Birds can be delightful garden guests, bringing color and music to our yards. They’re also useful visitors who gobble up grubs and insect pests, and they aid pollination when they brush against plants with their feathers and feet. It’s true that they aren’t always welcome around fruit trees or in vegetable gardens, as some birds are prone to peck and nibble. But they are a vital part of our ecosystem, and they’re fun and fascinating to watch, especially when they build nests and raise their young.
It’s easy to create a bird-friendly garden by giving them three basic things: food, water, and shelter.
Birds don’t just need clean, fresh water to drink. They also need water to bathe in. You can use almost anything for a bird bath, from a simple pan to an elegant basin on a pedestal, but keep the birds safe by placing it far from cats. An ideal spot would be near trees or shrubs, so the birds have cover for a speedy escape, but don’t put it so far into the foliage that a predator can make a surprise attack.
Keep in mind that songbirds don’t usually like deep water, so your bird bath should be shallow, preferably with graduated depths. If the bottom is slick, drop in a rock for a perch. Birds are drawn to moving water, so you may want to add a dripper or mister. To make your own dripper, make a pinhole in the side of a clean milk jug or plastic pail, fill it with water, and hang it over the bird bath. The slow plunk-plunk of the water will attract curious birds. Solar-powered bird baths that bubble with recirculated water are also alluring.
Change the water in the bird bath often, especially in hot weather, so harmful bacteria and algae won’t grow. Use a brush and diluted bleach every couple of weeks, and rinse thoroughly. When the temperatures drop to freezing, use a special bird bath heating element so your feathered friends won’t find a bowl of solid ice when they visit.
Create a nutritious “buffet” for the birds in your garden by planting shrubs, trees, vines, ornamental grasses and flowers that produce berries, nuts, and seeds. They’ll flock to your yard, especially when other foods, including insects, become harder to find in the fall and winter.
You can also buy many different kinds of commercial bird seed mixes, and different kinds of feeders to put them in. Stock fruits and seeds on a platform feeder, which is a flat tray with raised edges to keep the food from spilling out. Thistle holders are made for tiny thistle seeds, and allow little birds like goldfinches to easily pluck a snack. Tube feeders come with multiple perches, so several birds can visit at once. Suet holders are cage-like feeders that hold cakes of suet, a specially-made, high-energy food. Look for suet cakes made with peanut butter, berries, raisins, or nuts at your local Home Depot store.
Birds need protection from the weather as well as safe places to build nests and raise their young. For a wide variety of birds, offer different types of housing. Many will use birdhouses, but some prefer natural areas of native plants, trees, shrubs, dense thickets, or tall grasses. Others make their homes in the cavities of living or dead trees. If you can do so safely, consider leaving a dead, hollow tree snag somewhere away from your house and other structures. Brush piles on the edge of your property and patches of overgrown grasses also entice birds.
Try to mix your plantings with both evergreen and coniferous trees. Birds love fruiting trees and shrubs, which do double-duty by offering shelter and food.
Regional Tips For Attracting Birds
Use the list below for a sampler of trees, shrubs, and vines that will invite birds to your yard. Birds are also drawn to many flowering plants, including asters, Black-eyed Susan, day lilies, foxgloves, hibiscus, hollyhocks, lantana, marigolds, petunias, sedum, thistle, yarrow, and zinnias. Learn your USDA hardiness zone.
Trees For Birds, By Zone
Zone 1: Mountain hemlock, western hemlock, spruce, lodgepole pine, cottonwood, birch
Zones 2 to 6: Mountain ash, Choke cherry
Zones 3 to 9: Green Ash, Black haw, Boxelder, Black Cherry, Eastern red cedar, Fringetree, Hackberry, Ironwood, Maple
Zones 4 to 7: Alder, pine
Zones 4 to 10: Bald cypress
Zones 7 to 10: Carolina cherry laurel
Zone 11: Mexican firebush (a tropical tree)
Other trees: American beech, crabapple, flowering dogwood, Southern magnolia
Shrubs For Birds, By Zone
Zone 1: bunchberry, highbush cranberry, currant, juniper
Zones 2 to 8: Redosier dogwood, Nannyberry, Rugosa Rosa
Zones 2 to 7: Common juniper, Russian olive
Zones 3 to 9: Elderberry, Creeping juniper, Chinese juniper, Smooth sumac, Blackhaw virburnum
Zones 7 to 10: Beautyberry
Zone 11: California holly, Yaupon holly, Fairy magnolia, Graythorn
Other shrubs: pyrancatha, nandina, privet, spicebush, sweet pepperbush, oakleaf hydrangea, fothergilla, Burning bush, Barberry
Vines For Birds, By Zone
Zones 3 to 8, Virginia rose
Zones 4 to 8, Bittersweet, Boston ivy
Zones 4 to 9, English ivy, Trumpet creeper
Zones 6 to 10: Smilax
Other vines: Carolina moonseed, cross vine, muscadine, honeysuckle, Virginia creeper
(Source: Fine Gardening)