Tips for Better Backyard Birding
You don't have to travel to exotic locations, or the internet, to observe beautiful and fascinating birds. A surprising number of species can be found right outside your door. Here are some tips for turning any size yard, deck, or green space into a haven for birds so you can enjoy the endless songs, acrobatics, soap operas, pest control, nature studies, and general liveliness they offer wherever they're found.
The key to attracting any wildlife to your yard is to provide for their basic needs. If you have what they're looking for, they'll show up! Here is what birds will be looking for in your yard:
Water Provide at least one clean water source. It should be shallow, no more than 3 inches deep when full. Place a large flat rock on the bottom of you need to make a deep dish more shallow. Check it daily to refill the water and scoop out any leaves, seeds, or other plant materials that fall in the water. They can decay and cause the water to smell and be unpalatable or unsafe -- remember, they will drink this water more frequently than they will use it for bathing. Follow the cleaning schedule and instructions that came with the bird bath, especially if it has a protective or decorative finish. Otherwise, at a minimum, if any gunk begins to collect in the bottom, hose it out and scrub gently with a brush and a drop of mild soap. Rinse it extremely well and dry it before refilling with fresh water. It takes less than 5 minutes and will ensure your bird bath stays safe and appealing for your feathered friends. It's common advice to locate bird baths out in the open so birds can see predators approach from a distance. However, I've found birds use bird baths more when they are secluded. If a bird doesn't feel comfortable, they won't use it, and being exposed in a place with nowhere to hide is pretty uncomfortable unless you have no predators in your area. The water will also evaporate more slowly and get less algae if it's partially shaded. Don't worry, the birds know how to find the sun when they want to dry off. I've also found that a study dish on the ground is just as appealing, if not more so, than the standing bird baths that so frequently fall over. Bottom line, adjust for your situation -- place the bird bath where the birds can feel safe using it and it's not inconvenient for you to maintain.
Food To attract the widest range of birds, combine a variety of foods. For example, take a basic bag of mixed seed and combine it with a bag of fruit & nut blend and a small bag of thistle seed. You'll be amazed at the different species you'll attract versus just the basic seed. To further meet the needs a variety of birds, use multiple feeders - some hanging, some on the ground. Or, simply allow the seed that spills from the feeder to stay there so ground-feeding species can get to it. If you're feeding from a deck and have neighbors below, a sheet of window screen below the feeder will keep the fallen seeds in place (even the waste-free seed mix will have some spillover). Prevent window accidents by placing feeders at least 5 feet from windows or other reflective surfaces. Hang objects between, and consider closing blinds/curtains during any time of the day when the sun would shine directly on the surface and make it more reflective. You can also plant natural seed sources. They have more entertainment value for you, as you can watch the birds hover, balance, and manipulate the plants in order to access the seed. Not to mention, having an ongoing source of seed is a perfect back-up if you can't get out to refill your feeder. The easiest way to grow your own seed is to let fallen birdseed germinate and grow. Sunflower, safflower, and milo grow easily from fallen seed. Smaller birds will also go for the seed from wild-growing daisy fleabane, chicory (also enjoyed by rabbits), and many other plants. Don't forget about insect-eating birds. For example, woodpeckers and robins prefer insects to seed. If possible, leave some dead trees standing near your yard where they enjoy the insects that live in the wood. And it should without saying, but NO PESTICIDES! You are what you eat, and the same goes for wildlife.
Cover & perching areas Birds will come to your feeder & bird bath if they feel safe from predators. Provide shrubs within 6 feet of your feeder to allow birds to dart back and forth until they feel comfortable hanging out at the feeder for a while. This also gives them a place to retreat if a predator like a hawk or outdoor cat should come by. They will watch from their cover until the coast is clear, or fly off and come back later if the risk is too great. When pruning trees and shrubs, leave a few dead branches sticking out of varying thickness. Different size birds have different preferences in the diameter of perch (think hummingbirds vs. doves vs. owls), and it's difficult for many to perch on the ones covered with leaves. Alternatively, place arbors, trellises, and fencing in areas where birds will want to perch. A simple lattice panel or wrought iron garden fence is an easy choice, and can double as security from predators too large to get through the holes. Also if you grow food for your birds, you'll notice that they use the stems and leaves as perches while eating the seeds or insects. Create this yourself by allowing spent flower stalks to stay in place in your garden after the flowers are gone. They'll serve as natural perches, giving birds a place to hang out in your yard a little longer.
Nesting areas Don't feel like you have to provide bird houses in your yard for every bird or they won't visit. Unless you have acres of land, most birds aren't going to want to live so close together. Not to mention, most birdhouses aren't ideal living quarters for many birds, due to the hole being too large or too small, or being more decorative than functional. If you'd like to provide a birdhouse, choose one that can be cleaned out easily, and hang it in a spot protected from weather and climbing predators. Otherwise, focus on natural nesting areas for birds. As much as possible, provide a mix of live and dead trees and shrubs. Also, consider a small brush pile in an out of the way spot for ground-nesting birds and other wildlife. Even if you don't have room for trees, you can still provide nesting materials for birds to collect and carry back to their nest. Use natural, chemical-free stringy materials. For example, cotton-based dryer lint, pet hair removed during brushing, or the sterile cotton that comes in pill bottles. You can bundle these materials up in a container, or scatter them near your feeder. Spring is the ideal time for providing nesting material, but small amounts throughout the year can still be useful. As long as you're using natural materials, excess will biodegrade without harm. Another thing to consider offering during egg-laying & nesting season are egg shells. Female birds have a higher calcium need during this time, and they can get this from crushed egg shells. Sterilize them first by boiling the empty shells in water for 10 minutes, or baking in the oven at 200 degrees for 30 minutes. Once they are cool and dry, crush the shells very small -- I aim for a powder with some larger seed-sized chunks. Add the egg shells to birdseed, or on a flat surface nearby.
Once you've attracted birds to your yard, it's time to enjoy them! Their antics are relaxing and entertaining for all ages, and pets, too. Inevitably, you'll want to know what the different birds are called, so plan to get a good bird identification guide. My favorite is Sibley's, but check out a few to see which you prefer for your area. Books that offer multiple photos are best for casual identification, but often, only the ones with illustrations are able to capture every angle and variation if you want to differentiate between all species and subspecies. Other features to look for include the geographic locations where each bird can be found each season, size & shape comparison diagrams, and images that show changes in appearance by age, gender, and time of year. Sometimes you only have a minute to see a bird up close, so I find it helpful to use bookmarks or reusable sticky tabs to mark the most useful reference pages to flip to quickly.
With your other free hand, binoculars help you see small birds up close in real time and a camera lets you zoom in later or share with others. Neither are required, though, and often it's more effective and enjoyable to simply watch the whole area than to try to focus in on a single bird. A note about watching with others - it can be disappointing for someone to say, "oh look, there's a ___" when you missed it. If the bird flew into a tree, keep watching. Unless they have a nest there, they'll move again soon.
If you're the techie type, or want to learn to identify birds by sound, there are plenty of mobile apps to try, as well. Look for features such as multiple sounds, sighting checklists, and multi-faceted search to narrow down the options when trying to identify a new species.
Below is a quick summary of identification tools that I recommend. Try out a few until you find the ones that meet you needs. And don't forget, it's more important to enjoy the birds, and give them what they need so they keep coming back, than to miss them while fumbling with a book or app.
Favorite online reference:
Favorite app (available for iOS, Android, and Kindle):