For the Birds
From trees to flowers, here’s what to plant to attract birds—and keep them safe and happy.
First, they’d advise human operators of mowers, pruners, leaf blowers, and sprayers to back off a little. Then they’d ask you to provide more—more shrubs to nest and hide in, more trees, more berries, more flowers to attract insects and produce seeds, more wet leaves to harbor worms, more twigs for nest building.
And that lawn you work so hard on? Birds don’t get the appeal. Stephen W. Kress, writing in The Audubon Society Guide to Attracting Birds, is even a bit harsh: “Lawn itself, especially expansive rolling fields of it, is one of the most destitute bird habitats on earth.”
But you don’t have to turn your garden into an overgrown tangle to attract birds. Most of the things birds prefer will actually make the lives of gardeners easier and their gardens more beautiful. For example, replacing as much lawn grass as you dare with medium-size shrubs and small trees will save you time and money. Should a dandelion or two flower in the remaining turf, at least the goldfinches will be happy.
Vary Your Landscape
Like most landscape designers, birds would suggest that you add or nurture variety in your yard. Because different birds have different tastes in food and nesting places, the more varied your landscape, the more popular you’ll be with birds. You might even be able to pick the birds you want to attract.
Hummingbirds are the easiest example. They’re suckers, literally, for flowers shaped like tubes—think of salvia, honeysuckle, or trumpet creeper—and for red and orange. Not only will they visit flowers that meet their criteria; they’ll fight any bee, bird, or human in their way. I’ve been menaced—prettily, with helicopter sounds and tiny fierce chirps—by hummingbirds more than once. They never get closer than a few feet, but I’m willing to take the threat of a few pecks in exchange for a close-up of that surreal plumage.
Include plants of different heights in your garden. Starting at the top, if you have space for giant trees such as oaks, you’ll attract warblers and orioles, among others. If you’re lucky to have such trees, you already have the makings for the Mardi Gras of the bird world—spring warbler migration. It lasts about six weeks beginning in late April.
Look up into the leaves around midmorning, when warblers are most active, and there’s a good chance you’ll see spots of color zigzagging after the insects that fuel the warblers’ migration. Some warblers—the elegant black-throated blue is one—are kind enough to visit lower elevations, and a few, such as the spunky little yellowthroat, like to forage in shrubbery and hedges closer to eye level.
Yellowthroats let you get a good look; most of the others require a steady hand and binoculars.
If you don’t have room in your garden for forest-scale trees—most of us don’t—think of the flowering dogwood.
Humans look at a dogwood and see a lovely small tree with ethereal spring flowers and bright fall leaves. Birds see breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the berries that follow the flowers. The National Audubon Society estimates that no fewer than 36 birds feast on those berries, including thrushes, grosbeaks, and the king of woodpeckers, the gigantic pileated. The horizontal rows of holes you see in tree trunks, particularly fruit trees, are made by a member of the woodpecker family, the yellow-bellied sapsucker. Woodpeckers, including the sapsucker, don’t damage trees.
Crabapples, especially varieties that produce easier-to-eat small fruits, are another draw for birds, as are large shrubs including the berry-producing viburnums (common names vary), serviceberries, and fringe trees as well as smaller shrubs like the superb native sweetspire.
I see dozens of birds all year round in my modest-size flowering cherry trees. In spring, the Halloween-colored American redstart, one of the warbler clan, does its butterfly imitation there. Later I see orioles, catbirds, and flocks of cool cedar waxwings, which for some reason always remind me of a band of sensitive singer/songwriters.
Add evergreens for their year-round sheltering and food. Even in the iciest, windiest winter, a holly, white pine, cedar, or spruce has the density birds seek for shelter and the berries or seeds for fuel. Like a dogwood, a holly tree is close to heaven for a bird. Its dense, prickly leaves are there year-round to hide nests, provide protection from weather, and discourage cats and other predators. The berries are a long-lasting banquet to dozens of bird species. If you have a small yard, try slow-growing or dwarf versions of any of these trees.
Closer to the ground, one of my favorite birds, the Eastern towhee—with its tailored black, rust, and white plumage—likes to rumba back and forth in wet leaves scraping up seeds or insects. The towhee and the more familiar robin are only two reasons not to collect every leaf that falls but instead to rake them into mulching position under shrubs and trees, where they will eventually decompose and enrich the soil.
Your flower garden is another fruitful visiting place. Anything that resembles a daisy or sunflower is a good bet with birds. Every summer and fall, I see flocks of sweet goldfinches gorging on the seeds of my coneflowers and black-eyed Susans, taking a little splash in the fountain overflow, and then returning to the seed eating. Don’t be quick to remove faded flowers—a practice called deadheading—on any plant. That’s where the ripe seeds are.
Is Native Better?
There’s a heated discussion going on among ecologists and others about the value of native plants. “Native” isn’t easy to define, but generally a plant that has grown in a particular area before human intervention is considered native.
Many experts think native birds deserve native plants, partly because the fruits and seeds of these are tailor-made for native birds; they ripen at the time birds need food the most, birds recognize them, and they’re the right size and texture for birds to eat.
But the more important factor is that the opposite of native plants, “alien” or “introduced” plants such as kudzu, can be so vigorous that they smother all the more delicate and more interesting vegetation in their path.
Russell Greenberg, head of the National Zoo’s migratory-birds center, worries that these aggressive plants will take over valuable public habitats like streambeds and small parks that attract all kinds of birds and other desirable wildlife.
Unfortunately, many nurseries still sell invasive plants. If the label says “quick spreader” or “very vigorous grower,” be wary. An invasive plant can take over not only your garden but also your neighbor’s—and move on from there.
The Allure of Water
Under my cherry trees is a little pond featuring a sputtering fountain that tends to splash onto the patio next to it. To birds, this is a gorgeous aesthetic, and they flock to the puddles to bathe and drink. You’ll see the same thing if you have a hose that has sprung a leak: Birds come from all over to play like kids in a sprinkler.
Birds don’t care about fancy birdbaths, but they’ll splash in one if you provide it. It can just as easily be a large saucer such as the kind that goes under houseplants. Refresh the water frequently so mosquito larvae don’t have a chance to hatch, or keep it moving with a little gurgler or fountain. And make sure it’s shallow; birds won’t venture into water when they can’t see the bottom.
Keeping Birds Safe
Birds are hounded by a number of predators, chief among them cats. Everybody who works with or advocates for birds urges cat owners to keep their pets inside, especially during the spring and summer nesting seasons. Fledglings—recently hatched birds that don’t yet have their full flying plumage—are particularly vulnerable.
Peter Marra, an ornithologist and researcher with the National Zoo, cites a study showing that in places where cats were abundant, only 10 percent of fledglings survived. Where there were few or no cats, almost 60 percent survived. And never mind those bells on the cats’ collars; if birds hear them at all, they hear them too late. Some people think thorny plants discourage cats, but a determined cat is usually willing to take a few thorns.
Other predators are just part of the cycle of nature. Hawks can pick off most smaller birds with ease, especially ones feeding at feeders or on the ground. The Audubon Society suggests you make sure there are sheltering shrubs or trees no more than 20 feet from feeders. Hawks are fast and can outfly most other birds. Increasingly visible in our area, hawks are awesome to watch, and they pick off rodents, too.
Using chemicals in your garden is bad for birds in a number of ways: Chemicals poison birds directly, kill off food sources such as insects and caterpillars, and disturb the nesting cycle. If you want to encourage birds in your garden and the bird population in general, limit—or better yet eliminate—the use of poisons in your yard.
Window glass can be lethal to birds. You’ve probably heard the thump. Even if the bird rights itself and flies away, it’s likely to have suffered internal damage, which weakens the bird, making it vulnerable to predators. Large expanses of glass, particularly near feeders, are more dangerous than small panes. There are several ways to deal with this problem depending on how dedicated you are.
The Audubon Society says that attaching bird netting—the kind gardeners put over fruit trees to protect the crop—works well and, stretched tight over the window, is invisible to human residents most hours of the day. You can also buy sheets of translucent, lightly patterned decals that let light through and slightly distort vision but tell the bird not to fly there.
It’s Okay to Feed Them
In the winter, when natural food sources are less abundant, a feeder is a great way to attract birds. It’s fine to feed in summer, too.
Feeding was controversial for a while on the grounds that birds would become accustomed to the bounty and then starve when it disappeared. It turns out birds are smarter than that. They are used to the ebb and flow of food supplies, and they move along when one source disappears. Researchers at Cornell have shown that chickadees remember for at least eight months the places where they had a great meal.
Good bird feeders are available for little money at hardware and specialty bird stores as well as on the Internet. The birds you’d like to attract will determine the kind of seed you offer and perhaps the kind of feeder you buy.
Most experts say oiled sunflower seed attracts the greatest variety of birds with the least waste. Goldfinches especially love thistle seeds (actually “niger” or “nyger” seed), which are so small that they require a special feeder with small openings. Ready-made suet cakes attract a variety of birds, particularly in winter.
To discourage squirrels, you’ll probably need a baffle, a convex metal or plastic disk that you place over or under the feeder. Some people make it a lifetime quest to feed birds without feeding squirrels, but my experience is that squirrels will win in the end. Keep seed that falls from the feeder cleaned up or you may end up feeding other rodents, too.
Put your feeder within 20 feet of sheltering shrubs or trees and either right up against windows or several yards away so that fleeing birds won’t fly into them.
Finding Out More
There are lots of bird-identification books, but my favorites are the Peterson Field Guides (about $6 for general guides, $222 for specialties). They have drawings instead of photographs, and the information is succinct and useful.
For a general and exhaustive guide to luring more birds to your garden, try The Audubon Society Guide to Attracting Birds by Stephen W. Kress ($24.95).
Good binoculars are one of the enabling devices on the road to a bird habit. A wonderful pair is the small, easy-to-handle, and very crisp Olympus Outback 8x21 RC1. The list price is $111, but it can sometimes be found for less than $50.
Two informative Web sites:
• The National Zoo’s Migratory Bird Center. Go to nationalzoo.si.edu and search for “migratory bird center.” Especially interesting is the center’s Neighborhood Nestwatch program.
• Audubon Society, audubon.org. Every bit of information you could ever want about birds.