Gardening Tips for Attracting Birds

By David Mizejewski, May 9, 2017

The National Wildlife Federation has designated the entire month of May as Garden for Wildlife Month. Next up in our weekly series about creating wildlife habitat gardens are some tips on attracting birds from the Federation’s Naturalist David Mizejewski.

Vermilion flycatcher photo (shown on the right) by Bob Zeller via National Wildlife Photo Contest.

  1. Feed Birds with Native Plants – Putting out bird feeders is a great way to attract birds to your yard. However, only a handful of species will actually visit a feeder. That’s because many species are too shy to visit a busy feeder, and many species don’t eat seed. In fact, birds only use feeders to supplement the natural foods they find in the landscape. Most birds rely on berries, seeds, nuts or nectar. And 96 percent of backyard birds feed their babies insects.

    Native plants are the best way to provide these natural food sources. Even better, you never have to refill or clean native plants like you do with feeders. So it’s ok to put out a couple of feeders as a snack, but the best way to feed the birds is by filling your yard with native wildflowers, grasses, trees and shrubs that will feed the birds naturally.

  2. Put Away the Pesticides—As mentioned, most birds rely on insects, spiders and other invertebrates as a primary food source for themselves and in particular for their babies. If you spray pesticides and kill all of these creatures, you eliminate this critical part of birds’ diets. Stop spraying and let the birds do the work of keeping insects in check.

  3. Provide Water—A source of fresh water can be a real magnet for birds. They need to drink but also to bathe to keep their feathers in good condition. If you have a pond or water garden, make sure to include a shallow end no deeper than three inches for birds to drink and bathe. A birdbath is an excellent way to provide water too.

  4. Plant Densely—Not only is plant choice important when it comes to feeding birds naturally (native plants are best), how you plant is important too. Try to mimic the plant communities in nature, and plant your yard densely to provide cover for the birds to hide from predators and to get shelter from bad weather. For example, instead of planting one shrub in the middle of your lawn, plant a cluster of them or even create a “living fence” along your property line. Underplant your large canopy trees with smaller understory trees to create vertical cover. Plant a meadow filled with wildflowers and grasses. You can supplement the cover provided by plants by building a brush pile or mounting roosting boxes.

  5. Create Nesting Places—To really help bird populations, we need to make sure they can successfully nest and support the next generation. Again, planting shrubs and trees densely will offer great nesting places. Some species will build nests right in the branches, while others utilize cavities in decaying trees. To support these cavity-nesting birds, try to preserve dead or dying trees on your property (as long as they aren’t a safety risk).

    You can mimic natural tree cavities by mounting nesting boxes. Bluebirds, chickadees, titmice, swallows, nuthatches, woodpeckers and even screech owls and wood ducks will all use a nesting box. Make sure your nesting box has the right sized entry hole and dimensions for the species you’re trying to attract, and also that it has ventilation at the top, drainage holes at the bottom and a removable side so you can periodically clean it out. And no perches, which only serve as convenient handles for nest predators such as raccoons and snakes. Birds don’t need them.

  6. Keep Your Cat Indoors—A recent study by biologists from the Smithsonian revealed that our domesticated cats kill as many as 3 billion wild birds each year. It’s not the cats’ fault; they are just following instinct. But this predation by our domesticated species is unnatural and another way that we humans impact wildlife. Unfortunately, bells on your cat’s collar don’t really work. The only solution is to keep our cats indoors and don’t feed strays. Instead, spay and neuter your pets, support cat adoption efforts and keep your kitty happy inside with plenty of attention, treats and toys. Your cat will thank you as indoor cats live much longer, healthier lives than outdoor cats.

  7. Watch this clip from my NatGeo WILD series Pet Talk filled great ideas to keep your cat indoors and happy. The birds will thank you!

Garden For Wildlife Giveaway

Sign up for the Garden for Wildlife e-Newsletter before May 31, 2017 and be entered to win a “Habitat Helper” set to enhance your wildlife habitat garden that includes.

  • Bird feeder

  • Hanging Birdbath

  • Butterfly House

  • Wren Nesting Box

  • The award-winning wildlife gardening how-to book Attracting Birds, Butterflies and Other Backyard Wildlife, signed by its author National Wildlife Federation Naturalist, David Mizejewski.

Sign up for the newsletter and enter to win here.

Get Certified!

Any place where you can create a wildlife-friendly garden can be recognized as a Certified Wildlife Habitat® by National Wildlife Federation. Your yard, a local park, a container garden, urban rooftop, a schoolyard or corporate landscape, regardless of size, can serve as important wildlife habitat.

Certifying is as simple as providing the four habitat components—food, water, cover, and places to raise young—and practicing sustainable gardening techniques such as eliminating pesticides, conserving water and planting native species.

It’s a great way to get recognized and share with your neighborhood all the good you’ve done for the birds, butterflies, bees and other wildlife.

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