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by RUSSELL McCULLEY Louisiana bird watchers have it pretty sweet. Not only does our moderate weather encourage a nice variety of year-round resident species, including blue jays, cardinals and mockingbirds, but the state lies at the center of the chief north-south migration route for scores of others. “We have a lot of birds that hang out in our area all year,” says Grant Estrade, owner of Laughing Buddha Nursery. “But for people who like birds, the migratory ones are the thing to see.” Indeed, Estrade’s shop sits not far from the spot where, underneath the Causeway bridge, suburban purple martin-watching has become a seasonal spectator sport. But other places around town also make good resting and feeding stations for migrating birds, notably City Park and the wooded areas along the Mississippi River levee. Both migrants and full-timers will take up residence in the garden, too, as long as it provides the basic needs: food, water, shelter and a reasonable sense of security. One element without the others is usually a wasted effort; you can place a birdhouse in an empty yard, but chances are you’ll attract nothing but English sparrows, a scrappy, nonnative and invasive species that often destroys the nests of other birds.

Building Blocks

Early spring, before migrating birds pass through the city on their way north, is a good time to install a birdhouse, says Estrade, who sells a line of wooden models. “If you buy a wooden one, get cedar, because it will last longer outdoors,” he says. Bald cypress houses, likewise, are more durable than those made of plywood, although an exterior coat of paint will help most wooden houses withstand the weather. Shops around town sell birdhouses made from materials as diverse as molded plastic and gourds, which purple martins tend to favor. What it’s made of is less important than how it is designed; well-planned birdhouses will be specific to a certain type of bird and take what Estrade calls “the ergonomics of it” into consideration: depth from hole to floor, the diameter of the entrance, and how far the perch is from the hole. If you buy a showy birdhouse strictly as a garden ornament, you may get some unwelcome tenants. “It will get filled up with sparrows,” he says. Better to look for a brand affiliated with or recommended by one of the bird conservation groups like the Audubon Society. And avoid the condo-style, multiunit bird complexes; they may look great in the yard, but most birds, other than pesky sparrows and starlings, prefer the single-family home.

Location, Location, Location

Where to place the house is also variable. “Some birds don’t care,” Estrade says. Generally, it should be in a place where there’s not a lot of foot traffic, but where it can still be seen and enjoyed. Pick a shady spot, preferably under the can-opy, both for relief from the sun and a sense of security. Putting the birdhouse on a pole or suspending it from a tree branch helps protect the birds from predators—in the city, mainly cats, but also rodents. If the house will be attached to a tree trunk or wedged between branches, where robins like to nest, consider one with a sharply angled roof and an overhang to discourage predators. How high to place a birdhouse also depends on the type of bird you wish to attract. Wrens, for one, aren’t terribly picky about the type of house or where it’s placed; purple martins, on the other hand, prefer the high-rise view, somewhere in the 15-foot to 20-foot range. Like feeders, the birdhouse you choose should be accessible and easy to clean. Remove nests after its residents have fledged to make room for another pair of birds, and clean the house inside and out with a diluted bleach solution or another antiseptic cleaner. And if you get sparrows or starlings, don’t feel guilty about evicting them. Since they’re not protected by law, you can get rid of their nests with impunity. And since they are apt to wreck other birds’ nests themselves, you can do it without guilt.
Hunger Pangs It’s important to create a habitat where birds want to live, Estrade says. A water source and well-stocked feeders will encourage birds to congregate. For maximum effect, stock several different types of feeders and place them near a flower bed. Estrade suggests bringing bird feeders in at night, if possible, to prevent after-hour dining by rodents. “Or at least get one that’s [pretty much] squirrel-proof,” he says. Feeders should be cleaned frequently to prevent the spread of disease. A few bird-friendly plants will also draw a crowd. The best are those that provide both shelter and food. Estrade likes the elder-berry, a weed to some gardeners but a good food source to birds. “And it’s a native plant, so birds feel comfortable there,” he says. •

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