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.