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Outfit Your Backyard for the Birds

Alfred Hitchcock might have given birds a bad rep, but there’s a reason bird watching is one of the most popular and fastest growing outdoor hobbies around the world. Perhaps it’s because you don’t have to be a birding expert to spot, or appreciate, even the most beautiful of species.

All you need is a well-equipped backyard and a little bit of patience. Spring is the perfect time to turn your backyard into a birding oasis, as hundreds of species migrate throughout the US. (Birds vary by region, so if you’re curious about what might land on your branches, contact your local ornithological or Audubon society.)

Like most animals, birds go where the most plentiful, and safest, food sources are, so start by outfitting your backyard with the following bird-friendly features:

  • A source of fresh water for drinking and bathing.
  • Native shrubs and plants that offer shelter and nesting sites.
  • A variety of feeders placed throughout your yard to attract a range of birds. For the best results, mix things up with a table feeder, seed feeder, thistle feeder, hummingbird feeder and suet feeder. Be sure to clean your feeders regularly and give each one plenty of space to ease the stress on birds competing for food. For specifics on which birds gravitate toward which feeders, check out The National Audubon Society or BirdWatching magazine.
  • An assortment of seeds, nuts and fruit, which you can find at your nearest Whole Foods Market®.

Not sure it’s “natural” to feed birds? While most birds catch their food in the wild, the National Audubon Society assures us that more than 100 North American species supplement their diets with birdseed, nuts, fruit, nectar from feeders and suet (a concentrated source of animal fat for insect-eating birds, such as woodpeckers). So then, what to feed our feathered friends?

Steve Gross, President of the Texas Ornithological Society, suggests first thinking about what types of birds you don’t want fluttering into your yard. Avoid seed mixes that have a high percentage of millet and corn if you don’t want to invite “everyday” birds such as doves, grackles and blackbirds. If you’re seeking out those sweet little songbirds instead, your best bet is a high proportion of black oil sunflower seeds.

When I’m in a hurry, I pick up a bag of Cole’s Safflower birdseed in the pet aisle at my local Whole Foods Market store. When I’m feeling a bit more DIY, however, I head to the bulk section, where I can mix and match different seeds and nuts to concoct my own birdfeed blend. Stick to these basic guidelines and you can create your own fun birdfeed mixes, too!

  • Again, bulk up on sunflower seeds to attract the greatest variety of birds. Larger birds such as cardinals, jays and grosbeaks tend to go for the striped seeds, while cute little chickadees and nuthatches prefer the smaller black oil seeds.
  • Woodpeckers, nuthatches and titmice also love peanuts, nuts and dried fruit. Be sure to get unsalted, unseasoned nuts. Birds can’t digest those “extras” as well as we can.
  • Skip the oats. They’re used as filler in less expensive birdseed blends, but few birds actually like them.
  • Suet can go rancid quickly, especially in the summer heat, so mix one part peanut butter with five parts corn meal for a hearty substitute birds will love. Pack the mixture into pinecones or smear it onto tree bark and wait for the woodpeckers, wrens and warblers to come calling.
  • Coveting those colorful robins and bluebirds? They often skip the seeds and go straight for fruit, so soak some raisins in water overnight and place them on a table feeder. Or place a halved orange or pomegranate onto a spike near other feeders to attract orange-bellied orioles and tropical-hued tanagers.
  • Finally, to catch those beautiful, buzzing hummingbirds in action, hang a nectar feeder and fill it with a sugar solution of one part white sugar to four or five parts water (boil briefly to dissolve and make sure it’s cool before setting it out).

Be sure to store seeds in a secure container that other hungry critters can’t get into, and keep it in a cool, dry area to avoid moisture, which can lead to spoilage.

Oh, and don’t forget your camera so you can capture every one of your new, fluttering friends! Is your backyard a bird oasis? What feathered vistors do you have?

Bird photos by Steve Gross.