By: Lauren D. Pharr, Graduate Research Assistant in Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology; Ornithologist, & Science Communicator
Birdwatching has become a wonderful activity for researchers and nature enthusiast everywhere. Nature provides one with a sense of calmness and peace, and also brings wonders to a curious mind at work.
Backyard birdwatching is a hobby for any and every age group and is practiced widely. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, eighty-eight percent (41 million) of birders are backyard birders. Now there is no right way to “backyard bird,” however, there are some valuable tips to follow when wanting to attract birds to your backyard.
In this article, I will provide you with some useful tips and resources that will help you become the best backyard birder that you can be. You will be an expert on how to attract certain species of songbirds by taking into account their food, water, and habitat preferences. You will also be more aware of bird friendly flora as well as safe practices for keeping your backyard feeders clean. I will also provide my advice on how you can take your backyard birding to the next level.
Keep reading to discover my tips for Attracting Backyard Songbirds.
Attracting Birds by Species
Just like we as humans enjoy different things, so do birds. Being sure that you are providing the right resources that will attract the right species of bird is key.
Various birds love all different types of fruits, seeds, and insects. To attract fruit eaters such as Baltimore Orioles or White-eyed Vireos, you can leave out bright fruits like oranges. To attract invertebrate eaters such as bluebirds, you can provide mealworms. Your common backyard seed eaters such as Northern Cardinals, Carolina Chickadees, House Finches, and Tufted Titmice will all benefit from black sunflower, white millet, and thistle. For good quality seed, buy these seeds separately and then mix them together instead of buying an already mixed bag of seed. Finally, we cannot forget our species of woodpeckers and nuthatches who love a good suet cake!
When it comes to the appropriate feeder itself, go for durable feeders instead of decorative. A good, durable tube feeder will be able to hold a good amount of seed while also keeping it accessible for our feathered friends. A platform feeder will be great for bigger seeds such as mixed millet and sunflower seeds and also provides very open access for ground feeding birds such as Mourning Doves and Chipping Sparrows. You can also place your fruit or mealworms in platform feeders.
Hummingbirds get their own spotlight here. Hummingbirds are attracted to the color red, hence, why most hummingbird feeders are red. You can simply make your own hummingbird nectar by remembering the simple ratio 4:1 or four parts water to one part sugar. Also, there is absolutely no reason to add red dye. Although not scientifically proven, licensed wildlife rehabilitators have suggested that red dyes are linked to causing harmful effects to Hummingbirds who have been found by to have high volumes of red dye in their system. In turn, your hummingbirds will absolutely love the sugar water as is I promise. I encourage you to visit my blog post on Supplemental Feeding for Hummingbirds: Why Red Dyes are a No. In terms of how to clean your hummingbird feeder, that will come later in the article.
Fun Fact: Dead wood not only provides habitats for birds but also insects. The more insects in your yard, the more the birds will love you!
Birds have no difficulties finding water, but there is no harm in providing them with a good water source as an alternative. Standing or Dripping Bird Baths with a roughened surface for a “no slip” experience are favored by songbirds. Be sure to clean them monthly with soap and warm water in order to remove any litter that has fallen or bacteria that has formed.
Fun Fact: If you notice that there are not many birds visiting your bird bath, experiment by moving the bird bath around to different spots in the yard. Also, be wary about whether there is cover or no cover.
Cover is extremely important and probably one of the most important key elements when attracting songbirds to your backyard. Birds want to feel safe, and this means having a place where they can escape from predation while also having a place to roost and raise their young. Having a ton of tree cover and vertical structures not only provides birds with a safe habitat, but it also increases the variation of birds in your backyards. Different cover layers will bring along the different birds that favor those layers. For example, shrub layers are favored by species such as the Carolina Wrens and Brown Thrashers while subcanopy layers are favored by species such as Wood Thrushes or Northern Cardinals. Species such as Pine Warblers and Brown-headed Nuthatches enjoy the canopy layers.
Nest boxes are also beneficial to species such as Eastern Bluebirds and Chickadees. Mount your nest box on a pole rather than a tree to avoid predators such as snakes. You can also apply predator guards. Space your nest boxes appropriately (~200 ft. a part) and be sure that they have the appropriate drainage and ventilation. Be sure to clean nest boxes after use as well.
Fun Fact: Brush Piles are beneficial and well loved by species such as White-throated Sparrows and Carolina Wrens, especially in the winter when there may be a decrease in cover. Be sure to check with your neighborhood or home regulations (if this applies to you). It is a violation in some living spaces to have a brush pile in your backyard.
Keeping it Native
Be sure to always try and keep it native when it comes to your backyard and attracting wildlife, particularly birds. Some native plants include Indian Grass and Wild Sea Oats, just to name a few. Promote plant diversity; having an array of native plants will attract an array of bird species. Cluster plants together the best you can instead of spreading them out.
Avoid Invasive Plants: Avoid invasive plants such as Bradford Pear, English Ivy, or Autumn Olive. The list goes on so please do your research before wanting to add certain plants to your backyard.
A Clean Feeder Equals a Happy Bird
Be sure to clean your bird feeders regularly. For tube, platform, and suet feeders, be sure and wash them out at least once every two weeks with warm water and soap. This will provide the opportunity to rid of any mold or bird droppings. These containments can cause harm and spread infectious diseases amongst the bird population. Once your feeder has been cleaned thoroughly, let it dry before refilling again.
For hummingbird feeders, the process is still the same, however, there is a big difference in the time period. As Hummingbird feeders sit outside for long periods of time, especially in the hot heat, bacteria can form and insects such as ants can accumulate. Bacteria has been proven to be detrimental to Hummingbirds, so you want to make sure that these feeders are cleaned in a timely manner. Clean your Hummingbird feeder every 3-5 days. I myself clean my feeder every 3rd day. I have personally seen an increase in my Hummingbird population due to a constant clean feeder.
The Next Level of Birding
Once you put these simple tips into practice, I can guarantee you that your backyard is going to be overflowing with a variety of bird species. Once you see more species of birds in your yard, you may see some new species that may pop up. Here is where you can take your backyard birding to the next level! The best thing about birding is that you are presented with a challenge to identify species not only by sight, but also by sound. Here are some tips and resources on how you can begin to learn your backyard birds and amp up your bird ID skills:
Field Guides: Field Guides are wonderful for beginners. Field guides will not only provide you with pictures of birds, but they will also provide you with where particular birds are found (their range) and detailed descriptions including body markings and behaviors. Sibley Field Guides are what I use and they cover birds from all over the world (East, West, etc).
Mobile Apps: For those who are tech savvy and may not be so keen on carrying a book, there are tons of useful aps that help with bird ID as well as bird Song. The Ebird App by Cornell Lab of Ornithology allows you to track the birds that you see. This data can be submitted to be used by conservationists. Apps like Merlin Bird ID by Cornell and Audubon Bird Guide can help with Bird song. Tackle a list of birds and continuously flip through their variations of bird songs. All of these apps can be found on your app store!
Birding Equipment: One thing for certain is that there is no right way to bird. With that being said, you do not need fancy equipment to bird. Although there is nothing wrong with fancy equipment, I encourage beginners to get comfortable with the basics first. A good pair of binoculars is a great place to start!
I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes by artist Vincent Van Gogh:
“If you truly love nature, you will find beauty everywhere.”
I hope that these tips will help increase the beauty of birds in your backyard. Follow these and I guarantee that your backyard birds will thank you and stay around for a long time.
Visit my website to learn more about what I do.
Listen as the conversation of Backyard birds continues with Dr. Stephanie Schuttler on her podcast-The Fancy Scientist: A Material Girl Living in a Sustainable World Podcast; “Bird Basics with Ornithologist Lauren Pharr.”
Dr. Stephanie Schuttler’s recommended Binoculars as featured in her blog post “The Ultimate Field Work Packing List for Biologists and Ecologists.”
Visit my Blog for more Wildlife Content.
Learn more about my favorite bird guides-“Sibley Guides.”
Learn more about the top invasive plants in the United States-“Escape of the Invasives: Top Six Invasive Plant Species in the United States.”