Bird feeding is one of the most popular hobbies in the United States second only to gardening. So it is only natural that many people combine these two hobbies into one endeavor. When a garden or yard is planned and maintained with the needs of native wildlife in mind, it becomes much more than just a backyard. It is a “backyard habitat.”
Creating a backyard habitat for birds is an enjoyable and easy process. Birds require four basic things to survive: food, water, protection from predators and the elements, and a safe place to raise their young. If possible, leave some of the lands on your property untouched. This allows some of the natural habitat to remain intact. Of course, that may not be a realistic option for many people. Most landscapers are well-educated on how to include natural plants and eco-conscious features in today's landscape design. Select plants that offer food, fruit, insects, ground cover, shelter, seeds, and nesting sites.
Even if your yard is well-established and “starting from scratch” is not an option, there are other things you can do to help attract and maintain birds in your backyard. Find out what plants are native in your region. Native plants will best match the diets and habitat requirements of the birds that live in your area. Call a local gardening club for suggestions. Most gardening enthusiasts are eager to share their knowledge and maybe even a cutting or two to get you started.
The easiest way to attract birds to your yard is to provide water. Freshwater is a magnet for attracting birds. Offer clean water every day, and clean your birdbaths and water sources regularly. Birds need water to drink and bathe in throughout the year. Plan on using a birdbath de-icer (a small heated element that keeps water in a birdbath from freezing) if your region experiences freezing temperatures in the winter.
Refill your birdbath every day and clean every other day. DO NOT USE BLEACH! Elbow grease is the best way to clean the birdbath. Regular cleaning will keep mosquito larvae away, which you and the birds will surely appreciate. You can also purchase special devices that create vibrations on the water that will keep mosquitoes from laying eggs. The vibrations are gentle and do not pose any problems for the birds. There are other ways to offer water–such as a garden pond or fountain. Fountains are a good choice because they naturally feature moving water that deters mosquitoes and other insects. The sound of flowing water from a fountain or waterfall will also serve the purpose of announcing your “oasis” to the birds in the area. It is also a relaxing and soothing sound that makes your garden a peaceful retreat.
If you choose a birdbath for your water source, it should not be deeper than 3 inches. It is also best if they have a textured bottom and sloping sides. It does not matter if you choose a hanging bird bath or one that sits on a pedestal or the ground. Be sure that you position the birdbath in a location that offers the birds some protection from predators. An open area is the best choice since predators will be unable to sneak up undetected on bathing birds.
Once you have water, you also need to supply food. Not all birds will eat the seed. Some eat insects and others, like hummingbirds and orioles, prefer nectar. Offering a variety of feed will help attract a variety of birds. If you are only going to use one type of feed, it's a good idea to offer a quality mixed seed. Some inferior mixes contain a lot of cheap fillers that birds do not eat. The birds will simply kick this seed out of the feeder and make a mess on the ground below. If you want to avoid a lot of mess below your feeders, look for feed that contains only the meats of seeds. Finches will eat a specific kind of seed called “nyjer” seed (it was incorrectly called “thistle” seed for many years). Nyjer seed requires a special type of feeder, so be sure to know what kind of seed your feeder is meant to dispense.
Offer as many feeding stations as your yard can hold. Space your feeders 30 to 50 feet apart at different elevations. Multiple feeders deter aggressive birds from dominating the stations and providing ground feeders allows the timid species a place to feed. Make sure your birdfeeders are within a short flying distance of cover and perches. Birds need to be able to fly to someplace safe if a predator appears. Finally, make sure you frequently clean your feeders so the seed will not mold. Thoroughly wash them with soap and warm water. Sterilize with a solution of 1 part bleach and 4 parts water. Rinse them completely and let dry. Keeping your feeders clean is an important step in ensuring that your backyard birds are healthy and free from disease.
After taking care of the basic needs of feeding the birds and providing water, you can also add birdhouses to provide habitats for birds to nest and raise their broods. Buying a birdhouse that is designed for specific species is a good idea if you are trying to attract a certain species of bird. Make sure that the birdhouse you are buying is made with untreated lumber or non-toxic paint. Birdhouses should have ventilation holes and holes in the floor for drainage. It is also important that the birdhouse has a panel that can be opened so you can clean out the birdhouse. Mount your birdhouse high enough to discourage predators and consider using a predator guard to protect vulnerable eggs and chicks from raccoons and snakes.
Dead trees are considered to be eyesores to people, but for birds, they are a terrific food source and offer cavity-nesters a place to build a nest. Only remove them if they pose a safety threat. Excavating species (also called “primary cavity nesters”) like woodpeckers will carve out a cavity that other birds (called “secondary cavity nesters”) will use once they become vacant. It is also important to never use insecticides. They eliminate spiders, caterpillars, beetles, and other insects that are a very important protein source for birds and their young. Sometimes the best way to create a habitat for wildlife is to leave the one that already exists as natural and unaltered as possible.
Keeping birds safe from predators is not always easy. Using predator guards is helpful for keeping nests and eggs safe. Natural predators are part of the ecosystem too, and you should not try to interfere too much with the natural order of things, but domestic cats sometimes pose the biggest threat to backyard birds. If a neighbor allows their pet cat to roam the neighborhood, you can ask them to have the cat wear a collar with a bell on it. This allows the birds to have a warning when danger is approaching. If predators such as raccoons become too aggressive or bold, you should call your local Animal Control office to remove the animal safely.
Attracting birds to your backyard is immensely rewarding. You will have the pleasure of watching nature interact. You will become aware of the various subtle changes in bird behavior throughout the seasons. Creating a backyard habitat is not only an environmentally friendly way to share your living space with natural wildlife, it also creates a soothing, restful oasis that can help you enjoy your world more fully.
Since 1998 The Backyard Bird Company has provided high-quality DIY birdhouse plans, outdoor furniture, and backyard decor that provides backyard birders with hundreds of choices to fit every style and budget.