Charley Winterbauer has been in the business of saving birds for about four years. As president of the Cape Fear Audubon Society (CFAS) and committee chair of the conservation committee, Winterbauer is kept busy with the preservation of natural bird habitats. However, as he points out, “[It’s] more than birds. We are more broad-based in the sense of conservation-oriented.”
Rooted in the Cape Fear Audubon Society (CFAS) is a deep concern for the environment, and its members have found creative ways to get the public active by focusing on one tiny fauna: birds.
The CFAS is a small division of the North Carolina Audubon Society and also reports data to the national society. The three organizations work together on a macro and micro level to ensure that important species are looked after and biodiversity promoted. Membership with the CFAS is easy and can be done online at their Web site, www.capefearaudubon.org/membership.htm. By joining the CFAS, new members are welcomed into a plethora of volunteer opportunities as well as local projects, monthly meetings, newsletters and magazines. There are many committees to join, including the conservation, education, field trip and Web site committees, where members can find their niche in the organization. Volunteers also get plenty of time to spend with the birds. The CFAS serves Pender, New Hanover, Onslow and Brunswick counties, preserving large areas of marsh, swamp and woodland nesting sites that need fencing and marking.
The CFAS also completes an annual Christmas Bird Count; birds in protected areas in all counties are literally counted and the data is sent to the National Audubon Society. The main benefit to this strategy is to uncover population shifts in species and increase bird numbers.
Winterbauer got involved with the CFAS through a painted bunting program. A migratory species the organization is currently tracking, the painted bunting makes its home here roughly from April to September, and even into the later fall months. The male is distinctly colored, with hues of bright red and blue on its belly and head, and a small patch of canary yellow resting between its wings. The painted buntings’ numbers are in severe decline due to urban development; Winterbauer estimates that since 1990, there has been an influx of 125,000 new human residents in Pender, New Hanover and Brunswick Counties.
In May of 2009, when Winterbauer became president, one of the first notions coming to life was the Bird-Friendly Habitat. This program is aimed at homeowners who have a large undeveloped area around their home and can devote time to some simple re-landscaping. By adding plants and shrubs that attract food for birds, the CFAS hopes to bring back many species of migratory bird, like the painted bunting, brown thrasher and brown-headed nuthatch, which our coastal areas are losing.
In order to spur public involvement, the organization added a competitive element to the program. Once you apply online, a team of two to half-a-dozen CFAS representatives will be sent to your prospective bird-friendly habitat to evaluate the development based on a series of criteria. Depending upon the score the habitat receives, with 100 being the best, gold, silver or bronze recognition will be awarded. “Our idea was to work toward getting people to convert their unnatural habitat to be a native habitat,” Winterbauer explains.
Anyone who is thinking about designing a backyard paradise must think native, first.
“Migratory birds are mostly insect eaters,” he says. “You won’t see them at the feeder.” What these birds enjoy most is flying from tree to tree or digging in dense underbrush for delicious insects. Unfortunately, not only have we brought ourselves and our expansive, fertilized, mowed and watered yards into the once lush woodlands and swamps here along the coast, we’ve also fallen into a trend of planting non-native plant species. Many of these plants are resistant, or do not attract our insects. Once they go away, so do the birds.
Native plants, on the other hand, are much more low-maintenance. The need for a pesticide is naught; once the birds are back, they will begin gobbling up insects and restoring the natural balance back to the habitat. The plants don’t need a lot of water, and they don’t need much primping. “They’ve had a million years to get used to this weather pattern, so unless there’s a real drought condition, they’ll fare fairly well,” Winterbauer explains.
There are other criteria to have a winning bird-friendly habitat. The CFAS looks for a variation of vegetation levels, including tree canopy and bushes, nest boxes, water sources, rainwater use, composting, absence of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and the inclusion of a butterfly garden, another natural prey source for birds.
“The way we designed our criteria is attracting all birds,” Winterbauer explains. There should be an abundance of native canopy trees, like the dogwood or live oak, to allow for nesting and resting areas, as well as shrubs like the red chokeberry. Shrubs should be left to grow to the ground so birds can forage protected in the dense foliage; these bushes make great defenses against the birds’ primary predator, the outside cat, another criteria the organization looks to be absent.
With programs, like the bird-friendly habitat, the CFAS works diligently to conserve our natural wildlife as our city grows larger. At the rate we’re [going],” Winterbauer says, “within another 50 years people won’t be able to see certain birds at all. It just doesn’t seem right to destroy a number of the species.”