Designing a Bird Garden
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How to attract birds to your garden
There are very few of us who do not enjoy the sight and sounds of birds
in the garden. Even in the gray of winter, our feathered friends bring
you joy and happiness as they flirt playfully about the feeder bringing
color and excitement to our lives.
Like all wildlife, birds need reasons to be attracted to our property.
Stocking a winter feeder or providing a few birdhouses or a birdbath is
a good start. By adding a few basic requirements in the form of landscape
plantings, we can attract and keep birds of many species close to our
As you know, some species of birds, especially the more colorful ones,
migrate to warmer comates during the winter. Many of these species such
as hummingbirds, Baltimore orioles, scarlet tanagers, robins, vireos,
etc. have the remarkable ability to return to the same locality, i.e.
our yard, year after year to raise new families as long as satisfactory
and predictable cover, food sources and nesting sights are provided. Much
of the time this is in the natural form of plant material.
In keeping with this, here are a few recommendations suggested by the
National Audubon Society to provide a natural and satisfying landscape
for both our feathered friends and us.
Birds of a feather flock together!
It is important to remember that different species of birds prefer different
environments or, to use the vernacular, occupy different niches in nature.
While one species may be more suited to living on or close to the ground
another has adapted to life high in treetops. It is therefore important
to know the type bird you wish to attract and develop your birdscape appropriately.
While some species are more forgiving and adapt to most landscapes, others,
frequently the more colorful species, need very specific habitats to love
and breed successfully.
Plant to suit yourself and the birds
It is important to plant your new birdscape in a style that suits you
and your existing landscape. For instance a wild or loose fitting landscape
added to attract birds may not fit well with an otherwise formal or well
trimmed existing landscape. With the vast amounts of cultivated plant
material available today, there is assuredly one that will suit both you
and the birds you wish to attract.
Don’t think you have to provide everything!
It may be impossible to provide everything a bird species requires
on your property. For instance it is unlikely Baltimore orioles will visit
you if tall trees for nesting are not available in the area. But more
likely than not, if you have ever sighted a Baltimore oriole on your property
this requirement is provided in close enough proximity so that the orioles
can be enticed to your property by some other requirement, such as a consistent
Some birds go undercover
One of the basic requirements of all creatures is protection for themselves
and their young from predators and foul weather conditions. Birds are
not exception to the rule. While some species are more adaptable to wide
range of protective covers, all species have preferences, and some may
be very specific. Ground-frequenting birds like quail and sparrows may
prefer the low cover of ornamental grasses and cotoneaster, while orioles
and cardinals prefer the protective heights of thorny quinces and hawthorns,
or upright junipers. Learn the habitat preferred by the birds you want
to attract before you plant.
In a recent poll, most bird species preferred household landscapes without
cats by an overwhelming margin. We’re only kidding of course, but
you don’t have to be a birdbrain to realize even the best-planned
birdscape will not attract birds if the family cat decides to lounge there.
Cats and birds have just never learned to play well together.
During the winter months it is common to offer a feeder full of seed to
our feathered friends. Loaded with oils and carbohydrates “wild
bird seed” (especially sunflower seed) provides the high energy
that birds need to survive the cold. However, their dietary requirements
change markedly as the weather warms and thoughts of raising a family
enter their minds. Depending on the species, warmer season food requirements
may take the form of nectar, insects, fruits, berries and other succulent
plant parts. These provide the higher protein and essential nutrients
needed to breed and raise young. Food sources in the form of plant material
will vary depending on the species of bird being attracted.
You may already be familiar with the various nesting site preferences
of birds. Some prefer cavities and adapt well to birdhouses, while others
prefer nesting on the ground, in communities, or in the branches of trees
at various heights. Study the birds you want to attract to determine what
might best be provided for nesting sites. Don’t overlook the fact
that birds use a lot of plant material in building their nests wherever
they are found. Providing plant material used in nest building can only
help to entice more birds to your property.
Remember how you cursed all those leaves that fell on your lawn last fall?
Well curse no more! Those *&%^() leaves on the ground are affectionately
called leaf litter and are extremely valuable to ground feeding birds.
You see, the leaves are used as hiding places for insects in the fall,
winter and spring. Often you will see sparrows, titmice or other ground
feeders “playfully” turning over leaves in search of a succulent
snack. Is this a good enough excuse to not rake the leaves? That’s
an individual decision to be sure. But consider providing a portion of
your landscape where the leaves remain undisturbed until late spring for
A source for clean drinking water is essential for birds of all species.
There may be a natural source near your property or you may decide to
provide in the form of a birdbath, or even better, a water garden.
After feeding, feather maintenance occupies much of a bird’s time.
Although not fully understood, dust bathing, is a favorite pastime for
many bird species. Provide an area not less than 3 square feet and approximately
6” deep with an equal mixture of sand, loam and sifted wood ash.
Dust baths can be edged with brick, stone or wood to increase their appearance.
(Hint: Horseshoe pits make great dust baths)
The sand in dust bath mixes is a wonderful source of grit needed for digestion
of food in birds.
Sources of Information for Bird Gardening
Books and Pamphlets
General Plant Guide to Attracting Birds in the Northeast
Cotoneaster, Ornamental grasses
Cotoneaster, Pyracantha, Mountain Ash, Junipers
Flowering Dogwood, Crabapples, healthy and unhealthy lawns
Serviceberry, Dogwood, Mountain Ash, Virginia Creeper
Trumpet vine, Weigela, Columbine, Bee Balm, Quince, most flowering plants
producing red or orange flowers
Unruly lawns, Dandelions, Goldenrod, Thistle
Pine, Spruce and Fir trees
Winterberry, Serviceberry, Viburnums, Bayberry, Junipers
Cherry, Dogwood, Virginia creeper, Elderberry, Mulberry
Ornamental grasses, Roses, Junipers
Pines, Serviceberry, Elderberry, Maples, Elms, Oaks
Grasses, Conifers, Cosmos, Zinnia
Marsh grasses, open pastureland
Thistles, Grasses, Echinacea, Rudbeckia
Elderberry, Blueberry, Dogwoods
Oaks, Grasses, poorly maintained lawns
Quince, Serviceberry, Maples, Elms, Oaks
Winterberry, Roses, Dogwood, Junipers
Bayberry, Serviceberry, Elderberry, Sumac, Dogwood
Oaks, Serviceberry, Elderberry, Bayberry
Dogwood, Virginia creeper, Holly, Juniper, Sumac, Serviceberry