How to Make Your Property a Bird Sanctuary

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by Getty Images/iStockphoto
Bird Waxwing or Bombycilla garrulus with outstretched wings feeding on rowan tree branch with red berries. Beautiful winter soft light blue sky background

Our homes are sanctuaries. They contain all the things we need to survive: food, water, shelter, and safety. Birds look to meet these same needs with their homes. While these basic requirements may seem easy enough to obtain, think about the last time you saw a bird loafing around. When you see birds, chances are they’re gathering food, making a nest, feeding a young one, drinking water, or fleeing from danger. Survival is hard for birds, and we can all do a little more to help them out. To start, we can design our homes and properties to be bird sanctuaries. By designing your property to help provide birds’ basic needs, you can enjoy more birds without leaving your home.

A Bug Buffet

Birds eat a lot. Their lightweight yet powerful bodies require immense amounts of calories to fly, forage, feed offspring, and keep themselves out of harm’s way. Many bird lovers install feeders in their yards to provide some easily accessible calories. Feeders are a great way to support birds when they’re properly placed and cleaned regularly. However, they should be treated as supplements, not replacements, for the vital food resources that native habitat provides.

While feeders are great food resources for seed-eating songbirds, 96 percent of all nesting songbirds need insects to successfully raise their young. Superfoods, such as butterfly and moth larvae, can only be found on plants, particularly native plants. In the United States, native plants are any that were present prior to European settlement. These are plants that’ve been growing in your local soil for thousands of years. Insects can detect native plants and lay their eggs on them. When these eggs hatch, birds go crazy for the tasty caterpillars. Because of this relationship between birds, native plants, and insects, adding a native plant garden to your property will do a lot for all birds that decide to visit your home.

Man and boy checking bird houses on a pole

In addition to insect meals during nesting season, native plants often provide vital berries, nuts, and seeds that birds will utilize during migration and throughout the winter. Several species of native plants with fruit-bearing branches, such as winterberry in the Midwest and Northeast, are adapted to improve in flavor after several frosts. Berries still cling to branches after severe snowstorms, providing valuable nourishment to birds, such as cedar waxwings, American robins, and northern mockingbirds, when other food resources can
be scarce.

To increase the amount of food in your yard, consider the entire planting season and the diversity of resources available on your property. If possible, have blooming plants and food resources available during every season to provide a wealth of resources for birds throughout the year.

Trees and green grass and bushes

Wet ‘n’ Wild

Out of everything needed to create a bird sanctuary, water is the easiest addition to make. Adding water can be as simple as taking a 2-to-3-inch-deep tray, filling it with water, rocks, and sticks, and placing it outside. The rocks and sticks provide traction for birds and escape routes for small creatures, such as insects, that may also use the water source.

Water will attract many species of birds for drinking and bathing that wouldn’t otherwise visit a bird feeding area. Hawks, owls, warblers, and many other species may be drawn to the water feature, especially if it’s made available when open water is hard to come by, such as in arid habitats or freezing temperatures.

As with bird feeders, make sure to empty and clean your birdbath once a week with a mild soap. This will not only keep the water bath safe for the birds, but will also disrupt the mosquito life cycle so you won’t create a breeding habitat for unwanted bloodsuckers.

Once your water feature is set up, you can enjoy the birds frolicking in it. But it may take some time for birds to discover this new source of water. Don’t be discouraged if a few weeks go by before a bird uses your water dish. Eventually they’ll find it, and your yard will be filled with wet, happy birds.

Cardinal Cache

Birds need shelter to sleep, hide, escape the elements, and nest. The more diverse the shelter options, the more birds you’ll attract. There are three layers of multilevel habitat that birds use for shelter: lower layers (e.g., flowers or low-growing grasses); middle layers (e.g., shrubbery); and upper layer elements (e.g., trees, tall cacti). Many neighborhoods have excellent trees and houses with flower beds, but what about shrubbery? This layer is often missing and is one of the most important places for nesting sites. Shrubs also provide quick and easy hiding places for birds fleeing from hazards, such as a passing hawk. They also have an additional benefit of providing fruits or seeds. Due to these benefits, shrubs act as a nursery, grocery store, and a refuge for birds. To make your property a bird sanctuary, have at least a few different varieties (see “Shrub Hub”).

Take ‘Em Under Your Wing

If we invite birds into our yards, we bear some responsibility for keeping them safe once they arrive. Habitat features that lure birds in but then expose them to dangers can create what is known as an “ecological trap.” Windows and chemicals are common dangers in human-built landscapes. While these are common in most places, there are ways to limit their effect on birds visiting your property.

Windows kill up to 1 billion birds a year in the U.S. Birds see like humans do, so if the window reflection looks like clouds and trees to you, it looks that way to the birds too. The solutions for this prevalent problem are easy. First, there are numerous inexpensive ways to deter birds from your windows. The American Bird Conservancy offers some excellent options to minimize bird collisions. A simple solution is to minimize the reflection of the sky by screening or covering windows. Additionally, make sure to place bird feeders as close to your windows as possible. If birds get startled from your feeders, they’ll be less likely to have a fatal collision with your windows.

Adult bird feeding the young in a bird house box.

Chemical applications to our lawns, gardens, and hedges can also pose a risk to birds. Sometimes this risk doesn’t directly kill birds. But those chemicals can kill or poison insects or other food sources, which limits the food for birds, and can even be toxic for them. Unless you’re absolutely sure that the ingredients in your chemical yard applications are safe for birds and wildlife, we recommend avoiding them. There are many nonchemical alternatives for managing pests.

Watching birds is made easy when you provide the four main ingredients for a bird sanctuary: food, water, shelter, and safety. If you can’t provide them all, try adding just one. You’ll be surprised at the positive impact you’re making on birds in your backyard and your community.

Nest Boxes for Cavity Nesters

Approximately 85 species of North American birds will only nest in cavities, and for many of them, nest boxes can meet this need.

In nature, cavities form in damaged or dead trees, either from decay or woodpecker activity. You can also find cavities in rocks that have been shaped by erosion. But if you don’t have any dead trees or rocky crevices, you can install simple nest boxes to attract more nesting birds. Nesting cavities are particularly limited in open habitats where trees are scarce, which is why some species, such as bluebirds and American kestrels, may inspect a new birdhouse the day it’s installed. Even in forests with many old trees and plenty of cavities, nest boxes can still be valuable, particularly larger ones designed for owls and ducks, which are challenged with finding tree holes big enough to contain their larger nests.

Adult bird feeding young birds n a birdhouse.

This Nest Box Plans will accommodate the smallest falcon, the American kestrel.

To find other free nest box plans that will attract other species in different habitat types, search the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “Right Bird, Right House” tool online at NestWatch. You can monitor your nest boxes and report the activity to NestWatch, the Lab’s citizen-science project to track the nesting success of birds across the country.

Shrub Hub

As outlined in “Cardinal Cache,” shrubs are too often absent from yards. Shrubs provide optimal nesting sites, quick shelter from birds of prey, and another food source. Here are some shrub options for your property. For a database of shrubs native to your area, see Wildflower.

  • Eastern U.S.:
    • Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) – tufted titmouse, Carolina wren, red-bellied woodpecker, tree swallow, black-capped chickadee
    • Common Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea) – pileated woodpecker, Eastern bluebird, black-capped chickadee, tufted titmouse
    • Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) – Eastern bluebird, Northern flicker, pileated woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker, tufted titmouse
    • ‘Triple Crown’ Blackberry (Rubus sp.) – hairy woodpecker, pileated woodpecker
  • Western U.S.:
    • ‘Bluecrop’ Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) – mountain chickadee, Northern flicker
    • ‘Morton’ Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) – violet-green swallow, mountain chickadee, tree swallow, black-capped chickadee
    • Blue Elderberry (Sambucus cerulea) – Northern flicker, lesser goldfinch, mountain bluebird, mountain chickadee, pileated woodpecker, Western bluebird
    • Saskatoon Serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia) – downy woodpecker, pileated woodpecker, black-capped chickadee, mountain chickadee

Robyn Bailey is the project leader for NestWatch, a citizen-science project at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology dedicated to understanding the nesting biology of birds. Becca Rodomsky-Bish administers Nest Quest Go!, a project to digitize and transcribe historical nesting data on North American birds.

  • Updated on Jul 30, 2021
  • Originally Published on Jul 30, 2019
Tagged with: birding, nest box, plans
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