Bird Study – Cemeteries As Bird Sanctuaries

The interest in the subject of bird sanctuaries is growing every day; in fact, all America is now planning new homes for her birds—homes where they may live with unrestricted freedom, where food and lodging in abundance, and of the best, will be supplied, where bathing-pools will be at their service, where blossoming trees will welcome them in the spring and fields of grain in the fall, quiet places where these privileges will bring to the birds much joy and contentment. Throughout this country there should be a concerted effort to convert the cemeteries, the homes of our friends who have gone away, into sanctuaries for the bird life of this land. And what isolated spots could be more welcome to the birds than these places that hold so many sad memories for human beings?

No place in the world ought to speak more forcibly to us of the Resurrection than the cemeteries of our land. In them we should hear inspiring bird songs, notice the nesting of birds, and the little ones preparing for their flight into the world. There we should find beautiful flowers and waving grain, typical of that spiritual harvest which should be associated in our minds with comfort and peace.

A Birdless Cemetery.—I visited, not long ago, one of the old-time cemeteries, the pride of a neighbouring city. It was indeed a place of beauty to the eye; but to my mind there is always something flat and insipid about a landscape lacking the music of singing birds. Therefore I looked and listened for my feathered friends. Some English Sparrows flew up from the drive, and I heard the rusty hinge-like notes of a small company of Purple Grackles that were nesting, I suspected, in the pine trees down the slope, but of really cheerful bird life there appeared to be none in this artificially beautified, forty-acre enclosure. There is no reason to suppose that, under normal conditions, birds would shun a cemetery any more than does the traditional graveyard rabbit.

It was not dread of the dead, such as some mortals have, that kept the song birds from this place; it was the work of the living that had driven them away. From one boundary to another there was scarcely a yard of underbrush where a Thrasher or Chewink might lurk, or in which a Redstart, or a dainty Chestnut-sided Warbler, might place its nest. Not a drop of water was discoverable, where a bird might slake its thirst. Neither in limb nor bole was there a single cavity where a Titmouse, Wren, or Bluebird might construct a bed for its young. No fruit-bearing trees were there to invite the birds in summer; nor, so far as I could see, any berry-bearing shrubs such as birds enjoy, nor any weed patches to attract the flocks of Whitethroats and Juncos that come drifting southward with the falling leaves of autumn.

Had my visit to this place been made late in April, or in May, there might have been a different tale to tell. September might also have yielded more birds than June, for September is a season when the migrants are with us for a time. Then the little voyageurs of the upper air are wont to pause after a night of tiresome flight, and rest for the day in any grove that chances to possess even moderate home comforts.

Birds of a New York Graveyard.—Some time ago B. S. Bowdish made a careful study of the bird life of St. Paul’s Churchyard, in New York City. This property is three hundred and thirty-three feet long and one hundred and seventy-seven feet wide. In it is a large church and also a church school. Along one side surge the Broadway throngs. From the opposite side come the roar and rumble of an elevated railway. The area contains, according to Mr. Bowdish, three large, ten medium, and forty small trees. With great frequency for two years, field glass in hand, he pursued his work of making a bird census of the graveyard. No bird’s nest re-warded his search, for the place was absolutely destitute of feathered songsters during the late spring and summer, and, with a single exception, he never found a bird there in winter. Yet it is interesting to note that in this noisy, limited area, during the periods of migration, he discovered three hundred and twenty-eight birds, embracing forty species.

Why do not more of the birds that pass in spring tarry in this quiet place for the summer? The answer is that the cemetery has been rendered unattractive to them by the merely human committee in charge of the property.

During the season when birds are engaged with their domestic duties they are usually a very wise little people. They know perfectly well whether a region is calculated to provide them with sure and safe nesting sites, and whether sufficient food and water are available for their daily wants. A little of this same wisdom on our part, and a comparatively small expenditure, might make a bird paradise of almost any cemetery. Such places are not usually frequented by men and boys who go afield for the purpose of shooting. That is an important point in the establishment of a bird sanctuary.

Eliminate Enemies.—One great enemy of the birds, however, must be guarded against the domestic cat. This can be done fairly effectively by means of a cat-proof fence.

Gunners and cats having been eliminated, few other enemies of birds need be seriously considered. Bird-catching Hawks are not often numerous in the neighbourhood of cemeteries. Red squirrels are accused of pilfering from birds’ nests, and when abundant they may constitute a menace.

Properly constructed bird boxes, wisely placed, have often proved a means of increasing bird life to an astonishing degree; and they are absolutely the only inducement to hole-nesting varieties to re-main during the summer in a cemetery from which all standing dead wood has been removed. Even the strong-billed Woodpecker will not abide in a region where the only trees are living ones, unless, perchance, an artificial nest entices the resplendent and dashing Flicker to tarry. Many a Bluebird, with its azure coat gleaming in the sunlight, visits the cemetery in early spring. From perch to perch he flies, and in his plaintive note can be detected the question that every bird asks of his mate: “Where shall we find a place for our nest?” In the end he flies away. Therefore when the roses and lilies bloom the visitor is deprived of the Bluebird’s cheery song, for the little fellow and his mate have departed to the neighbouring farm where they may be found, perhaps, in the old apple orchard.

A few cents expended for lumber and a very little labour in the making of a small box to be attached to the side of a tree or erected on a post, are all that is needed to keep the Bluebirds where they can cheer the hearts of sorrowing visitors. The tiny Wrens, whose loud bursts of song are entirely out of proportion to their size, can be attracted in summer to the proportion of two pairs or more to every acre.

It is a curious fact, of which I believe but little has been written, that birds that build open nests may often be induced to remain in a locality if attractive nesting material is placed within easy reach.

In many a cemetery Orioles could be tempted to weave cradles among the swaying elm limbs if strings and fragments of brightly coloured yarns were placed where the birds could find them. Baron von Berlepsch, whose experiments in attracting birds to his place in Germany have been widely advertised, found that when the tops of bushes were drawn in closely by means of a wire or cord, the resulting thick mass of leaves and twigs offered so fine a place for concealing nests that few birds could resist the temptation to use them.

Other means of rendering a cemetery alluring to nesting birds will readily present themselves when an active interest is developed in the subject. A little thought, a little care, and a little trouble, would make it possible for many birds to dwell in a cemetery, and it must be remembered that unless they can nest there, the chances are that no great volume of bird music will fill the air.

The young of most song birds are fed to a great extent on the soft larvae of insects, of which there is usually an abundant supply everywhere. Many mother birds, however, like to vary this animal diet with a little fruit juice, and the ripened pulp of the blackberry, strawberry, or mulberry, will cheer the spirits of their nestlings. Such fruits in most places are easily grown, and they make a pleasant addition to the birds’ menu. In a well-watered territory birds are always more numerous than in a dry region. You may find a hundred of them along the stream in the valley to one on the mountain-top. A cemetery undecorated with fountains, and through or near which no stream flows, is too dry a place for the average bird to risk the exigencies of rearing a family. A few simply constructed fountains or drinking-pools will work wonders in the way of attracting birds to a waterless territory.

In many graveyards considerable unoccupied space might well be planted in buckwheat or some other small grain. If this is left uncut the quantity of nourishing food thus produced will bring together many kinds of grain-eating birds.