Put Up Your Guard
You've worked hard to create your bird-friendly backyard. Here's what to do when trouble shows up.
The best way to reduce the risks to birds is to keep cats indoors--particularly if there are active bird feeders nearby. This protects not only birds; it could save the cats from untimely deaths on the road. Indoor cats are also safer from feline leukemia and other diseases, parasites, attacks from predators, and fights with other cats. Additionally, cats that roam at night are more likely to come into contact with raccoons and skunks, the primary transmitters of rabies in the wild. The average lifespan of an outdoor cat is just five years; by contrast, indoor cats can live more than 15 years.
Putting bells on a kitty's collar is largely ineffective in preventing bird predation, because by the time the bell rings, it's usually too late for the prey to escape; fledglings are unable to fly away in any case. Kittens are easiest to train to a life indoors, but even older cats can learn new ways. It takes the attention of your entire family to keep your cat within the safety of your home. Providing toys, games, activities, and other forms of "environmental enrichment" can help minimize boredom and keep indoor cats fit and alert. Bird feeders near windows--even videos of bird feeders, mice, and fish--can entertain indoor cats for hours. Or try interactive cat games that provide exercise, play, and problem solving. One source is the new book 101 Cool Games for Cool Cats (Rockwell House, 2007), by Elissa Wolfson. Also consider a fenced-in cat enclosure that offers fresh air, sunshine, and climbing perches. Commercial pre-built enclosures are available from online retailers. For those who have neighborhood cats near their feeders, one device that may prove useful is the Scarecrow Motion Activated Defender. This battery-operated product has a motion/heat sensor that triggers a startling noise and a blast of water to scare predators. If you need proof that a neighbor's cat is stalking your feeders, catch him in the act with a weatherproof camera like the Wingscapes BirdCam, which snaps photos with a motion-detecting lens.
The unusually crowded conditions at bird-feeding stations increase the likelihood of spreading contagious diseases, especially where uneaten food and bird droppings accumulate. Such a consistent food source may also enable diseased birds to survive longer than they would without supplemental food--and the longer they reside at feeders, the more likely they are to spread disease to healthy birds. To keep your birds fit, feed fresh seed, stored in watertight containers and, in the summertime, out of the heat, which can turn oils rancid. Avoid feeding suet to birds once summer temperatures peak, because it will melt and then oil feathers, possibly ruining waterproofing.
Moldy food can transmit a respiratory disease called aspergillosis. If seed goes bad, bury it or otherwise dispose of it in a place where birds will not gain access. Seed can also turn moldy in feeders, so scrub them out in the spring and fall and more often if they are used during the humid summer months. Use a long-handled bottlebrush, scour with environment-friendly dish soap, and rinse thoroughly. You can also prepare a solution of 10 percent non-chlorinated bleach and fully immerse the feeders for two to three minutes; scrub and rinse with fresh water. In early spring rake up spilled grain and hulls from under feeders. Wash and rinse hummingbird feeders every three to five days and change the nectar solution daily in hot weather.
Nature will be nature, but bird feeding shrinks the predatory playing field, particularly if you're a raptor like a hawk or an owl. That's because large concentrations of songbirds at backyard feeders commonly attract Cooper's hawks, sharp-shinned hawks, American kestrels, and goshawks. Screech and great horned owls also take backyard prey, but their bird-snatching ways are seen less often, since they hunt at night. In addition to being hunted by predators, birds of all sizes often die from slamming into windows in their panic to escape. Sometimes pursuing raptors suffer fatal collisions as well.
When predators do come calling, you can prevent songbirds from getting picked off by holding back the seed and letting the feeders go empty for a few days. With their prey dispersed, hawks will soon move on. Healthy birds can usually evade predators if there are suitable trees to serve as escape cover within 15 to 20 feet of a feeder.