“How do you attract birds to your backyard?“
The entire reason I created Bird Watching HQ a few years ago was to help answer the above question. My goal has been to create a small oasis for birds and wildlife in my backyard, which sits in a suburban neighborhood between two large cities (Cleveland & Akron, Ohio).
Here’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned so far:
The key to attracting birds comes down to providing for their basic needs.
Do you remember learning about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, either in college or high school? It’s a theory in psychology that is often portrayed as a pyramid, which displays humans most basic physiological needs on the bottom (food, water) and ascends to our need for self-actualization on top.
The point is that people want all of their needs met, but prioritize the importance of each one in order as they move up the pyramid. For example, if you are dying of thirst, you are probably going to have little concern at that moment with “Esteem” or “Self-actualization.” You just want some water!
Well, guess what? Birds are not that much different from people!
In the picture above, you can see my bird version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. To attract birds, focus on creating a habitat that meets these first three needs.
- Physiological needs are the things that birds HAVE to obtain daily to survive, such as air, sleep, food, water, and shelter.
(At this point, I’m not sure how to provide “Esteem” or “Self-actualization” for our avian friends. Check back in 2040. 🙂 )
1. Physiological Needs
The BEST way to attract birds to your backyard is to provide these 3 physiological needs; water, food, & shelter.
Providing a water feature in your yard will attract the most extensive variety of birds.
That’s because, just like us, ALL species of birds need to drink water. It doesn’t matter whether their food sources come from meat, seeds, nectar, or bugs!
If you have a stream, lake, or another source of fresh water in your backyard, then you are one of the lucky few that probably don’t need to read this section.
Here is what the rest of us should do:
Buy a bird bath!
Putting a birdbath in your backyard is the best way to provide a place that birds can drink and bathe.
But there are hundreds of bird baths to choose from, and it can be overwhelming trying to find one. Try reading this article to help narrow your selection:
But buying a birdbath, filling it with water, and placing it in your yard is easy.
The most challenging part of having a birdbath is the constant maintenance!
The problem is that birds love having fresh water so much that typically within a few days they have made the water in your bird bath pretty gross. This means that you will have to commit to changing the water every few days along with cleaning with a scrub brush every few weeks.
You have been warned!
Many people buy a bird bath and are not ready to commit to the work. Unfortunately, most of the year their beautiful bird bath sits filled with disgusting, smelly water that becomes a breeding pond for mosquitoes.
Lastly, if you really want to see A LOT of birds, make sure to purchase a heated bird bath. This means that in the middle of a frigid winter when other water sources are frozen solid, you will still have open, fresh water available!
Hanging a bird feeder in your backyard is the classic and most popular way to attract birds. But just because it’s common does not mean it’s easy to get birds to show up.
Luckily there are a lot of simple hacks and tips that can be implemented to decrease frustration while increasing the number of birds you see.
Here are my 4 favorites:
A. Buy a (several) bird feeder(s).
To being feeding birds, you need to purchase and hang your first bird feeder in your backyard.
If you are starting out and don’t currently have any feeders, then my advice is to buy a hopper style feeder first. This type is designed to appeal to a large variety of birds and typically features a large perching area for them to eat. Hopper feeders are generally filled with a birdseed mixture that features multiple types of food (sunflower, millet, safflower, peanuts, etc.).
Think of a hopper style feeder as the cornerstone of your backyard feeding station!
From here, the possibilities for adding more feeders are endless! It just comes down to what birds YOU want to attract.
Check out this LIVE view of my bird feeding station.
You should be able to see examples of multiple types of feeders.
For much more information and a list of some of the best bird feeders available, organized by type and style, check out this post.
B. Clean your feeders periodically.
As your feeders become popular, it’s not uncommon to have hundreds of visitors each day. All of these birds have the potential to bring different bacteria and diseases, not too mention the amount of fecal matter that drops on your feeders.
Every so often, you need to complete a thorough cleaning of your feeders using a 10% bleach solution and a scrub brush.
To be honest, this is an area where I struggle! It’s easy to keep putting this chore off, and I’m ashamed to say that sometimes months go by without conducting a proper cleaning!
One thing that helped was buying a 5-gallon bucket dedicated to feeder cleaning. Inside the bucket, I place any other needed supplies, such as a scrub brush and bleach. Now when it’s time to clean my feeders at least everything is conveniently located, which has helped a bit.
C. Use quality bird food.
One of the BIGGEST mistakes that bird feeding enthusiasts make is buying CHEAP food, typically from a large hardware store chain or a local grocery store.
The problem with CHEAP bags of food is they are typically filled with filler seed that wild birds DON’T eat!
Even though it seems like you are saving money, you are actually wasting it because the food is going to end up on the ground uneaten.
Trust me; I am guilty of buying cheap food. It’s human nature to buy the least expensive item in a store. I used to go to Home Depot and purchase an enormous 50-pound bag of bird food mix that costs something crazy inexpensive like $15.
But once I started analyzing the ingredients something became clear. As the price became cheaper, the more the bag was filled with junk that most birds don’t eat.
Here are some common filler seeds that you should avoid:
*Milo: Using this seed is the most common way to fill up a bag of bird food cheaply. Milo is inexpensive and an easy way for manufacturers to lower the price.
The problem is that almost no birds eat milo! The few exceptions are House Sparrow’s, grackles, and doves, which is a bit ironic since many people try to prevent these birds from coming to their backyard in the first place!
*Wheat: Another common trick… I mean ingredient used to fill up bird food bags. Very few birds eat wheat.
*Oats: Blackbirds (grackles, starlings) will eat oats. Nothing else!
Some of the best foods to use are black-oil sunflower, peanuts, nyjer, safflower, and suet. My advice is to experiment with different foods to see what your local birds prefer at your feeding station.
My recommendation is to always check the ingredients on the back of the bag!
D. Plant native tree’s, shrubs, and flowers.
Hanging feeders in your backyard is a great way to attract birds, but it has limitations. For example, not all birds visit feeders. This is because lots of species don’t eat the types of food (sunflower, peanuts, safflower, etc.) typically offered. Warblers are a great example; their diet consists mostly of insects.
Luckily, there is a simple solution to this problem.
The best way to consistently attract birds to your backyard is to plant NATIVE tree’s, shrubs, and flowers.
First, native plants are important because they attract native insects, which birds desperately need during the warmer months when they are nesting. That exotic Chinese bush might look aesthetically pleasing, but it’s not going to be of any use to your local birds (unless you are reading this from China 🙂 ). Second, having a plentiful supply of insects scattered around your yard will bring birds that ONLY eat bugs, like the warblers that were mentioned earlier.
Having lots of native plants in your yard will also provide a consistent source of food all year long for birds to eat, even when your feeders are cleaned out.
Purple coneflowers are a great example of an extremely popular native plant to use around your yard. Not only are they beautiful, but they attract butterflies, bee’s, and other pollinators while in bloom. Then in the fall their large seedheads mature which help provide food for goldfinches and other birds in winter.
The last physiological need for birds we will discussing is shelter.
Let’s take a look at two different backyards below.
If you were a bird, which yard would provide the most considerable amount of shelter and comfortability? Where would you want to spend your time?
It’s no surprise that the backyard on the left, with lots of trees and shrubs positioned at various locations and different heights, will attract more birds than the barren yard on the right.
No matter how extreme the weather, from rain to snow to extreme cold to sweltering heat, birds require sheltered protection. They also need shelter to escape from hungry predators, and to build nests to raise their young.
Here are a few quick tips that can provide shelter to make your yard more bird-friendly:
A. Install nest boxes.
Not only will a nestbox provide shelter for numerous species, but you may also attract birds to build a nest, lay eggs, and raise their family in your backyard!
B. Plant native tree’s, shrubs, and flowers.
If your yard is barren or just an empty field, my #1 recommendation is to head to your local nursery, buy some plants, and start changing your landscape!
We already know native plants provide food all year long for birds (see section 3D above).
But another fantastic benefit of native plants is that they provide shelter and places to hide and nest. Birds don’t like being exposed and sitting in the wind or rain any more than we do. They feel most comfortable when they have plenty of places to hide and protect themselves.
Northern Cardinals are a great example of a bird that likes to have some shelter near feeders before visiting. Even though they are common, cardinals are shy. Before heading out to eat from a feeder, they enjoy sitting in a tree or bush until they are ready and feel safe.
*Which plants you select for your backyard depends on what birds you want to attract. If you need guidance, the National Audubon Society has created a search tool to help filter different native plants, such as by region, birds, etc.*
Birds don’t like being exposed, just waiting for a hawk, cat, or another predator to attack. Birds are attracted most to areas that make them feel safe and have plenty of places to hide and take refuge.
Here are a few tips to make sure your yard is as safe as possible.
- Plant native tree’s, shrubs, and plants.
- This creates hiding places and perching areas around your whole yard.
*You have probably noticed that this tip has shown up multiple times in this post. That’s because having lots of native plants in your yard provides numerous benefits and is probably the single best thing you can do for backyard birds. *
- Clean your bird feeders regularly!
- Bacteria and disease can become a silent killer in your backyard.
- Place your bird feeding station near bushes or trees.
- You want to provide birds a quick escape from potential predators.
- Keep your cats indoors.
- Install nest boxes.
- Spread bird feeders around the yard.
- This is especially important if more aggressive birds (like European Starlings) are dominating your feeders and chasing away more passive songbirds.
- Ensure that pests can’t access your bird feeders.
- Squirrels are a common enemy of backyard feeding stations. Keeping them off your bird feeders and on the ground will attract more birds!
3. Social Belonging
Most birds are social creatures and enjoy each other’s company. Almost all species find safety in numbers, even if it’s just during specific times of the year.
We have discussed numerous ways to transform your backyard into a place that consistently attracts birds. Following all of the tips and advice above is the best way to provide a habitat that allows birds to be social together.
Attracting birds to your backyard is SIMPLE!
Just provide the three basic needs that birds require for survival, which are physiological, safety, and social belonging.
Unfortunately, just because something is simple, does not mean it’s easy.
It takes a lot of work, time, and a bit of money to transform your backyard into a habitat that birds want to visit consistently.
But for me, the effort has been entirely worth it!
First, I enjoy the challenge of trying to attract new species to my yard.
Second, I get a feeling of satisfaction every day as my kids play in our backyard and we are surrounded by singing birds and other creatures.
Lastly, I take pride in the fact that I am doing my small part to help nature and wildlife.