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Nature and Environment

News about the health and beauty of the natural world that sustains us.

This Stuff is for the Birds

Robin tending to her nestlings

A fantastic side benefit of “going natural” is that the birds benefit greatly. By no longer mowing our lawn and continuing to add more garden beds, we are gifting our avian friends with food and shelter materials. Visit my Paradise pages to view parts of this transformation.

Many goldfinches visit our coneflower (added two years ago) during the temperate times of year. I watch juncos and other colder clime birds supping on the seeds of our leftover flowers and weeds during the winter. Our catbirds delight in the insects attracted by our garden during much of the year. Most of the birds nip off and gather our abundant long grasses for fashioning and adding to their nests when it’s time to rear their young.

In fact, long grasses are a favorite nesting material because they’re pliable, lightweight, and much of it is strong enough to last a season, or at least through one brood of nestlings. Because our long grasses are plentiful, the birds can continue to grab what is needed for continued nest maintenance throughout the season as they rear each batch of nestlings.

Most of us can find at least a little corner of our yard where we can let some grass grow out even if a more manicured yard is our goal. Just remember to keep it free of the ‘cides (pesticides, insecticides, herbicides…) and you’ll be doing a wonderful thing for your local feathered friends.

When I recently pruned my grapevine, I set aside some of the pieces for my own arting pursuits — most of it became fodder for the birds. I brought my vine clippings into the house, where the cats briefly displayed their toddler personalities by claiming the new toy that must be for them. I let the cats play a little and then cut these trimmings down to 4 to 6 inch pieces. They’re perfect for many of my outdoor winged friends to fashion nests—pliable, lightweight, and strong.

Last week, my husband and I had our ears lowered (aka got haircuts) so I asked our hairdresser Jamie for the clippings to add to the stash I’ve been collecting for my wild kin. Since neither my husband nor I use anything harsh on our hair, I knew it was a safe addition. Once cut to shorter and safer lengths, it’s ready for use.

Gathered Materials

Although we don’t launder with fragrances or softeners, I discovered that dryer lint is not a good addition to my pile of donations. Lint breaks down too quickly due to the varied weather conditions and doesn’t last the nesting season. It can leave a hole in the nest once depleted, definitely unsafe for baby birds. If adding lint to your compost pile, remember to bury it so inexperienced birds don’t mistake it for the perfect nesting material.

It’s very important to offer safely sized materials. A good friend was called over to a neighbor’s yard several years ago to help rescue a cardinal. The poor bird’s leg had become entangled in a piece of thread which then subsequently attached to the tree’s bark where it landed. My friend and her neighbor worked carefully to free the bird. Fortunately, this story had a happy ending. We’ve all heard stories where it wasn’t so. When preparing your offering, make sure that anything with great flexibility is small or short enough so it can’t knot easily thereby tangling or strangling a bird.

Birds build their nests in many different places. If you can provide trees or shrubs, this is wonderful. Not all of us have the ability to add these where we live. Even so, you likely have them somewhere near in your neighborhood so you can still put out nesting goodies. Don’t worry if you haven’t gathered anything and you still want to play. Robins love adding mud to their nests. Loosen a little dirt and add a cupful of water and you might make someone’s day.

My favorite places to stash the treasures that I leave out for the visiting birds are in the crooks of branches, in wire baskets and suet feeders, and tucked into a repurposed mesh bag. When using this latter option, be sure to securely fasten the bag and then take it down (once emptied) before it becomes dangerous.

Think of the birds and their behaviors when placing your offerings but remember the activities of any predators. Don’t create a feeding station for the local cats by leaving the materials in areas they can easily access or where their presence might be hidden from view.

Gathering nesting materials to share with the birds is a wonderful activity to do with children and a fantastic way for them to learn about the environment around them. This activity can begin very early in spring when your youngsters begin putting out the materials. They can set up several different stations and monitor popularity and frequency of visitation. During the nesting season, they might spy some of their offerings in the nests around the yard and neighborhood. If they are really enamored watching their feathered friends, they will likely start noticing eating habits and what each variety prefers. Maybe you can research together to find out what to plant to attract a favorite species.


Use these

• Organic (meaning free of ‘cides) pliable, sticks and grasses
• Fur (from brushing, shedding, or shearing; free from chemicals/treatments)
• Down (as in feathers… from pillows or parkas, untreated)
• Short pieces of yarn and threads (preferably from natural materials)
• Small pieces of fabric (free from scents and chemicals)
• Mud (even pouring some water on a bare patch of ground is enough for robins to love)

Don't use these

• Anything that is too long, strong, and flexible that could knot around a bird’s leg
• Things that have a scent, are treated with chemicals, or have had pesticides on them
• Never use fishing line

Catbird with mouthful

Blythe Pelham is an artist that aims to enable others to find their grounding through energy work. She is in the midst of writing a cookbook and will occasionally share bits in her blogging here. She writes, gardens and cooks in Ohio. Find her online at Humings and Being Blytheand read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here

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