How to Bring Home the Birds

This year’s Great Backyard Bird Count—a real-time snapshot of bird populations—will take place from February 12 to 15. How many will you see in your backyard?

According to The New York Times, the number of birds in the United States has declined by 29 percent since 1970. Birds are vanishing due to a variety of causes, including global warming, habitat loss and pollution. Birds need our help.

Gardeners have an important role to play in reversing this steep decline. Doug Tallamy in his new book, Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard, explains in detail how the home landscape is contributing to the decline of birds and gives numerous suggestions on how to make our homes more inviting to birds.

To encourage birds to come to our yards, we need to create a healthy environment that provides energy-rich food, shelter and water. Over 90 percent of the typical suburban yard is covered in grass. Lawns are an ecological desert for birds, offering little in the way of food or shelter. The ongoing maintenance of our lawns pollutes the air, soil and water. The average American spends 70 hours a year on lawn maintenance. Most homeowners consider lawn mowing an unpleasant chore. Shrinking the lawn saves the homeowner time and money and is a huge step towards creating a healthier home environment for birds. Downsizing the lawn can be done gradually and does not require intensive efforts.

Birds need energy-rich nuts, berries and insects for migration, to raise young and to survive cold winters. According to Tallamy, 78 percent of the plants in a typical yard come from other countries. Compared to native plants, the fruits of nonnative plants are lower in energy and nutrients. Many of our native insects, especially caterpillars, cannot consume nonnative plants. Adult chickadees must find over 6,000 caterpillars to raise one brood. Most suburban yards do not support enough caterpillars to raise a single chickadee family.

Adding native plants to the landscape will convert your yard from an ecological desert to a lush paradise. Two excellent guidebooks for native plant landscaping are Piedmont Native Plants: A guide for landscapes and gardens and The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden by Tallamy and Darke. The Audubon website Plants for Birds is a good starting guide. The best plants to add are trees. Creating layers under the trees using shrubs, vines and flowers provides both food and shelter for birds. The chart below highlights some excellent native plants for birds in the Piedmont area.

Trees Shrubs Vines Flowers
oaks blueberry Va. creeper Bee balms
willows inkberry coral honeysuckle goldenrods
cedar viburnums trumpet vine sunflowers
dogwood elderberry coneflowers

To attract insects year around, gardeners need to provide shelter and overwintering spots for insect larvae and eggs. This can be accomplished by: mulching flower beds with leaves, postponing removal of flower stems and foliage until spring, creating brush piles and leaving tree snags and dead limbs on the ground. Moth caterpillars are a mainstay for nesting songbirds. To help declining moth populations, turn off exterior lights and use lower wattage bulbs and motion detector lights. Removing invasive species and not using pesticides will increase insect populations as well.

Adding bird feeders, bird houses and water features are other ways to attract more birds to your yard, especially in the winter. Remember to clean feeders and water features regularly. Outdoor cats are the number one threat to birds around homes, so please keep the family cat indoors.

Adding native plants, reducing the size of the lawn and making the yard more insect friendly will help you “bring home the birds”.

Prepared by Extension Master Gardener Leigh Surdukowski, who led a Garden Basics workshop on this topic last fall.