4 ways to create a bird-friendly backyard

It’s that time of year when winged travelers everywhere are making their spring migrations, leaving behind warm climates for adventures farther north, hopefully stopping along the way so we can catch a glimpse!

If you’re lucky you might spot a Wilson’s warbler flying overheard, or a white pelican soaring over the Mississippi.

Amid the movement, bird nerds everywhere want to know: What can we do to make our own backyards accommodating for these frequent flyers?

I recently sat down with The Nature Conservancy’s Dave Mehlman, director of our Migratory Bird Program, for some tips. He says creating a bird-friendly backyard is fairly simple; it boils down to providing four things: food, water, shelter and a place to nest. Here’s what you need to know:

1) Food

Sunflower seed is preferred by most species. Another idea is to obtain some thistle seed, which goldfinches and siskins go crazy over. You can pick up many styles of bird feeders at the store, or just set out some seed and fruit on a plate. If you are in a location with lots of hummingbirds, don’t forget to fill their feeders.

But watch out for squirrels! You can outsmart them by mounting a feeder on a pole with a baffle, which prevents squirrels from reaching the seed. Another option is to look for a special feeder with a counter-weighted perch; if something as heavy a squirrel lands there, it blocks access to the food.

If you live in bear country, take note: bird feeders may attract bears. We advise only leaving feeders out for birds in the winter, when local birds abound but bears are hibernating.

2) Water

Water not only quenches thirst, it allows birds to bathe and keep clean. At its simplest, a birdbath can be a saucer or dish of water placed outside. Keep it filled and keep it clean. It needs to be shallow water, not deep. If you really want to “drive birds wild,” Dave says to consider a birdbath with dripping water.

3) Shelter

Shelter is necessary for the birds to roost, sleep and take cover from predators. You can provide basic shelter with landscaping. The key is variety; birds like different types ranging from shrubs to trees of different sizes. If you’re behind on yard work, take heart: Birds also love brush piles, which provide cover from predators like cats or hawks.

Most important: Eliminate any insecticides. The more organic you can be, the better all around.

4) A Place to Nest

Dave says an everyday birdhouse will do just fine. If you have trees in your backyard, you might also try leaving a dead limb available for species like woodpeckers to create holes in. To be really accommodating, leave some nest materials like straw and feathers outside for birds to find and use.

So there you have it! The basics of creating a bird-friendly backyard (thanks for the advice, Dave!). Try out some of our tips, share your own in the comments section and let us know what species you glimpse outside.

[Image: House finch on birdfeeder. Image source: donjd2/Flickr via a Creative Commons license]

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  1. Our property is a wonderful habitat for animals. We have lots of trees, shrubs, grass and other vegetation. We have a creek and spring fed pond. The pond has fish, frogs, and turtles. We love to feed them. There are rabbits, squirrels and several varieties of birds including hummingbirds, cardinals, chickadees and woodpeckers. Unfortunately we must sell our home. I worry about my little “friends”. Hope they will appreciate this wonderful environment like we have.

    1. Tina, I am so sorry you have to sell your sanctuary. Look for a realtor who understands and respects what you’ve created, and ask him/her to target advertising to others with similar values. Regional environmental groups and publications, etc. If the market is hot for sellers where you are, you can also request letters from each bidder explaining why they want your house. Then you get to pick the right person. I wish you luck wherever you go.

  2. For many years now, I have had nesting mockingbirds around my house. I always talk to them and they talk or rather sing to me when I do. This year, they sing every time I get out of my car to open the gate. What can I do to reward them? What special treat would they appreciate Sheila

  3. Thanks for this info! I am about to purchase 8 acres of mostly wooded property that has very little in the way of inviting birds! I researched certified arborists in the area and one of my first plans is to have someone come out to give me advice about how to clear part of the land so that it is animal and bird friendly. I am strongly interested in attracting birds, butterflies and bats (B/B/B) so I want to make sure I do everything I can to make it B/B/B friendly!

    1. “You can encourage mockingbirds to visit your yard by keeping an open lawn but providing fruiting trees or bushes, including mulberries, hawthorns, and blackberry brambles.
      Northern Mockingbirds eat mainly insects in summer but switch to eating mostly fruit in fall and winter. Among their animal prey are beetles, earthworms, moths, butterflies, ants, bees, wasps, grasshoppers, and sometimes small lizards. They eat a wide variety of berries, including from ornamental bushes, as well as fruits from multiflora rose. They’ve been seen drinking sap from the cuts on recently pruned trees.”
      from allaboutbirds.org

  4. June 25, 2013

    Thank you for this. We have a small/medium backyard with a tree, large bushes, and wildflowers. A birdhouse could add interest. There are snails, worms, and small snakes, too. Lots of food for the birds, a birdbath is nice, thank you.

  5. what about tips to protect birds from cats?

  6. We have a small to medium lot in Oklahoma City. I have one corner set aside as a bird retreat. It’s beneath a huge maple tree and i have planted two cedars, one live oak, one holly and a couple of mulberry trees. It also has a large apple tree on the corner opposite the apple tree. We have a koi pond with a waterfall ad a small stream about 8 feet long. I fill two feeders regularly and have two bird baths. The birds enjoy bathing in the small stream and above the waterfall. We regularly have three or more species of sparrows, Carolina chickadees, boat tailed grackles, mourning doves, cardinals, mocking birds, and blue jays. This year we were fortunate to have red wing black birds, cedar wax wings, house finches and brown thrashers stop in for a snack and bath. A couple of Mississippi kites circle overhead catching bugs and a sharp shinned hawk visits occasionally. Hopefully, our area will grow and we will attract more species.

  7. I have many feeders out in the yard. For no reason at minus 10 all the birds went away.Is there any reason for this Its march 3 2017 Northern B C

  8. I actually didn’t know that there were birdbaths that could have dripping water. Sounds like it could be a good investment, especially if someone lives in a warm or dry area. This makes me excited to see all the different designs of birdbaths and birdhouses out there, and the benefits to each one.

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