Ways to make your yard bird friendly
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
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
"Realize that there are limitations to what you can
attract," says Jeff Wells, a research associate with Cornell University's
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.
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
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
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
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
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