Last weekend I took a class on birds. It was a great crash course in ornithology and I was delighted to learn all sorts of interesting things about our feathery friends. The main purpose of the class though was to learn how to attract birds to our backyards with native plants. Because I love to share, here are some of the basics!
If we want to attract birds to our yards, first we need to understand what birds are looking for and what we can help provide for them. (We also need to know what type of birds we want to attract, but I’ll come to that later.)
In our urban, suburban, or countrified yards, we can provide birds with:
- food resources
- nesting materials
- suitable habitats
Here are a few tips on how to better provide these needs:
You can certainly attract birds with a bird feeder, but not all birds eat seeds, and those that do eat seeds are sometimes hunting for other types of food. Another thing you can feed the birds is mealworms, available at bird supply or pet stores. Birds that like soft-bodied insects will go for these, as will birds that are feeding their babies. With spring around the corner, I plan on finding some mealworms to put out this spring.
A holistic approach to providing food for birds in addition to these is to add plants to your yard that will:
- attract larvae and insects
- produce good nectar
- provide fruit
Food alone won’t increase the number of birds in your yard… Also important are materials needed for:
For birds to want to breed in your yard, birds need nest-building resources. Where do nest-building resources come from?! Mostly plant detritus. This means that if you have a spotless grassy lawn with no or little natural areas, birds aren’t going to want to hang around. Instead, rake plant detritus into natural areas under trees and shrubs (as they decompose, this also provides important food for those trees and shrubs).
To build nests, different species may use:
- branches and twigs
- pine needles
- grass clippings
- animal hair (from pets or wildlife)
- leaf litter
This last one is used by hummingbirds. I’ve never met a person who didn’t like hummingbirds, so how about leaving those cobwebs around your house and let the hummers reuse them? Also some birds nest in tree cavities, and even in the tops of dead tree trunks. So you might consider leaving a rotting tree trunk standing and create a home for an owl. By the way, even if you have bird houses out, birds still need to collect materials to build a nest. Wood chip mulch apparently isn’t a useful nest-building material, so if you have the choice between wood mulch and pine needles, now you know that pine needles are more helpful for the birds. If you want a variety of birds, you’ll need a variety of nest-building materials.
And this brings us to the key point here: diversity. Since a variety of food choices and nesting materials just won’t be there if your yard only contains 2 or 3 types of plants (grassy lawn, monkey grass and crepe myrtles, anyone?), the more plant diversity you have in your yard, the more likely you are to attract a diverse bird population.
Think polyculture. A field of corn is a monoculture. An interplanted vegetable garden with several types of plants, herbs and flowers is a polyculture. (And this isn’t just good for the birds!) Same goes if you are landscaping rather than vegetable gardening. The more diverse a yard you have, the more species can use it.
And that’s not only because different species are going to eat different things. You will actually produce more nutrients in your yard the more different plant species you include. Why? Because different plants use different nutrients and minerals in the soil. Not sure how that works? Here’s a silly analogy: Let’s say you invite your friends to a painting party. You offer them 10 colors of paint but everyone wants to use just blue. You’re going to run out of blue quickly, and be left with the other colors. Next time invite friends to paint who have different color preferences so that you will more evenly use the resources at hand. And thus it is with your garden. Choose a diverse selection of mostly native plants to created an attractive backyard habitat.
Why are native plants important? I’ll let a pro tell you: “Native plants, which have co-evolved with native wild birds, are more likely to provide a mix of foods – just the right size, and with just the right kind of nutrition – and just when the birds need them.” Stephen Kress, National Audubon Society
You can find a list of good plants, native to NC’s piedmont region, for providing different types of food and habitat for birds here in this pamphlet by Audubon NC.
If you don’t feel like clicking through, here are a few that tend to be easy to find:
- Purple coneflower
- Flowering dogwood
- Black-eyed Susan
- Bee balm
Also important: don’t use pesticides in your yard. Most pesticides don’t target specific insects, so if you spray for mosquitoes, you will probably end up killing lots of other types of insects. Insecticides will accumulate in the dead insects bodies, be eaten, then the toxins will accumulate in the birds. Use of DDT was one of the reasons for the decline of the bald eagle. Since DDT has been phased out, these birds have been able to re-establish their populations.
The above advice is for generally attracting more birds to your yard. If you want to attract specific birds, click on one of the photos of birds here, all native to the Charlotte Mecklenburg region, which will take you to the beautiful Audubon site. Information on habitat, diet, feeding behavior and nesting is available for a huge array of birds and you can use this information to try to recreate the characteristics preferred by specific birds in your region. Or ones who are just passing through!
When we encourage native birds to be part of our life, we are fighting extinction and helping maintain or improve biodiversity. And who knows… the beauty of a surprise bird visitor might lift your spirit just when you need it the most in exchange for taking some of these simple steps.