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Plant A Garden For Your Backyard Birds

Two experts offer eight gardening strategies to lure avian visitors in your back yard.

Stephen W. Kress & Elissa Wolfson
Posted: April 18, 2013, 12:45 p.m. PDT

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Is your back yard the equivalent of a fast-food restaurant where birds grab a quick bite before flying to more hospitable habitat? Is it more like a well-stocked bed-and-breakfast where they can stay temporarily and raise a family? With these eight time-tested strategies, you'll make your lodgings attractive to a wider variety of birds.

Start With A Garden Plan
Before making improvements, create a list of the birds that currently visit your property throughout the year. In late spring, conduct a dawn census of singing birds; these birds are ready to nest.

Map your property, and record your most conspicuous trees, shrubs and plant communities; property lines and buildings; wetlands; changes in slope; and existing bird feeders. Then, plan the changes that will make your property more bird-friendly. Your plan depends on the size of your property, your available finances and the birds that you hope to attract.

Plants That Appeal To Birds
Bird variety is often greatest where two or more plant communities come together. Rapidly growing shrubland and thicket communities containing an abundance of fruit-producing shrubs and insects frequently thrive at woodland edges. Thorny shrubland plants — such as mesquite, juniper, hawthorn, raspberries and roses — deter browsing mammals and provide predator-safe nesting places.

American Robin
Choose shrubs and trees that fruit at the different times of the year to provide food all year long for your backyard bird visitors, such as this American Robin.

Shrubby hedgerows provide backyard edges that appeal to wild birds. They offer shelter from weather and predators, nesting places and abundant fruit. When planting a hedgerow, mix several native shrub species of varied shapes and sizes for a greater selection of nest sites.

Also select shrubs that fruit at different seasons to provide a year-round food supply. Where possible, include evergreens to provide winter shelter and summer shade.

Hedgerows also can connect otherwise isolated woodlots and increase the movement of forest birds between them. On larger properties, an inexpensive although slow technique for developing a hedgerow is to till the soil where you want the hedge, then stretch a tight wire between two posts. Birds will perch on the wire and drop excrement containing shrub seeds. A hedgerow of bird favorites eventually will grow.

Maximize Vegetation Levels
Multileveled plantings attract birds that prefer different elevations at different times. For example, forest species such as tanagers and grosbeaks sing and feed in the canopy level but nest in the subcanopy. Other birds, such as Chipping Sparrows, might feed on the ground, nest in shrubs and sing from the highest trees.

Within forest openings, improve the habitat by planting an understory of shade-tolerant shrubs and vines. Likewise, isolated trees in pastures and backyards attract more birds if shrubs grow at their bases, creating islands of vegetation with varied heights.

Tall conifers located at the back of your property provide shelter from winter winds without shading other plantings. Step your plantings down from large trees to small trees, large shrubs, small shrubs and, finally, herbaceous plants.

Replace Lawn with Mixed Ground Cover
Lawns are among the most sterile bird habitats on Earth. A patch of mowed lawn close to your house, however, helps to view birds that visit the surrounding shrubs and trees. Bird feeders and baths lure them onto the lawn.

The simplest approach to reducing lawn is just to let it grow. The former lawn soon will turn to meadow, and a surprising variety of wildflowers will emerge. To emphasize to your neighbors that the new meadow is a plan and not a result of neglect, mow the borders to create an undulating margin, or mow a meandering path through it. Even post a "nature trail" sign at the trailhead.

Erecting a split rail fence between the lawn and the meadow will define the border attractively. Such fences make excellent mounts for nestboxes. 

Even American Robins might suffer if lawns are the only feeding habitat available. During dry summer months, earthworms are not easily available, and carefully tended lawns leave robins with little alternative food for their young.

In dry habitats, grass lawns make even less sense. Groundcover plants and shrubs adapted for arid climates are a wiser choice ecologically and economically.

Low-growing perennial ground covers — such as bearberry, coralberry and juniper — ward off invading grasses while providing food and cover for birds. Other ground covers such as Boston ivy, pachysandra, cotoneasters and periwinkle might be better-known but provide little food or cover for birds and often escape into natural areas. 

Create Leaf Mulch Beds
Species such as towhees, Fox Sparrows and White-throated Sparrows prefer scratching for hidden insects under fallen leaves. Rather than bagging leaves for disposal each autumn, rake several inches of leaves underneath trees and shrubs to create leaf mulch beds. By spring, the leaves will decompose into rich soil with an abundance of earthworms and insects for ground-feeding migrants.

American Goldfinch with chick
If you plant flowers in the sunflower family, that will attract birds like American Goldfinches.

Establish Weed Patches
According to Ralph Waldo Emerson, a weed is simply "a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered." Studies of wildbird diets demonstrate the virtues of backyard plants such as ragweed, lambsquarters, amaranth, bristle grass and panic grass.

While perennials produce relatively small amounts of seed each year, annuals like these produce enormous amounts of seed. This strategy improves their odds for survival while providing a bountiful food supply for ground-feeding birds such as juncos, sparrows and quail.

Weed seeds are abundant and long-lived in the "seed banks" that exist in most soils. They sprout easily in an established wild food patch; this can range from a 100- to 2,000-square-foot patch of tilled soil or, if space permits, a rotating series of five strips, each plowed once every five years to eliminate shrub growth.

Several long, narrow patches offer more edge than a single large patch. Much like giant bird feeders, these patches provide a concentrated food supply.

Cultivate Birdseed Plots
Birdseed plots also provide abundant, concentrated food for wild birds. Several rectangular plots ranging from 100 to 2,000 square feet and located near water and good cover are ideal.

To establish your plot, till the soil thoroughly, then broadcast a mixed bag of millet, sunflower, and milo seeds onto the soil. Rake lightly to cover the seeds. Fifteen pounds of seed will cover a half-acre plot.

Plant Flowers for Songbirds
Select garden flowers whose seeds are bird favorites. For example, flowers in the sunflower family attract songbirds such as goldfinches and native sparrows.

Generally, annuals are best for attracting birds. Unlike perennials, they invest more energy in their seeds than in their roots.

Water and fertilize your flower garden regularly; mulch to retain soil moisture and minimize competing weeds. Avoid "dead-heading;" allowing flower heads to go to seed benefits birds and increases the chances for natural re-seeding.

These projects have one common element: They mimic natural habitats, albeit on a smaller scale. Although many environmental issues that affect wild birds seem beyond our influence, anyone with a patch of land can create a bird-friendly habitat while enhancing their backyard enjoyment.

For property owners everywhere, increasing the number and variety of backyard birds means increasing vegetation variety with creative landscaping that emphasizes native, bird-attracting plants. The result? An easy-to-maintain garden that is alive with birds,

While you're at it, look into what bird feeders you can set up in your back yard.

Hopper Bird Feeders
Window Bird Feeders
Jelly Bird Feeders
Globe Bird Feeders
Nyjer or Thistle Bird Feeders
Tube Bird Feeders
Suet Bird Feeders
Hopper Bird Feeders
Platform Bird Feeders

Excerpt from WildBird, January/February 2006 issue, with permission from its publisher, I-5 Publishing LLC. To purchase digital back issues of WildBird, click here.

 

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