lot about seed heads, but I think berries are also an important part of a bird’s diet during migration. And, Marla, do you have any recommendations for types of plants that fruit and birds that might be attracted to fruiting plants?
[Marla Coppolino] Sure. There are a lot of birds that actually switch during migration season, and they’re switching from an insect-based diet to a fruit-based diet. Because we have such a large audience on hand, the recommendation would be to find the types of berry or fruit bearing plants that are native to your area. But some good ones in general would be the species of dogwood that make berries, viburnum, let’s see– and I’m sure Becca has lots to add to that.
[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] Sure, yeah. Winterberries are another one that a lot of birds won’t necessarily use during migration, but later on. But, yeah, viburnum and dogwood, I’m going to double emphasize those. And oaks. Obviously, oaks have lots of stuff.
It’s important to remember that there’s lots of insects out there right now, too, right? So some of them are eating berries. But they’re not going to pass up a juicy, delicious insect that’s lingering on your native foliage, too. So just another plug for the power of those insects providing a really protein calorie-rich diet.
And I was curious, Chelsea, could we talk about cleanup from the perspective of when people should clean up? I noticed people are asking that.
[Chelsea Benson] Absolutely. Yeah, I did see some questions about what the timing should be of that. Could you expand on that, please?
[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] Yeah. And Holly and Marla, please jump in if you have other suggestions. But I always recommend people, specifically if you’re leaving your garden messy for birds, wait until the following spring. So you’re going to leave that stuff up all winter, and it will be helpful. You will notice birds in your gardens.
And then once spring hits– and this is very, very much variable depending on where you live. But basically, once the sun is starting to return, if you’re in North America, when the temperatures at nighttime are averaging about 50 for about three nights in a row, that’s a time when you can start to clean up. And the reason why we recommend that is because, as Marla articulated, all of those beautiful insects and organisms that are in the soil or under the leaf litter, they’re going to start to emerge after that time span.
So if you cut things too early, it might sort of cut off their emergence in the spring. And you won’t have as biodiverse of a habitat. So three or so nights in a row, consecutive nights, where it’s about 50 degrees at night in the springtime is when we recommend people starting to clean up.
[Chelsea Benson] 50 degrees Fahrenheit for our–
[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] Guests.
[Chelsea Benson] Yeah.
[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] Right.
[Chelsea Benson] It’s all right. Marla, I see some questions about water and providing water for birds. Are there any tips for providing water for birds without attracting mosquitoes?
[Marla Coppolino] Yeah, that’s an important one. I mean, some birds are going to eat the mosquito larvae and the mosquitoes, but nobody wants to make a breeding pool for mosquitoes on their property. Dump it every day and keep it fresh. Another way to do it is, if you have a fountain system and the water is moving, you won’t have that problem in the first place. So those are two good ways.
And the other benefit of having a fountain is that you can have your water keep moving even when temperatures start to get cold and possibly freezing. And somebody asked if it’s necessary to heat their water baths for birds in the winter.
Is it necessary? No. But are you going to attract more birds if you have that in place, yes. And your idea is not to make a little sauna for them, but rather prevent the water from freezing so they can still access it and have something to drink.
Bird water does not need to be anything elaborate. On my front porch, I have a few containers of just regular little plastic containers that I’m reusing. And I place a rock in each one, so the birds have something to stand on.
So they can really only be ankle deep at most for both the comfort level of most of the birds, but to be able to have something to stand on. And it makes it look a little bit more natural. So they’re seeing a plastic cup with water. They see a stone. And then they go, aha. And lots of birds are coming to that.
[Chelsea Benson] Great, thank you. Holly, we’re thinking about those hummingbirds coming to our nectar feeders. When do you recommend taking a nectar feeder down? Is there– you’re kind of watching for hummingbirds and you’re not seeing them? Or do you guys have a suggestion?
[Holly Grant] I wouldn’t say a specific date. I would say, if you still see hummingbirds come into your feeders, keep your feeder up. And then if you haven’t seen hummingbirds coming maybe for a week or so, then it might be OK to take it down.
But you want to also be careful of the weather and how warm it’s getting, too. Because usually the cleaning schedule for hummingbird feeders is going to be a lot more frequent than for a regular bird feeder. That sugar water, obviously, is a great growing environment for mold, pathogens, other stuff like that. So usually every couple of days, washing it every time that you refill it, is going to be the best and, obviously, more often when it’s pushing 90. We sometimes have these late bursts of warm weather in the fall.
So just be mindful. Keep an eye on your feeders. And as the hummingbirds stop arriving, kind of play it by ear and take them down when you’re ready.
[Chelsea Benson] Yeah.
[Marla Coppolino] If I could add to that, there was a question somewhere that somebody was asking if they could help the hummers by giving them an additional concentration of the sugar in the water. That is not a good thing for the birds. There have been– I think there was a study that showed that too much sugar, if you make it too sweet, it can harm their kidneys. So they really do want that one part sugar to the four parts of water is the recommended recipe for birds and no color in it, not needed.
[Chelsea Benson] Yeah, absolutely. And we should note that we’re very Northeast US-centric here. So we’re often thinking about ruby-throated hummingbirds. However, there are many parts of the Western United States that hummingbirds are year-round residents. So, lucky you. You can enjoy them year round.
[Holly Grant] For those folks, keep your feeder up all year if you want.
[Chelsea Benson] True. All right, so–
[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] What about invasives? Do you want me to talk about invasives? Or do you want to talk about invasive plants at all or stay away from them?
[Chelsea Benson] I think our audience would love to hear about that.
[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] There’s a couple. And Marla and Holly, again, jump in. There’s a couple about how to get invasives out without sort of doing a lot of disruptive or chemical applications and then what will kind of grow fast. So that’s a really hard question because it really depends on what invasive you’re battling.
So first and foremost, I’d recommend people get familiar with your invasives. Know what you’re trying to get out, and know the ecology of that plant. And so like garlic mustard, for example, is a big understory growth problem in lots of areas. It grows really fast, and it actually changes the chemistry of your soil.
So garlic mustard is tricky. You usually have to amend your soil. So I usually recommend suppression. So do a very thick sheet mulch cover, and then put it in a fast growing coreopsis or a fast-growing ground cover. And before you do that even, amend your soil with some compost because they take a lot of nutrients out.
So that question is tricky. My recommendation is get to know your invasive and figure out what you need to do specific to that plant. And then shrubs are great things to replace invasive shrubs. So if you can have a native shrub outpace a non-native shrub, that’s one thing you can do.
Dogwoods, in particular, are relatively fast growing. Marla was talking about those. So dogwoods are a good choice that are native to your area.
But also, removing the fruit and the seeds, this is really important for invasive plants because you have to get ahead of that progeny problem, right? So taking off the seeds, taking off the fruit, taking off the flowers so that they can’t continue to grow, and then sometimes actually physically digging and removing them is another strategy that you might have to use. So kind of get to know your invasives, and do some research on how it reproduces. And then you have to tackle it from there. But other thoughts from Holly or Marla on invasive issues?
[Marla Coppolino] Yeah. A quick note just to say, why is an invasive plant bad? An invasive plant is not a part of your local ecosystem. It’s come from somewhere else. It doesn’t have natural enemies or things eating it. So it’s taking up space and displacing something that could be doing good.
What I have found on my property is we have a lot of buckthorn and multiflora rose and honeysuckle. And it’s a lot of it, so it’s a constant job to cut it down. Yes, remove berries. Remove it before it flowers in the early spring if you can. And then just keep knocking back the roots.
So that alone has created some areas that were previously very shaded and allowing for some native dogwoods to come up and some native viburnum to come up. It’s been a delight to see what happens when you give them a little extra helping hand by taking out what’s shading and blocking them.
If I may just put in an extra pitch for the native berry-producing plants– we got some extra suggestions in the chat there, including red chokeberry. And I have some red chokeberry.
And the beauty of that is you’re getting a two for one. So you’re getting something that’s producing berries for birds. And the plant itself, the leaves of it, are supporting native insects. So you’ve got insects and berries. You get some double help out of our natives and no help at all from the invasive ones.
[Chelsea Benson] And if people are really interested in learning about gardening for birds, Marla, could you talk about the course that you helped develop with Bird Academy?
[Marla Coppolino] Yes, we have a course that we launched– I think it’s been almost two years already– called Growing Wild. And we aimed to make that course as comprehensive as possible for North America, including Canada because you’ve got native plants that are native to specific regions. But the course has some basic principles that could be applied to anywhere.
So even very simple things you can do, such as allowing some vertical diversity in your yard or garden even the smallest of spaces, if you have a tree or even a small tree, you’ve got spaces that birds can roost in and seek some shelter. It’s a great course for just covering all the basics. And then it also has links and access to more in-depth ways to learn about what’s native to your area.
[Chelsea Benson] That’s great. And I just saw that Sarah added in the chat that it looks like Bird Academy is giving a 40% off the course. And there’s a code in the chat, and it’s gardenMC, for Migration Celebration. So gardenMC22.
And if you’re listening, and you’re like, I’m going to forget that, that’s OK. Because on Friday, I’m going to email the recording. And within the recording, there’ll be a bunch of links that Becca and Marla and Holly have been sharing.
Because I know a lot of people are like, this is so great, but I can’t keep track of all the links. We will share our top six or seven most important links in the video recording so that you can explore at your leisure and not frantically try to copy all these links from the chat. Because I can see that people are like, I need these. We will get them to you. We promise.
So for those of you that are watching, we will be sending that recording out. It will include all the webinars that have been hosted over the last two weeks. So you can kind of scroll through and watch whichever ones you want or rewatch this one if you’re interested. And each recording has links to resources within them and some of the recordings have coupon codes, too, like the one for the Growing Wild course.
We are right up to 2 o’clock. That was so much fun, and it went so quickly. Holly, and Becca, and Marla, thank you so much for taking the time to be with us today.
[Marla Coppolino] Thank you. It was a pleasure. And I wish we could get to all the questions, but you’re asking good ones here. Hope we helped.
[Chelsea Benson] Yeah. And I want to thank the audience. You were so engaged and active in the Q&A and the chat. And it really makes it fun to do these programs when we know that people are just as passionate about practical ways to help birds no matter where they live. So I want to thank the audience for their participation today.
Remember to look for that email on Friday. You could also go to our Migration Celebration website and look through things now if you’re interested. And if you enjoyed today’s program, I hope you’ll consider becoming a member of the Lab of Ornithology.
All these programs are free, and they’re made possible by people who are members. So if you’re a member, thank you. And if you’re interested, just go to birds.cornell.edu. And there’s link to join there.
So thanks again, everyone, and have a great rest of your day. And a happy migration season. Bye.
[Holly Grant] Thanks, all.
[Marla Coppolino] Bye. Thank you, everybody.End of transcript
Migration season is a precarious time for birds, but we can make their journeys easier through a variety of simple actions. In this webinar, our expert panel of Cornell Lab staff share their tips to help migrating birds this fall. Discover what’s helpful (and in some cases what’s not so helpful) for birds visiting your gardens and outdoor spaces; hear advice on setting up winter roost boxes; and understand how to make human activities and structures safer for birds.
- Take the self-pace online course Growing Wild: Gardening for Birds and Nature and discover how transform your yard into a year round sanctuary for birds.
- Audubon’s Native Plant Database: Enter your US zip code for a customized list of plants and local resources including nurseries.
- The Pollinator Partnership provides an in-depth look at native plants for all ecoregions in the United States and Canada. Enter your zip code to download your PDF guide.
- Prevent bird-window collisions with these suggestions from American Bird Conservancy
- Attract birds during the fall and winter with roost boxes and learn more about nest boxes with NestWatch
- Check out BirdCast for live bird migration maps, 3-night advance migration forecasts, and local migration alerts
- Support the Lights Out project and turn off outdoor lights during peak migration
This webinar is part of our annual Migration Celebration. Join us for two weeks of online events, family-friendly programs, and ideas and resources for your own migration activities. Visit the Migration Celebration website for the full schedule of events and recorded webinars.