How to Attract Wild Birds to Your Backyard

An amazing variety of birds, sometimes rare species and sometimes birds that have flown far outside their normal range, can make a home in backyards.

You can make your backyard a magnet for wild birds of many kinds with a modest investment in labor, bird food, and equipment, and patient trial and error.

In this article, we will discuss four sure-fire ways to attract wild birds to your backyard. We will start with the common denominator for attracting birds of every type.

Provide visiting wild birds with water features

Every bird needs water. Birds drink water. They use water to keep their feathers clean. Some species of birds love water for play.

The most reliable way for you to attract wild birds to your backyard with water is to install a fountain or stream.

Some birds, like warblers, are attracted to the sound of moving water. Hummingbirds prefer backyards with misters.

Moving water is attractive because movement purifies water. Think about the difference between a babbling brook and a stagnant pond.

Water features cost more upfront than traditional bird baths, and they require more maintenance, but they can be very enticing to wild birds, especially if you provide heated running water in the winter when other water sources are frozen.

What if you can’t afford a bubbling fountain or your own babbling brook?

A standalone bird bath will appeal to all kinds of birds. Migrating birds may fly in for a drink in the spring and fall.

Just be aware that bird baths attract all kinds of birds, including some birds that prey on smaller birds and their young.

Here are some more important considerations for your backyard bird bath:

  • Some smaller birds will avoid deep water. You will get the best results when your bird bath is no more than 2 inches (5 cm) deep.
  • Birds prefer water at ground level. Bird baths on pedestals make it easier for humans to watch the birds, but some wild birds will shy away from them.
  • Perching birds need something to grip with their toes when they visit your bird bath. A layer of gravel or small rocks will help.
  • Bird baths need to be placed near the cover. Smaller birds are vulnerable to larger predators when they are in the bird bath. Place your bird bath near prickly bushes or shrubs where they can fly for protection. And make sure your cat can’t get to your bird bath.
  • Birds prefer clean water. Cleaning out bird droppings and other debris every few weeks keeps your bird bath clean. Wear gloves so your hands do not touch the droppings.
  • Shy birds like tanagers, thrushes, warblers, and woodpeckers prefer a bird bath with a preening perch. They use the platform to surveil their surroundings to avoid predators like hawks and owls.

Grow native plants

From a bird’s point of view, native plants are like Mom’s home cooking. Birds that are wary of feeders will feast on berries, fruit, nuts, and seeds.

Or they will feed on the insects and worms that find food in the plants. Birds are hard-wired to recognize the native plants that are beneficial to them.

You won’t have to do anything extra to entice them to your backyard.

You don’t have to limit your backyard garden to plants that produce berries, seeds, and nuts.

Plants that provide nourishment for insects create a hunting ground for birds that eat them.

And it’s locally adapted native plants that provide a favorite food of many migrating birds, caterpillars.

Birds will feed on fruit, berries, seeds, and nuts from non-native plants, but caterpillars are a lot fussier about what they eat.

Many caterpillars will only feed on certain native species, leaving non-native plants alone.

Because caterpillars are a bird’s equivalent of an energy bar, they are a favorite food of many of the species you want in your backyard.

Birds are more than happy to feast on creepy-crawlies from native plants.

If you are just getting into planting native plants, you will get the best results fast by planting asters, a group of plants that includes daisies and sunflowers.

There are so many kinds of asters that, unless you live in a tropical jungle or in a polar region, there is sure to be some kind of aster that is native to your location.

It’s hard to go wrong with sunflowers. Sunflowers appeal to blue jays, Northern cardinals, chickadees, finches, grosbeaks, nuthatches, and some kinds of woodpeckers.

Coneflowers, known in herbal medicine as echinacea, attract just about every kind of migrating butterfly while they are in bloom, including fritillaries, painted ladies, monarchs, and swallowtails.

Then when they go to seed (don’t deadhead your plants after they finish blooming!), they feed blue jays, goldfinches, and cardinals.

You can attract an even bigger variety of birds with native flowering plants. Chickadees, goldfinches, orioles, tanagers, titmice, vireos, and wrens will patrol blooming plants to pick off pollinating insects that feed on them.

As the blooming season goes on, they will be joined by other kinds of finches, blue jays, cardinals, towhees, juncos, doves, quail, and woodpeckers.

And, as you probably know, hummingbirds are attracted to nectar-rich flowering plants.

The secret to keeping birds in your backyard all year long is to have a variety of species of plants that provide food all winter.

Many of these plants also provide nesting materials. Here are some ideas, adjusted for the different climates in North America:

  • In New England and the Canadian Maritime provinces, plant bayberries, blueberries (lowbush work better), elderberries (they are a nice addition to a hedge of arbor vitae protecting songbirds), mountain ash, red cedar, and sassafras.
  • In the northern US and central Canada up to about 55 degrees of latitude, plant sea buckthorn, currants, gooseberries, highbush blueberries, mountain ash, and san cherry.
  • In the Midwest of the US, plant buffaloberries, smooth sumac, staghorn sumac, blackhaw viburnum, and nannyberry viburnum.
  • In the US South and Southeast, plant southern wax myrtle, sour gum trees, rabbiteye blueberries, Florida elderberries, American holly, and muscadine grapes.
  • In the American Southwest, plant buckthorn, velvet elderberries, viburnums, and tasajillo (Christmas cactus).
  • In the American West, plant scrub honeysuckle, chokecherries, elderberries, junipers, blueberries, and currants.
  • In the American Northwest and British Columbia, plant blue elderberry, huckleberries, madrone, manzanita, and mountain ash.

There is nothing exclusive about these suggestions.

If a plant recommended for another area is also native in your location, try it in your backyard!

The more diversity you can provide in your plantings, the more likely you are to have backyard bird visitors throughout the year.

Provide protected nesting spaces

About three dozen species of birds common in backyards in North America are cavity nesters.

These birds like to build their nests in the security of confined spaces. They are naturally attracted to birdhouses and nesting platforms.

Which birds like birdhouses?

The most common birds you can lure to your backyard with nesting space are purple martins, bluebirds, house wrens, tree swallows, and house sparrows.

You may also get screech-owls, wood ducks, nuthatches, titmice, and woodpeckers. Cardinals, goldfinches, and orioles prefer to build their nests in trees.

Attract Birds Using the location of the birdhouse

Different species of birds prefer different nesting locations.

For instance, chickadees prefer birdhouses in a thicket or a stand of thorny shrubs.

Blue jays prefer a birdhouse backed up against woodland, for cover, but facing a grassy field where they can find insects.

House wrens like their birdhouse to hang from a low tree in the middle of an open yard.

Purple martins like to nest together, so they prefer “condos” or gourds hung in the same location.

Bluejays, on the other hand, prefer to build their nests at least 50 to 75 feet (16 to 25 meters) from any other birds.

Put up the right size birdhouse for the wild birds

Large birds need large birdhouses. Small birds need small birdhouses.

A mating pair of house wrens will thrive in a birdhouse that is 5 × 5 inches (12 × 12 cm) at its base and 8 inches (20 cm) tall.

A nesting couple of chickadees will build a more angular nest that fits better in a birdhouse with a 4 × 6 inch (10 × 15 cm) base that is also 8 inches tall.

Bluebirds require more room. They do best in a birdhouse with a base of 5-1/2 × 5-1/2 inches (about 14 × 14 cm) that is about 10 inches (25 cm) tall.

Wood ducks and screech-owls are better suited to a nesting box 10 inches × 10 inches (25 cm × 25 cm) at the base and a full 2 feet (50 cm high.).

Be careful about the size of the entrance hole

You can control which kinds of birds use your birdhouse by the way you size the entrance holes.

Wrens, for example, are tiny birds that can fit through an entrance hole that is just 1-1/8 inches (28 mm) across.

Making sure the entrance hole is no bigger than 1-1/8 inches will keep other kinds of birds out of the birdhouse.

Screech-owls and wood ducks, at the other extreme, need an oval-shaped entrance that is about 4 inches (10 cm) × 3 inches (7.7 cm).

One of the reasons they need a relatively tall birdhouse is to make sure the entrance hole can be drilled about 20 inches (50 cm) above the base, too high for raccoons and squirrels to get inside the house.

Chickadees, tufted titmice, and nuthatches will need a round entrance hole about 1-1/4 inch (28 mm) wide, and bluejays need at least 1-1/2 inches (38 mm).

Be sure that any hold you drill is relatively high on the box, about 80% of the way to the top, to keep out predators.

Hang your birdhouse at the right height

The final factor you need to consider in installing your birdhouse is that different birds prefer their house at different heights.

Chickadees are happy to nest just 4 to 8 feet (130 cm to 2 m) above the floor of a thicket.

Bluebirds prefer their nest to be secured to a platform on a post 5 to 8 feet (125 cm to 2 m) above your yard.

Purple martin houses need to be 15 to 20 feet (5 to 6.5 m) above ground level. Screech-owls and wood ducks prefer homes 20 to 40 feet (6.5 to 13 m) above ground level.

Is putting up a birdhouse too much trouble? Hang strawberry baskets at the corner of your house.

Or just set out nesting material (yarn, pieces of soft cloth, cotton balls) and let birds build nests on their own.

When you do attract birds to your birdhouses, clean and disinfect them after breeding season (wearing gloves) to keep them disease-free for their next opposites.

It is easier to do this if you use a birdhouse with hinges in its roof.

Install a bird feeder

Who isn’t attracted to a free all-you-can-eat buffet? Another great way to attract birds to your backyard is to install a bird feeder.

If you are new to backyard birdwatching, you may wonder why anyone would bother with a bird feeder. After all, birds are happy to find their food on the ground.

The big advantage of hanging a bird feeder is that it is off the ground.

With the right baffles and mesh sizes, you can make it a lot harder for squirrels, mice, rats, raccoons, and insects of all descriptions to compete with birds for the food in the feeder.

Another advantage to using a bird feeder is that you can usually find a kit that has everything you need to get started.

You won’t have to make multiple trips to the store or multiple purchases online to get started.

Also, you can find bird feeders with spring-loaded platforms that make sure they are used by just the species of birds you want to feed.

Backyard bird feeders are usually hung from trees.

Hanging a feeder in a tree gives feeding birds protection from predators (for example, hawks and owls) flying above them.

There are also bird feeders with protective feature you can hang from arbors, aches, poles, and gutters that are easy to keep clean and full.

When you are hanging a bird feeder:

  • Look for a location out of busy traffic areas like garden paths and sidewalks. Watch your backyard birds feed from a distance.
  • Choose a location protected from strong winds, so your bird feeder won’t say back and forth and spill its contents.
  • Hang feeders for small birds near cover so they can escape predators.
  • Choose a location that is shady, so your birds can see the food you are feeding them, but not so shady that birds don’t find it.
  • Make sure your bird feeder has strong and steady support.
  • Never hang a bird feeder in a location frequented by cats.

The food you put in your feeder depends on the kind of bird you want to attract.

We discuss bird food choices in much greater detail in the articles we have on how to attract specific kinds of birds to your backyard.

One more tip for attracting birds to your backyard is simple but very important: Don’t put out toxic chemicals in your yard!

Let your visiting birds do the work of pest control in your backyard.

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