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Make your backyard into a five-star hotel for birds

February 14, 2015

By Paul Brucker

Are you psyched about birds returning to your backyard this spring? Of the 650 species of birds that nest in the United States, 350 species migrate each year. Some make a several thousand mile danger-filled roundtrip each year. After spending winter in relatively balmy South America, they wing their way back to North America to benefit from its springtime annual renaissance of insects, plants and places to nest. Then, when Jack Frost returns for winter, the birds trek south again.

This spring, birds will need your help more than ever, since bulldozers continue to eat up more than 2.1 million acres of U.S. natural habitat each year for new construction. So why not make our winged friends feel at home in your backyard?

All it takes is offering them the three fundamental things they need most: water, food and shelter.

1. Bring out the water
Not all types of birds frequent feeders, but all will stop when they need water – whether for drinking or bathing. If it's below freezing in your area, put out an early bird welcome mat to feathered friends by providing them with a heated bird bath. Birds hear and see water from far away and are attracted by its swirl and splatter. In addition to a standard birdbath, consider adding ones that drip, mist or bubble – or make an even bigger splash by buying a fountain. Cleanliness is important to birds. In warm weather, change birdbath water every few days to keep it fresh and free of mosquito eggs.

2. Provide breakfast, lunch, dinner and in-between snacks
Some birds are rather picky eaters. Read up on what the customary birds in your area prefer to eat and buy that. Once your yard becomes a popular feeding area, some rarer species might become curious and visit. The seed that attracts the widest variety of birds, including songbirds, is sunflower. Safflower is a favorite for cardinals, chickadees, doves and finches. Jays, magpies, and titmice love peanuts and peanut butter. Hummingbirds are in heaven when they eat nectar from a hummingbird feeder. Woodpeckers and nuthatches enjoy eating suet. And at least 93 species have a strong yen for blueberries.

Different types of birds prefer different kinds of feeders. The greater variety of feeders you put in your yard – such as hopper, tube, sock, saucer, hummingbird and suet feeders – the greater your odds of attracting many types of birds. Set up your various feeders in different parts of the yard to reduce competition for seeds. 

The worst kind of bird seed, alas, is often the cheapest and consists of a combo of flax, red millet, oats and other “fillers” that most birds, with the exception of sparrows, will turn their beaks away from in disgust. The waste from these seeds also becomes a prime breeding ground of yucky fungus and bacteria.

Remove moldy seeds and sterilize your feeders often to prevent the spread of diseases among the birds.

Keep the feeders far enough away from your house so the birds won’t crash and die by flying into your window. You may need to move around your feeders to find the right places where squirrels and other critters cannot jump onto them from nearby trees or the ground. If the invasion of the squirrels on your feeder continues, invest in a squirrel baffler to protect the seeds for birds.

3. Give them a place to hang out and feel safe
Birds won’t stay long in your backyard if they don’t feel safe from predators, lousy weather and people (including you). Native vegetation, such as shrubs, dense hedges, overgrown grassy areas, brush piles and thickets, provides great places for birds to hide, roost and nest.

Be a great host by providing some birdhouses or simple nesting boxes. Research the birdhouses that are best for the birds you want to attract. Birdhouses differ in terms of size of the entrance hole and other dimensions. Provide some nesting material for your birds by placing fluff from dead flowers or cotton, grass clippings, small string or even pet fur in your yard.

Clean your birdhouses each year by removing the old nests and scrubbing the boxes with hot water and soap.