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Building a bird 'friendly' backyard

Minnesota is blessed with many colorful and helpful birds which many people spend a lot of time and money to attract to their backyard. There are three basic elements which will invite birds to your backyard. They need food, water and shelter in order to survive and raise a family.

• Food: The majority of the birds like juicy berries which are a fast-food favorite. The most popular fruits are small so the birds can quickly gobble them up and move on. These include crabapples, serviceberries, Mountain ash, blueberries, raspberries and strawberries, or anything small, tender and colorful. If you have some of these delicacies in your garden, you may also know that you need some type of a net over the top, so that there are some blueberries, raspberries and strawberries left for your family.

Bird feeders are popular not only for the birds, but also for us who like to watch them eat and spar among themselves at the feeders. Bird feeders should be placed in a spot where they will get early morning sun because this is when birds do most of their feeding. They appreciate the warmth of the early morning sun. They like if their feeders are placed close to trees so that they can eat and then quickly dart to the trees for protection and hide.

• Water: A birdbath is an ideal way to make sure birds get enough water for drinking and bathing. The birdbath should be set about 10 feet away from a tall shrub or small tree. Bathers like a "bird's eye" view of the area to make sure it is safe before they dive in or take a drink of water. When they come out, a branch nearby gives them a spot where they can perch and preen themselves before flying away.

• Shelter: When it is time to roost, most birds will choose a protected spot, such as a dense tree or shrub. But when they are ready to build a nest, they may be a bit more particular. It could be the same tree or shrub, a hole in a tree trunk or a ledge tucked up high on a wall. It depends on the type of bird, but anywhere out of the hot sun and soaking rain has potential.

No matter what type of home birds build, you can help. In the spring you can drape 6 to 10 inch pieces of cotton string over branches so birds can gather them for their nest building material. Tuck other fibers, such as human or pet hair in a mesh bag and hang it from a tree. Last winter I found a bird's nest that had blown down and it was beautifully sculpted with horsehair from one of my horses' tails. Some birds use mud as cement, so keep a spot in your garden constantly wet so they have a steady supply of building materials during nesting season.

If you like to put up bird houses, put them up in several locations so that birds have options for finding just the right location. Birds do not like their houses located near bird feeders, and they do not care if the house is painted. If you do paint it, use a nontoxic latex paint in a pale color that will reflect heat better than a dark color. Adding a perch to a birdhouse gives aggressive birds such as house sparrows a place they can land and pester or harm the nesting family. Four-legged predators can use the perch as a handle to reach inside for eggs and chicks. Birds are more interested in the size of the hole. Too small and the birds can not get in, too large and sparrows and predators will be a problem. The following are some hole sizes:

• Black-capped chickadee: 1 1/8 inch hole

• Downy woodpecker: 1 1/4 inch hole

• Eastern bluebird: 1 1/2 inch hole

• House wren: 1 1/4 inch hole

• Tree swallow: 1 1/2 inch hole

• White-breasted nuthatch: 1 1/4 to 1 3/8 inch hole

Birdhouses need to have the nest cleaned and brushed out in late fall or winter. This will reduce the chance of mites and diseases that could harm the next family of birds. House sparrows will try to move in at anytime, and their nests should be pulled out. They will harass other adult birds and will even kill other baby birds.

Kyle Schulz is a Wadena County Master Gardener from Sebeka, and the regular gardening columnist for the Wadena Pioneer Journal.