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Gardening for Birds: Food, water and shelter
Birds and gardens just go together. You can't really have a garden
without birds. Plant a shrub or a tree, and they just show up. Put
out a feeder and a birdbath and you'll get lots of birds. You can
have a small garden in the city and still attract birds.
Gardens provide places for birds to find food and water, rest,
hide from predators, raise their young and find shelter from predators
and the weather.
You can encourage birds to visit and stay in your garden by giving
them the four things they need: food, water,
shelter and places to
raise their young.
How to Do It!
It's simple to turn your yard into a bird-friendly yard. You can
start with a few simple things and add more later. Just putting
up a bird feeder and a bird bath can often provide instant results.
But, as you yearn for more, you'll learn how to turn your yard into
a bird heaven. It's the greatest!
Step 1. Think
like a bird to understand their basic needs.
Evaluate your yard.
Provide the four basic things that birds need: food, water, shelter,
places to raise their young.
Make smart choices to help your birds.
Step 1: Think Like a Bird - Take
a Birds-Eye View of Your Garden
make your yard and garden more attractive to birds, look at it from
a bird's perspective. If you were a bird, what would attract you
to your yard? Would you find food? Would it be the right food and
available when you need it? How about water? Does the garden look
safe from predators, like hawks and cats? Can you get to the food
and water and back to your nest safely? Is there a place to build
a nest? Can you find protection from the wind or driving rain? Is
there a good, safe, place to spend the night?
Thinking like a bird helps us understand their four basic needs:
- Place to raise their young
Step 2: Evaluate Your Yard
Evaluate your yard by looking at it from a bird's perspective.
Does it provide the four basic needs of birds? Don't let this get
too difficult for your first attempt. Think "basic." Food
can be a simple bird feeder. Water can be a simple birdbath. Shelter
can be that Arborvitae on the corner of your house. A place to raise
their young can be that lilac hedge between you and your neighbor's
Now, make a sketch of your yard and include all the landscaping
features that you have. Then, pretend you're a bird and think about
how you would go about your daily life in your yard of finding food
and water; getting shelter from the rain, wind and your neighbor's
cat; and picking a good spot to build a nest and raise babies.
Here are a few hints about what birds like:
- Birds like places to perch on tree and shrub limbs to check
things out before they fly.
- Different birds need different types and levels of perching
places. Give them a choice.
- Birds like secluded areas of vegetation to hide and nest.
- Birds like a variety of vegetation types for nesting, from perennial
beds to tall trees.
- Birds like dead trees. Dead trees are great for carving out
a nest cavity or a roosting spot. Insects tunneling underneath
the bark are a great food source. If it doesn't pose a hazard,
leave a dead tree standing for the birds..
- Birds like brush piles. These provide great cover and nesting
- Birds prefer a variety of food. Kinda' like us!
- Birds need water and are particularly attracted to the sound
of moving water.
- Birds are always on guard against predators. Give them quick
escape routes and safe places to hide.
Step 3: Provide What Birds Need
are great hunters and scavengers and know how to find food. But
natural sources of food are disappearing as land is developed into
farmfields, subdivisions and shopping malls, birds have a harder
time finding food.
There are two ways to provide food for birds:
- Plants for birds: plants provide seeds, nuts,
berries and fruit. Almost all of our native songbirds rely on
plants for part of all of their diet. Planting fruit-bearing plants
will attract a wider variety of birds to your yard, then if you
just offered seed in bird feeders. Fruit-bearing plants are critical
during cold weather for birds that only eat fruit and insects,
like Robins, when insects aren't available. Bayberry, Winterberry
and Crabapples are a favorite food in winter and early spring.
When possible use native plants and their cultivars.
- Bird feeders: birdseed, suet and other foods
provided by us to birds can really help birds during critical
times of their lives, including migration, breeding, nesting and
raising their young, and during weather extremes.
Providing natural sources of food is one of the best ways to attract
birds to your yard. Native plants and their cultivars are at the
top of the list for attracting birds and providing the nutrition
they need. They can be very ornamental and really add beauty to
your landscape, in addition to attracting birds.
Using native plants that grow naturally in your area means that
you're using plants that evolved with the birds that live in your
area - whether year 'round or seasonally. The birds are used to
these plants and many are their preferred foods.
Before you pick plants for birds, find out what grows best in your
area. Visit a local arboretum or botanical garden, or natural area
to see what plants are grown. Then find out what conditions those
plants need to grow. Some plants need lots of sun and some need
shade. Some need moist soil and some need soil that dries out or
drains well. Plant the right plant for your spot that will attract
birds. Palm trees in Minnesota won't work, but Pine trees sure will!
Below is a list of our favorite bird-attracting plants. These all
grow well from Zones 3/4 to
||Birds They Attract
Fruit-eating birds: Bluebird, Blue Jay, Chickadee,
Gray Catbird, Cedar Waxwing, Common Flicker, Mourning Dove,
Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Northern and Orchard Orioles, Robins,
Thrushes, Veery, Woodpeckers, Phoebe, House and Purple Finch,
These plants also provide great cover and nesting sites for
Seed-eating birds: Blue Jays, Chickadees,
Cardinals, Mourning Doves, Titmice
Evergreen/coniferous plants also provide excellent cover,
shelter and nestings sites for many songbirds
|Native prairie perennials and grasses provide
nutritious seed, cover and nesting spots for many finches, native
sparrows and other songbirds.
|Wild grape vines
||In late fall and throughout the winter, wild
grapes are eagerly consumed by Cedar Waxwings and Robins.
You can learn more about these plants on the Plants
for Birds page of our online catalog.
In addition to natural food sources, offering supplemental food
in feeders can often help birds get through the lean times. Bird
feeders also bring the birds up to you so you can better enjoy them.
If you have bird feeders, be sure to join the Project
Feederwatch program. It's easy, quick, fun and very interesting.
One of the best types of food to offer birds is black oil sunflower
seeds. Most of the common backyard birds will readily eat these
seeds. These seeds can be offered in a variety of bird feeders.
Just be sure to clean the feeders monthly, particularly tube feeders,
to remove contaminated or spoiled seed. Cleaning also reduces the
chance of spreading diseases among the birds visiting your feeders.
You'll often see birds eating spilled seed on the ground beneath
your feeders. To protect them from cats, place a cat barrier of
thorny branches from roses or brambles in a circle around the spilled
need water all year. They need it not only for drinking, but also
for preening to keep their feathers in top shape. Clean feathers
are essential for keeping birds healthy and in optimal condition
for flying. And nothing seems to attract birds to a backyard or
garden more than water.
To give birds water, you can simply pour water into a shallow pan
(2-inches deep) that is placed in your garden. Or you can build
a pond just for the birds! Check out Avain Aquatics full line of
water features just for birds. Their ponds are easy to install in
just a few hours! Go to Avain
Aquatics' Web site.
need shelter to protect them from the weather and from predators,
and to provide a place in which to roost at night. Shelter can also
provide nesting spots for birds to raise their young. The best shelter
is a mixed planting of low and medium sized evergreen and deciduous
shrubs, medium and tall coniferous trees, and tall deciduous trees.
If you can plant shrubs and trees that also provide food from either
berries or nuts, then your plantings will serve a dual purpose.
Even with the best plantings in our gardens, some birds still need
help finding places in which to raise their young. Many birds evolved
in woodlands that had old and dead trees in which birds could easily
hollow-out cavities for homes. With most of these woodlands now
converted to farmlands, subdivisions and shopping malls, along with
our quickness to remove dead, damaged and very old trees from our
yards, there are very few places for tree-nesting birds to nest.
birds need our help. Leave dead trees standing if they don't pose
a hazard. Put up nesting boxes for cavity nesting birds, such as
bluebirds, tree swallows, chickadees, nuthatches, wrens and woodpeckers.
They readily use nesting boxes and often use them in winter for
Step 4: Make Smart Choices
Once you've provided for the four basic needs of birds, you'll
find that how you take care of your yard and garden can have an
impact on your birds. Keep your yard and garden safe for birds by
following good conservation practices:
- Don't use harsh chemicals. Find alternatives
that are safe for you, your kids or grandkids and the birds. Birds
can often be your best source of pest control. They may not be
100% effective, but they'll be pretty darn close. Insects are
a main source of food for most birds during the summer, so leave
a few around for them. Don't poison everything.
- Use natural or organic-based fertilizers, particularly
on your lawn. Birds are like kids -- they put everything in their
mouths to see if it is edible. That includes granular chemical
fertilizers applied to your lawn. If you wouldn't put it in your
mouth, don't put in on your lawn. If you spray apply a fertilizer,
get it watered in immediately so that birds are not exposed to
- Make a rain garden. What's that you say? Rain
gardens capture runoff from your yard so that it doesn't wash
into the road. Place them where the gutters from your house drain
into. Dig a slight depression in the ground, plant moisture-loving
plants and you've got a rain garden. Robins will use the moist
soil in these gardens to build their nests.
- Mulch your gardens and landscaping. Birds will
scratch around in the mulch and find bugs to eat. Mulch will retain
moisture, thereby reducing the need to water. Mulch also suppresses
weed growth, saving you time. It will also decompose over time,
slowly enriching your soil.
Links to Other Bird Sites
You can learn more about birds at the following sites:
The following books are also full of helpful information on how
to garden for birds: