By Meda Kessler
Photos by Beatriz Terrazas
From your backyard to local nature trails, birds are seeking food and shelter. Winter’s the perfect time to learn more about our winged friends.
If there’s anything Ray Chancellor is more passionate about than birds, it’s bird habitats.
And not just the wild places they nest and feed, but also a hospitable space you can cultivate on your own property. A longtime resident of Southlake, he’s watched as development — even of area park land — has taken its toll on birds’ natural environment. “We’ve lost more than 90 percent of their native habitat,” says Chancellor.
The founder of the Southlake Ornithological Society grew up on a farm and, even as a teenager, he had an appreciation for ecology. He majored in chemistry in college, but took better-paying jobs in education administration.
“Birding always has been my passion,” says Chancellor, who has served as president of the Central Texas Audubon Society. “Bird-banding kept my interest and connection to science.”
Since we’ve noticed more people taking up birding during the pandemic, we thought we’d check in with Chancellor. He spoke with 76092 in 2014, and he’s as much of an advocate for the “sport” today as he was then. The best part is that you don’t have to go very far to participate. “Most people can’t name 10 birds in their backyard, so that’s a good place to start,” he says. “We live in such a busy world; we seldom stop to look at the incredible beauty we have close by.”
Chancellor lives near Lake Grapevine and has spent years creating a “Certified Wildlife Backyard Habitat” on his place rather than a carefully manicured garden. He annually spots more than 175 species in Southlake. “The potential is here in Southlake. Getting the most species in your backyard means providing shelter, food and water. It’s like a revolving stage; you have different actors with each change in seasons. Winter means the arrival of American goldfinches, pine siskins, orange-crowned warblers, red-breasted nuthatches. Learning how to care for them while they’re here is critical to their survival.”
Instead of cutting back and deadheading plants, Chancellor advocates leaving them; they’re much-needed and easy-access food for birds. He says they seek out natural sources before flocking to our feeders, which is why natural green spaces need to go untouched.
He regularly hikes Bob Jones Nature Center and Preserve, often leading groups of both new and experienced birders on educational excursions. “I just wish they wouldn’t cut down so many dead trees there,” he says. While unsightly to some, they often are favorite nesting spots for birds. He gives props to garden club members who plant with beauty and function in mind. Among Chancellor’s favorite plants is the native American beautyberry, which grows well here and provides food for nearly all of the resident and migrating birds.
Different types of feeders draw specific birds, too. It’s not a one-style-fits-all situation. The same goes with seeds, although sunflower and suet work year-round. Chancellor says you can’t go wrong with spreading seed on the ground, either, as many birds are only ground feeders. Just be careful if there are cats around. Add a water source, too, keeping it clean and ice-free.
Lastly, he suggests investing in a pair of binoculars and a field guide. (We think a journal or notebook is nice, too, if you want to take notes.) Since Chancellor documents what is seen with photographs, he always has his telephoto lens at the ready. “I have taken over 50 years’ worth of photographs, spread between slides and digital,” he says.
If you’re beginning, one of the most important things you’ll need is patience.
“Start slowly,” says Chancellor. “You can’t just jump into it and be an instant expert. It’s like someone becoming an aficionado of art. You first enjoy the painting, but then you want to understand the painter’s purpose.”