Winged Wonders Entice the Lowcountry's bird beauties into your backyard

Housing for Eastern bluebirds should be about four to five feet high in an open area.

In the Lowcountry, the arrival of summer's heat means time to sit on a shady porch or deck, sweet tea in hand, as the nightly chorus of frogs yields to the trill of songbirds each morning.

Sure, the cardinals flutter about in glorious crimson, and the mockingbirds sing in unparalleled voice, and the chickadees please crowds with their friendly ways.

But for backyard entertainment, a few feathered friends steal any show.

Too bad many bird numbers have declined, some markedly, largely due to habitat loss.

"It's very staggering. The more suburban and urban we become, the more it's our responsibility to reconcile that," says Kimberly Counts, a Clemson University Cooperative Extension water resources agent and overall bird lover.

Since 1967, several species have declined up to 80 percent while other populations have fallen closer to an

average 68 percent in that time, according to the National Audubon Society.

What can we humans do?

For one, while most of us don't care for insects, favorite backyard birds love them. So when planting, think native and/or productive for wildlife. Heavy hitters like the purple coneflower provide nectar for bees and butterflies by summer and tasty seeds for birds by winter.

"It's like you planted a bird feeder," Counts says. "We are really talking about minor adjustments to reap a big reward."

We asked local experts for some other practical tips to attract and support four beauties of the backyard bird world: painted buntings, Eastern bluebirds, hummingbirds and woodpeckers.

No, someone's exotic Amazonian pet didn't escape its cage and slip into your backyard. The male Eastern painted bunting has no local rival for pizazz.

These 5-inch fluffs of color have bright red breasts and throats, yellow backs, green wings and blue heads with red eye rings. (The females present a more understated style, with a green back and paler yellow-green below.)

Like humans, buntings love the local salt marshes.

These late-season breeders are most common within a few hundred yards of a marsh's edge. They like to nest in shrubs along forest edges and openings, says Billy McCord, a local naturalist and long-time bird observer.

"They can really be common along a salt marsh if the habitat is right," Counts says.

Unlike humans, buntings prefer a dense shrubby area between the marsh and the rest of the world, which these days probably is someone's back lawn. And people like to mow those brushy swaths down.

"They want the view so they cut everything down," Counts says. That isn't good for the species.

The painted bunting has been identified as one of the highest-priority species to conserve in the Southeast because of their rapid decline due to trapping and habitat loss, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.

However, South Carolina supports one-third of the species' total breeding population.

What can you do?

First, if you live near their breeding territory, buntings may come to feeders filled with white millet, the only commercial wild bird seed they commonly eat.

And, remember, these are the shy kids in class. They like to slip in, chow down and slip out quietly when other birds aren't mobbing the feeders.

Hang a tube feeder away from busy areas and be sure it has a cage around it, says Danielle Motley, owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Mount Pleasant.

"They feel more protected and don't have to compete with the larger birds," Motley says.

If you want to attract bluebirds, think two things: suitable housing and squirming piles of mealworms.

Bluebirds are one of the most sought-after backyard songbirds, partly for their royal blue beauty, partly because they are pretty reliable tenants of a certain birdhouse layout.

These cavity nesters prefer houses that measure 6 by 6 by 8.5 inches with a 1.5-inch-diameter hole. Hang them on posts about four to five feet high in an open area.

Warning: Don't hang a house near shrubs if you want bluebirds. These vivid royal blue thrushes with brick-red breasts like a clear view from their front door. A nice open backyard with a 360-degree view works great for them.

"That's how they feel safest," Count says.

Natural meadow-dwellers, they like the edges of open lawns, fields and even golf courses where they can survey for insects and then swoop down for a bite.

If you want to ensure bluebirds near your home, don't rely on a birdfeeder they are unlikely to visit. Instead, go buy a tub of mealworms from a bird or pet store.

These insects are ideal for providing the protein and nutrients to adult bluebirds and their babies. One study found that nesting bluebirds can harvest a good 300 worms a day.

Just put out a few crunchy mealworm morsels near a nesting box ... and stand back to watch.

Kim Counts has red-bellied woodpeckers nesting near her home. Their routine goes like this: eat, eat, eat.

"It's constant from sunrise to sunset: feeding, feeding, feeding," Counts says.

She encourages residents to leave a few dead or dying tree limbs or trunks standing, if possible, away from houses and places they can cause safety hazards. These are woodpecker favorites for drilling nest cavities and finding some fat, tasty beetle grubs (and can help keep them from pecking at houses).

"All of that dead material is going to be broken down by insects," Counts says.

And who's going to show up for that kind of meal? Woodpeckers.

"It's really providing a buffet for them," Counts says.

The Lowcountry is home to a variety of woodpeckers, including some easily attracted to backyards such as the downy and red-bellied species.

To attract them, stock up on black oil sunflower seeds, but consider investing in a feeder that keeps out squirrels unless you intend to feed the whole neighborhood.

It's a bumble bee. It's a giant moth. No, it's a hummingbird, our most mini-feathered friends.

The coming months mark your best chance of seeing ruby-throated hummingbirds as adults, along with a new cadre of juveniles as they head to Central America and their winter territories.

It's a long journey that demands a high-calorie diet to keep those mighty little wings going, Motley says.

What do they want from you? They like to visit nectar feeders and nectar-producing flowers.

You also can buy pre-made nectar at stores or mix your own solution using a 4:1 ratio of water to sugar. Be sure to clean feeders often, ideally every two to four days, experts say.

Hummingbirds especially love the tubular flowers of our native trumpet, or coral, honeysuckle. Ditto for the trumpet and cross vines, which like to climb fences and trellises and bloom from early spring all the way through fall. Bottlebrushes also will attract them.

If you have a damp area, try planting the perennial cardinal flower. It likes those wet feet and also blooms in the hummingbird's favorite red.

"They're a lot of fun because you can plant for them," Counts says.

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes or subscribe to her at