How to Create a Healthy Yard for Birds

Jennifer NicholsField Notes

Several years ago, I read my 11-year-old son’s persuasive essay explaining why spring is the best season. His three arguments were based on sports, weather, and birds. It caused me to wonder, why do birds returning to our area each spring bring joy and hope to people of all ages? Maybe it is their hustle and bustle of activity as the weather warms. Or maybe it is the beauty and apparent fragility of these tiny creatures. My own personal theory is that they sing. Henry David Thoreau wrote of the wood thrush:

“Whenever a man hears it, he is young, and Nature is in her spring; whenever he hears it, it is a new world and a free country, and the gates of heaven are not shut against him.”

I believe the wood thrush, and all of our songbirds are worth providing for and protecting.

Listen to the wood thrush song.

Unfortunately, many of our bird populations are declining. For example, according to Audubon Pennsylvania, the Wood Thrush population has declined 62% since 1967.  This is due largely to a loss of healthy woodland habitat.

What can we do to reverse this trend? The answer resides in how we care for land. Healthy properties offer shelter, food, and water, and manage problems likes pests in a responsible manner.

Providing Shelter

For most birds in our area, a mix of evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs is all you need to provide shelter. And the more the better. Large expanses of lawn do not provide habitat for birds. Properties with deep borders and wooded property lines are beautiful and will attract many different bird species.

There are also a few ground-nesting bird species, such as the Eastern Meadowlark. If you are lucky enough to have a large property, install a wildflower meadow! And be sure that your annual meadow mowing occurs when these birds are not nesting.

Food for Birds

Food is the next element in a healthy yard for birds. And when it comes to providing food for birds, nothing beats native plants. Some of our feathered friends may eat seeds and and some eat berries, but nearly all of them raise their young on insects. So, if you want birds on your property a healthy insect population is critical.

To attract insects, studies show that insects and native plants are critical. For example, the mighty oak hosts up to 517 different kinds of caterpillars for our birds to eat (Tallamy, Douglas, Bringing Nature Home, page 126). In contrast, non-native ornamental plants support minimal insect species. And while most people do not notice the insects, they do see the many different bird species flitting among the branches looking for meals.

In addition to supporting insect populations, native plants provide nutritious seeds and berries for birds at appropriate times of year. Birds are familiar with our native plants and look for them, especially during migration.

We call these ecological relationships the food web, which must be complex and varied in a healthy environment. A diverse landscape of native plants is the first step in achieving a complex and healthy food web in your yard.

Adding Water

Along with shelter and food, birds need water. A simple bird bath will attract birds to your yard and provide a great spot for you to watch these invited guests. Better yet, attract birds with the sound of a small fountain or bubbler and enjoy hours of watching birds splash in the trickling water.

Besides adding water to attract birds, manage storm-water to keep it clean. Install a rain garden to reduce erosion, provide beauty, and mitigate flooding. This too will benefit birds.

Eliminate Pesticides

From Emerald Ash Borer to Spotted Lantern Fly, pests abound in the garden. But many people are unaware that using pesticides to control them has serious consequences. For instance, when a tree is treated to control an infestation, it is being treated with a chemical that kills all insects on that tree. This type of pesticide use eliminates critical food for birds and adds toxins to our landscapes.

See What to Know Before Reaching for Pesticides and use Integrated Pest Management if you decide treatment is necessary.

You may already see birds on your property, but by providing abundant shelter, food for adults and their young, and a constant source of water, you will be surprised at the number of different bird species that arrive in your yard. Follow these steps to create a healthy yard for birds, and all that’s left is to get a good pair of binoculars!