GIMME SHELTER-Birdie buddy: Help your feathered friends

John Lane, Wild birds Unlimited

Q: How is the recent drought affecting the bird population? Should I be worried about the birds at my feeder? How can I help them?

A: Wild birds suffer in any extreme weather, be it drought or too much rain, because they're part of a delicately balanced ecosystem. Both conditions make it hard for birds to find food because they make it hard for plants to grow properly and attract insects, the two primary food sources for birds.

For example, when we had that very wet season a few years ago, there were very few flying insects in the area. As a result, insect-eating birds like the Purple Martin were not finding enough food. People had to go out and feed them to help them survive. The unusual wetness affected the nut harvest in the forest as well, which was hard on birds, and also on other animals.

The poor nut harvest was one of the reasons that so many bears wandered into town that year. Likewise, the present drought conditions (until recently, anyway) have had the same adverse effect on plant life and insect population.

Last year, when hurricane Katrina hit, the hummingbird population suffered; thats because so many flowers and plants were washed or blown away along their southern migration routes. These kinds of weather extremes can be devastating to birds, seriously affecting their survival rates, the number of eggs they lay, and the health of the chicks that are born. Given these realities, feeding birds can make a real difference in their survival. For example, a well-known study on Chickadee populations in the Northern states found that the birds with access to feeders had a 30 percent greater chance of survival than birds who got no help from humans.

Of course, it helps to have a bird feeding station in your yard, and a birdbath, but you can also help the birds by planting the kinds of flowers birds like, like zinnias, and by leaving the dead flower heads on your plants for the birds to feed on. You can also put out fruit, vegetables, berries, nuts, and anything else in your fridge thats overripe.

If you have a birdbath, remember that birds will both bathe and drink there. Youll also attract different birds. For example, the Eastern Bluebird will not come to a feeder, but they will come to a birdbath. Of course, its important to keep the water fresh, and the bath clean, by changing the water once a day or at least every other day.

John Lane