"What kind of bird is that?"
At the kitchen window, I'm watching unrelated birds partying together on the deck of my friend Mr. Birdman, aka John Ruch, a Napa birder who scrupulously maintains three kinds of seed feeders, a hummingbird nectar station, an indoor bird-watching scope on a tripod and birding binoculars.
"A rufous-sided towhee," says Ruch. Then, pointing to the others, he adds, "Those nervous little yellow ones are goldfinches, that pushy spotted one strutting his stuff is an uninvited European starling and over there wearing the bright red scarf, that's a flicker."
"What about that one?" I ask, pointing. Ruch looks away sheepishly. "LBJ," he says with a shrug. "Little brown job."
What makes a model (read: sustainability-minded) bird enthusiast is not how many species he or she can identify, but how much effort that person makes to maintain a backyard habitat that supports a variety of bird life. Ruch not only keeps the feeder clean to prevent rotting seed from transmitting bacteria to birds, but provides clean water, options for shelter and places to raise young birds. To safeguard bird life, Ruch allows the house cat outside only under supervision. And he grows plants that produce fruit, seeds, berries and nectar.
"I plant lots of red flowers, like 'Hot Lip' salvia," explains Ruch. "They bloom all summer, and the hummingbirds love them." In his homemade hummingbird nectar, he never uses red food dye, and his birdseed is pesticide-free.
Most backyard birds, according to the National Audubon Society, feed on insects, so they provide an ecosystem service in exchange for your hospitality efforts. Intentional backyard habitat for birds is on the rise around the world; some people even get their backyards certified. A National Wildlife Federation program has certified almost 140,000 yards throughout the United States as wildlife habitats.
But you don't need to get certified to do the right thing for flighted wildlife, and for that matter, you don't have to do everything. Just do something. And for those who have done it all and think they can rest, go the extra mile and buy bird-friendly coffee, grown in the shade. Because birds winter in South America, those coffee plantations that retain bird-supporting trees deserve some plantation-supporting sales.
Then, as you stroll this summer through your backyard bird habitat and sip your fair trade, shade-grown coffee to the sound of wild birdsong from rufous-sided towhees, American goldfinches and European starlings, you can feel pretty damned good about yourself.
For more on names and identifiers of birds, see www.allaboutbirds.org.
For certification of backyard habitat, see www.nwf.org.