Downy woodpecker. Photo: @Chris Helzer/TNC

Creating 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 you do to make your own backyard accommodating for these frequent flyers 

I recently sat down with the 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: 


Most bird species like sunflower seed. Goldfinches and siskins go crazy over thistle seed. You can pick up many styles of bird feeders at the store, or just set out some seed and fruit on a plate. Another desirable food, especially in the winter in northern locations, is a suet cake. 

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 a special feeder with a counter-weighted perch; if something as heavy a squirrel lands there, it blocks access to the food. 

If you are in a location with lots of hummingbirds, don’t forget about them.  Hummingbird nectar is easy to make: 1 part sugar in 4 parts water, boil for five minutes, let cool and fill the feeder!  You don’t need to use food coloring but do change the nectar regularly if it’s not being consumed. 

Wilson's warbler. Photo: © Gary S. Meredith
Wilson’s warbler. Photo: © Gary S. Meredith


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. Be aware that 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. And, you can get a heater to keep the water open in the winter, if you live in an area where the temperature regularly drops below freezing. 


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 pesticides. The more organic you can be, the better all around. 

Emily Bablitch examines a birdhouse on her family's farm in Wisconsin. Photo: ©Mark Godfrey/TNC
Emily Bablitch examines a birdhouse on her family’s farm in Wisconsin. Photo: ©Mark Godfrey/TNC

A Place to Nest

Dave says an everyday birdhouse will do just fine. If you have trees in your backyard, you might leave a dead limb 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. Try some of our tips and let us know what species you glimpse outside.

View Frequent Flyers–The Amazing Journeys of Willy, Gracie and Moonbird in a larger map

Opinions expressed on Conservancy Talk and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Conservancy.

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  1. I would hope to get the author to discuss the potential drawback that feeding the birds may have on the spread the Hemlock Wooly Aelgid, as is mentioned in the following quote from Randy Edwards article “End of the Hemlocks, a Lament”–an entry from Feb. 20, 2014 in this same Conservancy Talk blog.

    “Next time I get the chance, I’ll be sure to tell people about the threats to our forests from insect pests, because there are steps each one of us can take to help prevent their spread:…
    — Don’t feed the birds if you’re in an area where hemlocks are not infected. Some scientists believe the rapid spread of the [Hemlock Wooly] adelgid throughout the east is partly to blame on migratory birds.”


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