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Birdfeeders Don't Attract Backyard Birds, But Plants and Berries Do

By Kyla Gardner | June 30, 2015 5:29am
 A study from University of Illinois Chicago biologists found that homeowners' yards are important for native bird species.
A study from University of Illinois Chicago biologists found that homeowners' yards are important for native bird species.
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Flickr/John W. Iwanski

CHICAGO — Chicagoans enjoy having birds in their yards, a new study found, but what about bird watchers?

Some residents were suspicious when J. Amy Belaire, a landscape and urban ecologist, showed up in their neighborhood at dawn with binoculars around her neck.

"People ultimately were really honored and felt excited to be part of a scientific study, but I think it was also unexpected," Belaire said. "I did get the police called on me."

Belaire and her research team, including biologists from the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she received her doctorate in biology, hand-delivered surveys to more than 1,700 homes in Cook County to find out more about homeowners' lawns and how those residents feel about their winged neighbors.

Kyla Gardner explains how best to attract birds to your yard:

They found, in two separate studies, that yards, though small green spaces, are important to native birds, and that homeowners generally feel positive about sharing their space with them.

The first study, published in Ecological Applications in December, looked at how yards affect native bird species.

The researchers asked homeowners about the types of plants in their yard, whether they used bird feeders, what type of water features they have, any use of insecticides and whether the homeowners had outdoor pets. These characteristics were related to what types of birds showed up in yards, and the researchers found 36 different species when conducting their own bird surveys.

Most of the 25 research sites were in the Northwest and West suburbs along forest preserves, but three fell within Edgebrook.

Belaire, who is now at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, found that yards with a mix of evergreen and deciduous trees, no outdoor cats and with plants with berries led to more variety in bird species.

Bird feeders, the study found, didn't matter.

Because residential yards can make up more than one-third of the land area in a city, the study notes, their effects on local birds could be far-reaching.

"That was pretty surprising, but pretty empowering," Belaire said. "What we do in our own yards really does matter."

It's not only nature preserve planners and conservationists who can help out local wildlife.

The study concluded: "Why not ask more from our residential landscapes?"

In the second study, the researchers asked residents to fill out surveys about how they felt about the birds in their yards.

"One of the most important takeaways was that, across the board, people have pretty positive perceptions of birds," Belaire said.

The annoying aspects of having a lot of feathered neighbors — bird poop on cars or lawn furniture — weren't enough to make homeowners have strong negative feelings, Belaire said.

Overall, Belaire said, interdisciplinary research about the way humans interact with the animals they live with is important for local wildlife. That's what led her to study the Chicago ecosystem, instead of traveling to Africa or South America, like many researchers do.

"I felt passionate doing what I could to help us understand ecosystems close to home," she said.

After all, how humans perceive their ecosystem affects their actions, which in turn affect the ecosystem.

"We can’t study ecosystems in isolation from humans," she said. "It is becoming more important as well to realize how important perceptions and behaviors are to environmental outcomes."

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