You can do more to welcome birds to your garden than hanging a feeder and calling it a day. To turn your backyard into an avian sanctuary, you can also plant native plants to provide food and areas for shelter. These additions to your backyard can provide a rest stop for migrants in the fall and can help restore wild bird populations. Here are some natural ways to provide for wild birds’ needs for food, water, shelter and nesting areas.
1. Provide Food
Most backyard bird species fall into categories of seed, nut and berry eaters; nectar eaters; insect eaters; and omnivores. Ideally, include a good mix of food sources to support wild birds in each feeding category. Fill up your bird feeder, add native plants to your landscape and let perennials go to seed in your summer garden to provide plenty of sources of food for hungry foragers.
Hang a feeder. In winter, when natural food sources are scarcer, it’s particularly important to provide additional sources of food. Local feed stores usually carry a handful of different types of seeds, nuts and mixes.
Your best bet is to pick up a mix suited for the wild birds of your area that includes sunflower seeds, millet, thistle and hemp. Supplement seed with calorie-rich suet — a firm, raw animal fat you can get from your local butcher.
Add native plants to your garden. Native trees, shrubs, perennials and grasses can be a real asset in supporting wild birds. Look for natives that produce fruits, nuts or seeds that birds favor, such as California native toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) and black elderberry (Sambucus nigra).
By incorporating native plants into your landscape, you’ll also be welcoming native insects — providing a tasty food source for insect eaters such as chickadees and other songbirds.
Let plants go to seed. Wait to deadhead summer perennials that set seeds in the garden in fall. Coneflowers (Echinaceaspp.), sunflowers (Helianthus annuus), thistles, zinnias (Zinnia elegans) and many ornamental grasses put out seeds that help support native birds.
Sunflower seeds are particularly rich in oil and help fuel birds on long migrations. After the sunflower blooms, allow the seeds to fully ripen by leaving the seed head on the stalk.
2. Offer a Water Source
A supply of clean water for drinking and bathing is often the first thing to draw birds to your garden. Many bird species prefer to bathe in shallow water rather than deep basins. Look for birdbaths that are only 2 or 3 inches deep or add a flat stone to the middle to give birds an easy way out.
A fountain placed in a garden bed will draw more birds than one set in a tiled courtyard. The surrounding foliage offers safety and gives birds a quick hiding spot from predators.
Even a simple stone basin filled with water can offer a much-needed spot where ground-feeders can drink. Keep the water level topped up on particularly hot days when birds need it the most and water evaporates quickly.
3. Create Areas for Shelter
Landscapes with large expanses of deck, bare patios and manicured lawns look like danger zones to shy birds like wrens, thrushes and sooty fox sparrows. Providing cover in the form of tree canopies, twiggy shrubs such as hawthorn and quince, and vines draped to cover walls can be vital in creating a haven.
Include a variety of hiding places for birds taking shelter in your garden. Use mixed shrubs and perennials in your borders, and break up expanses of lawn by planting small-scale trees, such as apple or dogwood, in the turf.
Leave margins wild. Consider letting areas of your property go a bit wild. If you have a deep backyard, allow blackberries to ramble, providing a thicket where birds can take cover and berries for them to eat. For properties bordering natural rivers or surrounding countryside, let the margins stay in their natural state for a bird-friendly habitat.
4. Invite Birds to Nest
Many wild bird species will move into nest boxes placed in a backyard. While they won’t build a nest until the following spring, it’s worth putting up new boxes in the fall and winter when birds may be scoping out spots to breed.
Like any savvy home buyer, birds will be picky about where they choose to nest. If you’re hoping to attract a certain bird species, check with your local garden store for advice regarding the size of the entrance to the nest box and the height above the ground.
Provide nesting materials. Give birds a boost in finding soft nesting materials by leaving downy seed heads on the plants or putting out tufts of wool, yarn or scraps of fabric.
5. Take It a Step Further
Join The Great Healthy Yard Project, backed by the National Audubon Society, and pledge to keep your yard free of pesticides, weed killers and synthetic fertilizers that can have damaging effects on wild birds.
Register your bird-friendly backyard at Habitat Network, a Citizen Science Project launched by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology with the aim to gather data about bird habitats in urban and suburban areas.
Sign up to participate in the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count or the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds’ annual Big Garden Birdwatch to help track long-term bird population trends.