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Backyard birdwatching is addictive. Most folks start with a feeder or two and quickly find themselves engrossed with the resident sparrows, finches, and woodpeckers that eagerly accept the offerings. Only after they’re hooked on backyard birdwatching do most people think about creating a garden attractive to birds–one that provides food naturally, as well as water, shelter, and nesting places. Although attracting birds to feeders brings hours of birdwatching pleasure, a welcoming landscape is the single best way to encourage the widest variety of birds to visit and reside in your yard year-round.
Even in small spaces, you can lure birds with just a single tree, some fruit-bearing shrubs, flowers, a birdbath, and a bird feeder. The bird-luring principles below apply whether you are gardening on a grand scale or in an urban pocket, improving an existing landscape for birds, or starting a birdscape from scratch.
Bird Gardening Basics
Variety is not only the spice of life, but also the key to creating a successful backyard bird haven. By growing a diversity of plants that fruit at different times of the year, birds find a continuous food supply. Layered foliage provides good cover, while a mix of plant shapes, sizes, and foliage textures attracts a wider range of birds.
Design multileveled plantings: underplant tall canopy trees with shorter more shade-tolerant trees, such as flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) and serviceberry (Amelanchier). Plant lower-growing, berry-laden shrubs, such as winterberry (Ilex verticillata) and chokeberry (Aronia), as a bridge from the trees to ground covers.
Very few birds are attracted to mowed lawn, so keep yours small. Break up broad expanses of lawn with island plantings of trees with shrubs and ground covers planted below. Or replace turf with fruiting ground covers, such as low-growing forms of bearberry (Arctostaphylos), huckleberry (Gaylussacia), and cotoneaster or with native grasses and wildflowers that provide birds seed and some cover from predators.
A consistent supply of fresh water for birds to drink from and bathe in is an essential ingredient of any successful bird garden. Providing water throughout the year increases the number and variety of birds drawn to your landscape. Even birds rarely tempted by feeders, such as warblers and vireos, may be lured to the garden by water.
The simplest way to offer water is to set out a birdbath. One with a gradual incline to a depth of no more than 2 to 3 inches at the deepest point is best for birds. The surface should be slightly textured to provide sure footing. In cold, northern regions, birds have difficulty finding unfrozen water in winter. Keep your birdbath thawed by using either a heated type or an immersion water heater designed for outdoor use — these are available from bird-supply stores.
Consider bird safety when locating the birdbath. Although some birds prefer baths at ground level, a pedestal birdbath provides some protection from cats. For added protection from cats, locate the bath out in the open, at least 10 feet from escape cover such as a hedge or shrubs.