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Attracting Those Beautiful Birds

Tips for creating a bird-watching paradise in your own yard
By Brian M. Collins
Published: May 1, 2008
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A scarlet tanager is just one of the many stunning beauties that will entertain from a well-stocked bird bath.
Photo by Brian Collins
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What a house wren lacks in color, it makes up in enthusiasm, bubbling song and an impressive work ethic.
Photo by Brian M. Colllins
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Eastern bluebirds are one of a handful of species that enjoy the warmth and protection of a nest box. Bluebirds were rescued from the brink of extinction by conservationists and carpentry.
Photo by Brian M. Collins
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Stopped in their northward migration by a cold front, these American robins descended gratefully upon staghorn sumacs.
Photo by Brian M. Collins
It was a story of hope, magic, and then — success.

My family and I witnessed the growth of two bluebird families over the course of a summer.

From our humble piece of paradise — our miniature bird sanctuary — we proudly delivered nine new eastern bluebirds into the world. When they had grown, each of the two broods disappeared into the wild, suddenly and without so much as a goodbye.

But in each step in the process, from adult bluebirds courting on our fence, to eggs in the nest box, to busy feeding trips by both parents and, finally — feathered chicks stacked up within the walls of wood, the birds provided wonderful moments for my children to watch, learn, question and empathize.

We had set up a small hunting blind when the first brood of chicks hatched and my son, not yet 5 years old, sat in there with me for hours. Each day we moved the blind a foot or two closer until the nest entrance was just eight feet away. From our unique perspective, we could see every feather, the brown surrounding glossy black in the birds’ eyes, and we could even identify their insect prey.

Our slice of heaven — within a stone’s throw of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway — is a busy and birdy place with gray catbirds, house wrens, cedar waxwings, blue jays, ruby-throated hummingbirds, American robins, house finches, chipping sparrows, and, of course, eastern bluebirds all nesting within a couple of dozen paces of our deck. There are almost 70 species of birds that I have documented while birdwatching from my deck.

Surely, the 252-mile riverway has delivered the birds to our area, but some creative landscaping we’ve done in our yard brings them in a little closer to home. Providing a mixture of nesting, resting, feeding and bathing opportunities is the key to bringing in the birds.

What’s in Your Ecosystem?

If you want birds, where do you start? First, you must consider your own regional habitats. Lakeside forests, mountainous foothills, coastal flats and Sonoran deserts each have vastly different living communities. The variety of birds thriving in your area will determine what sorts of landscaping adjustments work best. Each ecosystem has a unique set of beneficial plants and birdhouses that will work well.

Local conservation agencies, nursery shops and birders’ stores will be very helpful in refining your choices. Here are a few other things to consider.

Feeders Galore

Bird feeders have evolved into far more than tubes or platforms filled with sunflower seeds. Consider:

• Woodpeckers love to eat beef suet from wire baskets, mesh bags or even the crevices of an old log.

• Many species of fruit-eating birds such as orioles will visit nectar feeders and orange halves filled with grape jelly.

• Simple platforms close to the ground and sprinkled with an assortment of millet, milo, sunflower and cracked corn will keep many species of ground-foraging birds nearby.

• And, of course, don’t forget a few hummingbird feeders (using a mixture of one part ordinary white cane sugar to four parts water). But also plant an abundance of flowering plants nearby, so your sugary nectar can serve as a supplement, not a meal.

In areas with bears or other large mammals, hanging feeders suspended high over the ground and accessed by a pulley or long pole may be necessary. You may even need to take in your feeders for up to two weeks if you find they’ve been ransacked in the middle of the night. It’s all part of the adventure of building up the biological diversity in your neck of the woods.

Birdhouses for Rent

Birdhouses are usually boxes with holes in them, built to cater to birds that nest in the cavities of dead trees. But they can also be built open-faced to support birds that nest on ledges or under overhangs. Open-faced birdhouses offer an inviting space for phoebes and other flycatchers as well as robins.

Since birdhouses target specific bird species by their size, shape and the characteristics of the entrance, a variety of houses placed on your property will attract a variety of birds. Wren houses should be near shrubs and brushy areas. By contrast, bluebird houses should be placed far from shrubs and out in the open on a fence or a pole.

Water is Life

In every habitat, birds seek fresh water for bathing, drinking and cooling off. Your water feature, ranging in size from an old-fashioned birdbath to a backyard pond, should have a gentle grade and shallow access so that birds can stand in the water with ease.

To increase use by birds, the bath should make some sort of trickling noise. On a large scale, this can be a lovely and elaborate landscaping feature utilizing circulating pumps and cascading waterfalls. In a pinch, a bucket or plastic bottle with a nail hole in the bottom will drip water into the pool below making just enough noise to draw birds’ attention to the water.

My mother keeps a beautiful bird pond — a sanctuary for writers, artists and birds alike. It started beneath the boughs of an old jack pine as a hole lined with plastic tarps, covered with rocks, and filled with water. It has since been surrounded by ferns and lilies and has been graced with aquatic plants, grape vines and a few mossy logs that give birds access to some deeper water closer to the middle. A pump keeps water flowing with an attractive gurgling in the corner of the bath. Yours will no doubt evolve too.

Good Cover

With food, water, and nesting nearby, good cover will seal the deal. Regardless of where you live, good cover means including a variety of plant types in your yard.

Many of the best plants to consider for attracting birds have both shelter and food within their boughs:

• In many regions, viburnum bushes such as the highbush cranberry provide for birds year round, with attractive flowers, red berries and dense boughs.

• Raspberries and blackberries provide food and cover for birds and food for humans.

• Cedars, spruces and other evergreens provide birds cover from inclement weather as well as from predators.

• Sumac, crabapples and the tiny cone “berries” of cedars provide food well into the heart of winter.

• For the arid xeriscaping projects of the desert southwest, many shrubs — including the Mexican bird of paradise — will attract birds to luxurious flowers and welcoming branches.


Landscaping for birds is a wonderful, never-ending hobby. The work is a rich and rewarding sort of artistry that gives back one hundred fold in color, personality and feathered beauty.

As you share your wealth with the birds, they share their lives with you, making each and every day a new and exciting adventure of love and learning. Breakfast companions flit and fluff on the deck. Friendly visitors give me moments of repose when my handyman projects grow tedious.

And each year when large flocks of migrating bluebirds congregate along my fence line their numbers are awe-inspiring. Looking them over and enjoying the flock’s frantic behavior, I can’t help but think that at least one of them hatched in my own bird garden. It’s very satisfying watching the birds pass through and, finally, two of them settle on the nest box and start the cycle of life again.

Frequent contributor Brian M. Collins is a high school biology teacher, a bird photographer and a proud father of two young birdwatchers. Check out his photography at www.imagesinnaturallight.com.
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