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Backyard Birds: How to Attract Them with the Right Flowers, Shrubs and Trees

Create a bird sanctuary in your yard and your life will be filled with song

By Peter Walsh | May 23, 2012

A yard without birds is not complete. They add another dimension to your landscape with their melodious songs. The key to attracting birds is to give them what they want. A diverse mix of plantings, water, food and nesting materials will keep them coming back year after year. While they will get along just fine without your help, you’ll have a greater chance of enjoying them if you create a "birdscape," or sanctuary, for them in your yard. "You'll bring them closer to you, help balance the eco-system, and help migrating birds thrive," says Steven Saffier, director of Audubon at Home for the National Audubon Society.

“Backyards are often the resting and refueling station for them,” he explains. "We can help stabilize them with individual efforts on individual properties.”
 
Follow these ideas to make your own bird sanctuary:
 
Flowers
 
Birds are attracted to flowers so be sure to have many different kinds of annuals, perennials and native wildflower species on your lot. “The more native plants you include in your yard the more insects you invite to create a balance between predator and prey,” Saffier says. “You’ll see the joys of nature at work in your own backyard.”

To attract American goldfinches, cardinals, chickadees, evening grosbeaks, finches and titmice, incorporate sunflowers, purple coneflowers, black-eyed Susans, asters, cosmos, zinnias, coreopsis, marigolds and poppies in your gardenscape. They all produce abundant banquets of tasty seeds that birds relish. Add native prairie plants like millet, sorghum, blanket flowers, goldenrod, liatris and globe thistle and birds will think they’ve gone to heaven.  Hummingbirds love pink, red and purple tubular blooms for their sweet nectar so include bee balm, columbine, hibiscus, nicotiana, salvia, cardinal flowers, honeysuckle and nasturtium.

In the fall, avoid cutting down all the dead stalks in your garden beds. Birds will seek out the remaining seeds all through the winter.
 
Fruiting Plants
 
Create a smorgasbord for birds by including fruit-bearing plants in the yard, at the edges of woodlands and in garden beds. Blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, juneberries, mulberries, inkberry and Russian olive will attract mockingbirds, bobwhites, gray catbirds, indigo buntings, woodpeckers, bluebirds, northern orioles and scarlet tanagers, among others. These birds will nest in the trees and feast on the berries. Be sure to help yourself to some of your favorites before the birds eat them all.
 
Trees
 
Birds, of course, like trees to build their nests, raise their young and escape from predators. It’s important to provide a mix of different types of trees to attract a large number of bird species. Start by finding out which trees are indigenous to your area. Oaks, aspens, maples, beeches and birches are all found in the natural landscape. Include these in your yard and supplement with under story trees that grow in the woodlands like dogwoods, shadbush, American hollies and spruces. Each offers nesting sites among their branches and crotches, in hollows and under their boughs. Evergreens offer protection from the hot sun in the summer, and protection from rain, snow and ice in the winter. They also attract insects that hide under their bark and among their leaves offering tasty morsels that bird parents bring back to feed their hatchlings.
 
Vines
 
The climbing, twisting stems of vining plants provide the perfect cover for birds. Their flowers attract nectar-seeking birds like hummingbirds. Fruiting vines, like grapes and multiflora roses, offer another food source. Watch birds flit among the vines as they determine the best way to approach a hanging feeder filled with seeds. Even in winter, vines left in place offer a perch for birds as they scope out your yard for leftover seeds on drying perennials.
 
Brush Piles
 
If you have room in your yard, build a brush pile of fallen branches, dried grasses and prunings from your shrubs. A brush pile offers cover from cats and other predators to smaller birds. As the pile breaks down, keep adding to it. Located near a wooded area, a brush pile also attracts ground insects that birds will find as they scratch away the leaves underneath.
 
Birdbaths
 
Nothing excites birds more than a birdbath, and if it includes a running water source they will flock to it every day. Birds actually need to bathe to spread their natural oils over their feathers to aid in flight. Place your birdbath in an open area where you can see it and birds can feel safe from cats. Keep it clean so the surface is not slippery on their tiny bare feet. Fill it with just an inch or two of water. Any deeper and birds will avoid the water for fear of drowning. Set up a sprinkler near the birdbath and birds will fly in and out of the gentle jet stream and chirp with delight. In the winter, you can install a heater to keep the water from freezing. Don’t worry about the birds if it snows. Birds eat snow if they need a drink.
 
Houses
 
Many birds do inhabit a birdhouse if there’s one available. Birds that would otherwise nest in a hollow of a tree or the nook of a building will typically use a birdhouse to raise their young. These birds include woodpeckers, owls, swallows, purple martins, tufted titmice, chickadees, wrens, bluebirds, warblers and sparrows.

While you can buy many beautiful houses in stores or online, you really are just buying the house you like as birds don’t really care what style or color it is. They do care, however, about the size of the entry hole, and if it’s a single or multi-dwelling version. Small birds need a hole that is about 1 1/2-inches in diameter to feel safe from bigger birds that have an appetite for eggs.

Most birds, even those of the same species, prefer to nest away from other birds. But purple martins, tree swallows and house sparrows all like living together, so a large house with many rooms will suit them. Houses mounted on posts that are at a minimum of six feet high will keep pests like cats, squirrels and raccoons away from eggs and hatchlings. Houses attached to trees are vulnerable and birds may not use them.

In the late fall and winter, clean out old nests from your houses so birds will be ready to move in next spring.
 
Nesting Materials
 
Provide dryer lint, hair from your pets, bales of hay or straw, dried prunings from your plants, leaves, grass clippings, and bits of string or yarn so birds have nesting materials at the ready. It’s not that they can’t find these things on their own. But if you put them in plain sight, you get to see the birds pick and choose the materials that they want to use to furnish their homes. Lay out the materials in a wide shallow plant saucer on your deck or patio, then watch from a window to see the birds shop for their nests.
 
Feeders and Seed
 
A sure way to see what birds are visiting your yard is to install a feeder and stock it with food they like to eat. The trick is to buy a feeder that is squirrel resistant. Unfortunately, squirrels will gobble up most of what you put out for the birds and there are very few feeders specifically designed to thwart their cunning nature. Some feeders have a spring action device that spins the feeder — this is designed to knock off the squirrel or slam the opening shut if a squirrel steps on the edge of the feeder. That action also causes seed to spill out on the ground so squirrels soon learn they can climb down and eat their fill.
 
Some feeders also have a slick, domed cover that prevent squirrels from getting a grip on the feeder. These seem to work but they are less than attractive. If you have a wide-open space in your yard, sink a post in the ground and place the feeder on top of it. Attach to the post a smooth metal squirrel baffle, which looks like an upside-down cone. Squirrels can’t get a grip on the baffle so they can’t reach the feeder. Don’t overfill a feeder with seed as it can get moldy over time. Birds tend to feed in the morning after they wake up and again around dusk so plan your viewing accordingly. Choose seed mixtures that are rich in black oil sunflower seeds to attract cardinals, titmice and blue jays, among others.
 
Peter Walsh is a New York-based freelance writer who specializes in home and gardening.