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If you’d like more—and more varied—birds to flock to your yard, provide what the feathered set searches for. It’s not as simple as scattering some seed and building a birdhouse because birds have subtle preferences that people often fail to understand. Here’s a look at the four ways to attract more birds—and a greater variety of birds…
Many people figure that the best way to feed wild birds is to provide lots of store-bought seed, but they’re wrong. Birds would far prefer to eat food from native plants in your landscaping. The plants that are native to your area co-evolved with local bird populations and inevitably supply those birds’ favorite foods. Among the native plants most likely to attract birds…
Berry-producing shrubs. Visit a nursery or garden center in your area, and ask which berry-producing shrubs are native to your area. In addition to being big draws, native shrubs usually are easy to grow. Examples: Depending on where you live in the US, options might include blueberry, chokeberry, chokecherry, dogwood, elderberry, holly, huckleberry, juniper, Oregon grape, serviceberry, sumac, viburnum, wax myrtle and/or winterberry, among many others.
Native wildflowers and grasses. Many birds are seed eaters. Your neatly mowed lawn might appeal to your homeowner’s association or neighbors, but it’s less popular with birds. They prefer it when grasses and flowers are allowed to grow naturally until they produce seed. Even if you don’t allow your entire lawn to grow unchecked until it “goes to seed,” you could devote a section of your property to unmowed native grasses and wildflowers. Examples: If sunflowers and purple coneflower are native to your area, their seeds likely will be popular with birds.
Oak trees. Oak leaves are a popular meal for a wide range of caterpillars—and caterpillars are a favorite meal of virtually all birds likely to touch down in US yards. Warning: If you want to attract birds to your property, don’t spray pesticides on your lawn and trees. That will kill off the caterpillars and other insects that virtually all backyard birds hope to find.
Red tubular flowers. If your goal is to attract hummingbirds, red flowers shaped to hold nectar, which allow the birds to insert their long beaks, will be especially popular. Examples: Coral honeysuckle, trumpet creeper or red columbine.
Providing store-bought seed in a bird feeder can attract birds, too—just not the wide variety of birds you could attract with the food options above. Chickadees, woodpeckers, goldfinches, cardinals, titmice, nuthatches and certain sparrows are attracted to bird feeders…but many other birds including bluebirds, robins, warblers and wood thrushes typically are not.
Black oil sunflower seed is popular with birds that frequent feeders and is good for them. Avoid seed mixtures, which usually are full of fillers such as millet and cracked corn that birds generally consider undesirable. In fact, birds often kick this filler out of the feeder and onto the ground, where it could attract rodents. Exception: Wild-bird supply stores, such as the chain Wild Birds Unlimited (WBU.com), often sell high-quality bird seed mixtures that are not full of millet and corn. These mixtures even can be used to attract a specific species of bird to the feeder.
Helpful: If squirrels steal your birdseed, choose a bird feeder that shuts its seed ports when a squirrel climbs on board. Birds can access the seed because they don’t weigh enough to trigger the mechanism. Example: Woodlink Absolute Squirrel Resistant Bird Feeder ($79.99).
In the winter, add a suet feeder. Suet is rendered animal fat, a high-calorie meal that birds especially value during the cold months. Woodpeckers, jays and chickadees are among the likely guests when you serve suet.
Two birds with particular food preferences…
To attract bluebirds, buy a special feeder designed to serve dried mealworms or caterpillars, available in wild-bird stores and some pet stores.
To attract orioles, buy a special feeder designed to provide fruit, such as orange halves, grapes or jelly. (These can attract bugs as well, though orioles could help control that problem—they eat bugs in addition to fruit.) A local wild-bird supply store should have these specialty feeders if orioles are common in your area.
Buy and fill a birdbath—or just set a pan of water on your back porch. The water should be just one to three inches deep—if it’s deeper, many small birds won’t drink from it.
Every two or three days, pour out this water and refill. Mosquitoes lay their eggs in standing water, but their newborns take approximately a week to develop. As long as you dump this water before then, your bird water supply won’t increase the mosquito population in your yard. In fact, it should reduce that population by attracting birds, such as swallows and purple martins, that will eat some of the mosquitoes already living there.
Every week or two use a scrub brush, dish soap and water to wash out the birdbath or water pan. This lowers the odds that bird droppings in the water will spread disease among the local bird population.
Birds feel more secure when there’s a spot close by where they can hide from predators and shelter from bad weather. Usually these hiding spots are in or under dense vegetation, such as thick shrubs. Example: The native berry-producing shrubs discussed above can serve double duty, providing both food and cover.
If you have a potential source of bird food on your property that does not provide its own cover, such as a bird feeder, oak tree or wildflowers, plant a shrub within 10 to 12 feet of this. Choose a shrub dense enough that a small bird standing underneath wouldn’t be spotted through the branches by a predator flying above.
Note that birds generally do not consider birdhouses a source of cover, though some birds could view them as a place to raise young (see below).
Bird lovers often install birdhouses in their yards, but birdhouses that look charming to people often have little appeal to birds. Bird species that build their nests on the branches of trees, not in cavities inside trees, are not attracted to birdhouses at all. And “cavity nesters,” which include bluebirds, chickadees, nuthatches, owls, swallows, titmice, woodpeckers and wrens, tend to be so particular about where they raise their young that unless you select just the right structure and put it in just the right spot, they won’t take advantage either.
Before buying a birdhouse, note which cavity-nesting bird species frequent your property, then ask a local wild-bird supply store to help you choose a “nesting box” for this species and select an appropriate location for it. (Using the term “nesting box” rather than “birdhouse” signals that you’re looking for something that truly appeals to birds as much or more than it appeals to you.) Examples: Bluebirds prefer nesting boxes with entry holes one-and-a-half inches in size. Screech owls will nest only in boxes or tree cavities that are at least 10 feet above the ground.
If a box or birdhouse has a small perch beneath the entry holes, that’s a warning sign that it wasn’t actually designed with birds’ needs in mind. Cavity-nesting birds don’t need perches—the holes they nest in on trees usually don’t have them, and they get into those just fine. But perches can provide handholds for predators such as racoons, increasing the odds that eggs will be stolen and eaten.
Also: If there’s a dead or dying tree on your property that isn’t putting your or a neighbor’s house in danger, let this tree remain rather than having it taken down. Dead and dying trees often contain cavities appropriate for nesting.