Birdsong is a wonderful way to wake up in the morning. When I began to attract birds to my yard, it was by accident. I wasn’t interested in birds; I was an obsessed gardener. But as I described in Gardening Mercies, my lovely English garden in the backyard was plagued by loud freeway noise. Eight lanes of it, just behind our neighbor’s house across the street. Although I loved my garden, listening to all that roaring traffic while I ruminated over the ranunculus made me tense.
I decided I needed a big water fountain that made a loud, splashing noise to drown out the commuters.
I placed it near the house so the sound of the cascading water would be amplified as it echoed off the side of the building. To my surprise I started seeing a significant increase in the number and variety of birds in the garden. They were all attracted to the fountain. Jewel-toned goldfinches and purple finches flitted about the spray. Hummingbirds hovered and shimmied in the sparkling mist, and cedar waxwings stopped by in droves. I didn’t realize that the sound of water could be such a bird magnet. I felt like the first kid in high school to get a car–suddenly I had a lot of friends and visitors.
In fact, forget messy bird feeders and the skunks and critters they may attract. The number one way to attract birds is with water.
The simplest way to attract birds is with water.
I noticed that with the increase in birds came a decrease in bugs and pests in the garden. I would gaze out the window and watch birds poking in and around the roses for insects. You little darlings, I thought. Go for it–stuff yourself on those evil aphids! In the spring, after I had dug around the plants and amended the soil, I could see robins pulling up worms. I watched sparrows, wrens, and robins making nests out of the clippings I left behind after pruning. In late summer, the sunflowers may have been nodding off and looking past their bloom, but the birds loved picking out the seeds they produced. In the fall when I got behind in my pruning and the rosebushes produced hips and the mountain ash produced its red berries, they were all covered with merrily munching birds. Even the dead tree in the backyard that I kept putting off getting removed was the happy hunting ground for woodpeckers in search of bugs. I discovered that my lackadaisical gardening style has an added benefit: it attracts birds.
This is truly a good thing for people who don’t have the time or inclination to run around and make their place look like it’s on the Parade of Homes tour. When every bush, plant, and tree is pruned and sprayed with pesticides to immaculate perfection, it discourages our feathered friends from visiting and making their home among us. I won’t eat food doused with chemicals, and the birds won’t either. I feel more comfortable in a friend’s home when it’s slightly cluttery than when it’s pristinely presented, and so do the birds. They need our densely overgrown bushes to hide their nests in. We shouldn’t be so quick to make nature bend to our wills with our power mowers, trimmers, and weed whackers. It’s not difficult to attract birds to your place–just make them feel safe and give them something to eat and drink.
So what do they like to eat? Before you run to the store and grab a bag of birdseed, you might want to experiment with free food.
The cheapest and smartest way to feed the birds
is to grow native trees and shrubs.
When I first began attracting birds that’s all I had: berry-producing shrubs and water. I didn’t put up a bird feeder because I knew seed on the ground would encourage the exploding skunk population we already had in our neighborhood. I was able to attract plenty of birds with my seed-producing plants, berry-producing shrubs, and water fountain. Besides, everyone else in the neighborhood was putting out the same seed from the same stores. I wanted to offer them something special and guaranteed to make them happy–the food that God first offered them.
In my old neighborhood in California, I noticed that the birds loved the mountain ash, holly, cotoneaster, crab apples, mulberry, and hawthorn trees and shrubs that grew locally. I’ve seen these same plants growing in many other parts of the U.S. as well. But for a more comprehensive list, there is a great book from Thunder Bay Press titled The Audubon Backyard Birdwatcher: Birdfeeders and Bird Gardens. It’s out of print but you can buy used copies from sellers on Amazon. It includes an extensive detailed list of evergreen trees, berry–and seed–producing trees, and plants that will grow well in specific regions of the country. There are separate lists for the northeast, southeast, prairies and plains, mountains and deserts, and Pacific coast regions.
Another one like it on Amazon is, National Geographic Backyard Guide to the Birds of North America. It is currently in print and has hundreds of happy customer reviews.
But maybe you’re not the type who is content to let the garden go to seed while you put your feet up and sip iced tea. Maybe you’re like my friend Mary Jo, who just can’t get that Martha gene out of her system and wants to do it right. In fact, you want the prettiest and best backyard in the neighborhood, to encourage the most birds. Even better would be a plaque that shows your garden is certifiably superior. If that’s you, the National Wildlife Federation has a wonderful plan for your life.
I had just discovered my local birding store (and was happily buying up CDs on birdsong, suet feeders, and hummingbird feeders) when Bonnie, the congenial owner, found out I was writing a book on birds. “Here,” she said, handing me a packet of information. “You’ll be interested in this.” Inside I found fascinating tips and advice on how to certify your backyard as a National Wildlife Federation Backyard Wildlife Habitat. The NWF has partnered with Home Depot, Wild Birds Unlimited stores in the past and now Animal Planet, Aveda and Disney are among their current partners. You can join the 23,000 households that already have their backyards certified as habitats. It’s a cinch to do. In fact, if you’re an enthusiastic gardener and birder, you may already qualify. The late Craig Tufts, former chief naturalist and manager for the Backyard Wildlife Habitat program, described how little space it takes and how rewarding it is for the family:
“My own yard, habitat #2364, is less than a quarter acre. During the past eleven years, over 150 kinds of shrubs, trees, and flowers have been planted, providing habitat for many feeding and nesting birds. More than forty-six kinds of butterflies have visited this habitat looking for nectar and places where their caterpillars might find a healthy food supply. As my sons grew up, they enjoyed going on critter safaris, discovering spiders and insects, such as dragonflies and water striders, surprising turtles and toads…. The yard remains a source of wonder and excitement for them.”
Certify your backyard as a National Wildlife Federation
Backyard Wildlife Habitat.
To qualify your place as a habitat, just provide the four basic elements: food, water, cover, and places to raise young. The information packet shows you how to put your habitat together. It lists the plants that provide food and shelter and different ways to supply water. It includes the plants that you should avoid because they are invasive, and it also lists different kinds of birdhouses and seeds birds enjoy. Once you qualify you will receive a personalized certificate and an assigned number for your habitat from the NWF. After qualification you can also “purchase and post an attractive yard sign to educate friends and neighbors about your Backyard Wildlife Habitat project.”
As a gardener who’s put in many hours of backbreaking, sweaty, and thankless labor, I like the idea of someone certifying my efforts and commending my attempts to go the extra mile. Too rarely do we get recognition for our tasks around the home. (Where is the award for tshirts folded just like they do in Nordstrom’s? Or the dishwasher loaded to the absolute maximum volume?) I’m an approval addict and am always eager to hear “Well done!” It’s rewarding to make different varieties of God’s creatures feel at home.
By making our yards safe havens for the vulnerable birds that cross our paths, we are given the wondrous opportunity to witness God’s diversity and artistic creativity up close. It’s called creation care. And I think God cares about our efforts to be good stewards and would call that, “Well done!”
If you want to learn more about birds, how to attract them and how they can teach you about God’s mercies, check out my Kindle/Nook book, Wings of Mercy – Spiritual Reflections from the Birds of the Air.