Landscaping Tips for a Bird-Friendly Backyard

Landscaping Tips for a Bird-friendly Backyard

Want to make your backyard a welcome haven for birds? Putting up a feeder is an easy way to attract birds. But if you’d prefer a more natural approach or you want to satisfy more than birds’ nutritional needs, consider landscaping your yard—even just a part of it—to be more bird-friendly. Even a small yard can provide vital habitat. All it takes is a little time and effort, made all the easier if you already enjoy gardening. The rewards are many—beautiful birds that add color and music to your life year-round. Creating and preserving habitat for birds has never been more important—as the human population grows, suitable bird habitat is disappearing rapidly, gobbled up by housing developments, roads, shopping malls, and airports.

There are three basic things that all birds need from their habitats:
• FOOD: Your yard can be landscaped to provide the fruit, seeds, beneficial insects, and other small animals that birds feed upon.
• WATER: Birds need water, too.
• SHELTER: Whether it’s protection from the elements, safe places to hide from predators, or secure locations to hide nests, providing shelter is one of the best ways to make your property bird-friendly.

Take a look at your property from a bird’s perspective. Does it provide these things? If not, consider adding some or all of them. Below are useful tips about the best plants to grow, and other ways to enhance your backyard for birds.

Birds choose environments that provide them with food, water, and shelter. Take a bird’s-eye look at your backyard. Does it provide those things? If not, there are plants you can grow and many other ways you can enhance your yard to make it more bird-friendly. Here are some tips to help you:
Evaluate Your Real Estate First, take stock of what you already have. Draw a map of your property including buildings and other structures, sidewalks, fences, trees, shrubs, and the location of feeders and nestboxes. Note sunny or shady sites, low or wet areas, sandy sites, & plants you want to keep.

Start With a Plan Before you start digging holes and rearranging your yard, develop a planting plan. Draw each new plant onto a piece of tracing paper, then place that over the map of your yard (of course, you could do this on your computer, too). Once your plants are in, use your map as a reminder about which need to be watered and weeded, especially in the first year after planting. Mulch is an invaluable tool for keeping moisture in and weeds out.

Choose Their Favorites If you’d like to attract specific birds, find out which plants they prefer.

Think “Variety!” Looking for diversity? Plants can provide birds with food in the form of flower buds, fruit, seeds, nectar, or sap, as well as nest sites and nest material, and shelter from adverse weather conditions and predators. The larger the variety of plants you grow, the more different kinds of birds your yard will attract.

Choose Plants Wisely Select new plants appropriate for the lighting and soil conditions of your property. Consider how big a new plant might eventually grow, and avoid the surprise of it taking over your yard!

Go Native! Plant native species instead of exotics. Native plants, such as those at right, are more likely to thrive, plus they offer the foods best suited to the birds of your area. Here, in summer, the red blooms of cardinal flower attract hummingbirds, while wild bergamot and goldenrod harbor insects, an excellent food source for birds. Later in fall when the goldenrod fades, finches and sparrows will feast on its seeds.

Year-round Attractions To keep the birds coming back for more, select a variety of plants that will produce foods in different seasons. For winter residents as well as migrants that return early in spring, plants that hold their fruits throughout the winter (“winter-persistent” plants) are a vital food source.

Give Them Shelter Provide dense thickets where birds can nest, perch, and escape from predators, by planting some shrubs, growing a hedge, or training vines over fencelines. Try to create an area of thick, wild growth to imitate a natural environment.

Dead Wood’s Good! Try to leave dead limbs and trees in place if it’s safe to do so. Insects that live under the bark and in the decaying wood are an important food source for birds such as woodpeckers, chickadees, and nuthatches. Cavity-nesting birds such as bluebirds and woodpeckers need old, hollow trees to nest in. To make a dead tree prettier, consider planting native vines, such as Virginia Creeper, to disguise its trunk.

Build a Brush Pile Recycle dead branches to start a brush pile for your ground-dwelling birds, such as sparrows and towhees. It gives them protection from cold weather and predators. Lay down a couple of feet of thick branches, and put thinner branches over the top. Add your old Christmas tree if you have one.

Leave a Mess! If you hate to tidy up your yard and flower beds in fall, birds will love you for it. If you grow annuals, especially daisy-relatives such as purple coneflowers, black-eyed susans, and sunflowers, leave the dead seed heads on them when they fade—goldfinches, redpolls, and other seed-eaters will feast on the seeds. Instead of bagging up fallen leaves for disposal, rake them under your shrubs to act as mulch. They’ll harbor insects that ground-dwelling birds will find, too. And, come spring, those dead leaves, grasses, and plant stems will be a treasure trove for birds searching for nest material in your yard.

Seven Important Plant Groups To provide habitat for the largest diversity of birds, try to include plants from as many of these plant groups as possible on your property. Choosing plants that produce at different times of year ensures that your backyard will always have something to bring in the birds.

Conifers: Evergreen trees and shrubs such as pines, spruces, firs, arborvitae, and junipers. Provide excellent shelter and nest sites, as well as food (fruits and seeds).

Grasses and Legumes:
Provide cover for ground-nesting birds (if not mowed during the nesting season) and food (seeds and insects).

Nectar-producing Plants:
Attract hummingbirds (especially flowers with tubular red corollas) and orioles.

Summer-fruiting Plants:
Provide food during the nesting season. Various species of cherry, chokecherry, native honeysuckle, raspberry, serviceberry, blackberry, blueberry, mulberry, and elderberry.

Fall-fruiting Plants:
Important for both migratory birds building up fat reserves before migration and non-migratory birds that need to enter the winter season in good physical condition. Includes dogwoods, mountain ash, cotoneasters, and buffalo-berries.

Winter-persistent Plants:
Fruits remain attached to these plants long after they ripen in the fall, providing a winter food source for residents, as well as for early-returning migrants. Includes crabapple, snowberry, native bittersweet, sumacs, viburnums, American highbush cranberry, eastern wahoo, Virginia creeper, and winterberry (holly).

Nut and Acorn Plants:
Includes oaks, hickories, buckeyes, chestnuts, butternuts, walnuts, and hazels. Provide food and good nesting habitat.

Deciduous Trees
Five favorite deciduous trees for birds—what they provide, and birds they’ll attract.
(Morus species)
• Deciduous tree.
• Season: Summer fruiting.
• Description: Medium-sized trees, 30 to 60 feet high. Fallen fruit messy: avoid planting near sidewalks or car parking areas.
• Food type: Fruit.
• Attracts: Robins, waxwings, cardinals, numerous other songbirds.
• Also provides: Nest sites.

(Amelanchier species)
• Deciduous tree.
• Season: Summer fruiting.
• Description: Medium-sized trees, 25 to 60 feet high. Produce masses of white or pinkish flowers in spring. Reddish berries in summer.
• Food type: Fruit.
• Attracts: Robins, waxwings, cardinals, vireos, tanagers, grosbeaks, others.
• Also provides: Nest sites.

Flowering Dogwood
(Cornus florida)
• Deciduous tree.
• Season: Fall fruiting.
• Description: Excellent choice for birds and people. Well-known ornamental tree, to 40 feet high. Attractive white, pink, or red flowers in spring Scarlet berries in fall.
• Food type: Fruit.
• Attracts: Robins, bluebirds, thrushes, catbirds, cardinals, tanagers, grosbeaks, many others.
• Also provides: Nest sites.

(Malus species)
• Deciduous tree.
• Season: Fall fruiting; winter-persistent fruits.
• Description: Medium-sized trees, with attractive blossoms in spring. Choose a variety with small fruits (easier for birds to swallow).
• Food type: Flower buds, flowers, fruit, seeds.
• Attracts: Robins, bluebirds, thrushes, catbirds, cardinals, waxwings, Pine Grosbeaks, finches, many others.
• Also provides: Nest sites, cover.

White Oak
(Quercus alba)
• Deciduous tree.
• Season: Fall fruiting; winter-persistent fruits.
• Description: Large tree. Produces acorns every year, unlike other oaks.
• Food type: Acorns.
• Attracts: Woodpeckers, jays, Wild Turkeys, grouse, Wood Ducks, others.
• Also provides: Nest sites, cover.

Coniferous Trees and Native Vines
Best evergreen trees and favorite vines for birds—what they provide and birds they’ll attract.

Eastern Red Cedar
(Juniperus virginiana)
• Coniferous tree.
• Season: Fall fruiting, winter persistent fruit.
• Description: Attractive cone-shaped tree, usually grows 50 to 90 feet tall. Fleshy, pale blue, berry-like cones borne on female trees only.
• Food type: Fruit.
• Attracts: Waxwings and others.
• Also provides: Excellent nest sites and cover.

(Picea species)
• Coniferous tree.
• Season: Fall fruiting, winter persistent fruit.
• Description: Often large trees, may grow up to 150 feet tall.
• Food type: Seed-bearing cones. Its evergreen needles are a good source of insects in early spring.
• Attracts: Crossbills and other seed-eaters in fall and winter. Migrating warblers search for insects in spring.
• Also provides: Nest sites, cover.

Wild Grape
(Vitis species)
• Deciduous vine.
• Season: Fall fruiting.
• Description: Climbing vine that provides superb fruit, eaten by more than 50 species of birds. Dense greenery makes it a good hedgegrow plant.
• Food type: Fruit.
• Attracts: Robins, bluebirds, thrushes, catbirds, cardinals, Wild Turkey, Pileated Woodpecker, mockingbirds, thrashers, many others.
• Also provides: Excellent nest sites, nest material (shredding bark), excellent cover.

Virginia Creeper
(Parthenocissus quinquefolia)
• Deciduous vine.
• Season: Fall fruiting, winter persistent fruit.
• Description: Tree-climbing vine with brilliant scarlet foliage in autumn. Important food plant for many bird species.
• Food type: Fruit.
• Attracts: Robins, bluebirds, thrushes, catbirds, cardinals, starlings, Wild Turkey, vireos, warblers, Pileated Woodpecker, many others.
• Also provides: Nest sites, cover.

Five important shrubs for birds—what they provide and birds they’ll attract.

Northern Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica)
• Shrub.
• Season: Fall fruiting, winter persistent fruits.
• Description: Semi-evergreen shrub produces fragrant, waxy, silver-gray berries, which stay on the plant year-round.
• Food type: Fruit.
• Attracts: Tree Swallows (especially wintering), catbirds, bluebirds, many others.
• Also provides: Nest sites, cover.

Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina)
• Deciduous shrub / small tree.
• Season: Fall fruiting, winter persistent fruits.
• Description: Brilliant red foliage in fall. Spikey clusters of hairy red fruits persist through winter. Important food plant for many birds.
• Food type: Fruit, seeds.
• Attracts: Robins, bluebirds, thrushes, catbirds, cardinals, chickadees, starlings, Wild Turkey, Pileated Woodpecker, many others.
• Also provides: (Tends to be too open for nest sites or cover.)

Other dogwoods
(Cornus species, e.g. Red-osier Dogwood, Gray Dogwood)
• Deciduous shrub.
• Season: Fall fruiting.
• Description: Hardy shrub. Fruit with high fat content provides important food for migrating songbirds in fall.
• Food type: Fruit.
• Attracts: Robins, bluebirds, thrushes, catbirds, vireos, kingbirds, juncos, cardinals, warblers, Wild Turkey, grouse, others.
• Also provides: Nest sites, cover.

(Viburnum species, e.g. Nannyberry, Arrowwood Viburnum)
• Deciduous shrub.
• Season: Fall fruiting, some fruits are winter persistent.
• Description: Large genus of easy-to-grow shrubs. White flowers in spring. Produce red, yellow, blue or black berries.
• Food type: Fruit.
• Attracts: Robins, bluebirds, thrushes, catbirds, cardinals, finches, waxwings, others.
• Also provides: Nest sites, cover.

Winterberry (Holly)
(Ilex verticillata)
• Deciduous shrub.
• Season: Fall fruiting, winter persistent fruits.
• Description: Hardy shrub, tolerant of wet conditions. Scarlet berries are important food for winter resident birds. Berries borne on female plants only—for best results plant group several female plants with at least one male plant (your nursery will label it as such).
• Food type: Fruit.
• Attracts: Robins, bluebirds, waxwings, others.
• Also provides: Cover.

Attracting Birds with Nest Material
Most birds build some kind of structure to contain their eggs and, in many cases, their growing youngsters. A bird’s nest may be as simple as a depression on the ground such as made by a nighthawk, it may be a hole in a tree excavated by a woodpecker, or it may be as elaborate as the pouch-like nest woven by an oriole. The most familar type of nest, though, is a cup-shaped structure made of vegetation. Often, the outer layers are of coarse material, and there is a lining of softer or finer material. Depending on the species, cup-nesters may hide their nests in trees or shrubs, build them on the ground, or, like the familiar Eastern Bluebird, place them in nestboxes or tree holes.

If your yard has safe nest sites and adequate construction material, it will be more attractive to birds—even those that normally don’t visit feeders. Nest material to offer. Ideally you should provide nest material naturally by leaving or creating wild, natural areas on your property (perhaps hidden from your neighbor’s view) where plants can grow into thickets, and leaves and twigs can fall and not be raked up immediately. This untidy debris gives a variety of material for the birds to pick through when they are building nests. They may even pick through your compost pile looking for suitable nest material. Alternatively, you can put out concentrated stashes of nest material. It can be natural materials like straw, small sticks, and twigs, or manmade materials such as yarn and string. Try putting out any combination of the following:
• Dead twigs
• Dead leaves
• Dry grass
• Yarn or string—cut into 4- to 8-inch pieces
• Human or animal hair (especially horse hair)
• Fur (e.g. dog or cat fur)
• Sheep’s wool
• Feathers
• Plant fluff or down (e.g. cattail fluff, cottonwood down)
• Kapok, cotton batting, or other stuffing material
• Moss
• Bark strips
• Pine needles
• Thin strips of cloth, about 1 inch wide by 6 inches long
• Shredded paper

Among the strange materials birds occasionally use in their nests are snake skins, plastic strips, cellophane, and aluminum foil. Many small birds use spider webs to glue nest material together. Swallows, phoebes, and American Robins use mud to construct their nests. You might consider creating or keeping a muddy puddle in your garden for them.

What about dryer lint? Some people include this as suitable bird nesting material. Others recommend against it because it is porous and dries out poorly if it’s rained on in the nest. Still others warn that wet dryer lint dries into a hard mass, providing poor nest insulation, however this may happen only if it contains laundry detergent or fabric softener residue. More information is needed before we can recommend offering dryer lint.

How to offer nest material
• Place nesting materials, such as twigs and leaves, in piles on the ground—other materials, too, if they won’t blow away.
• Try putting fluffy materials, hair, or fur in wire-mesh suet cages, or in string or plastic mesh bags, attached to tree trunks, fence posts, or deck railings. The birds will pull out the material through the mesh holes.
• Push material into tree crevices or drape it over vegetation.
• Put material into an open-topped, plastic berry basket (such as strawberries are sold in).
• Some manufacturers sell spiral wire hangers especially for putting out nest material. (One type looks like a oversized honey-dipper.)

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