Landscaping for the birds
By Sharon Ashworth
To attract birds to your yard and keep them hanging about for a bit, there are a few key elements you must provide in your landscape: water, shelter, food.
Before you run out to the local garden center or next native plant sale for plants, birdbaths, feeders and seed - pause. First, do a survey of your existing landscape as you may already be providing key habitat elements and can then identify what is missing. To help assess what you have, scan the list of bird food preferences HERE, just to see the sort of trees, plants and shrubs that provide food for local birds. Do you have trees in your yard? What kind of trees? What plants and shrubs do you already have? If you don’t know what kind of plants or trees you have, that’s ok. Do a rough sketch of your yard from a bird's perspective – locate trees, shrubs, flower beds, feeders, water, etc. Are you missing any of the key elements? You don't have to provide everything; peak in your neighbors’ backyards for things you might not have – different trees and shrubs, a pond, feeders, native flowers. If you live out of town, does your property border a wooded area or pasture?
The strategic design component for attracting a diverse array of birds is diversity in your landscape. Diversity in your landscape will serve to attract birds and provide for their needs during the breeding season and over winter.
Birds need water to drink, keep cool and look good. Birds do take baths to keep themselves cool and to wash off dust and parasites. Still water in a bird bath is better than nothing, but moving water will catch a bird’s attention and dissuade mosquitoes. Add a “wiggler” or mister to your birdbath to move water. Include a spray fountain or waterfall as part of a larger water feature or pond. Make sure to clean your shallow birdbaths frequently to prevent algae growth. Bubblers and sprays will keep water from freezing in the winter, and for smaller birdbaths add an immersible heater. Birds need shallow water so be sure the water in a birdbath or on the margins of larger water features is more than two or three inches.
The vegetation surrounding your water feature can add to its attractiveness. Birds like a quick escape route from hawks and marauding cats so low branches of trees or shrubs nearby provide safety. If woody vegetation shades the birdbath or pond, all the better. The same goes for your bird feeder. The trick is to get the bird feeder close to sheltering shrubs and trees, but not so close that the squirrels can jump to the feeder. Thorny shrubs such as our native gooseberry (also a food source) help keep predators at bay. If possible, a pile of brush is an additional form of shelter, so if you collect fallen branches and yard debris tuck the pile in a corner for birds like juncos, sparrows, and wrens.
During the breeding season birds need safe places to build nests. Of course many birds build nests in trees, but some birds such as sparrows, the gray catbird, and the yellow warbler prefer shrubs. During the winter, a few evergreen trees such as red cedar* and spruce (non-native) or shrubs such as barberry, holly or boxwood (non-natives) can provide protection from cold winds and snow.
If you’ve got space, try layering trees and shrubs by planting shade tolerant small trees, like blackhaw viburnum or serviceberry, and shrubs like coralberry under the canopy of larger trees. Diversity of structure along with diversity of tree and shrub species will provide a variety of nesting sites, cover, and food.
To attract a variety of birds you need to provide a variety of foods throughout the year – seeds, nectar, fruit, and bug protein. Just about all birds need insects to feed their young so eliminate or go easy on the pesticides for a bird friendly yard.
A perennial flower bed that has something blooming throughout the growing season will attract insects from spring through fall and then provide seeds at the end of the season. Mix plants that provide nectar with those that provide seeds and desirable leaves. Hummingbirds will be attracted to trumpet vine and columbine nectar; caterpillars munching on prairie clover leaves provide for nuthatches, wrens, and titmice; butterflies landing on gayfeathers and milkweed are snatched up by flycatchers, phoebes, and sparrows. Rather than de-heading coneflowers and black eyed Susans, leave the flowers over winter and let the goldfinches feed on the seeds. Use the list of bird food preferences to help you decide what to plant. Don’t forget the grasses; the seeds of grasses feed a number of different sparrows as well as mourning doves and cardinals.
When you think berries, think beyond your typical blackberries and raspberries. Sumac berries are loved by warblers, bluebirds, chickadees, and woodpeckers among many others as are elderberries. Robins and orioles like choke cherries. Small trees producing berries include dogwood, serviceberry, and American plum. When grouping shrubs and small trees mulch in between and allow the leaves to remain for most of the year, you’ll create excellent insect habitat to feed ground foraging birds like robins, juncos, and towhees.
Trees provide a cornucopia of insect prey – gall insects in the leaves, borers in the bark, caterpillars in the canopy. While woodpeckers and blue jays love acorns, oaks in general are host to a plethora of moth and butterfly caterpillars, necessary food for hungry baby birds. Plant early blooming trees like redbud, serviceberry, and wild plum to attract insects for those spring migrants. A dead branch or dead tree (called a snag) is a veritable buffet of bugs so if there is no danger to life and property, leave them for the birds.
Sharon Ashworth is the program manager for the K-State Research and Extension Master Gardeners of Douglas County.