Many gardeners love having wildlife in their yards. They especially love birds, since they aren’t the ones eating all the roses or vegetables. Insects rank pretty high, too, because of the pollination services they provide and their coloration — and let's be honest: who doesn’t like butterflies? Still, birds trump all the others, and fortunately, they are fairly easily drawn to our backyards.
Whether you have a large yard or an apartment balcony, attracting birds requires the same three components: food, water, and shelter. With a little planning and minimal financial investment, every gardener can easily attract birds to their garden.
Of the three, food is easiest. Birdseed comes in all forms and compositions, from white millet to black-oil sunflowers. Determining what type of seed birds prefer is actually a big business in the bird-feeding world. How big? As it turns out, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service compiles a report every year that estimates the amount U.S. residents spend on birdseed. According to the Wild Bird Feeding Industry’s Research Foundation, an estimated 5 million U.S. households engaged in backyard birdwatching in 2014 alone, and these wildlife watchers spent over $6.3 billion dollars on birdseed and feeders. In the same year, birdwatching was second only to gardening as the most popular outdoor activity in the U.S.
Determining the type of seed that certain backyard birds will eat is a big deal to the industry. Cheap seed mixes loaded with millet or milo might be ignored by some birds (or even kicked out of the feeder), so you want to make sure you're buying a quality product. Black-oiled sunflower seeds (in the shell) are probably one of the best seeds to use, as they attract a variety of seed-eating birds like sparrows, grosbeaks, finches, and quail. Shelled sunflowers, when mixed with milo, attract doves and nuthatches. Jays will eat just about anything, and a wreath of peanuts will draw them in like flies to honey.
Most northern backyard bird feeders will take their hummingbird feeders inside for the winter. This discourages the hummers from hanging around as the temperatures drop and keeps the feeders from freezing or cracking. But for those gardeners living in areas with milder winter temperatures, a hummingbird feeder filled with a simple sugar and water solution will keep those flying jewels close to home and coming back for more.
Remember that backyard bird feeding only supplements a wild bird’s diet. They still forage for seeds and insects on their own, so they won't go “cold turkey” if you go on vacation and leave your feeders unattended. Most birds won't even alter their migratory patterns for your sunflower seeds, although some hummingbirds have been known to overwinter in residential areas due to the presence of feeders. When all is said and done, feeding birds is probably more beneficial for birdwatchers, since it brings the birds right into their yards.
It's important to note that birds are like humans in that they have preferences for certain food types and foraging locations. For instance, uuncos, sparrows, mourning doves, and towhees tend to be ground feeders. They'll usually consume milo and millet. Goldfinches, house finches, and pine siskins, on the other hand, prefer eating nyjer (or black thistle seed) out of tube-like feeders with small ports. Their beaks are small enough to extract the seed from these ports, and the small size of the openings prevents larger birds from getting at the food. Imported from Africa, the nyjer seed is also usually treated to keep it from germinating in the event that one escapes the beak of a hungry bird.
In winter, open water is a bird magnet. Birds need water for drinking and cleaning their feathers. If you provide an open water source in your backyard, you can expect to see lots of birds showing up — especially when the nearby natural sources start to freeze over. Decorative birdbaths with built-in heaters make for extremely attractive additions to the backyard. If you're working with a fixed budget, you'll be glad to hear that there are also DIY options out there: try inserting a small heating wand into a pan filled with rocks and water to provide the local birds with a welcomed respite.
Just like with the bird feeders, gardeners will want to locate their birdbaths near some sort of cover to protect the birds should they need to flee or hide from predators. This might be a brush pile, some nearby shrubs or trees, or some other form of dense vegetation. One thing that sometimes surprises new backyard bird feeders is the number of times predators actually show up. Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks are two birds of prey that prowl backyards in the winter. These species have been known to pluck their prey from right near the living room window while those inside look on in amazement.
Bigger birds aren’t the only predators that might turn up in the backyard. Outdoor cats, skunks, and raccoons will also figure out where their prey is hanging out. Keeping spilt seed cleaned up, providing cover, and maintaining some vigilance are the best ways to minimize backyard interactions between predator and prey.
Survival in nature is a day-to-day endeavor. Backyard bird feeding won’t stop these creatures from foraging in the wild, but you may start to notice some regulars showing up frequently. A reliable food source is a good draw, but only as long as these birds feel safe while foraging there. Placing a feeder in the middle of a grassy yard might not keep the birds around as long as one placed near the edge of some woodlands or dense cover would. Avoid placing your feeder near a window (within one to three feet), too, because if a bird needs to escape from a predator, one or both of them could easily fly into the glass. Keep the feeder far away from the house to minimize window collisions.
Though it may be too late to do so this year, try to include plants that provide cover, nest sites, berries, seeds, or other bird necessities in your yard. Sunflowers can attract wandering finches late into the season, and mountain ash berries will bring robins and waxwings around in the winter. The beauty of providing plants for backyard birds is that many of the forbs, shrubs, and trees they prefer are the same ones that gardeners like for their flowers, fruits, and fragrances. Birds and blooms go well together.
Bring nature closer to home by providing for these feathered creatures. Once the birds know your backyard is open for business, they’ll provide you with endless hours of joy and entertainment.