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Creating a Backyard Bird Habitat is Easy
Creating a backyard bird habitat is easy to do and helps the bird population too. Unlike domesticated birds, with so much of their natural habitat being torn down to make way for housing and other development, many wild birds can't always find food, shelter and water. This article will explain how to attract birds to your yard.
I used to live in a house that backed up to a ravine. There were lots of trees around and that meant plenty of birds (and other wildlife) to watch. I learned to recognize various bird calls such as the cardinal’s sharp whistle. The mourning dove’s coo would greet me in the morning and at night, owls called to each other across the ravine.
Alas, I’ve been living on a busy street for the past 14 years and rather than being surrounded by birds’ natural environment, I’ve had to create one for them.
Creating a backyard habitat for birds is easy and relatively inexpensive. I live in a town in the Midwest but whether you live on an island, in the desert or in the northern woods, there are four basic elements you need when making your yard inviting to birds.
Birds need water year round
Although people know that birds need food in the winter, they often forget that it is just as important to provide fresh water too. Your backyard bird habitat should provide water for birds during the hot and dry summer months but if you live in an area with freezing temperatures, your birdbath might be one of the few sources of water for birds.
To keep the water flowing, you might need to buy a heating element for your birdbath or fountain.Some birdbaths, such as the KozySpa have a built-in heating element. The cord runs up inside the birdbath pedestal and keeps the bowl heated.
Besides having a pedestal birdbath, consider providing a shallow bowl of water on the ground for larger birds such as mourning doves. Some low birdbaths have a heated bowl. What's nice about this type as well as the KozySpa, is that there is no heating element that is placed inside the bowl which can fall out.
Birds also need water to clean themselves. Bathing helps birds maintain their feathers. When their feathers are damp, dirt loosens and birds find it easier to preen themselves. When a bird preens itself, it's rearranging it's feathers and distributing oil from its preen gland. This helps to waterproof its feathers and creates a layer of air under the feathers that insulates them from the cold.
Here are some tips to consider when placing a birdbath in your yard to attract birds, especially during the winter:
- Don't put it under a bird feeder. You don't want seeds and bird droppings falling into the water
- Don't put it near where a cat might hide, waiting to pounce on an unsuspecting bird
- Do put it near a tree so a bird can fly into it's branches for safety if necessary
- Do put it near an electrical outlet if you are using a heating element
Different feeders attract different birds
If you can provide a wide variety of food sources, you'll attract a lot of different kinds of birds. Birds will feed on seeds, grains, nuts, flower buds, insects and berries.
Planting fruit-bearing shrubs and trees not only beautifies your yard but also provides food for the birds. The feeder I have is between two over-grown bush cherries. Last year I planted three berry bushes and I fully expect to share their fruit with the local birds.
If you live in an apartment and can’t plant anything, birdseed will do the trick. You have to decide what kind of bird you want to attract because that will depend on the type of seed and feeder you get. I buy a higher-quality birdseed mix that is almost exclusively black-oil sunflower seed because I know it will attract my favorite bird, the cardinal; many other species enjoy it as well. Cheaper birdseed mixes contain white milo, cracked corn and wheat along with striped sunflower seeds. You’ll need a hopper or tube type of feeder for this type of seed or mix.
A platform feeder or tray filled with millet or corn will attract sparrows and doves.
Finches are a beautiful species of bird that are particularly fond of a tiny black seed from India and Africa called nyger (thistle). Because the seed is so small, you’ll need a thistle feeder, which has smaller holes.
If you want to attract hummingbirds, plant red flowers or make nectar available to them. A simple 1:4 sugar/water solution will do. Just combine one part sugar to four parts water, boil the solution for a couple minutes to help the sugar dissolve and slow fermentation. Allow it to cool completely before filling a hummingbird feeder.
Suet is made of beef fat and often has birdseed, berries, or peanut butter mixed in. It’s formed into blocks so you’ll need a suet feeder – a wire cage – to hold it. Woodpeckers, nuthatches and wrens like suet.
When thinking of the feeder and types of food, keep these tips in mind:
- Don't just throw seeds out on the ground. Seeds can get contaminated by dampness, mold, bacteria and lawn fertilizers.
- Do pick a spot that's convenient for you. If it's very cold or wet and the feeder is empty, you might not want to brave the elements to fill it.
- Do clean your feeder occasionally. If there's been several days of rain, let the feeder dry out before you fill it again so the seeds don't spoil. Birds will stop feeding if the seeds are bad. Or if you see ants crawling on the hummingbird feeder, rinse it out before refilling it.
Give the birds some shelter
Those same shrubs and trees you planted for food also shelter birds from bad weather and predators. Some people keep their cats indoors or declaw them to prevent them from harming birds. True confession here: I don’t believe in keeping my cat inside and yes, the great hunter has gifted us with a few dead birds (and one he brought into the house which we managed to rescue and return outside). It’s the circle of life, a fact of nature and it hasn’t deterred birds from coming to our feeder.
The National Wildlife Federation recommends at least two places for birds to find shelter. Like food, different types of shelter will attract different types of birds. For instance, prairies and marshes are both available at the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary in W. Alton, Mo. If the following aren’t already available, try creating these safe spaces:
- evergreens to give many bird species shelter during the winter
- dense shrubs and thickets for birds such as catbirds and Carolina wrens
- marshes and wetlands for red-winged blackbirds and black terns
- dead trees are home to many species of woodpeckers
A home to raise their young
How and where birds nest is as varied as the creatures themselves. Some nesting sites birds choose are no-brainers. Woodpeckers nest in cavities of dead trees and marsh wrens attach their nests to reeds and cattails in wetlands. Chimney swifts use their saliva as glue to build their twig nests onto a vertical wall within a chimney, barn or well. Kingfishers burrow tunnels into riverbanks where they lay their eggs.
If you want to attract to your backyard habitat the many species of birds that require a cavity for nesting, you can build a nesting box. You can find plans for the ubiquitous bluebird house at a site such as this one. Be sure to use untreated lumber such as cedar and don’t add a perch. House sparrows will sit on the perches to peck at the other birds using the nesting box.
- Don’t use insecticides and lawn chemicals – they can be harmful to birds
- Remember to clean your feeders on a regular basis, especially after heavy rain when the seeds might turn moldy and sprout
- Keep a set of binoculars nearby so you can observe the birds without getting too close and scaring them
As fields and woods continue to be cleared for urban development, birds lose their homes. You can help them by turning your backyard into a bird habitat. The added benefit is that you may also attract butterflies, chipmunks, reptiles and other small wildlife.
May is Garden for Wildlife Month so why not take steps today to create a certified backyard bird habitat!