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How to Attract Birds to your Garden

Baby Bird

This morning I awoke to the sound of a bird chorus, chirping blissfully, announcing the arrival of spring.  Once again, it is that time of year, when nature busies itself with its most important task, the task of reproduction.

Every living thing feels the necessity and urgency of needing to protect its own species and to help it to persist on to the next generation. So much so, that mating and nurturing offspring takes a number one priority, even over food and rest, for most wildlife.  Many parent species will give their lives without hesitation to protect their offspring.

So since the drive to have a family is so strong, what can we do to help birds in their quest?  Fortunately, there are a number of things we can do that are easy and will bring the splendor and wonderment of watching birds closer to our homes.  There is nothing sweeter than the experience of watching adorable baby birds clumsily frolicking around in your garden.

Nesting Boxes

If you haven’t done so already, now is the time to head out into your yard and prepare nest boxes for this year’s mating season. Nest boxes should be checked for holes or damaged areas that may need to be repaired or replaced. It is most important that the nest boxes stay dry inside, otherwise cold rains and musty conditions could harm nestlings and slow their development. Old nests should be carefully removed and thrown out.

Wear gloves when you do this and be sure to wash your hands afterward. Wasp, ant, or spider nests, as well as any other debris, should be removed and swept out. A clean box is a healthy box.  However, once a bird has already started building a nest, do not remove it or touch it.  Our native songbirds are protected by Federal Law which prohibits people from removing or destroying nests, eggs, and birds.

Now, take a look at the entrance hole to the nest box.  Has it been widened by gnawing mice, prying raccoon paws, or just from age and use?  If so, it will need to be repaired. It may be easier to attach a nest box entrance hole metal plate, which can be found at wild bird stores. This is usually a metal plate that is made to certain size specifications of particular nesting birds.

The metal plate limits the size of the entrance hole to comfortably fit certain birds, like a small chickadee, or a larger bluebird. But if the entrance to your nest box is larger than it should be, consider getting one of these metal plates to make it smaller.  A hole that is too large could mean death to the nestlings, since a raccoon, crow, jay or other bird or animal could reach right in and grab the eggs or baby birds.

House FinchIf you are considering adding some new nest boxes to your yard this year, now is the time to do it. And don’t delay. Birds have been scouting out availability since February, so the sooner you can get those boxes up, the better chance you have of them getting used by birds this year. Be sure that any nest box you purchase is made specifically for the safety and comfort of birds. Some fancy boxes are attractive to us, but are not very useful for birds. In addition, look for a nest box that has a door on the side or top that opens wide.  This is important for being able to clean out old nests and maintaining the cleanliness of the nest box.

Placement of nest boxes is essential. Be sure to face boxes away from frosty northerly winds. In addition, do not hang boxes from tree trunks which will cause them to be more susceptible to cat, snake, and raccoon attacks. Mounting nest boxes on posts or poles is a better choice. Be aware that some birds, like bluebirds, prefer boxes made to their particular specifications and placed in specific locations. And also, do not expect more than one pair of the same species to nest in your yard.

Usually birds of the same species are too competitive to share, and they like to have a large distance from one another.  However, different species of birds will nest in the same yard.  Competition for nesting is fierce even from species that differ from one another, so be certain that no nest boxes are placed within 20-30 feet of each other so that all birds feel safe.  Learn more about attracting specific species of cavity nesting birds on websites such as the National Wildlife Federation, the Audubon Society, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Tree Hollow

Tree Hollows

Besides offering manmade nest boxes, birds are attracted to natural tree hollows. Woodpeckers create nesting holes in older trees, which are then used by other birds in subsequent years. Snags are dead trees that are left standing and can be trimmed back so that they no longer are a threat if they fall.  They are very attractive to a number of birds, such as woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees, wrens, titmice, bluebirds, swallows, owls, warblers, and maybe the occasional American kestrel. These birds and others will not only use the snag as a potential nesting site, but will also use the snag for finding food.  You can ‘hide’ a snag by training a vine on it, such as virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana) or native honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens).

Using Plants as Nesting Spots
Open Nest

There are many other birds that do not use cavities for nesting, so don’t stop at nest boxes. Be sure that your yard has options for open nesting birds and you might find cardinals, doves, finches, jays, mockingbirds, catbirds, and robins setting up house in your garden. The more trees and shrubs you have, particularly native ones, the more birds you will have coming to your yard. Good native woody plants for nesting birds include oaks, maples, sycamores, sweetgums, dogwoods, viburnums, elderberry, ninebark, and buttonbush.  Just be sure to integrate plants into your garden that are native to the Mid-Atlantic region.

Plant a mixed hedge of native shrubs around the border of your property to be used by birds as a place to hide, rest, eat, and raise a family.  Tiered planting – which means tall trees are under-planted with shrubs, then herbaceous perennials, then groundcovers, simulating a ladder effect – are particularly attractive to many different kinds of birds.

If you are lucky enough to have a large meadow-type area, be aware of the different times ground nesting birds may have active nests.  Many of our native sparrows and other birds, like to build their nests on the ground or in the center of tall grasses, so mowing may have to wait until late winter, when birds and butterflies are no longer using the area. Do you have nesting boxes, but still don’t get any birds, but the occasional non-native House Sparrow?  Perhaps your yard is still lacking in something important.

Native Oak

Using Plants to Feed Birds

If you are a bird, what do you really look for when searching for a place to raise a family?  Besides safety, you look for FOOD.  Food is the number one contributing factor birds use to decide where to build their nests.  But birds are not looking for sunflower seeds, peanuts and suet.  And they certainly do not look for Japanese barberry or Bradford pears, either.  They are looking for native plants.

Most baby birds do not eat the same foods that their parents eat.  They eat insects.  For instance, even if the parent bird is normally a seed-eater, its offspring will only be fed insects until adulthood.  This is true for hummingbirds, too.  Baby hummingbirds are fed insects until they are old enough to go out and feed on their own, and then even as adults they eat a combination of nectar and insects.  So, if you want to enjoy the beauty and amazement of frequent bird visitors in your garden, you will need to be sure you have native plants.

Only native plants provide birds with what they need at exactly when they need it.  Be sure to offer a variety of native plants, with varying bloom times, different types of seeds (such as berries, nuts, small and large seeds), and differing heights.  Birds look for the places where food, in the form of insects, is plentiful and easy to obtain.  After all, baby birds need to be fed continuously for a month or more.

One more note on the insects: only our native plants support our native insects that are most edible and nutritious for birds.  And by insects, I don’t mean the stink bugs, mosquitoes and other annoying pests.  Most of our pests are not native and came here accidentally on non native plants.  So don’t be afraid to ‘attract insects’ to your yard.

For nesting birds, some plants are better than others.  Most native trees are spectacular sources of insect food and seeds.  Be sure to have native oaks, birches, and American beech in your yard.  Plants that attract early pollinators are a good bet.  Try native flowering trees, such as flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), redbud (Cercis canadensis), and choke cherry (Prunus virginiana).

Early flowering perennials include, moss phlox (Phlox subulata), mountain stonecrop (Sedum ternatum), native violets (Viola pedata, Viola striata, and Viola conspersa to name a few), wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), golden ragwort (Senecio aureus), and Allegheny pachysandra (Pachysandra procumbens).

Some shrubs to try include elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa), pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia), and maple-leaved arrowwood (Viburnum acerifolium).

In addition to attracting pollinators, many native plant species are also butterfly host plants.

Baby Bird

The Importance of Healthy Soils

Having healthy soil contributes to the amount of bird visitors frequenting your yard.  Healthy soils are not only good for plants, but are good for birds because they contain many soil-dwelling bugs.  These bugs, such as worms, sow bugs, and many others, are part of a nutritious baby bird diet.  Be sure to have places where you allow leaves to stay on the ground to decompose, such as under shrubs or even in flower beds.  Cover all beds annually with a 2”-3” layer of hardwood shredded mulch, and over time your soil won’t need much more to give it a rich, dark, crumbly texture that is great for plants.  Just be sure to leave some room around the crown of each plant so as not to suffocate them.

So go ahead outside and make a checklist of what you’ll need for the birds this year.  Be sure to include nest boxes, native shrubs and trees for open nesting, and plenty of native plants for baby bird food.  And before long, your garden will be brimming with excitement, beauty, and the sounds and sights of all those baby birds.

All photos by Natalie Brewer.

Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. (I am writing this as Conservation Chair of the Montgomery Co. Bird Club.) Really wish you had not illustrated this otherwise great article with a photo of an invasive House Sparrow entering a nest box. House Sparrows are the bane of our native hole-nesting birds, killing bluebirds (adults and chicks) in their nests, evicting threatened Purple Martins from their colonies and so forth. Those of us who support native birds – especially the tireless individuals who maintain bluebird nest boxes – are constantly trying to keep their depredations to a minimum. It is tragic to find a bluebird mother killed on her nest, or her precious eggs broken, so that House Sparrows can take over the box. We are constantly pulling out house sparrow nests and no one should allow one to occupy a nest box in their garden. They are not protected until the Migratory Bird Treaty Act so removal and destruction of their nests is not illegal.

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