Some land we bought south of downtown Salem about 35 years ago included a five-acre fallow field that supported early successional vegetation with numerous wild sunflowers I identified as Helianthus angustifolius. These plants are tall, attaining heights of seven feet and have conspicuous yellow flowers about three inches in diameter. I have seen them growing along roadsides in several areas of rural Lee County.
A few years later on a visit to the property in mid-summer I saw what appeared from a distance to be numerous tiger swallowtail butterflies flitting around the sunflowers, some of which were beginning to produce seeds. A closer examination revealed the “butterflies” to be goldfinches (a.k.a. wild canaries). Goldfinches often visit bird feeders during spring and late summer during migration, especially if thistle seeds are provided. I had been unaware that they were attracted to H. angustifolius.
When a few years later Janie and I had our house built not far from Loachapoka, I transplanted some of the sunflowers around the place hoping they would attract goldfinches, and attract them they did, like magnets attract iron. The plants are perennials, require no care, and at present they are nearing full-bloom. In two or three weeks, some of the flowers will have gone to seed, and I anticipate and eagerly await the arrival of goldfinches, just as they have each year since the plants were established. Other birds are attracted to the sunflower’s tiny seeds include Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, and brown-headed nuthatches.
People like I who are fond of birds should attempt to acquire some of these sunflowers, and in addition do some of the following to enhance populations of desirable birds on their property.
1. Avoid use of broad-spectrum insecticides on and around their premises. Use, instead of diazinon, malathion, and other synthetic chemicals, products such as boric acid for cockroach control, Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) for caterpillar control, and Bti (B. t. Israelensis) to kill mosquito larvae in standing water. Discourage municipal authorities from permitting use of “fogging machines” to kill mosquitos. The insecticidal “fog” not only harms birds but also kills beneficial insects and harmless insects on which many birds rely for food.
2. Allow growth of hedges along fences and field edges. A wide variety of birds and small mammals use shrubby hedgerows for feeding, nesting, and shelter.
3. Farmers should, if they can afford to, allow some of their crop land to occasionally go uncultivated. Fallow fields provide optimal habitat for numerous birds and small mammals. Maybe this is one reason for the biblical exhortation in Exodus, “And six years you shall sow your land and gather the fruits of it: But the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie still…”
4. Provide clean water for birds to drink and bathe. Bird baths should be in open areas away from cover where predators may be lurking.
5. Nesting places for cavity nesting birds are often in short supply. Nest boxes of appropriate sizes can be affixed to trees or posts. Bluebird boxes should be situated in relatively open places, but placement where one nearby tree provides shade from the afternoon sun helps to prevent overheating.
6. Avoid felling dead trees in forested habitats (“sanitation cuts”) unless necessary for pine beetle control. Standing dead trees are essential for cavity nesting birds, including woodpeckers, nuthatches, wood ducks, hooded mergansers, and screech owls.
7. Last but not least, please keep cats indoors. Feral and free-ranging pet house cats exact a tremendous toll on our songbirds. Cats allowed to roam are often hit by cars, and in recent years coyote predation on cats should concern owners. Free ranging cats are also more likely to become infected with diseases transmissible to humans. In addition to deadly rabies, cats can infect humans with cat-scratch fever, cat hookworm, ringworm, pasteurella (carried in the mouths of 75 percent of cats), feline conjunctivitis, salmonella (most common in cats fed raw meat and those that catch wild birds), streptococcal infections, Helicobacter pylori (which can cause gastric ulcers), toxoplasmosis (can result in blindness and brain disorders in babies born to women carrying the parasite), mycobacterial tuberculosis (rare), and finally, feline AIDS (rarely transmitted, but often with a recommendation that immuno-suppressed people limit contact with infected animal).
Dogs are far more environmentally friendly than cats and transmit fewer diseases, and harmless pet snakes are safer and easier to keep than either cats or dogs.
Bob Mount is a Professor Emeritus with the Dept of Zoology and Entomology, Auburn Univ. He is also chairman of the Opelika Order of Geezers, well-known local think tank and political clearing house. He writes about birds, snakes, turtles, bugs and assorted conservation topics.