Backyard birdscaping part 1: feeding the wild things

One of the most common reactions I get when people hear I study birds are questions about how to get birds to come to their yards. They’ll tell me they have seed out, or a nest box, or hummingbird feeders, but just aren’t getting the visitation rates they want. What most of these people don’t realize is that food is only one piece of the puzzle. Nesting is another. However, to realize your yard’s full potential you need to satisfy four needs: food, water, shelter, and nesting space. That can seem like a tough assignment, but there are lots of ways to bring in more birds and beautify your yard. Because creating backyard habitat is a lengthy assignment, I’m going to stretch this into a four-post series rather than trying to cram everything into one lengthy blog post.The main thing to think about throughout this series is that the ultimate goal is to provide habitat, not just superficially provide a couple things they need to survive.

I decided to start with food because I think this is the one people most commonly need some improvement on (even though they may not realize it). I have to preface this by saying that feeders are great. They provide entertainment for us, supplement birds’ diets, and are easy to put out. However, feeders don’t fulfill the food requirement for many species. Seeds and suet will definitely attract common species like cardinals, titmice, and chickadees. However, feeders don’t attract a very wide variety of birds, and definitely don’t cut it when it comes to young birds of any species. Birds feed insects to their young, not the seeds typically put into feeders. With the rate at which young birds grow, it isn’t surprising that their main requirement is protein!

An easy answer to these problems is to do some gardening. Planting food sources not only beautifies your yard, but also provides food even when you aren’t necessarily there to restock your feeders. Native flowers, trees, and shrubs are the way to go. First of all, they bloom longer and generally require less upkeep than non-native ornamental plants, so you benefit by having a garden  that stays beautiful longer. More importantly though, native plants attract the most insects. Next time you’re out in a garden, look at the number of critters on a native flower vs. an ornamental one and you will see the difference. As I said above, insects are a critical food source for birds trying to raise young. If you’re worried about insects damaging your house, don’t be. If they consider the things you plant a source of food, it isn’t likely that they will also try to prey on your structures. Plus, all the birds in your yard will take care of most of them! If you don’t know whether a plant is native to your region, check out the state search function on the USDA Plants Database. This is a great resource for finding out what to plant in your area.

When you’re choosing plants, the best thing you can do is consider all seasons. Different plants produce fruit at different times, and it’s good to have food sources throughout the year. Plants with berries will attract American Robins and Cedar Waxwings. Trees that drop acorns and other hard mast with bring in Blue Jays, and any shrub or evergreen that provides food and cover can attract migrants looking for a stopover. In the winter, plants such as eastern red cedar that hold onto their berries provide much-needed sustenance in the cold weather. Finally, don’t forget about our nectar-eaters like the hummingbird – trumpet vine and other flowering plants will bring hordes into your yard without the maintenance required by hummingbird feeders.

Long story short: make your yard beautiful and the birds happy by adding some native plants to your space. Don’t have room? Volunteer at a local park doing gardening work or donate some native plants to an environmental education center. Even a few small changes to an area can help birds make the most of an increasingly human-dominated world.



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