Landscaping for Birds

Attract feathered friends with thoughtful plantings.
Margaret A. Haapoja
March/April 2008
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Eastern bluebirds are easy to attract with nest boxes installed on meadow edges.
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Most folks love to watch birds, and some mark the seasons with their songs, but did you know bird numbers have been declining for decades? Sure, you put out a few feeders and a birdbath for water, but what our feathered friends really need is sustaining habitat. And that’s where you and I can really make a difference.

The National Audubon Society reports the average population of common birds in North America has fallen by 68 percent since 1967; some individual species numbers are down by as much as 80 percent. All 20 birds on the national Common Birds in Decline list – species like the evening grosbeak and eastern meadowlark – lost at least half their populations in the last four decades. Unless we take action to protect them and their habitat, these common birds have the potential to become uncommon.

Bird lovers can make a difference in several ways, but creating habitat at your place will have a major impact. With a little forethought and effort, you can create gardens and more permanent landscaping that look beautiful and provide food, shelter and nesting opportunities, and hopefully put the brakes on further bird losses in your area.

Gardens for the birds

Before designing your natural landscape, think of birds as guests and consider how to make them feel welcome. Duluth, Minnesota, City Gardener Tom Kasper suggests you evaluate the area where you want to create a bird garden.

“Start by drawing a map of your property that includes your home and other large structures,” Tom says. “Include existing trees and shrubs that will remain as part of the garden. Then begin outlining beds. These should flow with the curves of the land and provide a natural setting. Lastly, consider where you can place fallen and trimmed branches to create a brush pile. That is a perfect place for birds to hunt for insects, hide from predators and find protection from harsh weather.”

“An austere yard with a large lawn and a few non-native plants is popular in America today,” says Daniel Dix, landscape designer and owner of WoodSpirit Gardens in Backus, Minnesota. “But such yards are to birds like a desert is to us and are very inhospitable. Dense, low-growing shrubs and trees are important for nesting. I like northern white cedar, spruce, jack pine, dogwoods and willows, and native wildflowers attract insects that birds need for food.”

Kim Chapman, ecologist with Applied Ecological Services Inc. in Minneapolis, conducted a study in 1999-2000 exploring the effect of development on birds. He concluded that what depresses bird diversity is lack of variety in habitat types (such as grassland, savanna and forest) and habitat structure (the various heights of grass, trees and shrubs).

“Homeowners should look at their lot in the context of the neighborhood and install plantings that are consistent with what is around their lot,” Kim says. “If they have woods next door, then a planting of tall native shrubs as a border would be appropriate. If they are next to a wetland, they should plant prairie wildflowers and grasses. Large lot owners can serve the birds best by not clearing all the natural vegetation, by planting and mowing the smallest possible area of bluegrass sod, by not planting invasive non-native shrubs, flowers and grasses, and by keeping their cats and dogs inside or on leashes.”

Daniel points to a use of herbicides and pesticides that makes yards toxic to birds, and he also cautions owners not to allow their cats free rein outside to prey on birds. A recent Australian study discussed in the July 2007 issue of Biological Conservation reported that the use of a commercial collar-worn product called the CatBib reduced bird predation by domestic cats dramatically. These bibs stopped 81 percent of the cats from catching birds.

Water for the wetlands

When Linda and David Prostko built their home on 30 acres south of Grand Rapids, Michigan, Linda wanted to keep the property as natural as possible.
“I have a love of nature and wildlife, and I wanted to preserve this little piece of land for our children, too,” Linda says. “I see that the open spaces are getting gobbled up. It’s development after development and strip mall after strip mall. I wanted to do something good for the environment. I’ve tried to be a good role model and set a good example.”

She contacted the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Barry County Soil and Water Conservation District and asked them the best way to go about landscaping for wildlife. 

“We learned that a farmer had drained the land to farm it some 50 years ago,” Linda says, “so we worked with the DNR to re-establish the wetland.”

The project involved creating a pond and seeding an open area with native grasses and flowers, including big bluestem and switch grasses and oxeye daisies.

Linda convinced her husband to eliminate the use of fertilizers and pesticides and to shrink the size of their lawn.

“It took three years before we noticed anything,” Linda says. “But now we have these huge swaths of big bluestem. I can go out there in the summertime, and I’m buried in grass. It’s beautiful, and it’s as tall as I am. Then the oxeye daisies come up in May, and it’s this gorgeous field of white flowers.” 

Bringing back the wetland was the most exciting part of the project, Linda says, because it attracted so many songbirds and waterfowl they’d never seen.

Now wood ducks and mergansers, bluebirds and bats (flying mammals) nest in houses they’ve provided. Sandhill cranes return every March, and blue and green herons fish in the pond. Thousands of purple irises that had been lying dormant for years now bloom in the spring.

Roll out the red carpet

Four key components are essential for attracting wildlife to your yard: food, water, cover and reproductive areas. Water is the major limiting resource for wildlife, so it’s no wonder the Prostkos noticed such a dramatic difference when they restored their wetland. Adding water doubles wildlife use, says Carrol Henderson, supervisor of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Nongame Wildlife Division (and author of the definitive text on the topic for Midwest gardeners, Landscaping for Wildlife). Bubbling, splashing water doubles it again. And ponds will also attract frogs, toads, salamanders and waterfowl.

“Water means life,” Daniel Dix says. “It is as simple as that. So adding water in your yard can really be an attraction, since small pools that support so much life are becoming more and more rare in the natural world.”

Carrol encourages the use of structural components for wildlife habitat: nest boxes and platforms, dead trees, fallen trees and perches, brush piles and rock piles, salt, dusting beds, grit and bird feeders. 

“To many people, a snag is just firewood waiting to be cut,” Carrol says. He encourages homeowners to leave some dead snags standing because “a snag is a bird’s version of a fast-food restaurant.” Forty-three bird species use them in the Midwest – hollow trees provide nest cavities for barred owls, wood ducks, pileated woodpeckers and eastern bluebirds, to name a few.

Nurture the natives

Selecting landscape materials native to your locale almost certainly guarantees their health and hardiness. Because they existed in your geographical region for years, indigenous plants, once established, do well without much attention.

“They help perpetuate our natural heritage and are adapted to the climate of an area so winter kill isn’t a serious problem,” Carrol says.

Jim Nestingen, former director of the University of Wisconsin’s Norskedalen Nature and Heritage Center located near Coon Valley, agrees. “People are beginning to appreciate the beauty of indigenous species and work with them,” Jim says. “They have less time and more awareness of native plants.”

Carrol advises consulting your local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and/or DNR offices to find native plant sources in your area. The NRCS’s ideal rule of thumb is that native seed should originate within 25-50 miles of where it is to be planted. Always get landowner permission before collecting your own native plant material. And rather than transplanting mature specimens, try harvesting a few seeds. If you have access to areas slated for development, it might be possible to obtain plants before they’re dozed under.

Coniferous trees like pines, balsam fir, spruces, cedars and junipers provide protective winter shelter for birds. Grasses and legumes provide nesting cover, winter cover and food. Tubular red flowers like cardinal flower, dropmore honeysuckle, jewelweed, scarlet runner bean, coral bells and foxglove are especially attractive to hummingbirds, and they can spy the color from a half mile away. Staggered bloom times will keep the hummers returning to your yard all season. Orioles are also drawn to orange and red blossoms, and they use milkweed silk for their nests. American columbine, penstemon and monarda species also supply nectar for hummingbirds and orioles. Shrubs and vines such as amur chokecherry, raspberry, wild plum, pin cherry and grapes supply seasonal food and, if allowed to grow densely, can offer shelter year-round. 

Winter preparation

Wildlife foods are extremely important in the fall because they allow migratory birds to build up fat reserves prior to migration. Fruits of mountain ash, winterberry and buffalo berry provide fall nutrition and temporary shelter for migratory birds like brown thrashers, robins and cedar waxwings. Many of the best winter wildlife foods do not appeal to birds when they first appear, but remain on trees and shrubs until they are needed. Persistent fruits such as black chokeberry, staghorn sumac, American highbush cranberry and bittersweet offer an excellent supply of high-energy winter food.

Avid birder Molly Hoffman of Grand Marais, Minnesota, began recording bird songs for a local radio program several years ago.

“Bohemian and cedar waxwings favor mountain ash berries in the winter,” Molly says. “It’s a tremendous tree, a good weedy tree that will come up from the stump if part of it dies off. And the flowers are great for hummingbirds.” Molly also observed an interesting relationship between hummingbirds and yellow-bellied sapsuckers. “When hummingbirds return in the spring, even some of the spring ephemeral flowers aren’t open yet,” she says, “but sapsuckers make holes in trees, and the hummingbirds feed off the sap and the insects attracted to that sap.”

Food and fun – year-round

Carrol calls elderberry, which is used by 40 songbirds, an “ice cream plant” because the birds eat the fruit as soon as it appears, whereas he refers to high bush cranberry as a “spinach plant” because the fruit is bitter when it first emerges but hangs on through the winter months becoming sweeter after a couple hard frosts. Hardwood trees and shrubs that produce acorns – white oak, American hazel, shagbark hickory and butternut – provide important fall and winter food for wild turkeys, pheasants, ruffed grouse and other species.

Once established, a natural landscape has ecological benefit, is easier to maintain and offers good opportunities for birds and bird watching. Consider going wild in your backyard, and your efforts will be for the birds – literally.


Margaret Haapoja takes time from her busy schedule to entertain feathered friends in Bovey, Minnesota.


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