Birdscaping – Landscaping for Birds

Birdscaping is a portmanteau of birds and landscaping. It is the intentional effort to provide a natural setting to attract wildlife, especially birds, to an area, most typically your own backyard.

And there are many different ways you can provide a bird-friendly landscape.

Part 1 – Planting for Birds

1.1 Trees

Colorado Blue Spruce
Colorado Blue Spruce – Planted in 2013

Trees provide nesting, shelter/cover, and food sources for birds. It is best to check out books specifically on your local/regional area and to visit garden centers and nurseries near where you live. In Illinois we have a great resource for birdscaping, the University of Illinois Extension. In Ohio, there is the OSU Extension and many states have similar programs to help answer questions about what plants work best.

What I’m doing at the Callaway Farm: planted 21 trees in 2013, 3 more in 2015 and 31 this April. It is ambitious, but we are surrounded by farmland and need the trees for a windbreak, along with their benefit to wildlife.

1.2 Shrubs

Shrubs can provide a great source of berries and seeds for hungry birds. There are many to choose from, but some highly sought after ones include viburnum and chokecherry. Shrubs also provide cover and many flowering shrubs attract butterflies and other “good” insects.

What I’m doing at the Callaway Farm: planted several shrubs, some of which have already attracted a single hummingbird (that I’ve seen) and several butterflies. This is an area that I want to expand on with high-quality native shrubs.

1.3 Flowers and Grasses

Birdscaping with native wildflowers and grasses will attract a lot of birds with their seeds. Hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees are all attracted to many flowers as well.

What I’m doing at the Callaway Farm: planted a few Big Bluestem and asters. In the future, I am going to convert a large section of grass into a prairie, adding to it each year with seed stock from a family friend with a vibrant, healthy prairie. (He lives in a subdivision, further proof on how you can birdscape in many places!)

Part 2 – Provide a Water Source

2.1 Natural Water
If you are lucky enough to have a creek, pond or other natural wetland, then the only thing we can recommend is to keep it clean and let the birds be drawn in!

2.2 Bird Baths
There are many commercial bird baths available for purchase. The key for most songbirds is to have a shallow, non-slippery bird bath. These can be placed on a stand or at ground level, but make sure there is cover near by or less birds will make use of the bird bath.

We have had success with homemade drippers, essentially a semi-concealed hose that is turned on ever so slightly and drips into a basin. There are commercial water agitaters available as well; the key point here is that moving water makes for a bird magnet.

Cape May Warbler at bath
This Cape May Warbler came to a simple setup: lid filled with water and a dripping garden hose

In the winter, a heater can be used in cold climates to provide year-round refreshment and enjoyment.

2.3 Construct a Water Feature
While we have yet to do this, there are many pond kits that can be adapted to better suit birds and fit into your birdscaping plans. These can be expensive and quite a bit of work to install and maintain, but they definitely attract birds and all sorts of wildlife.

Part 3 – Feeding Birds

3.1 Types of Bird Food
There are many types of seed available but we suggest using black oil sunflower mostly with some safflower mixed in. Nyjer (often called thistle) seed is mostly for finches but isn’t necessary as they will feast on other food sources. There is a possibility of rouge seeds sprouting from errant seeds. “It typically will not germinate under your feeders since the USDA requires that all niger seed imported to this country be heat-treated to sterilize the seed.” – The Zen Birdfeeder

You can also feed birds suet, corn, grubs, fruit, and nectar for hummingbirds.

3.2 Types of Feeders
The number of feeders available is hard to comprehend. We won’t go into a fraction of the ones available but the top two choices are: hopper and platform.

Hopper feeders hold a lot of seed, are filled from the top, and dispense seeds by gravity as the seed is consumed. These feeders are great because of their capacity and ability to attract a wide variety of species.

purple finch at bird feeder
Purple Finch at Bird Feeder

Platform feeders are open “platforms” that often have a screen (for draining) and are positioned close to ground level. These are suitable to attract birds that normally prefer to eat near ground level. In fact, you can broadcast seed across the ground, patio, or sidewalk; the feeder is more to keep the seed contained.

3.3 Natural Bird Food

Consider planting sunflowers and native, seed-producting flowers. You can save some money over time on bird seed this way!

Part 4 – Provide Nesting Areas

4.1 – Natural Nests
Dead trees are not ugly and should be kept if possible. They provide a great place for nesting birds; woodpeckers dig out a nest cavity and other birds will make use of it.

Downy Woodpecker nest
Downy Woodpecker using a dying birch tree for a nest

Brush piles are great so long as you (and perhaps your neighbors or regulations) can tolerate a little bit of “mess”. Brush piles of dead branches and other vegetation provide wonderful cover and nesting potential for less audacious birds. These areas also attract insects, which in turn attract birds that won’t visit feeders.

You can let nature take its course by having an area that is “left alone”. This can provide for some interesting and natural plant growth. Birds and other animals are natural seed dispersers. Wild seeds are often embedded in the soil and when a grass patch is removed, these seeds may sprout and bring unique plants to your birdscape. Unfortunately, this is also a great chance for weeds to go wild, so pro-“seed” with caution.

4.2 – Nest Boxes
To encourage cavity-nesting birds, you can build or purchase nest boxes and put them around your property. Different sizes of boxes and entrance holes are used to attract different species.

Refer to the reference chart located in Identifying and Feeding Birds by Bill Thompson III, pages 66-67

Part 5 – Keeping Birds Safe

5.1 Cats indoors
Keeping cats indoors eliminates an unnatural predator for the wildlife your hard work at birdscaping has attracted.

5.2. No Harmful Chemicals
It is best to avoid weed killers and pull weeds by hand or with the use of a tiller or trimmer. Mulching is a great way to thwart the growth of weeds for the start, but no matter what, you’ll get some weeds!

Note: use of gas-powered trimmers (weed-whackers) does produce pollution but in many cases is still the best way to remove and reduce large weedy areas and is better than harmful chemicals.

5.3 Mitigating Window Collisions
Birds mistake the reflection off glass as part of the landscape. Bird collisions kill a lot of birds, even birds that appear to be only stunned. Feeder placement helps reduce window collisions. But outside of putting up netting on the windows, most commercial products only work somewhat at best. Window decals or attaching streamers to windows may help at least break up the glassy view, hopefully warning birds to avoid it.

See the American Bird Conservancy for information on reducing window strikes.

5.4 Keeping Things Clean
Regular feeder cleansing and bird bath washing are necessary to reduce the spread of disease amongst clustering birds. Bird baths often get scummy and need to be scrubbed clean. Periodically check your yard for potential dangers, litter, etc. that could be harmful to birds and other wildlife.

Part 6 – Attracting Other Flying Creatures

6.1 Bats
Bat houses are a simple way to provide a home for resident bats. Bats sometimes get a misinformed reputation but are wonderful mammals that eat a lot of mosquitoes.

bat house
Bat House at Callaway Garden

6.2 Butterflies and Moths
Butterflies are easy to attract and provide an enjoyable, up close view as they are not as easily spooked as birds. Other flying insects, spiders, grubs, moths, etc. should be encouraged as well; they provide food sources for migratory and resident birds.

birdscaping for butterflies
Common Buckeye Butterfly

Part 7 – Birdscaping Wrap Up

There are countless ways you can enhance your yard through birdscaping. A big first step would be to visit your local garden center or nursery and see what they have. One suggestion is to step down a size when purchasing plants, meaning if two sizes are available, go for the smaller one as it will save you money and will grow larger over time anyway. Also, make sure to check the roots of the plant you are getting to ensure they are healthy.

Web searches for bird-friendly gardening and native plants for wildlife will lead to a great deal of information and is especially useful when considering the particular region you live in.

Check your local bookstore or online for books on “gardening for the birds”. New titles are being produced all the time as more and more people want to bring wildlife closer to them and improve their immediate environment.

Good luck and we know you will enjoy birdscaping!