Wild birds need more than food. When you provide some of their other necessities as well, you’ll find that more feathered friends both in species and numbers will come to your property. They’ll benefit from better habitat, and you’ll enjoy an enhanced bird-watching perch of your own.
Follow these tips to do your part for avian conservation by creating your own songbird Shangri-la.
Sketch your yard on paper or with computer software. Stephen W. Kress, author of The Audubon Society Guide to Attracting Birds (Cornell University, 2006), recommends that you depict everything on your land, including your house, garage, shed, pond, trees, and shrubs. Make an effort to identify the plants in your yard, too.
DO YOUR HABITAT HOMEWORK
Visit a national wildlife refuge or a state wildlife management area within an hour’s drive and pay special attention to the plants that you see. “Birds are looking for habitat, [for plants that] they’re familiar with,” says Kress, who is also the National Audubon Society’s vice president for bird conservation.
Native plants are adapted to your climate and soil type and require almost no pampering. Plus, they’ll save you money:
* Once established, natives usually require little or no watering.
* Natives seldom need pesticides, which kill millions of birds each year.
Kress suggests creating a border or JP hedgerow on your property by planting several rows of native shrubs. Group small shrubs in clusters of three for good pollination and place taller shrubs and trees in the back for a tiered effect.
Allow the plants’ branches to create densely layered canopies and understorey. If you can see through a habitat, it’s not ideal for birds.
Select shrubs that vary in shape, height, and density. Include prickly plants such as hawthorns and raspberries to discourage deer and rabbits and give nesting birds more predator-free zones in which to raise their young.
Choose shrubs that bear fruit in different seasons. In the fall, birds dine on the fruit of sassafras, flowering dogwood, and spicebush, for example. In colder months, they will choose fruit from hawthorns and crab apples.
Evergreens are important in the habitat mix. Conifers provide shade in the summer and protection from wind in the winter. Don’t plant yews, hemlock, or arborvitae, all of which deer love. Stick with spruce and junipers.
Build a brush pile. Chipping and field sparrows, as well as juncos, head for low, brushy cover when the weather turns wild.
Rake leaves under your border plantings to create mulch that teems with spiders, worms, and insects. Young birds need them as protein. If your backyard doesn’t include an area where birds can find bugs and worms for their young, they won’t nest there.
Provide clean water. Birds need to drink and to keep their feathers clean and free of parasites. A good birdbath can encourage birds to flock to your yard. Look for or make one with a shallow (1- to 1 1/2-inch-deep) basin. Make certain that it has a coarsely textured bottom so that birds can get a firm foothold, If you live in a cold climate, buy a specialized heater to keep the birdbath ice-free.
Think flow, too. Moving water from drippers, misters, or a small stream is music to avian ears.
SERVE GOOD FOOD
Use good birdseed in your feeders. According to Kress, what you offer governs what you attract. Low-priced seed mixes containing fillers, such as milo and red millet, will summon pigeons, cowbirds, house sparrows, and starlings. More expensive, black-oil sunflower seeds are favored by cardinals, tufted titmice, chickadees, house finches, purple finches, and many other species.
SMALL STILL WORKS
* Almost any yard is large enough for a few native shrubs. Rooftop and container gardening are other options.
Be realistic. If you’re offering plants such as petunias or bee balm, don’t expect a meadowlark to flap in. But hummingbirds? Maybe.
BEWARE OF MAMMAL MISCHIEF
Nothing spoils backyard bird feeding faster than seed-loving squirrels, raccoons, and bears.
Specially designed feeders that will close when something heavier than a bird lands on them can thwart squirrels. Placing feeders on 5- to 6-foot-high poles away from trees and shrubs can help, but you’ll need baffles to keep squirrels at bay.
If raccoons discover your bird feeders, hang the feeders from a wire with baffles on each side. If that fails, you’ll need to lock up your feeders at night.
Bears are an even bigger challenge. The good news is that most people feed birds during winter when bears are denned up. The bad news is that if you are dealing with a problem bruin, the only long-term solution is to remove the bird feeders.
BIRD-FRIENDLY PLANTS BY REGION
Eastern red cedar
Flowering crab apple
CENTRAL PLAINS AND PRAIRIES
Rusty blackhaw viburnum
WESTERN MOUNTAINS AND DESERTS
Colorado blue spruce
NORTHERN UNITED STATES AND SOUTHERN CANADA