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During coronavirus stay-at-home, Florida’s backyard birds bring delight

Here are some tips for creating a habitat to attract the birds that frequent the Tampa Bay area in April.
Barb Walker, past president of Clearwater Audobon Society, shares easy tips on how you can attract birds to your yard, including cardinals, the tufted titmouse and the Carolina wren.
Barb Walker, past president of Clearwater Audobon Society, shares easy tips on how you can attract birds to your yard, including cardinals, the tufted titmouse and the Carolina wren. [ Barb Walker ]
Published Apr. 2, 2020

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We have a lot going on, but the going on isn’t going. It’s staying — staying safe, staying home.

There’s my son, an essential worker for his employer, ensuring he doesn’t track germs into our home. There’s the daughter, virtually navigating the end of her senior year of high school. There’s the husband and me, making sure all our juggling balls stay airborne.

And there’s the grandmother, my mom, who we want to keep safe, peaceful and close.

“Piper, I think I want to go home. I’m in the way,’’ the grandmother said. “I’ve been here too long.’’

I watched her as she packed up her bag and books and toothbrush. My heart was pounding, thinking of her not within sight of me or my sister, who lives down the street.

“Mom, I think you should stay here,'' I told her.

Her sweet smiling face became one big scowl. “No, there is no reason I can’t be in my apartment."

I made sure not to scowl back. I sat down next to her on the patio. She stayed standing.

My son’s voice, a whisper, came up as if right on cue.

“Hey you guys, look. A cardinal.’’

There in the backyard, a male cardinal held a safflower seed in its beak and stood on the edge of our bird bath.

Mom smiled and watched it dance from the bath to the fence to the bushes.

And that made me smile. My mom relaxed and sat down. Later, when she was down the street at my sister’s home, as she began to feel antsy, it happened again. She was sitting in a lawn chair. A cardinal flew in front of her. It set her mind at ease.

Our family believes in cardinals. Albeit we are zany and loud and often inappropriate with our humor, but we are reverent about signs from above. And that includes cardinals. They have helped carry us through the years.

My mother’s mother kept porcelain cardinals in several rooms of her home. Her Christmas cards were dotted with the crimson birds in snow. And yes, honestly, we do indeed have several stories of how cardinals have magically appeared, as angels, at just the right time.

As the pandemic rages, mom stays here in our neighborhood, taking turns at her daughters’ houses, while grumpily keeping the respected social distance. My family has morphed into 21st Century homebodies. And with this new status comes a renewed passion for me ― backyard birding in our "DIY'' sanctuary.

Barb Walker is the founder of Tampa Bay Bird Rescue and also serves as Moccasin Lake Nature Park’s bird of prey manager. In her Palm Harbor backyard, she has an all-inclusive bird habitat. “Actually, we have all sorts of wildlife in the yard,’’ Walker said.

Here are some tips from Walker on attracting birds to your backyard:

  • Birds that visit Tampa Bay area backyards in early April include cardinals, hummingbirds, tufted titmouse, wrens, mockingbirds, gray catbirds, brown thrashers, gnat catchers, warblers and, in northern pockets of the area, bluebirds.
  • You already have bird viewing areas at home — your windows. Place plants that will draw birds outside the window for you to see. But ensure there is a buffer at the window, so birds don’t get injured. Use healthy, low maintenance, native plants, including firebush, American beautyberry and Simpson’s Stopper.
  • Hummingbirds are a big deal right now and will be here until September. The first that arrive are the handsome males that have a ruby-colored throat. As April goes on, the females start popping up. If you install a hummingbird feeder, consider putting it on an eave of your home. A good hummingbird mix includes one cup of water and a ¼ cup of sugar (do not put in red dye, although traditionally, people have). Any leftover mix can go into the refrigerator for two weeks.
  • Bird baths, or even simple shallow dishes of water in a few places like nooks in trees, are important. During a dry spell, the birds are going to appreciate the baths. Don’t be surprised to see birds and other creatures of all sizes enjoying the water.
  • Feeders and food: When it comes to picking out bird feeders, know you don’t have to spend a lot of money, and you can purchase one online. Michaels sells unpainted wooden bird feeders for under $6 and Walmart has a variety of feeders starting at about $9. Another crafty alternative is an old Girl Scout trick: Roll a pine cone in peanut butter. Add seeds and hang.
  • In order to not attract too many squirrels, try different seeds, like a more bitter seed like safflower. Cardinals love it, for example, but squirrels don’t.
  • If you have areas in your yard with deeper brush, be sure to put food there too.
  • Distance matters for optimal visits from birds. Put one bird feeder in place and then set another feeder out of visual site from the first one.
  • When you are working in your yard, trim small trees and shrubs and cut half branch off. This will make perches for the birds. And, if you have some branches sticking out a couple inches, cut an orange in half. Stick it backwards on to the tree. Gray cat birds like it and when the white gnats come out for the citrus, hummingbirds will follow.
  • Keep feeders clean. Scrub them occasionally with Dawn soap or a ten percent bleach solution.

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