A colleague recently asked me for advice on an educational program about landscaping for birds in suburban backyards. While I have some opinions on that, and of course I’m going to share them, there are some excellent resources folks can access with better information than I can provide. In just a few clicks of the mouse I found summaries from Mass Audubon and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology that would certainly be great places to start.
For my part, I’ll offer here some advice that has worked for me down through the years, and allowed me to compile a list of at least 75 different species of birds using our little urban backyard. I consider these the 5 basic tenets of attracting birds to your yard:
But first! Recognize that birds don’t need us to provide for them. Long before your ancestors landed at Plymouth Rock or docked at Ellis Island – or even before they migrated through Beringia – North America’s cardinals and chickadees and finches and robins were doing just fine on their own. I don’t attract birds to my yard for their benefit but for mine: I simply want to live somewhere with a high diversity of birds so I provide the sorts of things that might be attractive to the largest number of potential species. Once I have lured a species to my yard, I work to provide opportunities that might enhance survival from one season to the next. With that caveat out of the way, here’s what I do:
1) Water – I put out 3 dishes with fresh water, year ’round, replacing the water almost every day. In the summer, I turn the garden hose on very low and use a mister nozzle to provide a gentle spray through the leaves of various trees. This, of course, also attracts birds in the winter. Water doesn’t just provide drinking and bathing opportunities, for ground-feeding birds like robins it softens the ground, increasing foraging opportunities.
2) Cover – Birds like protection from predators and from the elements, so I always have some spots with really dense vegetation in my yard. Hollies, cedars, magnolias, small brush piles: these are all used as habitat by birds. Some might even nest in these areas in spring. Dense cover is especially important during winter, when it can significantly decrease wind speed and thus, wind chill. Good cover could very well be a life or death issue for small birds in winter.
3) Food – Birds need fuel for migration, so it’s great to provide a mix of plants that fruit in the spring (e.g., mulberries) with plants that fruit from midsummer to fall (e.g., pokeberry, dogwoods). I am convinced that simply letting a few pokeberries take off in my yard lured Gray Catbirds to stick around and nest for the past several years.
The actual bird feeding I do is a topic – perhaps a book – unto itself. Suffice it to say that I offer a variety of foods and a variety of feeders. Doves and juncos almost always feed from the ground, so I make sure to spread some seed on the ground for them, generally near good cover. For clinging birds like chickadees and goldfinches, I like feeders with a wire mesh all around so birds aren’t relegated to specific feeding ports. The key is to offer multiple smallish feeders rather than one huge one. Black oil sunflower is my staple, but I usually rely on a mix of millet and cracked corn for the ground feeders. I toss out whole corn cobs to occupy my squirrels (crows also love this!), and I’ll put out an occasional handful of raisins or other treats for mockingbirds. My woodpeckers and nuthatches get a mix of peanut butter, Crisco, corn meal, raisins, and whatever other dried fruits or nut I might have lying around. I simply mix into a dough and stick some in the bark of my backyard trees.
4) Nesting – Sure it’s easy to provide homes for birds if you put bird boxes up (I recommend little wren houses for most folks, because bluebirds really like more open areas than what most people have in their suburban backyards). The cooler thing, however, is to provide your birds with dead trees. What we see as an eyesore birds see as high rent housing – and a prolific source of food for woodpeckers, titmice, chickadees, nuthatches, etc. Before the tree fell in 2011, I kept a large, mostly dead silver maple in my yard that had tall, bare branches. I think I recorded over 50 species using that tree. Now it’s still providing habitat at the ground level because I’ve kept the stump!
5) Hummingbirds – These are a special case in that you can probably lure them more effectively with nectar unless you’ve really got a green thumb, but they like trumpetcreeper, bee-balms, and other nectar-producing flowers. Hummingbirds also feed heavily on small insects and spiders, an important source of protein.
Last advice – I tell folks to keep their yards pesticide-free (there are lots in insectivorous birds out there, including hummingbirds) and keep cats INDOORS. I love my cats too, so I keep them indoors where they won’t get in fights with other cats, are not exposed to certain feline diseases, and experience zero risk of winding up as roadkill.
I hope you can put this advice to good use; please comment if you’ve tried any of these things!