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."
Construct a stick and leaf pile. We're focusing on birds, but as mentioned above, bugs are a huge part of the equation when it comes to keeping birds alive and well. "Leaf litter and stick piles are the places where many insects overwinter, and the birds know this," says Saffier. "They will search these resources in fall and winter looking for insect eggs, pupating butterflies, and insect larvae." Birds like sparrows and juncos will work overtime, performing bug egg cleanup duty on your pile!
Let snags stand. That dead tree you've been meaning to cut down in your yard? If you can leave the tree, or part of it, safely standing (as in, it's not in danger of falling on a building or onto someone—talk to a landscaper or arborist), it will lure birds to cavity shelters, and provide a place to snag some bugs.
Delight in dead wood. And if you must cut a dead tree down, save some of the dead wood, suggests Roth. In her new book, she suggests taking a dead piece of wood 7 to 8 inches in diameter, and setting upright it in a natural spot, perhaps planting some ferns around it, to draw birds. This could not only look pretty, but will draw thrushes, towhees, and other "woodsy" birds to check out your display. She suggests also using dead wood as a free feeder. Dig a hole in the ground to vertically secure the piece of wood in the ground (in an area free of cats), and then spread nut butters or suet right onto the bark or bare wood. Leave your dead flower garden standing If you think a garden full of dried-up, dead plants is ugly, you'll likely change your mind when you start noticing nuthatches, titmice, and chickadees scouring the branches for insect and spider eggs, or you see cardinals and goldfinches perching on stems and eating seeds from the plants.
Plants such as rudbeckia, sunflowers, asters, and others that hang onto their seeds through the fall (and sometimes winter) are particularly good for goldfinches and siskins. However, native plants that drop their seeds are also valuable to the greater number of birds that will search the ground for this seed source. They are very adept at finding tiny seeds that would be virtually invisible to us. Late-flowering native wildflowers (the kinds vary in each region) provide nectar to lingering pollinators (bees, beetles, flies, and so forth), which will in turn, feed birds like migratory "fall warblers" that hunt for insects on their way south.
Go soft on bird food. Since new types of birds are resorting to making our backyards their restaurants of survival, we need to provide them with what they need. Roth explains that orioles, tanagers, thrushes, thrashers, wrens, cedar waxwings, vireos, and wood warblers of several species are soft-food eaters, and crave things like suet and peanut butter or other fat-based products, as well as mealworms and fresh and dried fruit. "All the more reason to broaden your feeder menu, plant more berry bushes, and keep your hands off the pesticide bottle: These birds are insect eaters, big time," says Roth.
Offer more variety than a department store. "A feeding station stocked with a variety of foods and feeder types draws way more birds of way more kinds than just sunflower, millet, and suet," Roth says. She suggests:
1. Stock up on a variety of bird foods, such as suet; birdseed of various kinds, including black oil sunflower, millet, and niger; nuts; and specialty mixes containing fruit or nuts.
2. Put out a variety of feeder styles, including trays, hoppers, tubes, suet cages, and log feeders.
3. Keep the birdbath full and invest in a heater or a heated bath model for winter, because water is a big draw all year round.
Stay stocked during storms. Storms may bring some of the most spectacular bird feeder sightings you've ever encountered.
"Fox sparrows, towhees, dick sissels, native sparrows of a dozen species, horned larks, meadowlarks, and all kinds of birds that may not usually visit your feeder may show up to get a helping hand," says Roth. "And if it’s an untimely, early-fall or late-spring snow or ice storm, you may see neotropical migrants that got caught in it, such as tanagers, orioles, vireos, wood warblers, and lots of others."
Roth even encountered a very unexpected feeder guest one year—a great blue heron! "It was scarfing down seed with that monster beak while standing at the wooden tray mounted on a three-foot-tall post—just his size," she says. What draws them in? In winter, absolutely it’s food—abundant food, easy access, a variety of foods to suit every taste (which is why suet and other soft foods are important, since many birds don’t eat seeds). Just like restaurants, feeding areas that draw a crowd will attract more customers. "The presence of your feeder 'regulars' advertises your feeder to any hungry bird that may be flying over."