Landscaping for birds? Here’s what I do.


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:

Tufted Titmouse, a happy customer in our yard.

Tufted Titmouse, a happy customer in our yard. The hand that holds him is happier still!

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.

An immature Cooper's Hawk cools off on a hot day.

An immature Cooper’s Hawk cools off on a hot day.

The mister in action on a day with a heat index of 110F.

The mister in action on a day with a heat index of 110F.

Lousy photo but here's a robin enjoying some cooler, softer ground where I had been running the mister.

Lousy photo but here’s a robin enjoying some cooler, softer ground where I had been running the mister.

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.

2012: Our yard provides food and cover for birds in the corners, but leaves a lot of area open and usable for things like baseball practice.

Our yard provides food and cover for birds in the corners, but leaves a lot of area open and usable for things like baseball practice.

August 2015 - a bit more lush than in 2012.

August 2015 – a bit more lush than in 2012.

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.

Flowing pokeberry foreshadows lots of irresistible food for birds a few weeks hence.

Flowering pokeberry foreshadows lots of irresistible food for birds a few weeks hence.

The white fruits on this roughleaf dogwood provide an important source of carbohydrates that can be converted to fat to fuel migration of southbound migrants in late summer and fall.

The white fruits on this roughleaf dogwood provide an important source of carbohydrates that can be converted to fat to fuel migration of southbound migrants in late summer and fall.

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.

I love attracting crows with whole corn.  Check out the kernels in their beaks!

I love attracting crows with whole corn. Check out the kernels in their beaks!

Open wire means that birds can cling anywhere on the feeder, and that it permits more air to get at the seed to help keep it dry.

Open wire means that birds can cling anywhere on the feeder, and that it permits more air to get at the seed to help keep it dry.

A rare winter snow brought in an even rarer Rusty Blackbird.

A rare winter snow brought in an even rarer Rusty Blackbird.

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!

Mississippi Kites used those bare branches of my dying silver maple as a favorite perch.  The tree looks a lot different these days, but it's still providing habitat for birds and other wildlife:

Mississippi Kites used those bare branches of my dying silver maple as a favorite perch. The tree looks a lot different these days, but it’s still providing habitat for birds and other wildlife:

The question is “Why don’t *you* have one of these?”

The stump is looking pretty good these days - 8/2015.

The stump is looking pretty good these days – 8/2015.

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.

She's not looking for something to drink, she's looking for something she can hunt!

She’s not looking for something to drink, she’s looking for something she can hunt!

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.

Lousy photo but it illustrates a great point: this Olive-sided Flycatcher spent about 5 minutes in my yard one dya, but while it was there, I watched it dart out and catch that morsel it's holding in the photo. My decision not to spray my yard with insecticides might have led  - indirectly - to this bird making it all the way down to Peru that winter.

Lousy photo but it illustrates a great point: this Olive-sided Flycatcher spent about 5 minutes in my yard one day, but while it was there, I watched it dart out and catch that morsel it’s holding in the photo. My decision not to spray my yard with insecticides might have led – indirectly – to this bird making it all the way down to Peru that winter.

I hope you can put this advice to good use; please comment if you’ve tried any of these things!

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This entry was posted in animal behavior, birding, birds/nature, editorial, environment, hummingbirds, Links, migrants, wildlife and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Landscaping for birds? Here’s what I do.

  1. Reblogged this on The Waterthrush Blog and commented:

    Some folks have stumbled on this post from a couple of years ago, so I’ve updated a bit.

    Like

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