If You Build a Habitat, They Will Come

Sometimes, when I mention cardinals, blue jays or orioles, people think of baseball teams. The phrase if you build it, they will come also brings baseball to mind, but I’m talking about birds, and how building an attractive habitat for these fine-feathered friends will bring them into your own backyard.

Building a habitat can attract many kinds of birds to your space and create a mutually beneficial atmosphere, whether you live in a city, suburb, woodland or meadow. It may even be easier to attract birds to habitats in a city, because there are often mature trees and public parks nearby. Wherever you live, you can build on what’s there, and take advantage of what’s close at hand.

Saving on the Yard Work
The good news is that birds enjoy your yard when it is a little on the messy side. Trimming your hedge less often and more openly leaves room for birds to get inside. Longer grass and open ground that is lacking mulch or groundcover plants are also attractive to birds. Many birds, such as robins, use these bare ground spots under trees and in the corner of a yard to take dirt baths.

Start at the Bottom
The first area of focus when building a backyard habitat should be the understory, or the vertical space from the ground to 12 feet in the air. You don’t need large trees such as maples or oaks in your yard, especially if you live within a mile of large trees. Instead, focus on planting smaller varieties of trees like hawthorn, dogwood, or Japanese maple trees. Larger shrubs are also an option, if you prefer them to smaller trees. Some suggestions of shrubs to use would be: honeysuckle, red-twig dogwood, flowering quince, burkwood viburnum, summer sweet or serviceberry. Larger ornamental grasses like Miscanthus sinensis or Miscanthus sinensis “adagio” are good options, as they are big but don’t flop or invade. They can grow to between 6 and 8 feet wide and 5 to 6 feet tall.

When considering trees and shrubs, plan to use half deciduous and half evergreen varieties, as this will make your habitat attractive to birds through all four seasons.

Providing a water source in your habitat with a bird bath, fountain or pond will bring another dimension to the space that your birds and you will all enjoy. When choosing a bird bath, be sure it is shallow, or place a couple of rocks in it for the birds to perch on. They really like to splash around in mud puddles, so keep this in mind when shopping for a receptacle. A small sized ‘pondless waterfall’ is a really fun way to have a water feature without as much expense and maintenance as a pond. You will love the sound, and the birds love taking showers in the falls.

Be sure to include an area for feeders. Place them well away from roofs and trees, to help keep the squirrels away. The feeder should be within fifty feet of trees or shrubs, so that the birds have somewhere to perch while eating. Even the smaller Japanese maple trees are strong enough for perching. Many birds, such as chickadees, will take the seed away from the feeder and tap it on a tree branch to break it open, which is another reason to locate feeders near trees. If there are cats around, be certain to keep the feeders and baths at least three feet above ground, and do not plant anything directly underneath the feeder, as this gives predators a hiding place.

Using vine plants as a snag (a place for birds to perch and congregate) is a great way to cover a chain link fence or trellis. Honeysuckle and trumpet vines both attract hummingbirds, and clematis vines flower beautifully. Just remember that the flowers will always be on the sunny side of the fence; no need to give your neighbor the best side.

And Work Your Way Up
Once your understory is complete, you want to look at providing some taller trees for your birds. If you have the space for it, the river birch is a lovely, graceful tree with cinnamon-colored peeling bark that really shows off in the winter. Birds use the bark for nest material, making it a particularly useful tree in terms of attracting birds to your habitat. It will grow to between 30 and 40 feet tall and 30 to 35 feet wide. The western cedar is a wonderful evergreen tree for something a little different in terms of shape and needle. They are a nice semi-opened grower, and the birds can perch and nest easily in them. This cedar grows to between thirty and forty feet tall and 10 to 15 feet wide in average soils, but also takes wetness.

What’s in it for Me?
Making your backyard inviting for the birds will also make it peaceful and more enjoyable for you. Take your cup of coffee out in the early morning, or your glass of wine out in the early evening, and take in the beautiful, free show your birds will provide. Build them the habitat of their dreams, and they will come to entertain you.

Latin Roots
Scientific names of plants can be tricky to remember. Here’s a list of the Latin names for the plants we suggested putting in your bird habitat.

Burkwood viburnum (Viburnum burkwoodii)
Coneflower (Echinacea)
Dogwood (Cornus kousa)
Dwarf maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Adagio’)
Eulalia grass or maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis)
Flowering quince (Chaenomeles)
Hawthorn (Crataegus)
Honeysuckle (Lonicera)
Japanese maple (Acer palmatum)
Lucifer (Crocosmia)
Red-twig dogwood (Cornus sericea)
River birch (Betula nigra ‘Heritage’)
Sedum (Sedum)
Serviceberry (Amelanchier)
Summer sweet (Clethra)
Trumpet vines (Campsis)
Western cedar (Thuja plicata)


by K. C. Fahy-Harvick