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Learning about backyard birds

The other day my colleague Russ Thompson, noted arborist and long-time employee of the Clark County Parks and Recreation Department, commented about some new friends that took up residence in his backyard. He showed me some photos of his new buds and come to find out they were verdins.

These wonderful little birds love to build nests in twiggy trees, especially those with thorns like acacias and mesquites. The nests appear much like little footballs made of sticks, leaves and feathers. You will know a verdin nest by the fact that the entry hole is from the bottom. The adults are smaller than a sparrow and have heads slightly tinted in greenish yellow.

Once Russ became acquainted with his new tenants, he began to notice the incredible energy of these tiny birds, and talk about an appetite. Verdins love to eat little insects like aphids, and you often will find them meticulously cleaning the stems of trees and shrubs of these pesky sap suckers.

I have found that between the verdins and lacewing insects that the population of aphids in my landscape is usually kept in check. An occasional outbreak of aphids may occur on new spring growth, but these are easily controlled with high-pressure sprays of water. Yes, water is a useful tool to control many soft-bodied insects. By avoiding the use of pesticides, the verdins have their food and keep the insects at bay.

By the way, did you know that hummingbirds love to eat insects, too? It is difficult for these high-energy acrobats to keep their pace on nectar alone. It might surprise you to learn that hummingbirds consume a tremendous number of insects during their daily visits from flower to flower. While exploring for nectar, their little tongues lap up aphids and thrips to provide a great source of protein in their diet, especially important when rearing little chicks in the nest.

If you are interested in learning more about bird life in the urban habitat then it may interest you to check out the nationwide event called Celebrate Urban Birds. Cornell University Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y., has developed a program to help people become more aware of the birds in their neighborhood.

During May 10-13, the lab invites city residents to participate in numerous events, including a neighborhood watch for local birds. It is hoped that scientists will be able to gain more data about bird populations. The idea is to get people to provide feedback on the presence of 15 target birds on the checklist.

For more information, log on to www.urbanbirds.org/celebration. While supplies last, registrants will receive a Celebration Kit in English and Spanish with a colorful urban bird poster, educational materials and a packet of sunflower seeds to plant in pots and gardens. What a wonderful way to learn more about urban birds.

Now, where did I leave off on my personal checklist? verdin, Inca dove, lesser chickadee, Say’s Phoebe, hooded oriole, black-chin hummingbird …

Dennis Swartzell is the marketing director for Mountain States Wholesale Nursery. As an ISA board-certified master arborist and a member of the American Society of Consulting Arborists, Swartzell has been helping Southern Nevadans with their gardening questions for over 20 years. If you have a question about a particular plant, or a general gardening issue, send them to Swartzell at treemender@cox.net.

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