Cemeteries as Bird Sanctuaries

Date Published: 
September, 1920
Original Author: 
R. Owen Merriman
Original Publication: 
AACS Proceedings of the 34th Annual Convention

It was a great privilege to address the Association of American Cemetery Superintendents at your convention here on September 8; and it is a still greater privilege to be allowed to repeat the substance of my remarks for your proceedings. Bird protectionists are very pleased that the movement to invite our birds to the cemeteries of the country is spreading; and it is hoped that the following outline may be of some assistance to those who wish to join in the work:

The value of birds to man is too well known to need emphasizing here. A few species of birds are said to be harmful to agricultural interests (though the evidence in support of many of these accusations is far from conclusive), and some other species have no direct influence on human affairs; but the great majority of our birds perform such an important service in the destruction of noxious insects and of weeds that competent scientists have declared that if all bird life were destroyed the human race would vanish also. And in addition to this economic reason for the protection of most species, there is a strong aesthetic reason which applies also to the species which have no direct commercial value. Birds are among the most beautiful and most interesting of all forms of life and for this reason, too, they deserve our protection. But man has disturbed the balance of nature by which the proper proportion between the different forms of life is maintained; and his friends, the birds, are decreasing in numbers while his insect enemies are increasing. A generation ago, the spraying of fruit trees was almost unheard of, but today it is necessary in every orchard. We are now realizing that we must exert ourselves on behalf of the birds, to counteract the disturbing effect that civilization has had and is having on the balance of nature.

One of the most important steps that can be taken towards this end is the establishment of Bird Sanctuaries, where conditions are made as ideal as possible for the birds. There they will consequently make their headquarters, and from thence they will spread over the surrounding country to do their good work. Sanctuaries are necessary even in country districts (for modern ideas of "clean cultivation" have led to the destruction of birds favorite haunts) and they are still more necessary in and near cities, where the birds have been deprived of almost every natural advantage. Of possible sites for Bird Sanctuaries near cities, cemeteries are, for many reasons, the most suitable. Here is the open space which is the first requisite; and in contrast to city parks, here too is the quiet which the birds love and the security which they need. In no cemetery would shooting of birds, nesting be tolerated even if no special effort to protect the birds were being made there. From the point of view of the public also, cemeteries are very suitable for this purpose. Everywhere there is an attempt to make cemeteries as beautiful as possible and to banish the idea of desolation with which they were once connected, and for this purpose much attention is given to landscape gardening; but without animate life, the most attractive garden will seem desolate to many eyes. To all who love them (and of these the number is growing daily), birds are symbols of life and hope; and if for this alone their presence should be encouraged in every cemetery.

Though the prime requisites for a Bird Sanctuary-open space, quiet and security-are already found in every cemetery, other attractions must be supplied before the birds will frequent the spot in numbers. The first of these is water for drinking and bathing. Few cemeteries are situated so fortunately as to have a stream running through them, and even when fountains are introduced as features of the garden plan. too often the water in them is so deep and the bottom so smooth that the birds cannot reach it even for drinking without danger of drowning. Water for birds should vary in depth from one inch to five inches; the bottom should be roughened to give the birds a secure foothold while they splash about as they love to do. Pools of rockwork and cement or urns or basins on pedestals may be used to agree with the natural or formal plan of the gardening; but these two conditions must be fulfilled. Even when a stream is available, care must be taken that there are places along it where a bird can bathe in safety.

This brings up the question of the greatest enemy that birds in Sanctuaries will meet. Where birds are encouraged, their foes will congregate and must be discouraged; and of these foes, the worst is the cat. Bird baths must be protected from cats, either by raising them above the ground, or by placing them in the open, where the birds can watch for the approach of the hunter. Birds realize that when their feathers are wet the cat has them at a disadvantage and if there is cover near from which a cat might spring, a bath will not be much used. Cats should be banished from every Bird Sanctuary and it is sometimes a problem how to do so. New York State has a splendid law, under which any holder of a gun license may kill a cat found hunting a bird of a protected species without being liable for damages to the owner of the animal; and bird lovers are everywhere striving to bring about legislation which will end destruction of bird life now being carried on by cats which either are not owned by anyone or are owned by people who take so little interest in them that they will not keep them from harming the community by killing birds.

A second attraction which should be added is nesting boxes for such birds as House Wrens and Bluebirds which nest in cavities. Often boxes are erected "for birds," and disappointment follows when the birds disdain them. The reason is that each species has its own requirements as to the size and shape and position of the boxes in which they make their homes; and it is necessary to erect boxes for Wrens, for Bluebirds, for Tree Swallows, etc., and not merely for birds. There are many excellent bird houses for sale by dealers; but the leading authorities are agreed that "homemade" boxes, if of proper dimensions and properly placed, are satisfactory at least for the birds most likely to use them, and in most cases it will be found cheaper to employ a local carpenter than to buy them from a commercial bird house manufacturer. But whether the boxes are bought ready made or made to order, everyone who erects them should secure a copy either of Farmers Bulletin No. 609, "Bird Houses and How to Build Them," (issued by the US Department of Agriculture) or of "Bird Houses and Their Occupants," (issued by the Dominion of Canada, Dominion Parks Branch, Department of the Interior), by which a good nesting box may be judged.

Every species of bird has its own fixed nesting habits, and only a small proportion of them will use nesting boxes. For the others, we can provide nesting material in the shape of string, horse hair, colored worsteds, cotton-wool, flax, etc. These may be placed in string bags or wire baskets in the shrubbery, and more birds will nest where materials for building are provided than where they must gather them from well swept lawns.
Most birds need trees and shrubs, which provide them with shelter from bad weather and from their enemies, and with places in which to build their homes. Cemeteries are always well stocked with trees and shrubs; and for these purposes, it is only necessary to see that evergreens are included for winter shelter, and low and thorny shrubs are planted in dense clumps for the nests of those birds which build near the ground. But trees and shrubs serve the birds in another way, by providing food, especially when other food is scarce. There are a great variety of berry-bearing and seed-bearing trees and shrubs, attracting different species of birds and carrying their fruit through different seasons; and lists will be found in U. S. Farmers Bulletin No. 621, "How to Attract Birds in the Northeastern United States". This list should be compared with the nurseryman's catalogue; and some stock on every order should be chosen in consideration for the birds. These plants are as ornamental as they are useful; so the planting for the birds serves the usual purpose of planting also.

Those birds whose chief food is weed seed are not always able to turn to berries when their own food is scarce; and when the closely mown lawns are buried in snow, the native sparrows and other finches which have not migrated, often have difficulty in finding enough to keep them alive. Plots of buckwheat or other small grains, may be planted and left uncut for these birds; but a simpler way of feeding them is to scatter mill screenings or fine grain for them regularly and in one particular spot during the time that their other food is hard to find. A place may be cleared of snow or the food may be thrown on well tramped snow; but food sprinkled on soft snow is of little use, as it sinks in beyond the reach of the birds who besides dislike floundering about in snow. Farmers Bulletin No. 621 (already referred to) gives the design of several types of shelters in which the food is protected from the weather and from waste.

As soon as one begins to feed the birds, one comes in conflict with the House Sparrow, commonly called the "English" Sparrow, though it is a native of Europe as a whole and not peculiar to England, which was imported into America fifty or sixty years ago in a misguided attempt to improve on nature. The House Sparrow is of use in itself, but it has increased beyond all bounds in the absence here of its natural enemies; and, by driving away more useful and beautiful native birds, it has. become a menace. It usurps the nesting sites of our native birds, and monopolizes their food supplies; and its control is one of the difficulties of the supervisor of a Bird Sanctuary. The case against the House Sparrow and suggestions as to methods of warfare against it are to be found in US Farmers Bulletin No. 493, "The English Sparrow as a Pest"; and this bird should be trapped or shot as the Bulletin advises. Whatever method is used, they must be kept away from the food and nesting places provided for our native birds. For such birds as woodpeckers and chickadees, we can place the food where the House Sparrow cannot reach it; for these birds feed on the trunks and branches of trees, and can obtain their food in positions inaccessible to ground feeding birds such as Sparrows. Lumps of suet, suspended from branches in such a way that they will swing freely in the wind, will be visited by many of these birds; but the ground-feeding birds cannot stand the motion. Suet is a splendid winter food for many species of birds, as it furnishes the heat element so much needed at that time; but in bad weather, when even the tree tops are sheathed in ice, the other food elements should be supplied also. Finely chopped nuts and dried meat and seeds, such as hemp, millet and sunflower may be combined with melted suet and hung out in lumps in place of the plain suet. One of the best methods of feeding such a mixture is by means of the ‘Saunders Board’ which was originally designed by Mr. W. E. Saunders, of London, Ontario the well known ornithologist. It consists of a shallow tray with perches about one inch above it. Into the tray the mixture is poured; and after it has hardened, the board is placed in an inverted position with the food surface and the perches on the lower side. The Woodpeckers, Titmice, Nuthatches, etc., can cling, back down, to the perches and eat the food above them; and the food is not only out of reach of the House Sparrows which cannot cling to the under side of a perch, but it is also absolutely protected from the weather and is available even during the worst of sleet storms.

The object of winter feeding of birds is to help them in stormy weather, when they might have special difficulty in securing food, in order that they may continue to work at other times. It is necessary, therefore, that the feeding should be continuous, at least during the season of bad weather, in order that the birds can rely on it in their need. It should be commenced early in the fall, before the birds have settled on their winter quarters, in order that many individuals may find it; and it should not stop until all danger of late spring storms is over. Many people (among them myself), feed the birds at the same place all the year round; but, of course, winter feeding is the most important. Feeding the birds does not pauperize them, as some have feared, and thus hinder them from the work against insects and weeds; but it is the means of saving the lives of many birds when their natural food supply is temporarily stopped, and it leads more birds to take up residence in a given locality and by helping them to rear their young, helps to increase the total number of birds in the country. But both ground feeding and tree feeding birds must be provided for; and care must be taken that the artificial food supply does not fail them when most needed.

Those who intend to do something more for our birds (and it is to be hoped that all members of the Association of American Cemetery Superintendents will increase their efforts in this direction), will find detailed information in the books and pamphlets mentioned in the following bibliography. This list is not complete, but the subject is thoroughly dealt with in the pamphlets alone, which are to be had either free or for a few cents on application to the publishers. US Department of Agriculture, Farmers Bulletins: No. 493, "The English Sparrow As a Pest"; No. 609 "Bird Houses and How to Build Them"; No. 621, "How to Attract Birds in Northeastern US" Canada, Dominion Parks Branch, Department of the Interior: "Bird Houses and Their Occupants" Massachusetts State Department of Agriculture: Circular No.2, "Food, Feeding and Drinking Appliances and Nesting Material to Attract Birds”, National Association of Audubon Societies, New York City: Bulletin No. 1 "Attracting Birds About the Home"; Circular No.2, "Cemeteries as Bird Sanctuaries" Books: "Wild Bird Guests," by E. H. Baynes; "Methods of Attracting Birds," by G. H. Trafton; "How to Attract the Birds," by Neltje Blanchan.

A word by Mr. Edwin H. Reiber: The Bulletin that is issued by the Government, that Mr. Merriman recommended, is one that had been published a good many years ago, and since we are living in a progressive age, there has been so many improvements made since the issue of that Bulletin that some of us have almost forgotten it, and supplemented it by something a little more modern.

I wish to just emphasize this particular point: We have a great many native birds in North America, and nature has made a very peculiar provision by equally distributing these over a vast area. I think, if you will remember my talking to you last year and taking up the subject of bird migration, I explained to you how these birds were equally distributed all over the United States and Canada, and these birds are equally distributed for a very great reason. If they were all in one locality, why the ravages of insects would simply clean up other sections but nature has made a provision to supply birds to keep insect pests in check and for the same reason the insects are distributed over a large area. Therefore, nature has again made provision of distributing the birds over a very large area to keep these insects in check.

Now, Mr. Merriman outlined very plainly the importance and the fine place that the cemetery is for the protection of birds, but just before I dwell on that any further I want to emphasize this particular point, that our native birds are almost gone, they are almost extinct, and if you could picture on the screen a long line and this line is headed with the passenger pigeon. That passenger pigeon was one that inhabited this particular section and up into the Canadian woods, through Pennsylvania, through New York State. Millions upon millions of them would migrate up into this section every year, and today there is not a living passenger pigeon left.

But now on this imaginary line on the screen, supposing we start with the passenger pigeon, it has gone and we follow on right down the line and line up these birds one right after another that are gradually becoming more or less scarce and meeting the same fate as the passenger pigeon.

There is not a possible chance for this long string of birds on this imaginary wire to build up to their original numbers again unless some effort is made to give them absolute protection and to remedy the condition that is bringing them to extinction.

Now then, the question would come to your mind-What is the thing to do to increase bird population? What would be the most fitting place to encourage birds to, and it all dwindles down; you can take in your parks and private estates; and it dwindles down to the cemetery, because the birds there find protection and quiet and just the kind of place that they naturally would nest in. You plant shrubbery in your cemetery for beautifying it, for making it more attractive to those that have purchased lots there, and those people that have purchased lots there want it to be attractive, for the simple reason that they have friends that have passed beyond buried in this cemetery.

Now then, comes the question of what can we do to encourage birds in this particular section? If I should advise all you superintendents to build nesting boxes, to build feeding stations and place them in your cemetery, I do not think that all your efforts will help or increase the bird population very much. You are too busy with other things and what it needs is someone to oversee this kind of work and plan it out systematically. Here you have cemetery men from New York State and some from the Western States, and they are from all over. If I should outline the same conditions or if I should outline a plan for you all the same conditions do not exist in all your cemeteries-that is in the Eastern States you do not have the same birds as they have in the Western States. Then the Southern States do not have the same birds as they have in the Northern States. Therefore, there is no definite plan to follow that will fit every cemetery, but each cemetery presents entirely new problems to be gradually worked out, and when once the plan of bird protection is taken up in a cemetery, it is no earthly use unless it is carried out, this whole scheme carried out. Putting up a few boxes is not going to help much. You may attract a bird or two but here is what I am trying to get at.

Our birds are nearly extinct and to solve this one great problem, what are we going to do to allow them to build up to their original numbers? It simply means that every cemetery in the United States and Canada should be turned into some prolific bird sanctuary to make it possible for these birds to build up to their original numbers. One or two sanctuaries is but a grain of sand in the ocean, but it means that all of them doing this work would accomplish this one result-for the simple reason that nine-tenths of the work and expenditure in carrying out such a project has already been done. You have your trees you have the shrubbery, and it simply means in the various sections of the country adding any such shrubbery that Mr. Merriman outlined that will provide food throughout the winter months for those birds that would inhabit that particular section.

When it comes to the question of nesting boxes, I want to repeat one thing that I have undoubtedly spoken of several times before. When we place a little box upon the side of a tree with a hole in it and a cavity, an empty box, that box is only an imitation of a decayed branch that the woodpeckers have pecked out themselves. Now, nature has provided about 46 different kinds of woodpeckers in the United States and they range from the little downy woodpecker to the large woodpecker all different in size, and each one of these peck out a cavity in a decayed branch to accommodate their own particular nest. They nest in this nest cavity and they leave it, and next year they select another decayed branch and again peck out a new nesting cavity and bring up a family.

Now, nature has made a very peculiar provision by supplying the same number of birds--these 46 kinds of woodpeckers distributed all over the, United States and into Canada--nature has made this particular provision, to supply the same number of birds of the house nesting variety that nest in those deserted woodpecker cavities. Now then, after the woodpecker has finished using this particular house that it had pecked out, then the next year the birds come along of the house nesting variety that do not peck out the cavities and they use this as a nesting site and they use it because these various sized birds that nest in cavity correspond again exactly with those birds that have pecked out the cavities. The woodpeckers really are carpenters for these other birds. Now then supposing we put this little box upon the tree. That box, in order to attract a certain species of bird, must be absolutely correct in dimensions the same, in fact, as that that some woodpecker had pecked out.

As long as nature has provided these forty-six different kinds of varieties of birds in the United States to do the real hard work, the carpenter work for the other birds of the house nesting variety why try and change conditions, why not let them continue to do it? So our method of attracting birds to cemetery, where you prune off every dead branch and destroy the possible nesting site of woodpeckers, we build devices that are particularly adapted for woodpeckers. It is a hard shell and the interior of the shell is filled with soft wood that is brought into West Webster from Brazil. It is the interior of palm tree and it is just as soft as decayed wood is in a decayed branch, and we let the woodpecker peck out these cavities and when you get through with it why there is nothing artificial about it; he has done the job right and it makes a home for the other birds of the house nesting variety to use it. Now then the minute you put up a box with this cavity in it, why you are depriving the woodpeckers of the work they were intended to do so that they have to leave their cemeteries and go somewhere in the woods where decayed branches are not pruned off and there pick out a nesting site and in doing that they also attract the other birds of the house nesting variety just simply attract those into the areas that these woodpeckers had to go because you have driven them off.

Now, does not that all seem perfectly clear to you? Somebody in the audience may ask themselves, Well, does this theory all work out? Instead of my talking here to you and tiring you out with a lot of bird propaganda, I would thoroughly enjoy just leading you through some of the private estates that we have been working on for three or four years --Mount Hope of Rochester, the rural cemetery of Webster, right in our own home town. We tried it out in our home town first before we went any further. I would just like to lead you through these cemeteries and show you what results have been accomplished by carrying out such a natural scheme, going back to nature and not trying to substitute something new and something that does not fit the scheme at all.

The idea of feeding birds in the winter time is very important. You are planting these trees and shrubs in your cemetery, and in order to carry out a decorative scheme you plant these shrubs in so that they bear the ripe berries throughout the winter months and so brighten the winter landscape. It makes a picturesque spot in your cemetery. Not only are berries on the shrubs but the birds come there to feed on them. That is the natural feed for them during the winter months when there is an absence of foliage, and we have no insects that are feeding on the leaves. This is a substitute and when you feed them from feeding stations, which are not absolutely necessary as far as keeping this natural scheme of bird life going--it is simply a matter of checking any possibility of these birds that do come into your cemetery from freezing and starving to death when we have a lot of cold and sleet and ice that covers all their natural food and sometimes covers up the bark of trees with ice and it stops these birds off entirely from getting the larvae and eggs from underneath the bark.

We have a great number of birds that are adapted for the various kinds of work and the minute you shut off their food supply they have to go elsewhere and most always through either sleet and storm the observer of bird life will find what destruction had been wrought just through a storm. Great numbers of birds are lost. Now, if you can tide them over just during that one day or two days a whole winter may go by and we only have one day of that sleet or two days, but if you tide them over during that time you would be surprised how much you would be doing for the conservation of bird life.

Now, when I speak of putting up a little box here and there it is not enough. We have too many birds in the United States that are seeking such places, and if you should go to work with saw and hammer to make a few boxes you are getting away from the natural scheme of things. But it is very easy to attract birds to get back; to get right down to the natural scheme that nature had intended these birds to live under, and then it is not such a difficult matter. Now, when I speak of the various bird houses and devices that you can build, if you look them over carefully you will find that there is not anything really new about them, but it is simply a copy of what nature had done for the birds originally.

Now, the placing of food during the winter time is a thing that does not want to be forgotten. It wants to be taken care of daily, every day. Speaking of taking care of it every day, we have devices now by which they can be stocked, perhaps every week or two weeks. It all depends on how rapidly the growth of bird life accumulates in your cemetery, but when the bunches of birds are so great there that stocking it once a week does not supply the food for them, why then you must stock it of oftener, perhaps every day if it is necessary or erect a larger station.

When we first started out in stocking Mount Hope Cemetery we put up various feeding devices and these devices held a little food about the size of a cone and that cone was screwed on to a little holder and a man went there once a week to take care of it, and as he would go through this cemetery he would invariably find that those cones were empty, but his going there once a week he would not know whether empty Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday or Saturday, so he finally decided that we would have to make a station sufficiently large enough and to hold enough of these food cones, so that it would not run out during the time, or the food would not give out during the time this man was away. So he made a station so that six of those cones slide in the holder-a convenient place for the birds to feed from. When we go there every week during the winter time we find that sometimes four of those cones are empty, and some cases there are only two empty.

It is simply a thing one learns by experience and now there is not any chance of the birds being a day without food. We have more food there than the birds need, but we have a man taking away the empty containers and replacing them with full ones, and that makes it very convenient for the birds. You would be greatly surprised what great results are obtained from very little encouragement.

You remember a slide by Mr. Merriman of Feeding the Chickadees. That is quite a common occurrence on the estates that we have been working on. After a while these birds become so well acquainted with you that they look for you at appointed times at the stations that are so stocked. I am not, speaking now particularly of the cemeteries but of private estates where there are a great many cases some one of the immediate family appointed to stock these stations, and there they become so well acquainted with the birds that the birds greet them and meet them on the way out to the stations.

Last year and the year before I spent a little time with you in answering a few questions; now, I do not want to impose on your good nature and talk too long about the birds. I think you have heard quite a lot about birds today, and I could keep this up here until you were all ready to fly, but I won't do that.

From the publication:
AACS - Proceedings of the 34th Annual Convention held at Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
September7, 8, 9 and10, 1920