How to Make a Wild Bird Sanctuary at the Farm

I know that if I look deep into the darkest corners of my heart, there is a part that hears the words “wildlife sanctuary” and thinks this:

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Ah, yes. It’s the Disney version of how to interact with wildlife. First you go into the woods with nothing but a pure heart. And then the animals gather round to help you. It’s the “tame wild animal” idea.

A few years ago, I visited this place:

Tubbataha Island, Sulu Sea, Philippines

It’s a protected marine and wildlife sanctuary on a remote 1-hectare island in the middle of the ocean.  The place was teeming with seabirds busy feeding, nesting, and doing their own thing. We, the photographers and birdwatchers, were merely tolerated. Sometimes the birds would fly off if we got very close, like an arms-length away. Sometimes they wouldn’t! There was no mistaking these creatures for anything but wild birds though.  It was a paradise for birdwatchers and bird photographers! True, it is also a remote island nesting site for seabirds that nest in colonies and the furthest thing from a farm in Batangas.

Somewhere in between is my ideal bird sanctuary for the farm.

Close, but Not Tame

In my ideal site, there would be many species of birds. I would have a mix of forest, grassland, and water birds. The birds would be close and approachable but not tame. I want to be able to watch and photograph the birds behaving naturally. I want to see them feeding and breeding in a natural setting that somehow includes the presence of  a few humans, dogs, and other domestic animals.  I want the birds to see me as just a harmless part of the landscape.

Birds adapt their behavior to their surroundings. I’ve visited places where all the birds were very  skittish (mailap in Pilipino) and would fly away at the slightest movement. This usually indicates that the birds there are being hunted and have learned to be wary of people, especially those carrying anything long and rifle-like. There are also places where you would see the same previously very skittish species, but this time they would be very relaxed and easy to approach. Then you know that the birds there don’t see people as a threat. These places are usually resorts and protected areas.

There are also some places that set up feeding stations stocked with fruits, nuts, sugar water, and even insects to attract the birds and bring them close for good view.  Some of the birds there can become so tame that they can even be hand fed. Very Disney-like! This practice also seems more popular in places with winter, where birds really need additional food sources.  I don’t plan to set up feeding stations. I don’t want the birds begging for food from me. I don’t think that’s natural or necessary in the tropics. We are planning a pond though (see STEP THREE below).

The good thing about our farm is that it already seems like a birdy place. There are birds that are already there. I think it helped that for a long time the area was not being cultivated or heavily used. Now we just have to make sure we don’t scare the birds off with our farm development activities!


Back in the day, the area that is now our farm was once probably covered in forest. Then some trees were cut down and for a time it was planted to rice. Then when the once a year harvest became too unprofitable, the rice was abandoned. Then the fields turned to grasslands and were used for grazing cows and carabaos. More trees were cut down to make charcoal. Soon the only trees left were shrubs, small trees bordering property lines and fields. What we’re hoping to do at the farm is to restore the habitat that was destroyed, bring back the balance in the environment, and bring back the birds. It’s a grand, ambitious plan!

STEP ONE: Make a list of the birds on the farm.
I’m making a list so that I know what’s already there and so I can see whether or not the bird species are increasing.

STEP TWO: Plant a lot of bird-friendly trees.
I have a list of bird-friendly, mostly native trees that we helped put together for our subdivision when we were part of the Ecology Committee of our village. The list was mostly compiled by asking different people which trees were “birdy”. The list is a mix of trees that have flowers (nectar-eating birds), fruits (fruit-eating birds), or attract insects (insect-eating birds). The plan is to use the trees to provide different kinds of food and also to create different kinds of habitats.

Birds need water. We already have a creek that goes around the perimeter of the pond. The creek dries up in the summer. We will plant more trees along the banks to keep the soil from eroding. We also plan to put in a natural-looking pond with fish to attract kingfishers, waterhens, wild ducks, and other birds.

STEP FOUR: Community
First off is to get the word out that our farm is a no hunting zone. The people we’ve already met know that we’re “bird lovers” and I think word is already getting around.  Eventually, we will have to reach out to the community around us to educate, inform, and involve them in protecting the environment beyond the farm. It would be great if more people could see birds as something more than just a meal or a sport. To borrow saying from the Transformers — Birds: More than Meat’s the Eye!

There are many great birding places in this country and abroad that have inspired us to make our own mini bird sanctuary. Veta la Palma, is the largest bird sanctuary in Spain and also a fish farm.  In six short years they were able to restore an abandoned beef feedlot back into the wetland estuary ecosystem that it originally was! The unconventional Willie Smits claims he has been able achieve the incredible task of re-growing clearcut rainforest in Borneo to restore habitat for the orangutans as well as provide jobs for people. He says his rainforest is even more productive and supports more wildlife than a natural rainforest!

These are the things and ideas that inspire us to work, experiment, and dream big dreams for our small farm!

late afternoon, August 2012

6 thoughts on “How to Make a Wild Bird Sanctuary at the Farm”

  1. Sylvia, basic rule….where there is food, you will find wildlife. So, if you know what an animal feeds on, you can figure out what to do. An old friend, Bobby Montalvan, did this in Bukidnon. To draw in ducks, he created ponds and stocked them with snails (kuhol). To draw in wild boar, he created small plantings of cassava. They love that. Of course, they were also drawn to his corn fields. He did the same with deer. The macaques loved his corn crib, and were naturally drawn there. I remember driving his farm one morning, and from 6 to 7 am, I saw ducks, boar, deer, monkeys….the works. Out at sea, this is also how I find dolphins / whales. Look for areas that have the food they seek.

    1. Thanks Lory! It would be great to get more mammals at the farm. We are not close enough to a forest to draw in macaques and deer, if there are any left in our area. Seems much easier to draw in birds than mammals, since they can fly in from other areas. Really looking forward to getting our pond one day so we can attract more ducks!

  2. I delved deeper into your referenced site, “Veta la Palma” and learned about how they nurtured fish in a holistic and ecologically sustainable manner. It reminded me of the same concept being practiced in Japan (over-arching concept is “Satoyama”), where people live in harmony with nature that freely intermingle with them right in their very households and house-lined streams: Video, “BBC Natural World – Satoyama, Japans Secret Watergarden – Full Documentary”

  3. I have a 100 acres Farm 77 acres is woods.No logs have been cuts since 1960. We want to make it a bird Sanctuary too.

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