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Invite Birds to Your Garden

By Robert Cox, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension agent, horticulture

If birds could conduct a popularity poll to rate their surroundings, how would your yard rank?

If it's filled with shrubs and trees that provide food, lodging and security, it likely would be high on their list of desirable places. The fact is, birds do express environmental preferences. They tend to congregate in areas that provide for their needs. You can create such an area in your back yard, even if it's a small city lot. A complete bird habitat, attractive to a variety of species, must provide for basic needs:

bird eating flowerseeds 1 (21184 bytes)   bird eatingf lowerseeds 2 (19230 bytes)

Bird Eating Flower Seeds

  • A variety of food sources, such as seeds, acorns, berries, fruit and insects.

  • Cover and shelter, including shade, areas to hide and to find protection from wind and cold.

  • Water for bathing and drinking, whether in pools or birdbaths.

  • Areas for courting, mating and raising young.

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Birds at birdbath

Even modest landscapes can provide for the basic needs of birds. You'll want to try annual and perennial flowers, some lawn, ground covers, flowering trees, a shade tree or two, dwarf fruit trees and a vegetable garden. These plantings will provide birds with a wide choice of foods, including sunflower seeds, corn or cherries (after you've harvested your share). From low-growing flowers and grasses to the tops of large trees, such a landscape also will provide a choice of places for bird activities.

Additionally, research suggests that areas with a high degree of biodiversity attract a variety of beneficial insects and have fewer pest insect problems. Butterflies and honeybees also become more numerous.

Here are some considerations in establishing bird or wildlife habitats in your yard:

  • Assess your current landscape. Many common landscape trees and shrubs offer birds cover, but little food. If the lot is small, you can plant smaller trees, shrubs and dwarf conifers. You also might want to visit with those who live close by to about creating a neighborhood bird habitat.

  • Set a realistic goal based on yard size and current landscapes.

  • Gather information and utilize resources. In addition to Colorado State University Cooperative Extension, you can get information from the Soil Conservation Service, Colorado Division of Wildlife, the National Wildlife Federation and Audobon Society. A landscape architect or designer also might be helpful.

  • Form a workable plan on graph paper. For shrubs and perennials, plant in groups of three, five, seven or larger odd numbers. You may have room for only two or three larger trees.

  • Consider the plant's growth habit, mature size and cultural needs. Locate plants so you can watch birds from inside the house. Plan for a sitting area outdoors to enjoy the birdscape.

  • Decide how much time and money you can afford. It takes time for plants to grow and develop. Portions of the total landscape can be planted over time so budgets aren't strained. If you don't mind waiting for your landscape to mature, you can install smaller, less expensive plants.

  • Integrate your efforts to attract birds with other "green concepts," such as energy conservation and xeriscaping. For example, Russian-olive and hackberry trees are drought-tolerant species that can be used in a birdscape. By planting them on the east, west and south sides of the home, they'll provide summer shade, decreasing the need for cooling or air conditioning. These trees lose their leaves in fall, so winter sun can help with passive heating of the home, decreasing the need for home heating.

  • Reduce lawn area to what is needed for recreation and landscape enhancement. This will save water, energy and -- if you supplement lawn with trees -- it also will provide sanctuary for birds.

Extensive lists of plants for birdscapes can be obtained from the organizations listed above, but the following tips provide a start:

  • Birds relish mulberry trees (Morus spp.). Consider them on a large acreage, but think twice if your lot is small. Birds, after eating the mulberries, will make fantastic messes because of the cathartic nature of the berries.

  • Hummingbirds are attracted to trumpet-shaped flowers, such as Penstemons and Camposis (trumpet vine).

  • Privets, which often are planted to create a formal, sheared hedge, are more attractive to birds if they are left unsheared. This allows fragrant flowers and berries to develop, to the delight of birds.

  • A chain link fence can contribute to your bird garden if you plant it with Virginia creeper. It will vine through the links, provide berries for birds and provide a showy red fall foliage color.

Woodpecker eating berries on Virginia Creeper (15732 bytes)

Woodpecker eating berries on Virginia Creeper

Photographs by Judy Sedbrook.

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Date last revised: 01/05/2010