Backyard Bird Basics: A How-To Guide

Text and photos by Malorey Henderson

Author: NCWRC blogger/Thursday, March 22, 2018/Categories: Blog, Conservation, Wildlife Watching

Backyard Bird Basics: A How-To Guide

Who doesn't love backyard birds? They add beauty to the landscape and serenade us with their sweet songs. We often put out feeders to attract these lovely little critters to our homes. One of the best ways to attract birds and give back to them as they brighten our days is through native plant gardens. With the sprawl of urban areas, good bird habitat is increasingly in short supply.

Habitat loss is one of the leading causes of population decline in many bird species, and adding native vegetation to your yard and community is one of the best tools we as individuals and households have to protect biodiversity and improve the environment. By creating a bird garden with native plants in your yard, you can provide a safe and healthy space for birds, even in the heart of our big cities. In addition to benefiting birds, having healthy habitat in your yard will also increase the number and variety of birds that visit your home. Native plants are also usually much easier to maintain since they are already suited to your specific regional climate.

When gardening with native plants, it's best to choose a variety of plant types that will provide food throughout the entire year. There is a lot of variety in trees and shrubs that will produce berries at various times through the seasons. Nuts and seeds from trees like oak, hickory, and walnut are a reliable source of protein. Flowers like native sunflowers and coneflowers are an excellent source of seeds for finches and sparrows. Tubular, nectar-producing flowers are excellent for hummingbirds. In addition to providing seeds for birds, many native flowers will also attract other pollinators like bees, butterflies, and moths, improving the overall quality of your local ecosystem.

Bird gardening is also an excellent way to attract insect-eating bird species like warblers to your yard since they typically are not attracted to feeders with seed. In addition to insect-eating birds, even birds with more vegetarian diets rely on insects to feed their young. Native plants that support native insects provide a natural, everlasting supply of food for birds and their offspring. Trees like oak, willows, birch, and maple as well as herbaceous plants like goldenrod, milkweed, and sunflowers provide habitat for many caterpillar species, which in turn are a vital source of protein in breeding season.

Both Audubon and Habitat Network both provide zip-code search tools to find plants that are native to your local area. You also might want to assess what types of soil and light conditions exist in your yard, since this will determine what plants will do best in your space. Local plant nurseries also have very knowledgeable staff who will help you make the best choices based on the specifics of your yard. You may even want to bring a rough sketch of your yard with measurements, light conditions and existing plants included. Planning your garden can be a very fun activity once you start playing with the shapes, textures, and colors of all of the amazing varieties of native plants available. You can include the whole family in the process, which is a great way to teach kids about biodiversity and stewardship.

Consider creating layers of habitat if you have room. You can layer habitat by including large canopy trees, shrubs and small trees, herbaceous plants, and decaying leaves an wood in your space. You also may want to consider losing some of your grass lawn. Traditional lawns typically do not provide any benefits to the environment and often eat into your water bill in the heat of the summer. By replacing patches of lawn with native plants, you can create a unique space with rich wildlife habitat. It is helpful for pollinators to have larger patches of the same flowers, so it's best to include several plants of the same variety in one area. Make sure to leave some room for growth so the plants don't get too crowded.

If you replace your non-native plants and lawn areas with native species, you should also notice that you won't need to water your garden as much, which will conserve water and save money on your water bill. Even better news: you don't need to rake your leaves! In fact, it's better for the environment not to. Dead leaves on the ground provide habitat for important insects like caterpillars, and birds can use the leaves as nesting material. Additionally, toads, turtles and other animals eat fallen leaves. However, if you feel as though you must rake at least your lawn areas, compost the leaves at home to keep them out of the landfill. If you have dead trees in your yard and can safely leave them standing, they make a great home for both insects and cavity-nesting birds. You can even use dead limbs and fallen sticks to create a brush pile, which provides excellent protection from harsh weather and predators.

Water is also important to include in your bird garden. Birds need access to water throughout the year, and there are many ways to provide it. A drip bath or fountain would be an excellent inclusion since the sound of running water is especially attractive to birds. It is also much easier to maintain clean water if it is running. You can also scatter hollowed-out boulders to catch rainwater, or you can add bird baths. Just make sure to keep your bird baths clean: check out these tips for maintaining a healthy bird bath.

Here are some more links and resources you can use to create the best bird habitat possible in your yard:

Grow These Native Plants So Your Backyard Birds Can Feast (Audubon)

Use this Habitat Planning Tool from Habitat Network to plan for your space.

Check out this page from Audubon for an overview of the benefits of native plants and links to lots of helpful articles.

The Best Trees, Vines, and Shrubs to Plant for Birds: A Starter List (Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

Attracting Birds and Wildlife in Extreme Weather (Birds & Blooms)



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