May 17, 2019 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, April 2019

HOME IMPROVEMENT: Simple Steps to Make Your Backyard Habitat a More Welcoming Place for Feathered Friends

A bird-friendly walkway provides lots of safe hiding spots.
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There's a word that describes the rich variety of life on Earth and how its interconnectedness creates a sort of life-support system for the planet's resources, food supply chain and clean water. Biodiversity. Healthy ecosystems—rich in biodiversity—are critical to all life. Our planet is changing rapidly and becoming increasingly urbanized and helping to protect habitats on a global scale sounds daunting. But it doesn't have to be. There are creative and simple ways to coexist with wildlife and help it thrive. Sharing the habitat—your backyard habitat—is one way to help protect local biodiversity. Inviting wild birds to your yard begins with providing feeders, water features or nest boxes, but there's more. There are lots of ways you can improve your home environment in order to make theirs a safer and healthier space. Plus, you'll be doing your part to help protect bird populations and biodiversity. You'll feel good, too and your feathered neighbors will thank you!

The Grass Isn't Always Greener. Many homeowners love the look and smell of freshly mowed grass, but most ecologists agree that suburban lawns are not always good for wildlife. Most grasses in suburban yards are not native and while some birds do forage in lawns, there is no known species of bird, mammal, reptile or amphibian that reproduces and carries out any other life functions in today's modern lawns. Some homeowners are choosing other wildlife-friendly substrates for their yards such as native grasses, shrubs and trees—which require far less maintenance and watering than the typical neighborhood lawn. If you really like the look of a lawn, consider mowing it less frequently. When you let the grass grow, you'll not only have more time to relax but you'll also be more likely to see birds such as juncos, robins and sparrows—along with other wildlife—foraging in your yard.

Look Before You Lop. Tens of thousands of bird nests, eggs and hatchlings are accidentally disturbed or destroyed each year as a result of pruning related to annual yard work and spring clean ups. There are many bird species that rely on the resources offered by tree canopies and foliage for food and for shelter. Over-pruning, at any time of year, can take a toll on these birds and reduce the number and types of species that can survive there. Before you prune or mow—especially during spring and summer breeding seasons—take a look through your bushes and tree branches to see if any birds are nesting there. Look through the grass and on the ground as well. Juncos, some sparrows and other species often nest close to ground-level. If you spot a nest, take a break from your yard work for a few weeks. By doing so, you'll not only give yourself extra time to relax and pursue other activities, but the birds will have enough time to safely fledge their chicks from the nest site. You may even be able to watch and enjoy as the young birds take their first flights.

Then again, there are some birds you won't have to look for because they will look for you. Species such as the American crow and several of the jays will aggressively defend their nest sites and will swoop and scold anyone who comes too close. Yet another reason why it may be best to put down the loppers for a couple weeks!

Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) is a popular native plant for small gardens and large prairie meadows. The showy flowers are a favorite nectar source for butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds. Later in summer the seedheads attract goldfinches and other birds.

Go Native. If you plan your own landscaping, pick native plants that help foster wildlife while also considering what your yard offers in the way of sunlight, shade, moisture and soil conditions. Native foliage, including flowering plants, trees and shrubs do a better job of attracting native birds because they provide the kinds of nectar, berries and seeds that are part of their natural diets. Natives are also better for your local environment as they have a long intertwined history with the local environment and wildlife. They help control erosion by holding the soil with their roots—which reduces flooding—and they can help filter out sediment and pollutants before they reach lakes and streams. In the long run, planning for what you want to plant by using native foliage is good for wildlife and is less expensive than having to re-plant later.

From the Bottom to the Top. As part of your landscaping, consider structure and use different heights and layers of plants wherever possible. One of the reasons that urbanized areas can't support the rich number of species found in undisturbed habitats is the loss of vegetative layers. Many bird species require multiple levels of cover for feeding, nesting and for protection from potential predators. This includes everything from the bottom or ground layers, the middle layer of shrubs and bushes and the top layer of tree branches. Having multiple levels incorporated into your landscaping plan supports all kinds of birds, from seed-eaters, to insectivores and nectar-sippers. It also creates more suitable habitat for a variety of species, whether they nest on the ground or high in the canopy.

Snags Rule! If you have a dead tree in your yard consider leaving it in place as prime habitat for cavity-dwelling species—checking with an arborist, of course, to make sure there are no brittle limbs posing a danger to your home. The primary reason for lower densities of cavity-nesting birds (and some small mammals such as bats) in suburban and urban areas is the removal of dead trees or snags. Different species of woodpeckers may initially take up residence, but once they move on, their abandoned space attracts a wide variety of secondary cavity-nesters including chickadees, tits, swallows, nuthatches, wood ducks and small owls. All of these can increase species richness and can increase biodiversity which—as previously mentioned—is good for wildlife and for people.

Just Say No. No matter how you design or maintain your yard, it's always best to do so without the use of pesticides or chemicals. They're not good for human or animal health—including your pets—and they're not necessary, either. Most commercial lawn and garden pesticides are filled with toxic chemicals meant to kill weeds, bugs, rats, mice and other "non-desirable" intruders. But not all bugs are bad. Pesticides can kill valuable pollinator species, such as bees or butterflies that are vital for plant fertilization and agriculture. When raptors or other natural predators feed on rats or mice that have been poisoned, they become poisoned as well and the results are usually deadly. Overall, it's best to simply avoid the use of any pesticides, chemicals or poisons.

Eastern bluebirds are insectivores. Pesticides poison their primary food source.

The Best Exterminators Have Wings. Just because you decide to avoid pesticides, doesn't mean you're stuck with pests. Let the birds help with whatever's bugging you. Many of the same birds that initially come to your feeders for seeds or suet will stick around to help control ants, mosquitos, moths, lice, spiders and flies. Spring and summer are primetime for bugs, but they're also peak breeding seasons for many birds. Nesting, raising chicks and feeding fledglings requires lots of energy and nutrients. That means adult birds will be looking for higher-protein foods that are vital for growing chicks. Bugs are preferred menu items for these busy parents. And they're not alone. Bats are also very beneficial to the ecosystem and they can eat thousands of mosquitos every night! Consider adding a bat box to the side of a tree or other structure to attract them. If rats or mice are unwelcome visitors to your backyard habitat, consider installing an owl house at the top of a pole or tall tree on your property. By welcoming raptors and insect-eating birds or bats into your yard, you cut down on chemicals and make less work for yourself all while creating an appetizing and healthy buffet for your flighted friends!

Prevent Deadly Strikes. There are actions you can take inside your house too, that will help protect wild birds in your yard. It's estimated that up to one billion birds die in North America each year as a result of colliding with windows. Windows are invisible to most birds, and when they reflect images of foliage or sky, they're even attractive—especially to a bird that is chasing prey or one trying to escape from a predator. A simple and inexpensive window cling (a sticker that peels off with no adhesive) can help a bird distinguish that your window is a barrier. There are also a number of different screens and types of netting that can be installed outside your windows to act both as a distinguishing barrier and to soften the impact of any collision. Transparent and ultraviolet films that are clear from the inside, but opaque outside, are also available. Look for them at your local plant nursery, hardware shop, or bird supply store. It's also a good idea to move indoor plants and flowers a little farther away from windows so that birds won't see them from outside and mistake them for available shelter or food.

Keep Kitty Inside. One of the best ways to protect birds is by keeping your house cat indoors. Predation by cats is one of the largest human-related sources of mortality for wild birds in the U.S. and elsewhere. It's estimated that they kill between one and four billion birds per year in the U.S. alone and they've also been linked to extinctions and population declines of several species. Many people don't realize that having an outdoor cat is not only dangerous for birds, it's dangerous for the cats too. Outdoor cats are more susceptible to disease and injuries from confrontations with other animals, and they tend to have shorter life expectancies than their indoor counterparts.

If you simply can't keep your cat indoors—or have a neighbor who can't—consider a special collar designed to help alert birds when cats are nearby. There are several studies showing that bright visual signals are better cues than auditory ones for birds in urban environments. In developed areas, collar bells may be drowned out by the sounds of city life—so warning signals that work by sight may be more effective than those that work by sound. There are several large and brightly colored scarf-like collars and bibs that make it difficult for cats to stay hidden when stalking birds. Examples include the "Birdsbesafe" collar cover which resembles a colorful fabric tube with a breakaway-buckled cat collar inside of it, or the "CatBib" which hangs loosely from the collar and gently interferes with the precise timing, and coordination a cat needs for bird-catching. Cats wearing collar covers or bibs such as these are less likely than their counterparts to be successful at hunting and killing birds.

As part of your landscaping, consider structure and use different layers of plants.

Let There be Light...in Moderation. Urban places tend to glow eight to nine times brighter than natural habitats. While that may make people feel safer, especially at night, light pollution is not always good for birds. Each year, billions of birds migrate during spring and fall, and most of them fly at night using the stars to help navigate. As they pass over urban areas, city lights can disorient them, and millions die from collisions, confusion or exhaustion after becoming lost. Homeowners can help prevent this by using outside lights around their home that still provide for human safety but are gentler and have less intense brightness for wildlife. People can also help by raising the lights around the outside of their homes up higher and pointing them downwards as opposed to having ground lights that point up into the night sky. On a larger scale, the National Audubon Society has created a national "Lights Out" campaign aimed at businesses in city centers. The goal is to convince building managers in urban areas to turn off excess lighting during the months that birds are migrating, in an effort to provide them with safer passage.

A Final Word. While these ideas might not fit every situation, trying even one of them can make a difference for wildlife—and watching your favorite birds enjoy your backyard habitat might just make you feel good too! For information on how these tips might work in your geographical area, contact your local Audubon chapter, a nearby yard and garden store, or a plant nursery for advice.

Ultimately, when you make your home a bird-friendly habitat you never know which feathered friends might come to visit—or stay!



About Elizabeth Bacher

Elizabeth Bacher works in communications at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Washington. The research for this piece was part of her graduate work with Project Dragonfly at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

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