Natural elements provide the ideal combination of food and shelter for wild birds.

This article has been updated.

The first time I thought about bird-friendly yards, I was living in a cabin nestled in the trees with a flower meadow on the south side. Rarely seen birds flitted just outside the upper windows, darting in and out of the canopy in search of cones and insects. Hummingbirds sipped from the diversity of flowers and nested in the hedges and cedar boughs.

In the autumn and winter, finches, juncos and sparrows enjoyed the seeds from the dormant plants, while eagles and owls bathed in a nearby pond.

Natural landscapes provide the ideal combination of food and shelter for wild birds, but adding bird habitat to any backyard will help attract avian friends.

Natural landscapes like this one provide the ideal combination of food and shelter for wild birds, but adding bird habitat to any backyard will help attract avian friends. And there are good reasons for doing this now: according to the Audubon Society, some songbird populations that were once believed secure have declined 80% since 1967. Many others are disappearing or at risk. Replacing some of the lost habitat is one way that you can help.

A healthy bird population will help control insect pests that might plague your garden or suck your blood. A swallow can eat more than 60 insects per hour, making them wonderful companions for outdoor dinner parties. Bluebirds and chickadees feast on caterpillars, beetles, flies, and more—particularly helpful for vegetable gardeners.

For these reasons alone, it’s worth considering your local birds when planning or updating your backyard landscape. Once the theme spreads throughout your neighborhood, you’ll have created a matrix of habitat that can sustain populations of birds throughout the seasons.

Bird-friendly yards: how to create a landscape that will attract and protect birds

Habitat consists of landscape features that provide food, shelter, nesting locations and water. Naturescaping is landscaping with a goal of mimicking nature to provide a resilient, beautiful landscape suited to your yard and your wild neighbors. Here are some tips to help you reach your goals when naturescaping for the birds.

1. Understand what’s on the ground

Planning your landscape to match your local conditions is the first step towards creating simple and effective backyard bird habitat. But what are your local conditions? To start understanding your unique situation, create a map that includes trees, shrubs, and landscape features. Mark out areas with full sun, partial sun, partial shade, or full shade. Identify low or wet areas and better-drained slopes, so that you can put the right plant in the right place. Be sure to check if there are different soils in different areas. Adding organic matter and mulch will help retain moisture and nutrients. Where the groundwater table is close to the surface, or there are areas with standing water or sections with clay soil, there are often good locations for a pond or wetland with associated plants (see below).

2. Research which plants are best suited to your yard

Look at similar natural areas nearby with similar amounts of light, moisture, and soil types and see what’s growing and what birds are around. Aim for a wide diversity of plants and you will be rewarded with a diversity of birds, especially if your neighbors join your efforts or there are natural areas nearby. Before buying any plant, check what climate zone it’s suited for, what it needs, how big it will grow, and whether it’s invasive or spreads aggressively. The best time to start a garden is when the plants are dormant in early spring (though fall works for some varieties). This also allows them to get a start when the soil is still wet from winter/spring rains and snowmelt and before summer watering restrictions.

3. Remember that native species are best

Native plants have adapted to your area over thousands of years. If you plant these in your yard and water them weekly during the first dry season, chances are they will survive very well with little maintenance after that. Study your yard and learn which plants are native to your area that you can conserve, and which are invasive and may be best removed to make room for a greater diversity of more useful plants. The Audubon Society maintains a list of native plants searchable by postal code. You can also locate native plant nurseries by state with this handy list.

4. Aim for plants with flowers, berries, or seeds

Many flowers transform into a winter food source for birds, providing seed-heads ripe with seasonal bounty. Before deadheading your spent plants, consider leaving the seeds for the birds. Similarly, if you plant berry bushes that keep fruit into the winter, birds will appreciate your efforts. Here are just a few recommended plants with delicious, long-lasting berries.

Recommended Berry-Producing Plants and Shrubs

Native speciesWinterberry holly (deciduous, native to east coast), wild roses, pin or choke cherries, high bush cranberry, Oregon grape, salal, evergreen huckleberry, blueberries, Saskatoon berry, juniper, Pacific dogwood.
Non-native speciesRussian olive, domestic cherry trees, Tatarian dogwood, cotoneaster, Amur Privet, firethorn, Multiflora rose, nannyberry, weigela, American bittersweet, grapes, crab apples.

5. Don’t forget about hummingbirds

If you have hummingbirds in your area, consider planting flowers to provide life-giving nectar. The Rufus hummingbird returns to the Pacific Northwest following the blooming of the red flowering currants and salmonberries. Later, the wild crab apple, fireweed and mountain meadow flowers come into bloom. All of these plants are excellent additions to the garden. Elderberries, honeysuckles, bleeding hearts and columbines are also popular nectar-giving flowers. In general, red and pink tubular flowers are most attractive to hummingbirds.

Recommended Flowers for Hummingbirds

Native speciesRed flowering currant, salmonberry, wild crab apple, fireweed, elderberry, honeysuckle, bleeding hearts, red columbine, spotted jewelweed, trumpet creeper.
Non-native speciesFuchsia, cardinal flower, trumpet vine, scarlet runner beans, bee balm, coral bells, phlox, daylilies, hollyhocks, butterfly bush, delphinium, flowering quince, clematis, agastache, lupines, foxglove, salvia, penstemon, lobelia.

Dense thickets and trees near water will encourage hummingbirds to nest. Remember that hummers are also voracious insect eaters and are beneficial to have around the yard and garden.

6. Minimize your lawn

Nature rarely creates rectangular patches of short, monoculture grass like the perfect suburban lawn. By creating undulating edges around your yard, you increase the amount of edge habitat where the forest, shrubs or gardens transition to more open space. Lawns are not that useful to most birds, so planting the edges of them is a good opportunity to improve habitat.

You can replicate the way nature reclaims clearings by planting some sheltering, dense shrubs around the outside and then shorter flowers and low shrubs and ground covers along the inside. Some people convert their entire lawn to a natural wildflower meadow with scattered shrubs and trees creating an appealing savannah. See our detailed guide for more tips on how to reduce your lawn.

7. Save your trees

Trees take a long time to grow and are important to many birds for perching, food, nesting, roosting, and as shelter from predators. They also provide shade and cool your yard, like huge air conditioners.

If a tree is unstable, consider alternatives to cutting it down completely. Leaving some snags or ‘wildlife trees’ in place will provide homes for a wide variety of birds. Hawks and owls may also perch on these trees and help clean up your rodent population.

Any trees that must be removed can often be cut 10-15’ above the ground and then planted with a non-invasive vine. Another alternative to removing a tree is pruning to remove rotten branches, or spiral pruning to allow in some light into the yard or afford a view from your window. Even those that you have to cut are beneficial if left lying on the ground in the woods where they provide shelter and nesting locations.

8. Protect roots and soil moisture

Most tree roots exist in the drip zone under a tree’s canopy, but they can also extend three times this distance. For this reason, digging, paving, compacting soil, and adding more than six inches of soil above grade can all kill trees.

To preserve what you have, leave a large buffer zone around trees and use pervious landscape materials to allow water and air to infiltrate the ground. Before installing deep ditches or drain pipes to lower the water table, consider the needs of your trees.

For example, cedar trees often die shortly after developments are built due the changes in the water table and disturbance of the root zone. On the other hand, some trees may require well-drained soil and can die if you direct excess water to their roots.

9. Provide protection from wind

Is your yard protected from storms or raging winds? Note which direction storms blow in from and consider planting some cover for sheltering birds. Providing a hedge or solid fence along the exposed side will help birds seeking protection. Many birdhouses and feeders can also offer protection from the weather.

10. Consider rooftops

If you have a flat roof with gravel on top, consider adding some dense clusters of large pots and containers on the roof or balcony to create a bird garden in the sky. These areas have the added benefit of protection from cats, dogs and other ground predators. They are also often sunny and hot, so be sure to plant appropriate species and install automatic irrigation, water features like a bird bath, and ideally some shady shelter such as a cluster of potted trees or a trellis or arbor with vines. But don’t get too carried away before you check with a structural engineer to ensure the roof can handle the extra weight! Some shore birds such as killdeer, terns, and skimmers will nest on a plain gravel rooftop that resembles a beach, but is disturbed less by people. Peregrine falcons will also nest on ledges of tall buildings in the city.

11. Create mini-wildlife refuges

Can you dedicate some areas of your yard for wildlife foraging and nesting? Are there areas where birds can live undisturbed by noise, people, cats or dogs? To learn more, check the bird nesting window for your area. Often songbirds nest from March until the end of July. That means these are not good times to be cutting trees and other vegetation or burning brush. Hawks, eagles and owls will nest much earlier, and many need more private, quiet spaces. Take note of the bird species that you already see through the seasons and research what plants and nesting sites they need so that you might encourage them to stick around. Add birdhouses or nesting boxes appropriate for the sizes of birds you hope to attract.

12. Aim for diverse structures and heights

Next think about a diversity of structure in your backyard. Plan for a number of canopy layers from trees and snags, to dense clusters of shrubs, long grasses and flowers, depending on what your space allows. You can also use fences, hedges, arbors and trellises planted with vines to create some protected spaces for the birds to nest away from disturbance.

13. Keep cats indoors

As Rachael Carson noted in her book, Silent Spring, birds are fragile and we must make an effort not to harm them. Cats are a leading cause of bird deaths in urban areas. If you have a cat, consider making it an indoor pet. You can also talk to neighborhood cat owners about keeping their cat inside or at least keeping it confined within a fenced area. As a last resort, you could suggest only allowing it out in the darkest hours and put two bells on its collar to alert wildlife of its approach.

14. Avoid using pesticides

To safeguard bird populations and their food supplies, it’s best to avoid applying anything that hasn’t been approved by your organic standards association. Sometimes birds will pick up pesticide granules thinking they are gravel. Other times, their food gets covered in pesticides. Many hawks and owls also die from eating poisoned rats. Check the USDA list of permitted and banned substances before applying and consider alternatives for lawn care, such as corn gluten. Canada also produces a list of permitted substances according to the Canadian National Organic Standard.

15. Add a water feature

If you have the space or opportunity to add a pond, you’ll soon notice water-loving birds enjoying your water feature. Wild ducks on the lookout for a nesting area may reward you with duckling sightings, while smaller birds will stop by to bathe and drink in your pond’s cool waters. If you don’t have this kind of space, adding a simple birdbath to your backyard will attract smaller birds grateful for a place to rehydrate. Be sure to place the birdbath near shrubs or other shelter for easy protection.

Whether you have a rooftop garden, a suburban backyard, or a forested acreage, you can attract birds to your landscape with bird-friendly landscaping. Next time you add a plant or make an adjustment to your out-of-doors, consider the birds.

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