How to Build a Backyard Bird Sanctuary and Wildlife Habitat
Create a Bird Habitat in Your Backyard
Establishing a sanctuary for wild birds in your backyard has many benefits. Birding gives us a chance to experience nature in a world that has become far too crowded and see it up close on our own property. Watching the antics of the Blue Jays, Cardinals, Chickadees, Nuthatches, and other songbirds has a calming effect and may help to relieve stress.
Attracting colorful songbirds to your yard isn’t as hard as you might think. If you simply provide the things they need, there is a very good chance they will quickly find their way to your property. In this article, you’ll learn some simple ideas for turning your backyard into a bird and wildlife habitat.
Backyard birding is educational, for children and adults. The whole family can get involved, providing an ecological learning opportunity that is hard to experience when birds are dispersed throughout the forests and fields.
The birds benefit as well. Due to the fragmentation of their habitat as a result of land development, many bird species have suffered breeding problems that put them at risk of decline. By providing food, water, and shelter, homeowners are assisting in the life cycles of many beneficial species.
Plus, birds consume millions of insects and parasites every day, which not only benefits other wild animals but farmers and gardeners as well.
In this article, you'll find some advice on turning your property into a mini bird sanctuary. These are lessons I've learned over the years, and I'll cover everything from choosing the right seed to avoiding unwanted bird feeder visitors.
It is even good for the environment when we make our yards into a bird-friendly habitat. We tend to value songbirds just for their attractive colors and music, but the fact is the little feathered guys play important roles in nature.
1. Put Up a Bird Feeder
Putting up a simple bird feeder is the first step and an easy way to bring more birds to your yard. For many backyard birders, this is the only step they choose to take, and it is a great way to get started in bird watching.
Feeders come in many shapes and sizes, and the type you choose will depend on the kind of food you want to serve and the type of bird you want to attract. Many people set up several different types of feeders to ensure that many bird species are taken care of. Here are several ideas:
Types of Bird Feeders
- Hopper Feeders: Probably the most common type of feeder, these are usually made of a wooden roof and platform and feature glass or plastic sides with openings about half an inch from the base of the feeder. The birdseed is often filled through a removable top. The platform part of the feeder continually fills with seed as the birds peck away at it, and the clear sides let you see when you need to refill.
- Platform Feeders: Similar to the hopper feeder without the clear sides, the platform feeder allows birds to perch along the edge and access the seed. These feeders are easy to fill and will benefit most species; however, they don’t do quite as good of a job keeping the seeds dry in bad weather.
- Tube Feeders: These are tall, cylindrical feeders, usually made of clear plastic, which feature several small perches and openings where birds can feed. Like the hopper feeder, they are easily filled from the top. These are a tremendous benefit to smaller bird species like Titmice, sparrows, and Goldfinches who may get bullied away from the platform-type feeders by larger, more aggressive birds.
- Suet Feeders: Suet is usually made from a mixture of animal fat and birdseed, and it comes shaped in blocks. It sounds awful, but some birds love it. Suet feeders are small cages that hang from a branch or pole and can contain suet blocks. Birds such as Nuthatches and woodpeckers will perch on them and peck away at the suet.
- Seed socks: Seed socks, sometimes called Nyjer or thistle socks, hold smaller seeds, and hang from a branch or pole. Birds will perch on or near the sock and peck the seeds from the tiny holes in the sock fabric. Thistle seed and Nyjer works with seed socks and will attract Goldfinches.
- Nectar Feeders: There are many specially made feeders on the market specifically intended to attract hummingbirds. They can be filled with pre-made “nectar” or a sugar-water solution you create yourself. They must be kept clean and free of insects. Some backyard birders specialize in hummingbirds. Other nectar feeders are made specifically to attract Orioles.
2. Choose the Right Birdseed and Food
Mixed birdseed with a good assortment of small seeds, sunflower seeds, corn kernels, nuts, and fruit will cover all the bases for most species. Black-oil sunflower seeds are always a big hit, especially in the winter.
Some birdseed can be expensive, particularly good sunflower seeds or cracked corn, but you can always purchase an expensive bag and mix it with a cheaper brand so that it lasts longer. Birds will even take whole peanuts and pieces of dried fruit if you present them.
Most of the birds you’ll encounter in your backyard can and will consume a variety of foods, but a few are specialists. Be aware that some feeders are built for a certain size or type of seed.
For instance, large sunflower seeds won’t work with some tube feeders, and it doesn’t make sense to fill your hopper feeder with thistle seed. Choose your feeder and seed based on your budget, and what type of birds you’d like to attract.
When you first start out you’ll probably want to choose a good-quality, basic seed that covers the needs of many types of birds. However, as you learn more about the needs of different species, you can tailor your food offerings to the types of birds you wish to attract.
3. Add Bird Baths and Water Sources
Putting up a bird feeder or two is a good start to transforming your property into a bird-friendly habitat, but adding a water source will really make your backyard attractive to wildlife. Like feeders, there are several different options to choose from when deciding what type of water source to provide for the birds.
Types of Water Features for Birds
- Bird Baths: Either hanging or on a pedestal, these are the most common option. They should be shallow, and above or away from any vegetation where a predator could hide. They should also be placed at a reasonable proximity to the food.
- Fountains and Misters: Birds seem to be attracted to the sound and movement of running water. Setting up a small, solar-powered fountain or mister in your yard will be just what they need. This can be constructed as a small, ground-level pond, or even incorporated into a birdbath. Solar-powered water fountains can be inexpensive to purchase and cost nothing to operate.
- Build Your Own: It might be hard to find an option that’s good for the birds and meets the decorative needs of your yard. You may want to create your own water source for birds. You can use household items or start from scratch. Be sure it isn’t more than a few inches deep, and incorporate running water or misting features into it if you wish.
- Winter Bird Baths: There are heated birdbaths available on the market that will allow you to provide water for your backyard visitors even in the dead of winter. Be aware that these are not necessary for the health of birds, as they can find the moisture they need from other sources throughout the winter season.
How to Care for a Bird Bath
4. Plant Vegetation and Shelter for Birds
You can make your backyard attractive to birds just by doing a little minor landscaping. Planting trees and shrubs provides hiding spots and nesting spaces, and a hunting area for ground feeders such as Robins and Catbirds. Add a bird box or birdhouse to encourage breeding. Leave dead trees where they stand if you don’t mind them and if it is safe to do so. These provide a nesting spot for some birds and a feeding area for woodpeckers.
When choosing plants for your backyard you will want to research and pick from native species wherever possible. After all, the point is to reclaim the natural habitat for the birds, so bringing in foreign species may not help them much. You’ll also want to remove non-native or invasive species of plants if you can.
A well-landscaped backyard filled with trees, plants, and gardens will go a long way toward making your property bird-friendly. And, a naturally landscaped yard filled with native vegetation tends to look beautiful. It’s probably not a coincidence!
Bird Sanctuary Problems and Issues
You went through all the trouble of installing some bird feeders, choosing the right seed, placing a water feature and planting some beautiful vegetation. Your bird sanctuary is taking shape!
However, even though you have built this habitat for the songbirds you may notice a few uninvited guests. Here are some of the issues backyard birders face:
Dealing with Squirrels and Chipmunks
These little buggers are going to want your birdseed! You may not care, and you may think of them as just another addition to your backyard. Or, they may drive you crazy. They’ll cost you a few bucks in birdseed every week, that’s for sure.
There are many feeders on the market that are intended to defeat squirrels, and some of them even work. You may want to put out a feeding station specifically intended for squirrels in hopes of diverting them from the bird feeding area.
Chipmunks are a little more difficult. Squirrels will range over a wider area, but chipmunks adhere to a rough territory, usually under an acre, and once they find a feeder they will hit it over and over again as long as there is food provided. If your feeder is in an area where several chipmunks’ territories overlap, you’re going to go through a lot of birdseed.
You can limit the amount of chaos caused by squirrels and chipmunks by choosing squirrel-proof feeders.
Other Unwanted Invaders
Black bears love black-oil sunflower seeds, and they will swipe as much as they can from your feeder. Aside from the fact that they usually completely destroy your bird feeder during their nightly raids, bears may come to think of your feeder as a food source, coming back again and again.
The reasons we don’t want black bears coming around human habitation in search of food are obvious. Sadly, it usually doesn’t end well for bears that get out of control. Feed the birds in the morning, and let the feeder run dry at night. Bring the feeder indoors in the evening if you must. Bears usually hit your feeder at night, so this mostly eliminates the problem.
Worse than squirrels, chipmunks and black bears put together is the cat issue. Cats kill billions of wild birds every year. Cats are predators, and even well-fed cats will kill a bird if they can. It isn’t the cat’s fault; it is the owner's fault. Keep your cat indoors!
House cats are not a natural part of our ecosystem, and they can devastate a local bird population. If you know you have a cat issue, please do not put out food and water for birds until it is resolved. You’d only be ringing the dinner bell for the cats.
A Few Simple Housekeeping Tips
Anywhere birds congregate the possibility exists for disease transmission. Prevent the spread of sickness and disease by washing feeders and other surfaces weekly in a water/bleach solution.
Clean up the mess under the bird feeder by raking debris away. This also makes it less likely that rats and field mice will come to your feeder at night, and that means it is less likely they will find their way into your house.
Be sure food is stored safely to avoid mold and contamination. Choose sealed containers that rodents can't easily chew their way into.
If you notice overcrowding at your feeder, consider putting up another to alleviate the problem. This reduces the chances of any disease spreading among your visiting birds.
Attract More Birds to Your Yard!
Creating a backyard bird habitat will bring new visitors into your yard, and may start you off on a lifelong journey of discovery of the natural world. Inviting birds onto your property is rewarding, and good for the birds if you do it right. Soon you’ll find yourself with a bird guide in your hand, trying to identify that colorful thing flitting around your birdbath.
Good luck and have fun when creating your backyard bird habitat, and congratulations on the decision to do your part for the conservation of the songbird population.