Birds are a must for any backyard or garden. They provide natural insect control, beautiful songs and an educational experience for children and adults alike. Plus, it can be lots of fun to keep track of just how many different types of birds you can welcome to your yard. Here are some tips to create a backyard birding paradise.
Provide a Variety of Bird Feeders
One of the easiest first steps in attracting birds to your yard and garden is to install bird feeders. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology suggests that, to attract the greatest variety of birds to your yard, it’s best to provide several different feeder types and offer a variety of foods. It also recommends cleaning seed feeders every two weeks using a 10% bleach solution (one part bleach mixed with nine parts water)
Photo: Spring Bird; Elizabeth Wellington, Pixabay
Here is a table showing the main types of feeders and the types of birds they are most likely to attract.
Different species of birds also prefer different feeding heights, so experiment with hanging your feeders higher or lower. While lower feeders may attract squirrels and other animals, there are plenty of squirrel-proof feeders available to keep your bird feed safe for the birds.
(NOTE: Due to the spread of avian flu, concerns have been raised about bird feeders as possible points of infection. Our colleagues in the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine and the Raptor Center recommend that Minnesotans "hit the pause button" on bird feeders and bird baths, and note that at this time, natural food sources are available. For more information, see https://raptor.umn.edu/about-us/our-research/HPAI. To report sick or dead birds, see https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/ai.)
Use the Right Food
Each bird species has their own food preferences. Just as you might prefer sweet foods over salty, different species of birds have different nutritional needs and they seek out foods to fill them. Dark oil sunflower seeds and suet are great basics that will attract a wide variety of birds. Other types of food to try are thistle, safflower, unsalted and unseasoned nuts, peanut butter and even mealworms.
Grow Native Plants
Planting a garden with bird-friendly plants is one of the most sustainable things you can do to attract birds to your yard. Native flowers, shrubs and trees are great choices because they will naturally attract birds that live in your area and strengthen your local ecosystem. According to the Saint Paul Audubon Society, native plants attract native insects that help birds survive. Birds feast not only on native insects, but on the berries, nuts and seeds that native plants produce. Shrubs and trees also provide birds a great place to hide from predators.
The Audubon Society advocates for native plants that support birds in our landscapes by recommending a list of plants on their website that have been known to attract certain species of birds. Visit their Native Plants Database for a list of native plants based on your zip code to bring more birds to your home.
Add a Water Source
Adding a bird bath or water source is another step in attracting birds to your yard. Birds need fresh, clean water for drinking and bathing. Many bird species bathe every day to keep their feathers clean and healthy. Offering shallow bird baths (one to three inches deep) or even building a small pond in your yard will help birds stay clean and hydrated. Keep your birdbath full of water at all times and remember to clean it regularly to help prevent spread of disease and so algae doesn’t form. Birds listen for moving water, so adding a pump, mister or drip that creates fresh, bubbling water will draw even more feathered friends to your yard. In the winter, you may also want to install a heater to keep your bird bath or pond from freezing. Birds bathe year-round, but often struggle to find water sources in the winter, so having fresh water will make your yard a desirable destination.
In addition to creating shelter with greenery, birds like bluebirds, sparrows and chickadees prefer the safety, warmth and shelter of a bird box or birdhouse. Some birds also use these structures for nesting and raising their young. Install your shelter on a post or tree trunk in a way that’s protected from ground predators. Make sure the entrance hole is only as large as the intended species. This prevents larger birds from getting inside. Also, each spring and fall, clean the birdhouse by scraping out the nesting materials.
Gather a Brush Pile
Place trimmed branches and twigs in a pile at the back of your yard or under or behind a tree or bush. These brush piles will provide food, cover and nesting habitat for different types of birds.
Offer Opportunities for Nesting
One of the best ways to ensure a constant stream of birds all year long is to encourage birds to build nests in your yard by providing them with nesting materials. Fill an empty suet cage or old feeder with small organic materials and hang it for the birds to find. Grass clippings, dried weeds and leaves, and even pet hair are all great materials for nest building. For more tips to help nesting birds, visit www.birdwatchersdigest.com.
Avoid Pesticides and Herbicides
If you want birds in your backyard, avoid using chemical pesticides and herbicides. The Smithsonian's National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute explains birds can swallow the pesticide directly by ingesting a pesticide granule or indirectly by consuming contaminated prey or drinking tainted water. Harmful effects include imminent death from acute poisoning or deformed embryos, lack of appetite and weight loss, and disruption of normal hormonal functioning, which lower birds’ chances of surviving and/or reproducing successfully. Pesticides can also affect birds indirectly by reducing the amount of available food or altering the habitat. Herbicides disrupt birds' food supply by decreasing the insects that live on weeds.
Learn From the Birds
If you want to learn how to attract birds to your yard, look to the birds. Because every bird species and every environment are different, keep an eye on the birds in your yard. Notice when they visit, where they spend their time and which foods they like best. Then you can adjust your setup to maximize your yard’s birding potential.
By turning your yard and garden into a safe haven and natural habitat for birds, you’ll not only enjoy your avian friends’ beautiful songs and colors, but you’ll also be helping the environment.
Elizabeth Lorentz gardens at Mears Park in downtown Saint Paul. She loves nature and growing native perennial plants and herbs. She is a Master Gardener with the Ramsey County Master Gardener program.