Attracting Birds to Your Yard

In the last two to three years, several studies have been published in scientific journals suggesting that having nature, for example singing birds, in your immediate environment can lead to greater well-being and health and overall life enrichment and even a prolonging of life. Here in Baja, particularly in El Sargento and La Ventana, we not only have plenty of sun, clean salt air, and many opportunities for exercise. So, what about the singing birds, you ask? Well, take it from me…there are plenty of songbirds to listen to right here in our two villages! You just have to know how to enjoy them and bring them in closer to one’s eyes and ears. It is neither difficult nor expensive. 

First and foremost, birds need fresh water in which to bathe and to drink. You do not need to buy a fancy bird bath. Just one of those foot-wide shallow plastic dishes that you place under a planter will do. It can be placed right on the ground or elevated slightly on some rocks or a sand pile. Due to a combination of the drying hot sun and the vigorous splashing by the bathing birds, you will need to refill it every two days. If you want to get fancier, it is really easy to mix some concrete and pour it into a hollowed pit in the ground to make a classy bird bath 2 or 3 feet across. Or you can go one step further and cement your bath onto a pile of large beach rocks to get it off the ground. The water level should not be deep; just two or three inches will do. A word of caution though — try not to locate your bird bath too close to vegetation that might provide ambush cover for the feral cats prowling about in our villages. 

As for bird food, there are a couple of options. You can buy chicken scratch by the pound at either of the local grocery stores. I buy mine in bulk for a good price at Semillas Y Cereales Guadalajar on Calle Aquiles Serdan in downtown La Paz. I keep the bag in a decent plastic bin (a metal garbage can would be ideal) to avoid problems with rodents. Offering the seed to ground-feeding birds can range from throwing out a couple of handfuls on the ground in a spray motion each morning to laying it out on a wooden or plastic tray (like a garbage can lid) sitting on a post of some kind. Yes, you might attract 10 to 30 white-winged doves, but you might also bring in California quail, house finches, lark sparrows, green-tailed towhees, and ground-doves. I have indeed acquired a flock of 30 or more doves, but I look upon those greedy birds as a giant smorgasbord for the fairly common Cooper’s hawks which love to dine upon them. Another seed worth offering is gray striped sunflower, a food preferred by northern cardinals, black-headed grosbeaks, gila woodpeckers, and California scrub-jays. 

And then there are the hummingbirds. We mostly get Costa’s hummingbirds here. Putting out a feeder with red parts or even just a red ribbon tied onto it and filled with a sugar solution will make them quite happy. Just bring to a boil 4 cups of drinking water and one cup of white or cane sugar and then let it sit until cooled. You can store it in the fridge for several days. You will need to put out more than one hummer feeder; otherwise, they will fight to exhaustion over them. Keep in mind that Scott’s and hooded orioles, gila woodpeckers and gilded flickers also love that sweetened water. They will find all sorts of clever ways to hang on your sugar feeder and drain it in an hour or so. 

Speaking of orioles and flickers, there is a more natural way to attract them. Plant plenty of aloe vera plants with either the orange or yellow flowers filled with nectar….the birds absolutely adore them! In fact, if you are building a house here, try to keep as much natural vegetation in place as possible. You will not regret it. My greatest pleasure each day is sitting out on the back patio with a steaming cup of coffee at sunrise with my wife and watching more than 20 species of birds fly in and around my yard feeding their faces and splashing about and drinking in my baths. You just have to offer them a nice safe restaurant with the right foods and beverages! 

American Kestrels

If you would have told me ten years ago that I would own a home in El Sargento and even more unbelievable, that I would have a pair of American kestrels in March flitting in and out of a wooden nest box that I installed in my yard only 80 feet from my back patio, I would have thought you to be “crazy in the head”! But here I am enjoying the chittering of a pair of kestrels as they copulate on the hydro wires and on a bush just outside the entrance hole of my nest box, which was kindly built for me by Greg Julien and Kevin Katzmann. These are all good signs that the birds might raise young, however I have long since learned not to count my chickens, errr falcons, before they hatch. 

But just to back up a bit, you need to know that I had studied the American kestrel for no less than four decades, bred thousands of them in captivity for research purposes, and was at one time the world’s leading authority on the species. What is really incredible is that this tiny falcon used to be known as one of the most common birds of prey to be seen in North America! Today though, we are worried about losing it! 

While the kestrel does have one or two places in North America where its population is doing fairly well (the state of Idaho and the Baja Peninsula being two of them), it is fast disappearing from the landscape elsewhere, particularly in the northeastern part of the continent. Why do we know that it is declining? And what is causing the decline? Read the full story here.

Birding/Snorkelling at Cerralvo Island update: We are looking for one more person to sign up for the Cerralvo Island boat expedition on Wednesday, March 20 (tomorrow!) to make it a go. Six people accompanied me on March 14th and everyone had a great time! The cost is 125US which covers the boat and motor, a pilot, a fish ID guide, snorkelling gear, and a nice lunch. We assemble at 0730 at Palapas Ventana Resort and we are back around 1400. Because time is short, feel free to phone me. David M. Bird 686-338-9135

Hammond’s Flycatcher

What do Baird’s junco and sandpiper, Bonapartes gull, Brewer’s sparrow and blackbird, Cassin’s kingbird and vireo, Costas hummingbird, Forster’s tern, Harris’s hawk, Cooper’s hawk, Hutton’s vireo, Lincoln’s sparrow, Scott’s oriole, and Wilson’s warbler have in common, besides being found here on the Baja Peninsula? If you concluded that they are all named after people, you are partly correct. But did you know that they will also be receiving new names sometime in the coming year? This announcement on November 3 by the American Ornithological Society, which is officially in charge of deciding North American bird names basically means that we will no longer call Cooper’s hawks Cooper’s hawks or Costa’s hummingbird Costa’s hummingbird.

It is a decision meant to dissociate these birds from what are called problematic eponyms. Probably the best example of this dilemma is Hammond’s flycatcher (found in the northern half of the Baja Peninsula) is named after William Alexander Hammond, a former U.S. Surgeon-General who held the view that the mental and/or physical faculties of both Black folks and Indigenous peoples were not much higher than those of an organ grinder monkey!! There are many other examples whereupon someone currently honoured with a bird named him condoned slavery, for example. I was actually engaged in a Zoom conversation with over 100 North American ornithologists and birders about this very matter three or four years ago.

I recall having strong mixed feelings about it because I thought that it seemed a wee bit unfair to take away the legacy of bonafide, deserving people like John Cassin, a former curator of ornithology at the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences, who has a kingbird and vireo found here in our region named after him. William Cooper of Cooper’s hawk fame was no slouch in the field of ornithology either. Costa’s hummingbird, the most common of its kind in our town, was named after Louis Marie Pantaleon Costa who was a collector of hummingbirds (incidentally, that means that he shot or trapped them for a taxidermy collection!). However, I also understand that to cherry-pick the birds named after possibly bad people could take years of bitter debate and that perhaps giving the birds names that somehow connect the person viewing them with a geographical and/or physical identity to help them ascertain the species in the field is not a bad idea.

The good news for those having birds named after them though is that the Latin names will not be changed, thus preserving the legacies of deserving folks who discovered or first described the birds in the scientific literature. The really big winners in all this, of course, will be active authors and book publishers involved with bird reference volumes and field guides because these name changes, once decided upon and written in stone, will automatically mean that all of the current books on our shelves will become as obsolete as the birds’ common names. Maybe not a huge headache considering that we are all headed toward electronic field guides in any case. And perhaps a small price to pay for doing the right thing in today’s society. David M. Bird

Bird’s Eye View: The Imposter Among Us

Even if you are not into birds in the slightest, most folks in La Ventana and El Sargento are familiar with those large black birds with the broad wings soaring effortlessly over our heads without flapping for seemingly hours or perched on the tops of the cardon cacti with their wings held wide open to warm themselves up after a cool night.

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Considering Birds When Building in La Ventana

Updated Dec 12, 2022 – Down here in Baja where my wife and I own a wee abode to escape the chilly Canadian winter weather, we are seeing lots of new houses going up. Some of the local folks are even blaming an apparent decline in our songbird populations on all of this construction. But it is not fair of us to roll up the carpet and tell others that they cannot enjoy our neighborhood too. So… what to do? How can we build our homes but also keep the birds here? 

Costa’s Hummingbird in El Sargento (photo: Chris Smith)
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