With the last of the autumn leaves turning into mulch and spring blossoms not yet a glimmer on the horizon, wild birds are often the only flashes of natural color adorning the local landscape this time of year. Fortunately, Western North Carolina is a bird-watching paradise, and winter is an ideal time to begin attracting them to your yard or garden, say the owners of two local shops.
Steve and Heidi Muma came to own their two local franchises of the Indiana-based Wild Birds Unlimited through a passion for bluebirds that Heidi developed years ago when the couple lived in Chapel Hill. “I went from [having] one bluebird box to another bluebird box, then feeding stations that went from one to two to three — it was crazy,” says Heidi.
She eventually joined the staff at the store where she’d been buying her birdseed and supplies and worked there and at other locations for several years. After moving to Asheville for Steve’s job, the couple decided in 2014 to buy the WBU shop in Hendersonville (they sold that location almost a year ago) followed soon by shops on Hendersonville Road and Merrimon Avenue.
In making outdoor spaces accommodating for wild birds, there are three basic things to consider, says Steve: habitat, food sources and safety. And creating a healthy habitat with native plant varieties is key.
“Get rid of your grass,” he says. “Really manicured yards are fun to have, but they’re not the best for birds. You want to have trees and shrubs, hummingbird-attracting flowers and things like that that are native to the area.”
Hummingbirds prefer a “trumpet-shaped flower,” Heidi adds, while berry-bearing bushes will bring in many other species. “Not all birds are fruit or berry eaters, but you’ll get robins if you have holly.”
Laura Mahan, co-owner of The Compleat Naturalist in Biltmore Village, agrees. “Your yard can be a little ecosystem that supports all levels of the food chain,” she says.
Mahan speaks with some authority. A botanist and former head of education at both the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and the San Diego Natural History Museum, she has operated the shop since 1992 with her husband, Hal, an ornithologist who previously served as director of both museums and was the first president of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History.
One practice that’s gaining popularity is not raking fallen leaves. Allowing dead leaves and other organic materials to decompose undisturbed on a lawn helps “create that food web for organisms that live in the soil,” Mahan explains.
And she points out that because many birds rely on caterpillars as food for their young, it’s important to consider the varieties of plants those caterpillars feed on. “Caterpillars of particular moths and butterflies are very specific, usually, in what species of plants they will eat, and the native butterflies and moths have evolved with these particular plants,” she says.
Oak, says Mahan, is a tree that supports numerous types of caterpillars. For details on others, she recommends the book Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants by Douglas W. Tallamy (available at her shop) as a data-driven resource for those hoping to build an optimal ecosystem for wild birds.
Room and board
Winter is a good time to plant woody shrubs and trees, she says. “It’s also not too early to install bird boxes for cavity-nesting birds,” such as chickadees, bluebirds, titmice and woodpeckers. “Bluebirds will start looking for nesting spots really early, like even in February. Now is also a good time to clean out bird boxes from last year and get them ready for the next season.”
In addition to nesting boxes, The Compleat Naturalist stocks a wide range of feeders. Mahan encourages the use of high-quality black oil sunflower seed. “That’s a very simple, basic seed to start with,” she says, adding that suet is another good food source for insect-eating birds like woodpeckers and wrens.
Wild Birds Unlimited specializes in seed, and the Mumas encourage people to keep feeders out year-round to support molting, late-summer hatchlings, migratory birds and more. “Spring is actually a really important time to feed, because nothing has come into seed or fruit yet,” Heidi points out. And Steve notes studies that indicate feeder-supported birds tend to lay more eggs and have healthier bone structure than other wild birds.
But as anyone who keeps up with NextDoor posts knows, bird feeders attract more than just avian wildlife. How do we feed the birds without also giving handouts to opportunistic squirrels, opossums and raccoons — and, of course, our resident bears, which will often take down the entire feeder along with the seed?
Steve Muma recommends setting up feeding stations at least 10 feet away from tree branches and shrubbery, then adding a baffle to pole feeders to prevent small intruders from climbing up. There are also weight-sensitive feeders that support feather-light birds but snap shut when a larger critter visits. And Mahan is partial to a clear, bell-shaped dome available at her shop that covers a feeder and prevents seed thieves from reaching inside.
When it comes to bears, though, the only thing to do, say the Mumas, is go spicy. “Hot food is the answer for nearly everything,” says Steve. Wild Birds Unlimited carries many types of seed and suet that are liberally spiced with habanero oil — much hotter than the cayenne some bird enthusiasts may have tried at home — which birds can’t taste, but most mammals can’t stand.
“Bears have a great sense of smell, and they have a great memory, too,” he says. He suggests that those with regular bear visitors place the feed out first in a cheap container so bears won’t bend an expensive feeder pole taking that first sniff.
Both Mahan and the Mumas add that keeping a water source available is extremely important. Both businesses sell bird baths as well as thermostat-controlled warming elements to add to existing baths that keep water from freezing during the winter. “They’ll bathe when it’s freezing cold outside, because feather maintenance is really important to their survival,” says Heidi.
Also crucial to their survival, the Mumas say, is addressing the two biggest safety concerns for wild birds: cats and windows. A 2013 study by researchers from the Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates between one and four billion birds are killed by domestic cats annually in the contiguous U.S. The same research team reported in 2014 that up to 988 million birds die each year after colliding with windows.
Cats are “crazy-good hunters,” says Steve, and to keep them from annihilating bird populations, they have to be kept indoors. The couple partners with the Asheville Humane Society to foster cats at each of their two stores to model to customers how cats and wild birds can coexist.
“We’re cat people, we have cats, but they’re inside, they’re never allowed out,” says Heidi. “They’re an invasive species to North America; they don’t belong out in the environment.”
As for windows, products are available at the shops that can warn birds away, including window alerts — a decal that is transparent to humans but can be seen by birds — and window tape. Steve also advises that feeders be placed within 10 feet of windows so birds can’t build up enough speed to injure themselves. Keeping screens in windows can also help.
As an all-around resource, the Mumas suggest the book The Joy of Bird Feeding by Wild Birds Unlimited founder Jim Carpenter. “Jim always uses the word ‘joy’ because he’s found so much joy in bird feeding,” says Steve. “And that’s what our customers tell us — it’s just such a joyful thing.”
The Compleat Naturalist is at 2 Brook St. (compleatnaturalist.com). Wild Birds Unlimited is at 10 Crispin Court and 946 Merrimon Ave. in Asheville (asheville.wbu.com) and 638 Spartanburg Highway in Hendersonville (hendersonville.wbu.com).