I live a few miles from the heart of one of the country’s largest cities, in a typical suburban house with at least one distinction from the other look-alikes on my street.
The Audubon Society has certified my half-acre property as a bird habitat.
Sure, it didn’t hurt that the backyard is largely wooded, with mature pines, oaks and maples to help turn my land into a community for cardinals, doves, robins and many other species.
But it’s not just the trees—my neighbors also have many—that attract scores of birds each day, all year long. They come because of what else is provided—the same necessities that any human needs to survive: food, water and shelter.
Supply enough of each—in a pesticide-free environment containing native plantings—and, if you live in Pennsylvania, Northern Virginia or Portland, Ore., your place might qualify for Audubon Society recognition as a bona fide bird habitat. (It comes with a metal sign to place in the front lawn—plus bragging rights.)
If you live elsewhere you won’t receive a sign, but you still can attract birds—lots of them—to enjoy the sights, sounds and activity they provide.
Putting out seed is the easiest way to attract birds. To lure the largest variety, spend a little more for black-oil sunflower seed. It’s not its flavor that lures flocks en masse—“birds don’t have a sense of taste,” explains Steven Saffier, Audubon At Home coordinator in Pennsylvania—but the thin shells of highly nutritious “oilers” can be easily opened by virtually any beak. Striped sunflower seeds are less nutritious and their thicker shells are harder to crack by house sparrows and blackbirds. This is something to consider if you want to avoid these so-called “trash” birds—invasive species that crowd out native birds, or aggressive birds that chase others away.
Safflower is a favorite among cardinals and eaten by grosbeaks, chickadees and doves, but also has a thick shell. Saffier prefers to mix equal parts of safflower with black-oil sunflower to keep away trash birds.
The very worst seed, he notes, are inexpensive “mixtures,” whose low-quality fillers such as red millet and oats are spurned by many birds. Expect flighty feasters to pick and choose the choice (and scarce) sunflower in mixtures, leaving most of it untouched or spilled onto the ground.
Fats and fiction
Suet cakes are a welcome food supplement year-round—especially among woodpeckers, bluebirds, chickadees and cardinals—that becomes crucial for all types during the winter. Made of a hard fat (usually from slaughtered cattle and sheep) that’s mixed with seed, grains, nuts or food, suet provides a highly concentrated type of energy that helps birds develop a blubber-like protective layer in winter that helps maintain body heat.
Other bird-attracting food sources:
Scraps of rendered beef fat, sliced from pieces of meat, are usually either sold for a song or trashed. Ask your butcher or grocer.
Slice apples, grapes or berries into seed-sized pieces. Birds can’t chew but have excellent vision and are attracted to the bright colors of these foods that closely resemble the fruit from holly, dogwood and other trees.
Peanut butter is a valuable fat source in winter, but during warmer months it melts outdoors and quickly grows rancid. Shelled or unshelled peanuts are better in warmer months.
Bread—perhaps the most popular people food for birds—can be dangerous. Outdoors, bread quickly becomes moldy and when ingested can cause a deadly lung disease in birds.
Depending on the bird species, tray or platforms feeders will attract the widest variety. However, they offer no protection against weather—and without good drainage, wet seed fosters fungal growth and bacteria. Tube feeders also have mass appeal and keep seed dry and clean; those with perches above feeding ports are specifically designed for goldfinches and chickadees, which feed upside down. Finches, jays, cardinals, buntings, grosbeaks, and sparrows like “hoppers” or the classic houses, while thistle feeders are for small birds such as goldfinches and redpolls.
You can also just place food on the ground—on a flat rock, in a pot saucer, or on the grass for ground-feeders such as doves, sparrows, juncos and wild turkeys.
For best results, choose a variety of feeders, filled with an assortment of food—seed in some, fruit or fat in others. Feeders can hang close to each other (although hummingbird feeders should be at least 20 feet from others), but location matters: Ideally, they should be a few feet from nearby cover—such as bushes—and no more than 3 feet away from your house.
“If birds are scared off a feeder, they fly to what they believe is the closet habitat, which may be the reflection of a glass window,” says Audubon’s Saffier. “When feeders are farther than 3 feet, birds attain enough speed to injure or kill themselves crashing into the window.”
Terry Wild/Terry Wild Stock
A birdbath (or several) provides water for drinking and bathing. If water is deeper than 4 inches, place a rock in the middle to give birds a perch.
Birds are especially attracted to the sound of “moving” water, making a fountain or backyard pond more appealing, or a great addition, to birdbaths. Birds will also fly through misters for a quick wash.
For a frugal alternative, fill shallow plastic pans or trash can covers with water, scattered in various locations on your property—ideally near heavy brush. This option is an easy and important water source in winter, as many homeowners store birdbaths to prevent them from freezing and cracking. No matter the water source—and again, more is better—don’t use chemicals to clean water or scrub containers. Standing water should be changed at least weekly, and ideally every two to three days.
National Geographic Creative/Getty Images
Birdhouses provide instant shelter but to lure a quick tenant, opt for simplicity. Unpainted wood, or houses in earth tone colors such as brown, gray or white, will attract birds better than wild colors or elaborate designs. Although birds are not territorial when feeding, they are when it comes to shelter—so try to place birdhouses about 50 feet from each other, or on each corner of your property. Whether hung from trees or placed on poles, birdhouses that are most likely to be occupied tend to be farthest from your home and close to protective cover such as shrubs, large bushes or trees.
A brush pile, located in a corner of your property, can provide birds with materials to build nests. This pile can include small twigs and branches; pieces of bark, vines, or kite string cut into lengths of about 4 inches; pet hair; droppings from perennials; or dry leaves. One thing to avoid: Dryer lint. When it gets wet it loses its fluffiness and doesn’t dry out.
Cutting a tree on your property? Leave some of it for woodpeckers and other birds; it’s also a great source of their favorite meal—insects. And while native plants are a great—and preferred—food source, many types also provide shelter and nesting material. (Learn which plants are best suited for your area.) While in a planting mood, don’t forget that the best type of trees for attracting birds, says Saffier, are oaks, cherry, birch, pines and holly.
Love ’em or hate ’em, squirrels are amazing critters, whose unlimited resourcefulness is matched only by their endless appetite. If squirrels are eating the food you’ve left for the birds, try these tricks:
Mix cayenne pepper with birdseed. Since they have no taste buds, birds aren’t bothered by hot spices, but squirrels tend to avoid them. Suet made with a hot pepper flavor deters squirrels.
Place feeders on a hard-to-climb metal or PVC pole, rather than on a wooden post or branches. Surround the pole with a squirrel-proof baffle—a cone-shaped barrier about 4 feet from the ground—to make it even harder for the squirrels to conquer.
Put a Slinky around the pole, attaching one end to the bottom of the feeder. When squirrels reach the Slinky, their weight carries them to the ground.
Stick aluminum duct tape around poles to thwart the squirrel’s assent. Unlike cloth duct tape, it’s slippery and hard to climb.
Sid Kirchheimer writes about health and consumer issues.
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