Our beloved backyard birds are facing major challenges, and that's forcing them to change their ways in order to survive. Climate change, habitat destruction, and toxic pesticides are playing a major role in our feathered friends' decline. But there is a bit of good news in all this. "Birds are changing their habits in ways that offer us a way to help—birds that previously never visited feeders are now becoming regulars, and new species keep joining them," explains naturalist Sally Roth, author of The Backyard Bird Lover's Ultimate How-to Guide: More than 200 Easy Ideas and Projects for Attracting and Feeding Your Favorite Birds (Rodale, 2010). And as she likes to point out, with 46 million bird-watchers in the country, "our humble backyards can save the birds."
With fall and winter just around the corner, here's a list of things you can do to turn your yard into an irresistible songbird smorgasbord. The payback? Hours of entertainment, education, and the satisfaction of knowing you are helping to keep threatened species on the planet.
Here's how to create a bird-friendly yard for fall and winter visitors:
Plant a native tree or shrub (now). "Everyone can feed birds through the habitat they create," says Steven Saffier, coordinator of Audubon at Home for Audubon Pennsylvania. Although we've been taught to deter insects at all costs, many programs, such as Audubon at Home, are offering a different take: All native insects are beneficial, and part of an incredible food web. "The best way to invite insects is to use native plants in the landscape," Saffier says. "Many of these plants also feed birds with fruit, seeds, catkins, buds, and other parts of the plant."
And fall is the perfect time to plant native trees, shrubs, and flowers. That's because temperatures are lower and moisture is more available. Though the visible part of the tree might not look alive during the cold months, rest assured that below ground level, roots are developing and establishing themselves. "Fall is the best time to plant native trees and shrubs that will provide for birds not only in fall and winter, but in spring and summer as well." Says Saffier. Specifically for fall, plant late-fruiting trees and shrubs such as dogwoods, hollies, cedars, and native apple species. "For winter, conifers such as pines and junipers provide important cover from winds and winter storms. Planted in the right place, these plants can also save energy in the house by blocking prevailing winter winds."
Make oaks multiply! For wildlife value, oak trees are second to none. "If you already have an oak or your neighbor is affable, collect some acorns and plant them outside in starter pots—protected from deer and squirrels and others—or bring them in the house and refrigerate them until spring," Saffier suggests. "Then, grow your own baby oaks, and share with friends and neighbors."