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Four bird killers that may be lurking in your backyard

Cape May Warbler may be attracted to yards where bird killers lurk.
Cape May Warbler may be attracted to yards where bird killers lurk. Photo by Joan Wiitanen.

Attracting birds to a backyard involves more than feeders and a bath. Quality habitat is also critical, for the same reason that we humans would never move into a parking lot around a restaurant. We all need more than food. Good habitat provides critical selections of natural food and cover for roosting and nesting.

But even the finest backyard habitat isn’t enough: We must also eliminate death traps. As the saying goes, “Above all, do no harm.”

Four major killers can doom birds in our yards: glass windows, outdoor cats, pesticides, and disease.

Windows: At least a billion birds are killed each year by collisions with windows in the United States. Some of the victims are feeder birds, but many are not. Bustling feeders may attract migrants that linger because of the habitat. When a predator appears, they may flee at top speed directly toward the sky and trees they see reflected in our windows. Researchers with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that the better the backyard habitat, the more birds are killed at windows. The Fish and Wildlife Service has published guidelines for helping avoid window collisions.

Cats: Outdoor cats kill over a billion birds a year and spread such dangerous diseases as toxoplasmosis and rabies. Keeping our own cats indoors is imperative for ethical feeding. Encouraging our neighbors to do the same and promoting ordinances that prohibit owners from letting cats roam off their properties are also important.

Pesticides and disease: Common lawn and garden pesticides are harmful, too. Julie Craves explained why in “Since You Asked” in the October 2016 issue. When birdseed gets wet and moldy, botulism, salmonella, and other diseases can sicken birds. Keep tray and hopper feeders well drained, and check your tube feeders occasionally to make sure the seed is dry and loose. When you rake beneath feeders, dispose of wet and moldy seed where birds can’t get it. If you notice a sick bird, close down the feeders for a few days to prevent an epidemic.

How do we ensure that there are healthy populations of birds to attract in the first place?

Every bird migrating north from the Tropics must pass through inhospitable habitat, from major cities to expansive cornfields. Islands of quality habitat, where birds stop to rest and feed, ensure that as many migrants as possible will reach your backyard and beyond. National wildlife refuges are managed specifically to provide good habitat. Buying a Federal Duck Stamp is an excellent way to support refuges. Of the $25 cost of a Duck Stamp, fully $24.50 goes to habitat protection.

A current Duck Stamp provides free admission to all national wildlife refuges, but I usually pay at the gate anyway, so I can help my favorite refuges above and beyond my supporting the entire system. I’m well compensated by the abundance of beloved warblers and other songbirds in my backyard.


This article from Laura Erickson’s column “Attracting Birds” appeared in the November/December 2016 issue of BirdWatching magazine. 

Five more columns by Laura Erickson

How Red-bellies turned a bad spot into a good nest.

Feeding birds entails a serious responsibility.

Nests in your yard are delightful, most of the time.

Steps to take to keep backyard water features safe for birds.

Dealing with the smart and spirited Blue Jay.


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Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson is the 2014 recipient of the American Birding Association’s highest honor, the Roger Tory Peterson Award. She has written many books about birds and hosts the long-running radio program and podcast “For the Birds.” Her column  “Attracting Birds,” about attracting, feeding, sheltering, and understanding the birds in your backyard, appears in every issue of BirdWatching. “Snow Bird,” her first article in the magazine, appeared in December 2003. It described the migration and winter habits of the American Robin.

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