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Ways to make your yard bird friendly

Improving your homeWant to jazz up your neighborhood with flashy colors, creative melodies and hours of viewing entertainment? No, you don't have to produce a Broadway musical in your backyard. Simply add some bird-friendly landscaping.

Attracting birds to your property is not hard and it doesn't have to be expensive. In fact, your efforts could more than pay for themselves when it comes time to sell. Vicki Bendure, a spokeswoman for the Associated Landscape Contractors of America, says that adding bird-friendly plants to a property is an easy way to increase its value. Trees are a particularly great addition, says Bendure, sometimes producing a 20 percent return on the investment.

But to get the best bird traffic, you have to do a little plant planning.

Do your homework
When deciding what flora to add to your yard, start with fauna. Find out what birds frequent your region and in what seasons. This will determine your choice of plants.

"Realize that there are limitations to what you can attract," says Jeff Wells, a research associate with Cornell University's Laboratory of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y. You may have seen wonderful wading birds on your Florida vacation, but if you live in the desert scrub of the Southwest or an apartment in Manhattan, you're just not going to get these birds to visit.

"Do some homework so you're not disappointed with what does or doesn't come in," says Wells.

You can start with the Internet, home to literally thousands of bird sites managed by avid amateurs as well as ornithological professionals. These will give you a good overview of the winged world, but you'll soon need to narrow your focus.


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Head to the library or nearest bookstore for a copy of a field guide (the most popular are compiled by Peterson, Kaufman or Sibley). These well-illustrated publications offer maps that give you an idea of what birds are common to your area, both year-round and seasonally, as well as their habitat preferences.

For an even more specific list, check with the National Audubon Society chapter nearest you. Audubon volunteers keep track of the local avian population, regulars as well as the occasional exotic visitors.

Go native
Once you've got an idea of your area's birds, pick the plants that they (and you) like and that fit into your natural topography.

Ideally, you want something that doesn't take a lot of pampering. It's less work for you and keeps you out of the birds' territory. Both ornithological and landscaping pros agree: indigenous plants are the best bet.

"Native plant species are what the birds and other wildlife are adapted to," says Scott W. Gillihan, forested ecosystems program coordinator at the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory in Brighton, Colo. "It's what they like so it's better at attracting them."

Not only are the area's birds already living in the naturally occurring vegetation, it generally is more resistant to the region's insects and weather patterns -- an important consideration, adds Gillihan, in drought prone areas. In some places, local governments have even gotten into the act, mandating that non-native invasive species be taken out and replaced with native plants.

Unsure whether a tree or shrub belongs in your area? Check with your county horticulturist. Commercial landscapers or the lawn department of home improvement stores also hold plant seminars.

Don't overlook nearby nature preserves. The naturalists there, says Wells, can tell you what's good for your area. In fact, many wildlife areas encourage landscape naturalization by holding sales (usually at very competitive prices) of native plants. This way the preserve boundaries are effectively expanded into the adjoining neighborhoods, creating more habitat for the area wildlife.

Boost your bird buffet
You'll also want a variety of native plants to provide food and cover year round.

"The more diversity you have in plants the more diversity you'll have in birds and generally people want to see a lot of different birds," notes Gillihan, author of "Bird Conservation on Golf Courses: A Design and Management Manual."

"Here in Colorado there might be 20 to 30 common species in the prairies. In the mountains there are 60 to 80," he says. "When you have just the grasses of the prairie, you have just one vegetation layer to pick from. If a bird doesn't like grass, it won't stay. In the mountains you have grass, shrubs, trees."

Landscape professional Mary Beth Riddle agrees. "Have a diverse selection of fruiting and flowering trees and shrubs," says the horticulturalist and garden manager of Lambert's Landscape Company in Dallas, Texas. "An assortment makes the birds feel comfortable and provides constant food sources. Include woody trees, shrubs and perennial and annual flowers for the nectar."

Gillihan recommends planting in clusters. "It looks nicer and birds like it better," he says. "For example, cluster plant back along your property line and encourage your neighbor on the other side to do the same. It creates a wider bird zone."

Wells also suggests you consider ways to decrease the size of your lawn. Those manicured suburban squares are a major source of pesticide pollution, which isn't good for birds, pets or people. Plus, when it rains or you water it, the runoff spreads the pesticide.

Instead, Wells says to look for ways change lawn into a plant place. For example, a sloping area could be perfect for shrubs. They look nice, says Wells, and with less to mow you'll have more time to enjoy the birds the new plants will attract.

Don't forget water. The offering can be as simple as a plain stone birdbath or as elaborate as a small pool or stream running through your property. Just make sure it's available year round. Water is as important in the dead of winter when natural sources freeze as it is in the mid-summer heat.

Even yard debris can be a bird magnet.

"Disarray isn't necessarily bad," says Wells. "Limbs naturally shed. Collect them and place in a section of yard that's not overtly visible or put plantings around it to dress it up some. The brush piles and dead limbs provide nesting areas and places where birds can escape predators."

The dark side of birds
Speaking of predators, be prepared for them when you invite birds into your backyard. They are an unavoidable component of the natural cycle and the most troublesome of the few drawbacks that come with a bird-friendly landscape.

In residential neighborhoods, cats (both your neighbor's roaming tabby as well as feral felines) are the biggest problem. Depending upon how suburban or exurban your home is, you also could have raccoons stealing eggs from temporarily untended nests, as well as foxes, snakes and birds of prey (from kestrels to hawks to owls) looking for their next meal.

Danger also comes from more than teeth and talons and it's not limited to threats against birds. In addition to attracting hummingbirds, nectar-producing plants draw wasps and bees. If anyone in your family is allergic to their stings, place these flowers and shrubs away from the barbecue pit or swing set.

And keep in mind that most bird parents are just as protective of their offspring as you are of yours. The aggressiveness of some birds in protecting their territory is legendary, meaning you could be persona non grata in your own yard during breeding season.

Then there are housing issues -- yours, not the birds.

Woodpeckers, for example, are gorgeous to look at and wonderful at eating away at the insects in your trees. But sometimes they forsake those snags for your siding. The noise, not to mention the damage their sturdy bills can cause, make some homeowners wish they had never extended an invitation to feathered friends. And many a songbird has met an untimely end flying into a home's picture window, so be careful about what plants you place in that area.

And don't forget about your human neighbors. They may not be as bird-crazy as you. Don't put a bird-luring plant next to the property line that runs along your neighbor's driveway. He might not like what the birds leave on his auto.

For the most part, however, landscaping for birds is a win-win for everyone. Birds flourish and homeowners get insight into a new environment.

"It's a good way to become a citizen scientist," says Wells. "Before making the changes, note the types and numbers of birds you had. Then you can see how that information changes once the new plants are in.

"There's lots of personal fulfillment and nice surprises in the immediate changes that appear in your own personal ecosystem when you make the change to a bird-friendly yard."

-- Updated: May 3, 2005


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