May 6, 2020

Can’t get outdoors during shelter-in-place? Bring the wildlife to your backyard


If you can’t venture out to see wildlife right now due to shelter-in-place, there are ways to bring the wildlife to you.

With a few key components – food, water, the right plants and protection – you can create a wildlife refuge right out your window. Within a week or two, depending on where you live, you’ll be able can attract hummingbirds, migratory and resident songbirds, and little furry guys from squirrels to bunnies and the occasional surprise that will have you scurrying for a camera.

In the Bay Area, the numbers and diversity of wildlife is far higher than many might imagine without wildlife cams to capture them — or to stay at home and make the surprise sightings. In San Francisco, the number of raccoons can be off the charts, for instance; at Lake Merced one evening, I once saw a gaze of 20 near the old boathouse.

To start, here’s a list of the most common prospects in the Bay Area region, and the plants and features that will entice them to your backyard. Stay with it and you’ll create new loyal friends that will return for years.

Backyard wildlife

This is what you’re hoping to see (there are more possibilities, of course):

Furry guys: Gray squirrel, Douglas squirrel, ground squirrel, chipmunk, chickaree, bush bunny, jackrabbit, raccoon, opossum, skunk and black-tailed deer.

Predators: Gray fox, coyote, bobcat, mountain lion and bear.

Hummingbirds: Anna’s, Rufous, Allen’s are the most common.

Birds/hanging feeders: House finches, purple finches, black-headed grosbeaks, warblers, vireos, orioles, oak titmouse, mockingbird, stellar and scrub jays.

Birds/ground-feeders: Dark-eyed juncos, sparrows, towhees, nuthatch, the occasional groups of mourning doves, pigeon and quail, blackbirds and dove, raven and jays; worm-eaters: robins.

Hanging cage feeders: Woodpeckers, flickers, nuthatches.

Food

On the menu: Cracked corn, peanuts and chips, black oil sunflower seeds and chips, uncooked oatmeal, sunflower chips, millet, milo, safflower.

Large species: It is illegal to intentionally feed deer, of course, or allow hunting where you are feeding birds (and the associate wildlife that can be drawn in). If you live near greenbelt, you can cast out cracked corn and bring in quail, wild turkeys and the occasional raccoon, skunk and deer, and the predators that hunt them. To keep wild turkeys from taking over your yard, set up a motion-activated sprinkler. If you have small pets, they could be put at risk from the arrival of predators, and using cracked corn is not advised.

Small species: Small ground feeders like squirrels and many others, love peanuts, both whole and in small pieces, and also black oil sunflower seeds and chips, and uncooked oatmeal.

Hummingbirds: The fastest way to get action out your window is adding a hummingbird feeder (we have six around our house). Make your own food by mixing sugar in water at a ratio of roughly 3.5-to 4-to-1 mix. The hummers usually find it within a week and keep coming back, often the same date, for years on their migratory routes.

Hanging-feeder birds: The best blends are made up of black oil sunflower seeds, sunflower chips and pieces of peanuts. The commercial blends also add millet and milo as filler (though perching birds do not eat millet or milo). When it gets knocked off the feeder, you’ll also be providing for the ground-feeders. To attract large numbers of gold finch, use Nyger seed in a cage feeder made for it.

Ground-feeding birds: Uncooked oatmeal can be the preferred entreaty. Millet is the small white seed common in commercial blends and it attracts many ground feeders. Milo is the reddish-brown seed that most birds don’t relish, yet it can draw in blackbirds and dove. The elongated white seed is called safflower and chickadees in the coastal areas and Santa Cruz Mountains seem to love it.

Water

Put out a big water bowl and keep it full for the furry guys. We keep our wildlife cam directly adjacent to the water bowl, and on warm summer nights, it can be quite the wildlife parade. Add a water dish for the birds to tip their beaks, and a pedestal-pool birdbath for them to clean up. For birds, make sure the water is out of range of predators.

Birdhouses

As with people, the key with a birdhouse is location. What usually works best is to hang it from a tree limb, with a side cord to stabilize it, in a location that is sheltered from direct sun, wind and not accessible to predators. Last year we had two warbling vireos hatch a successful nest, a great show that lasted a month, from nest building to fledging.

The ultimate habitat

To keep them coming back for years, you can add plants to your yard that will bring in birds, butterflies and bees/pollinators. Books have been written about this. My wife turned our property into a designated wildlife area with this primary strategy: Hummingbirds: Plant Monarda beebalms; songbirds: establish blooming plants that leave seeds (echinacea is a good example); butterflies: attracted to dianthus; Monarchs want perennial milkweeds; pollinators: honey bees are drawn to clover.

Tom Stienstra is The Chronicle’s outdoor writer. Email: tstienstra@sfchronicle.com. Twitter: @StienstraTom.





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