October 12 // Garden

Building a Habitat for Birds

Flashes of color, amusing antics, and the air filled with song – all reasons we enjoy seeing birds in our yards. When we think of attracting birds, we often think of birdfeeders, but our in-house bird guru, Bob Ewing, says that feeders are just one resource native birds look for when deciding whether to visit. In our recent seminar, Bird-Friendly Landscapes, Bob partnered with local Master Naturalist Jonene Lee to explore how we can build a backyard habitat that will attract a wider variety of birds and keep them around – not just when they need a snack – but so we can watch all the fascinating things they do throughout the day.

In the seminar, Bob and Jonene stressed the importance of including native plants in our landscapes if we want to see a wider variety of birds, including native species like goldfinches, chickadees, and cedar waxwings. Birds and plants have evolved together over the eons, and the berries, seeds, and nectar that native plants produce are some of the most recognizable food sources for native birds. Plants like coneflowers, little bluestem, and serviceberry trees provide nutritious fruits and seeds, especially for migrating species needing fuel for a long trip. Native plants not only produce nutritious food, but even more importantly, they attract food – in the form of native insects. According to Audobon.org, over ninety-five percent of North American terrestrial birds feed insects to their young. Bird parents spend a great deal of time and energy searching for the right insects to satisfy their hungry brood. With native plants in the landscape, your yard could become the go-to grocery for all the young bird families in the neighborhood.

Reliable water for drinking and bathing is also a valuable resource for all birds, no matter what they eat. In fact, Bob has three bird baths positioned around his yard at home, including a couple whose bowls sit directly on the ground, a position where birds would naturally find water. One of them he repurposed from the previous owners’ old garden fountain. Its large size makes it a popular bathing place for many birds – including a juvenile Cooper’s hawk that made an appearance earlier this year. Of course, pedestal baths are good too, especially because they make it easier for us to watch from the house – an important consideration. Birds like to have a tree or fence nearby to flutter to for preening, but stay clear of thick shrubs that can conceal predators. Bob noticed that in his yard, the baths that are more out in the open get the most activity, most likely because the birds feel safer there. The basin should be shallow at the edges, sloping to a depth of no more than two inches at the center, so tiny hummingbirds can enjoy the water too. The bath’s surface should also have a rough texture for a secure foothold while the birds enjoy their bath. If your bird bath is deeper or made of slippery glazed ceramic, place pea gravel or a few stones in the water to create a safe place to stand and drink. And, in the winter, keep in mind that when there’s no snow on the ground, birds have a hard time finding clean, open water to drink. Consider using an electric bird bath de-icer, but make sure it’s powerful enough – 250 watts – to keep up with our cold winter climate. Bob can show you which one he recommends when you visit the store.

Shelter is another important piece of habitat that we don’t often think about. Birds need to eat and drink, but they also need to feel safe. Bob noticed that the hawthorn trees along our parking lot were home to several nests this spring thanks to the thorny branches that keep raccoons and feral cats away. Evergreens are useful too. Their dense foliage and branching structure hide birds from soaring hawks, protect them from wind and precipitation, and slow-down climbing predators.

The common theme to remember when building a habitat for birds is variety. Providing a variety of elements, including water, shelter, and plants – especially native ones – will invite a surprising assortment of native birds to visit your yard