How to Create a Bird-Friendly Backyard Oasis

A pair of bluebirds with insects

In our little bird-friendly suburban backyard and garden, spring is announced each year by the recognizable song of Eastern bluebirds. Years ago, we installed bluebird nesting boxes on our garden fence to offer a place in suburbia for these bright blue visitors to nest and raise young.

Like clockwork, they arrive each year in male and female pairs to inspect the birdhouses. It’s like watching House Hunters: Bird Edition. First the male goes into one of the bird houses to inspect and look around. He emerges, hops over to the female who is waiting patiently on the fence, and they seem to lock eyes for a moment.

The female then ventures into the abode, her curious gaze surveying the interior. As I watch, I wonder what she’s looking for and what factors help her decide. She exits after a brief inspection and then they move on to tour the next birdhouse.

eastern bluebird
Bluebirds are an annual sight and one of the first signs of life seen in the spring garden.

They go from one birdhouse to another, back and forth, touring each one again and again with the fervor of human homebuyers. Trills of debate and discussion are shared between them as if discussing the merits of each potential home.

This goes on for a couple of days until they finally decide which one is right for their family. I witness them gathering nesting materials from various spots in the garden – some pieces of old luffa vine from the garden arch, a beak full of straw mulch from a raised bed – to begin furnishing their new residence.

Admittedly, I have a tendency to anthropomorphize wildlife – guilty as charged. In all seriousness though, a safe place to nest and raise young is just one of the many necessities that birds require. A lack of bird-friendly habitat, along with other factors, has led to a steep decline in the populations of birds.

The Vanishing Birds of North America

North America’s bird populations are facing a crisis of alarming proportions. According to a comprehensive survey, the continent has lost a staggering 3 billion birds since the 1970s, equating to nearly 30% of the total population.

This decline, affecting both rare and common species, raises concerns about the future of bird biodiversity. However, amidst this disheartening news, there is hope. Gardeners, birdwatchers, and nature enthusiasts can play a crucial role in reversing this trend by creating bird-friendly yards and taking proactive measures to protect birds.

A nest with eggs
Trees, shrubs, and even potted plants can provide nesting sites for birds.

Understanding the Decline

The decline in North American bird populations can be attributed to various factors, including climate change, habitat loss, pesticide use, predation, shifts in food webs, and collisions with buildings.

Human activities such as the conversion of grasslands for biofuel crops and coastal development have disrupted crucial nesting and foraging habitats. Pesticides have had detrimental effects on bird populations, affecting their reproductive success and decreasing insects they rely on for food. Additionally, collisions with buildings, particularly glass windows, pose a significant threat to birds during migration.

A Baltimore oriole
One of over 20 bird species and our most surprising bird sighting, Baltimore Orioles took an interest in our hummingbird feeders a few years ago.

The Importance of Action

The recent findings on bird population decline serve as a wake-up call for individuals and communities to take immediate action. By implementing bird-friendly practices in our yards and gardens, we can provide vital habitats and resources for these beloved garden visitors. I believe that every small step we take can make a significant difference in preserving their biodiversity and ensuring a sustainable future for our feathered friends.

Goldfinch on a finch feeder
Finches like this Goldfinch appreciate a full sock feeder. We have also noticed they seem to have a penchant for flowers that have gone to seed so we leave spent zinnias and echinacea in the garden.

Creating a Bird-Friendly Yard

Over the years, we’ve implemented several practices to support wildlife in our backyard.  We learned through observation that the following steps made for a more bird-friendly garden and increased the bird population. 

Planting A Diversity of Plants:

Native and non-native plants both provide essential food sources, shelter, and nesting opportunities for birds. We now have a variety of plants that offer dense places for birds to hide as well as different types of seeds, berries, and nectar throughout the year.

We have intentionally planted many plants that birds utilize for food and shelter. But we’ve also allowed others like pokeweed to grow on the edges of the garden. I noticed how much birds like the poke berries. When we chose to “rewild” the lawn and not spray or pull every weed that grows, we were surprised by the number of beneficial plants that began to grow and thrive.

We leave flowers that have gone to seed in the garden and also weave some spent flowers into a trellis after deadheading. This provides a seed source for birds through the winter.
Providing Food For Birds:

Birds’ food needs are seasonal, and they need more than just seeds and berries. They also need lots of insects. As gardeners and homeowners, we can minimize or eliminate the use of pesticides in your yard. These chemicals can be toxic to birds and disrupt their natural food chain by decreasing the number of insects on a property. Insects and caterpillars are an important food source for birds.

Years ago, when we began to embrace ecological gardening practices, implement natural alternatives to control pests, cease treating our lawn with chemicals, and discontinued outdoor perimeter extermination, we saw a rapid increase in insects and amphibians in our yard. An increase in bird activity and diversity naturally followed.

Another way we provide food for birds it to allow flowers to go to seed and leave them in place for food or weave the seed heads into a garden trellis. In the fall we leave the leaves on the ground for overwintering insects that the birds can forage the following spring. During winter we supplement with birdseed, sliced fruit, and suet feeders.

A cardinal eating from a sliced orange in the snow.
In the winter when insects are no longer an option, we provide our back yard birds with fruit, birdseed and suet feeders.
Provide Bird Friendly Water Sources:

Birds need access to clean water for drinking and bathing. Install a birdbath, a shallow basin with a sloping edge, to accommodate birds of different sizes. Ensure the water is fresh and change it regularly to prevent the spread of diseases.

We keep a birdbath in the garden as well as a small pond. The pond was built to serve as a haven for frogs and toads but is also enjoyed by birds. A couple of large rocks in the pond serve as an exit ramp for frogs and a perch for birds.

We have also observed a hawk on several occasions sitting on the garden fence and hunting the frogs. Once we witnessed a hawk dive into the small pond and snatch up a bullfrog! I was so sad to lose our bullfrog but recognize it’s the circle of life and everything has to eat.

bird on a birdbath

Create Bird Friendly Nesting Opportunities:

We incorporate birdhouses and nesting boxes in the garden. To make it even more bird-friendly, we have clumping grasses, brush, trees, and dense shrubs to provide other safe nesting sites for birds. Potted plants often serve as nesting sites too. On more than one occasion we have found a nest full of eggs in potted ferns and flowers.

Different bird species have specific preferences, so research their nesting requirements, appropriate birdhouse entry sizes, and nesting box sizes to attract a diverse range of birds.

Consider adding snake baffles to the bottom of nesting boxes. Snakes have been an issue a few times. They come to eat the eggs, and that’s a sad thing to witness, so we’ve installed baffles to help prevent this.

A brush pile
A brush pile is a simple way to add habitat and food sources for birds.
Provide a Brush Pile:

Birds need safe places to hide from predators. We have a brush pile in our side yard where we pile up garden debris and allow the wild plants to grow up around it. Birds love it!

They hide in it, perch on it, eat berries from pokeberry plants and seeds from wild sunflowers that grow up around it. It’s also a source of insect life use the decaying wood as their habitat. It’s amazing what a small ecosystem that brush pile has become. 

Minimize Window Collisions:

Make windows more visible to birds by using window decals, screens, or external shutters. Position feeders and birdbaths away from or within three feet of windows to reduce the risk of collisions. We also draw our curtains or blinds during the day to help prevent bird strikes.

An indigo bunting after w window striked
This Indigo Bunting struck our kitchen window. Luckily, it was only stunned and recovered after about a half hour of resting safely in this basket. Now we have shades installed and keep them closed throughout the day.
Keeping Pets Indoors or Monitoring Them When Outside:

We love our house pets. They are part of our family, but cats are a huge contributor to bird mortality. We choose to keep our cats inside at all times for their own protection and the safety of local wildlife. Another option is to use a leash or harness when giving cats some time outdoors.

Not a lot is said about dogs and their impact on birds. I know from experience and have learned the hard way that our Labrador Retriever kills baby birds too. I have had to pry them out of her mouth and was heartbroken when I once discovered that she killed several bluebird fledglings when she was left outside unattended. Lesson learned! Now when I know there are baby birds leaving the nest in our garden, she is not allowed outside unattended.

baby bluebird fledgling
When fledglings are out of the nest, I keep my Lab inside to provide the parents time to safely teach their babies to fly out of the garden.

Resources and Tools for Bird Friendly Gardening:

It can feel like a daunting task to implement all of these measures at once. I learned these bird friendly actions over years of observation. There are organizations that provide checklists and guides for creating and even certifying your property as a wildlife-friendly habitat.

One that I really like is The National Wildlife Foundation’s Garden for Wildlife Certification. I went through the checklist for my yard and garden and it’s been certified for several years now. They are a great educational resource to help anyone who wants to be more intentional about setting up spaces for birds and other wildlife. That’s where I got the idea to keep a brush pile!

There are also online resources and databases to look up what native plants you can plant in your region. Here is a list of lookup tools on the Homegrown National Park website.

Wildlife habitat sign for a bird friendly garden

The Power of Individual Actions:

Since that first pair of Eastern bluebird house hunters showed up over a decade ago, the number of different bird species we now see in our garden each year is incredible. And the list keeps growing.

Not long ago I was a guest on a bird watching podcast called Bird’s Eye View. The host asked me to list the different birds I’ve seen in my backyard. I counted up about 20 different species of birds that are common sights, and those are just the ones I know the names of! 

With apps like iNaturalist and Merlin, I’m identifying more and more bird species in and around my garden every season. 

While the decline in bird populations may seem overwhelming, it is essential to remember that every action counts. By creating bird-friendly yards and spreading awareness, gardeners can inspire others to join the cause. 

We can even encourage neighbors, friends, and our community to adopt bird-friendly practices and create a network of interconnected habitats that support thriving bird populations.

Consider the recovery of eagles after the U.S. banned the insecticide DDT in 1972. That and other conservation actions taken by the American public proves that when the cause of a decline is removed, birds will make a comeback. 

What do you do to make your garden and landscape more bird-friendly? 

Dove sitting on a nest

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Cultivating Nature's Wisdom

I’m a nature photographer and gardener sharing how I created an ecological garden in a small suburban backyard. I also share a few tips for growing and using herbs to craft your own homegrown spice blends.

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