Bird-Friendly Gardens: How to Attract Birds to Your Yard
You know that meme that’s like: One day you’re young and hip, and the next you’re like “is that a tufted titmouse at my bird feeder?!” Yeah, that. 😂 It’s no secret that we’re quite the bird nerds around here. Our new homestead is an absolute mecca for backyard birding. In fact, we’ve identified 71 different species of birds in our garden so far! That’s in part because our area is fairly rural, but also largely thanks to the measures we’ve taken to make birds feel safe and welcome in our yard.
Read along to learn how to create a bird-friendly garden, with tips and best practices to attract birds with natural cover, bird feeders, water features, birdhouses and more. We’ll also briefly explore how to identify birds, the benefits of having birds in the garden, and tips for patios or balconies. Last but not least, learn several ways to easily protect edible crops in your garden from bird grazing. Don’t worry, we’ll turn you into a fellow bird nerd in no time!
This article is proudly sponsored by Gardener’s Supply Company, our favorite Certified B Corp for bird feeders, birdhouses, and other garden goods. This post also contains affiliate links that help support the work we do here at Homestead and Chill. We’re so grateful for your support!
Benefits of Birds in the Garden
- Birdwatching is an enjoyable, educational, peaceful, and relaxing lifelong hobby for all ages and abilities to enjoy. It’s a fantastic way to slow down, tune into the natural world around us, and deepen our connection to nature.
- Birds provide natural pest control in the garden. Sure, some birds may pick at our precious plants on occasion, but more often than not, they’re scavenging plants and soil for caterpillars, aphids, beetles, and other insects instead! Larger birds of prey can also help keep rodent populations at bay.
- Birds need our help. In a rapidly changing world where human activity continues to encroach on habitat, food, and water sources, it’s important for us to do our part to support local wildlife populations in as many ways possible.
- A bird-friendly garden is usually a sustainable one. While focusing on attracting birds, you’ll inadvertently start a cascade of benefits to the environment, biodiversity and other wildlife too!
How to Identify Bird Species in Your Garden
The Merlin Bird ID app by Cornell Labs is one of the best tools to identify bird species in the garden. I use it almost daily! The sound ID feature is especially handy; all you do is hit record, it listens, and tells you what birds are singing nearby. Then you can save birds to a running “life list”. I personally only like to save the birds I hear in our garden to my life list, but I use the app to ID birds away from home too. I also like to refer to my state Audubon book when I need help identifying a bird – especially when I can’t take a photo or get an auditory ID.
It’s fun to know exactly what bird species are around, learn to recognize them by sight or sound, and look up interesting facts to get better acquainted! It’s also important to know what bird species are in your garden or area so you can better tailor your efforts to attract and support them. For instance, various bird species have different preferences or needs for food, shelter, or bird houses.
Attracting Birds to Your Garden
Birds need four key elements to survive and thrive in any habitat: food, water, shelter, and places to raise young.
There are a number of ways to enhance your yard with both natural features (e.g. plants or ponds) along with man-made additions such as bird feeders and baths. The more options and variety you provide among the four categories, the more diversity of birds you’ll attract to the garden!
When creating a bird-friendly garden, we’re really talking about creating an ecosystem. All four elements are connected. One of the best things you can do is replace traditional grass lawn with shrubs, trees, flowers, edibles, and/or native no-mow grasses instead. The plants directly provide cover and food, as well as increase the number of insects and worms in the garden – another vital food source for birds! By following organic gardening practices and avoiding the use of pesticides and herbicides, it allows all life to flourish – from birds to pollinators and beyond.
Food Sources for Birds
Most bird species primarily rely on seeds and insects for food, while some also eat fruit, vegetation, nuts, and/or nectar. Birds of prey like hawks or owls also eat lizards, snakes, rodents, and other small birds or mammals, while scavengers like vultures and crows will eat just about anything. Focus on providing a variety of food sources for birds in your garden. After all, it’s the spice of life!
Natural sources of food
Plant native trees and shrubs that bear fruit or seeds for birds – which also double as shelter, and perhaps a place to raise young! For example, California coffeeberry, toyon, and elderberry provide edible berries that attract sparrows, quail, thrashers, finches, cedar waxwings, robins and more. Of course, birds will be attracted to fruit and other tasty treats growing in your garden as well. (We’ll talk more about how to peacefully navigate that in the “sharing the garden with birds” section to follow.)
Many tall grasses and “weeds” like chickweed, Miner’s lettuce, thistle and nettle provide seeds for birds, as well as host a variety of insects to snack on. Leaf litter and mulch is a great place for birds to kick around in, foraging for insects and worms. Attract hummingbirds to the garden with nectar-rich flowers such as salvias, zinnia, penstemon, fuchsia, and honeysuckle. Some of my very favorite easy annual flowers to grow also happen to be bird favorites; sparrows, finches and jays LOVE the seeds from cosmos, bachelor buttons and sunflowers!
Bird feeders are another invaluable food source for birds, especially during winter months while other food is scarce. Feeders come in a wide range of shapes, sizes, and styles.
- Classic bird seed feeders are a popular choice (like our favorite classic copper feeder) along with squirrel-proof versions if needed.
- Suet block feeders are a big hit with chickadees, jays, nuthatches, woodpeckers and others. The fat that holds the seed blocks together make them an incredibly high-energy food source. We currently have this long-lasting cheery sunflower suet wreath hanging for the birds in our garden!
- To supplement flowers, hummingbirds love to drink “nectar” (sugar water) from specialized feeders. Learn about hummingbird feeder best practices here, including how to make homemade nectar.
- Some bird feeders are quite decorative and double as garden art! Like this adorable acorn bird feeder or this beautiful glass petal sunflower feeder.
- Check out the full selection of beautiful, high-quality bird feeders and related accessories from Gardener’s Supply Company here.
Bird feeder best practices
Some folks question: is it good to put out bird feeders, or does it interfere with nature? While it’s a valid concern, even the experts at Audubon Society support the use of backyard bird feeders – as long as you follow best practices to maintain them.
In order to prevent the spread of disease, ornithologists recommend to clean bird feeders (and bird baths) every couple of weeks with a solution of 9 parts water to 1 part bleach. To reduce traffic and competition, Audubon suggests hanging several bird feeders rather than only one. It’s also recommended to take occasional breaks from hanging or filling feeders during the summer, so young birds that hatched in spring can learn to forage for food.
Hang bird feeders from tree limbs, under eaves, on shepherds hooks or pole mounts, or another location that’s at least 5 to 6 feet above the ground. That way, bird feeders are out of reach from outdoor cats and other ground-dwelling pests and predators. Where hawks are common, it’s best to keep bird feeders under a tree canopy or other sheltered place that’s less visible from above. Clean up spilled birdseed from below the feeder periodically to reduce rodent activity.
Birds need water to drink and bathe in, so providing water sources like bird baths, fountains, ponds, or other water features is an essential element of creating a bird-friendly garden! Supplemental water is especially important during the heat of summer, and in winter when other sources may be frozen (check out this heated bird bath or heated deck-mount bath option). Even large birds of prey occasionally visit backyard bird baths to cool down during exceptionally hot and dry spells.
Fountain and bird bath best practices
Like feeders, it’s necessary to routinely clean and sanitize bird baths and other water sources to prevent the spread of disease. At least once per month, clean bird baths with a dilute bleach solution of 1 part bleach to 9 parts water. Thoroughly rinse it out after. I also like to scrub our birdbaths with a firm brush. Do not add chemical algaecides to the water! This copper birdbath offers natural antimicrobial and anti-algae properties, making it extra easy to clean. Prevent mosquito breeding in standing water by dumping and changing out birdbath water once per week.
Shop all bird baths from Gardener’s Supply Co here.
Birds enjoy shelter from trees, shrubs, vines, open barns or outbuildings, and more. Shelter offers birds a safe space away from predators, cover from inclement weather, or just a comfortable place to rest. Try to incorporate a diverse selection of shelter plants in your yard! Tall trees will attract hummingbirds, woodpeckers, hawks, owls, and others to your garden. On the other hand, shrubs and hedges bring in smaller birds like sparrows, finches, quail, titmice, warblers, towhees and more. Allowing some areas of your yard to grow a bit wild (less manicured) is ideal for birds and other wildlife alike.
In addition to plants, these adorable protected roosting pockets offer a nook for backyard birds to take cover from freezing rain, snow, or wind. In our garden, birds also love to roost on our trellises and arbors.
Places to Raise Young
Last but not least… babies! Birds are attracted to gardens where they can safely build nests and raise their young. In addition to providing cover, trees, dense shrubs, vines, and brush piles are favorable places for birds to nest. That said, please avoid heavy pruning or tree-trimming during the spring nesting season! Instead, wait to prune or trim trees until late summer, fall, or even during the winter. Birds will also build nests around eaves, porches, chimneys, rafters, and other structures.
Many backyard bird species will use birdhouses (nesting boxes) including chickadees, wrens, bluebirds, purple martins, tree swallows, kestrels, nuthatches, titmice, many sparrows, woodpeckers, and some species of owls. It’s an absolute joy to watch birds nest in a birdhouse you hung for them! But patience is a virtue. It can take birds a season or two to find, accept, and make use of birdhouses.
Keep in mind that different bird species have unique preferences in terms of box style and location. For instance, chickadees, wrens, nuthatches and other petite songbirds favor birdhouses with a 1.25 to 1.5 inch opening hole, while woodpeckers, kestrels, and owls will need much larger nesting boxes. Do a little research and choose appropriate birdhouse styles for the birds in your garden, including where they’d like it mounted. Most birdhouses should have an access hatch for annual cleaning.
Gardener’s Supply Company offers a wide selection of beautiful, durable, and functional birdhouses to choose from. Check them out here! They have options to hang, mount on a pole, or affix to a tree or post. We have several styles, and I’m very impressed with their high quality.
Bird-Friendly Patio or Balcony Gardens
You don’t need a huge yard to create a bird-friendly space! Patios, balconies, and other urban gardens can also offer birds a special nook away from the hustle and bustle of it all. Plus, many bird species are quite acclimated to urban environments. While you may not be able to grow large trees and shrubs, most all of the other tips we explored today can easily be scaled down to small spaces. Attract birds to your patio garden with potted plants, bird feeders (including hummingbird feeders), and bird houses. It’s not at all uncommon to see birds nest in hanging plants! You could even install one of these nifty rail-mounted birdbaths on your deck or balcony, shown below.
Sharing the Garden with Birds
So what happens once you’ve successfully attracted birds to your garden… but now they’re eating it?! Trust me, I understand the frustration. Yet we’ve been peacefully and successfully growing our own food alongside a healthy bird population for many years. It simply takes a little added ingenuity and patience – and is well worth it, IMHO.
The majority of birds don’t bother garden crops. Again, we see them picking insects off plants for us more than anything! Yet when they do go after our edibles, the most common targets are small tender seedlings, leafy greens, berries, or ripe fruit on trees.
Here are several effective ways to prevent birds from damaging crops in you garden:
- To protect young seedlings and leafy greens, we cover our raised beds with these handy super hoops and floating row covers. It’s typically only needed for a few weeks while the plants size up. Once they do, the birds don’t pay them as much attention. Plus, a few nibbles are far less damaging to larger plants. (Bonus: we also use the hoops with shade cloth or frost cover when needed!)
- Cover individual plants (e.g. strawberries or heads of lettuce) with cages or chicken wire cloches like these.
- Use crop cages or wire fencing around areas you know birds cannot resist, such as a berry patch or blueberry bushes. It will effectively deter deer, rabbits, and other critters too!
- Grow crops or varieties that are less attractive to birds. For example, we love to grow green-skinned fig varieties. Rather than turning purple as they ripen (aka “hey birds, look at me!”), some fig varieties stay green and therefore draw far less attention from birds.
- If space allows, plant enough to share! Birds grazing on a handful of plants or fruit will be far more noticeable and frustrating than when there’s more than enough to go around.
- To protect fruit on fruit trees, add reusable mesh baggies around individual fruit as they ripen. (Think sachets or sheer party favor bags.)
- Avoid draping the old-school “bird netting” (the stuff that looks like black fish netting) loosely over plants or trees. More often than not, birds can get under it – and then get tangled and entrapped! Use finer-mesh netting or a more rigid solution like chicken wire instead.
- See a full selection of effective plant barriers and bird fencing solutions from Gardener’s Supply here.
And that’s how to attract birds to your garden!
After reading this, I hope you’re eager to make your yard more bird-friendly than ever. I love our feathered friends so much, just putting this post together made me ridiculously happy. I also hope you found plenty of new ideas here, and enjoy learning more about the bird species in your yard going forward. Thank you in advance for doing your part to help local wildlife! Please feel free to ask any questions or simply say hi in the comments below. Happy birding!
You may also enjoy:
- Top 23 Plants for Pollinators: Attract Bees, Butterflies, & Hummingbirds!
- 10 Ways to Help Pollinators: Save Bees, Butterflies & Beyond
- 15 Best Flowers to Attract Hummingbirds (w/ photos)
- How to Turn Your Yard or Garden into a Certified Wildlife Habitat
- Homemade Hummingbird Food (Nectar) Recipe + Feeder Care FAQ
OMG, how are those little oak titmouse going to get out of that tall screech owl birdhouse? They need a ramp! 😉
Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)
Hi CB, that’s exactly what we were thinking, chances are they will figure it out pretty quickly and will be flying the “coop” before we know it.
N P Byrum
From Cornell University – Cats (These) are non-native predators that, even using conservative estimates, kill 1.3–4 billion birds and 6.3–22.3 billion mammals each year in the U.S. alone (Loss et al. 2013, Nature Communications). As a conservation organization, the Cornell Lab recognizes that this is an unnatural situation that is taking a tremendous toll on the native wildlife of our continent. Because outdoor cats are a human-caused problem, it is our responsibility to find ways to address it.
It’s hardly fair to attract birds to your habitat if you have outdoor cats that have no natural predators. You are just attracting birds to cause them to become prey.
I completely understand the issue and concern. We never had outdoor cats before (indoor only) until we moved to this property, where we inherited 2 “feral barn cats” left by the previous owners – that the realtor said they’d have trapped if we didn’t agree to take care of them. As lifelong cat lovers, of course we said we would. But again, I’d never choose to have outdoor cats if this circumstance literally hadn’t fallen into our laps. To help address the threat to wildlife, we feed them VERY well (both wet food and dry food, lol) so they won’t be as tempted to hunt. With that, they’ve lost their value as “mousers” or “barn cats”, but have instead become very tame, chubby, sweet, and perhaps a bit lazy – though they’re still too wild to bring indoors. Fortunately, we’ve never seen them show interest in birds or evidence of hunting (feather piles, etc). I actually have many photos of Badger lazing around on his back with a covey of quail just 20 feet away. We hang our feeders and houses far out of cat reach. Plus many of the larger birds on our property actually harass cats if needed, including the jays, crows, and male quail. Finally, our outdoor cats do have natural predators here too, including coyotes, hawks, owls, bobcats, and even the occasional mountain lion in our area… People lose outdoor cats here all the time to coyotes, I’m very fearful of that day for us. Though again, I understand the issue and not all cats/situations will be like ours!