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Landscaping That’s for the Birds

Imagine witnessing the brilliant orange and black dress of a Baltimore oriole, the captivating antics of a ruby-throated hummingbird or the melodic song of a house finch—right in your own backyard! All it takes is some “birdscaping” know-how to enjoy an up-close-and-personal experience with a feathered friend.

Simply defined as creating bird-friendly habitats with the use of plants (preferably native) and other means, birdscaping is a technique that combines two of America’s fastest growing pastimes—birding and gardening.

“Gardening and attracting birds go hand in hand, as both involve working with your yard’s natural environment,” explains Heather Lamb, editor of Birds & Blooms magazine. “Birdscaping just means that you plan your garden with the intent of attracting birds. The outcome is a pretty garden alive with pretty songbirds.”

To successfully create a backyard that’s for the birds, you must know the basics required for their survival. Food, water, and shelter are the crux of any bird-friendly ecosystem. There’s a good chance you already have one or more of these elements in your landscape, so take inventory before getting started. Note any conifers, deciduous trees, berry-laden shrubs, nectar- or seed-producing perennials and annuals, birdhouses, or birdbaths. Build on existing plants and make a wish list of items you want to grow. Before putting anything in the ground, however, consider its mature size and care requirements.

Also, become familiar with the bird species that reside or migrate through your area. After all, you won’t find a western tanager in Connecticut, no matter how many orange halves you put out for it.

Set the table.

Birds, like humans, appreciate a good meal. “Feeding birds creates a connection with something beyond my control,” Lamb says. “I can provide the right seed, but I can’t make a goldfinch stop by to eat it. It’s a privilege, an unexpected gift that puts a smile on my face.”

Birds’ diets are diverse. Some prefer fruit, nectar, or sugar water. Others gobble up seeds, nuts, berries, buds, or insects. To optimize your chances of winged diners, offer a mix of native annuals, perennials, grasses, trees, and shrubs that provide sustenance.

Know when your plants produce fruit or go to seed. By incorporating picks that feed birds throughout the year—cherry in summer, sunflower in fall, hawthorn in winter—you ensure a four-season flurry of activity.

Set out bird feeders, which supplement nature’s bounty during lean times such as early spring (when migration is in full swing). Popular offerings include sugar water for hummingbirds and tanagers; live mealworms for bluebirds and American robins; orange halves for orioles; sunflower seeds for grosbeaks, jays, northern cardinals, and chickadees; and nyjer (thistle) seed for finches, pine siskins, and redpolls.

Give them shelter.

Cover is as important to birds as food. Backyard bird expert and author George Harrison recommends that “every birdscaped yard have both man-made and natural shelter. Man-made in the form of birdhouses, roosting boxes, and brush piles. But, more importantly, natural habitat—trees, shrubs, and ground cover into which birds can escape when threatened.”

Trees and shrubs provide protected nesting sites, a place to perch, and a safe haven from predators. Groupings of evergreens, thorny thickets, and ornamental grasses are adequate places for birds to hide from threats such as hawks and cats. Dense conifers also offer four-season refuge, and thick stands of shrubbery shield birds from cold, wind, rain, and snow.

“The best format for natural shelter is in the form of stadium seating,” Harrison explains. “Locate the tallest trees farthest from your favorite bird viewing window, the shrubs closer, and ground cover closest. This staging allows the bird watcher to view all the birds that use each of the natural niches, from the warblers and flycatchers in the tallest habitat, to the cardinals, blue jays, and chickadees in the middle, and the sparrows, doves, and juncos on the ground.”

Birds are careful when selecting a safe place to raise their young during breeding season. Conifers and deciduous shrubs and trees, even dead ones with knotholes or other cavities, are welcome spots. Plant a flowering dogwood tree and, chances are, an American robin will reward you with a clutch of sky-blue eggs in late spring.

Not all backyard birds use birdhouses, but many do. Bluebirds, Carolina wrens, tree swallows, nuthatches, purple martins, and chickadees are just a few of the species you may be able to beckon with a birdhouse. Before setting one up, though, learn about the nesting habits of the kind of birds you hope to attract.

Splish, splash! Put out a bath.

Want birds? Add water. Winged visitors of all kinds need it year-round for bathing and drinking. Suitable sources include backyard water features, small ponds, and even large-leafed plants that pool rainwater or dew.

Birdbaths are also a fine option. “Birdbaths don’t have to be fancy,” says Lamb. “A shallow dish or cake pan will do. In my yard, I use a saucer from an old terra cotta flowerpot.”

Regardless of the kind of birdbath you invest in, it’s important to clean it every few days with a stiff bristle brush. Then fill the bath with clean water no deeper than 2 inches. Position your birdbath near natural cover to give birds a place to flee should predators arrive on the scene.

A few more secrets—birds can’t resist flowing water, so add a fountain or include a small waterfall if installing a larger water feature out back. For those living in northern climates, a heated birdbath will be a popular spot for birds when winter arrives.

“Having a birdscaped yard gives us the opportunity to relate to the beautiful feathered animals that surround us,” Harrison says. “It’s emotionally rewarding to interact with nature at this intimate level in your own backyard.”

So while peonies, phlox, and petunias can make a garden pop, only birds can make it sing.

Bring On The Birds

Shelter-providing trees and shurbs:

  • Fir (Abies species)
  • Hemlock (Tsuga species)
  • Juniper (Juniperus species)
  • Manzanita (Arctrostaphylos species)
  • Pine (Pinus species)
  • Rhododendron (Rhododendron species)
  • Spruce (Picea species)
  • Viburnum (Viburnum species)

Fruit-bearing trees and shrubs

  • American highbush cranberry (Viburnum trilobum)
  • Cherry (Prunus species)
  • Crabapple (Malus species)
  • Dogwood (Cornus species)
  • Hawthorn (Crataegus species)
  • Mountain ash (Sorbus species)
  • Serviceberry (Amelanchier species)
  • Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)

Seed-producing Plants

  • Bachelor’s buttons (Centaurea cyanus)
  • Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)
  • Blanket flower (Gaillardia x grandiflora)
  • Blazing star (Liatris species and cultivars)
  • Coreopsis (Coreopsis species)
  • Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus)
  • Globe thistle (Echinops ritro)
  • Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum)
  • Purple coneflower (Echinacea species)

Nectar-producing Plants

  • Bee balm (Monarda didyma)
  • Butterfly bush (Buddleia species)
  • Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
  • Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
  • Columbine (Aquilegia species)
  • Fuchsia (Fuchsia x hybrida)
  • Trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens)
  • Trumpet vine (Campsis radicans)
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