Nothing adds pleasure to your outside spaces like birds. If want more feathery action but you’re not sure how to attract wild birds to your garden, read on. It’s easy, especially in winter when natural food is unpredictable. With a good field guide in hand and a bit of strategy, it won’t be long before you’ve got plenty of feathered friends!
Check Your Expectations
It may seem obvious, but it’s important to understand that you’ll only be able to attract birds that actually live or pass through your area. Why? Because birds are highly specialized creatures that can usually live only in areas that suit their needs very closely. That’s why you won’t find parrots in the high north or puffins in the hot south – there’s just too big a mismatch between local conditions and those birds’ specific needs.
So the first thing you need to do is find out what kind of birds are available for backyard birding.
Bird Hunting On the Web
Wikipedia has an extensive browsable List of Birds by Region that can help you figure out what birds to look for in your area. Scroll down the List page to find your region, then click for an extensive list of birds that can be found in various habitats in your general area.
The List is organized by categories created by the American Ornithological Sociey and includes only birds with with self-maintaining wild native populations. Thus, if you live in the San Francisco area, you won’t find a page for the famous wild parrots (conures) of Telegraph Hill because those birds were originally imported from South America as not-very-successful pets and aren’t native to northern California.
The List of Birds by Region includes many different kinds of birds such as water and shore birds, predatory birds, owls, pigeons and more but for backyard birds you’ll want to look mainly for the “Passeriformes” or perching birds.
Each category, such as “Jays, crows, magpies and ravens” features a sample photo with brief general information, followed by a list of individual birds. Common names are followed by scientific name and an abbreviation for Conservation Status – “endangered” etc. (Abbreviations are explained at the top of the page.)
Click on the individual bird species and you’ll be taken to a page with more detailed information. Since Wikipedia is created entirely by volunteers, the amount of information may be quite varied. For some birds, like the black capped chickadee, you’ll find extensive notes on habitat, diet, breeding, sounds and even pecking order. For other birds, like Cassin’s vireo, you may find only a couple of paragraphs of basic information plus links to authoritative resources.
Project FeederWatch (PFW) is a winter survey of feeder birds operated by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada. Although its main urpose is to count “birds that visit feeders at backyards, nature centers, community areas, and other feeding areas in North America,” PFW has compiled a wonderful directory of detailed information on around 100 common feeder birds. I especially like specific information on the types of feed and feeders that will attract each bird.
You can very easily search the PFW directory by region, food type and feeder type. Selecting a general region will bring up a photo gallery of birds that winter in the area. Click on a photo of a bird and you’ll see images of the types of food it likes and the types of feeders it will use, along with a text link to detailed and reliable data on the bird’s natural history provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
The sample image here shows the basic page for the Black-capped Chickadee. The text link is shown at the bottom of the image.
Attract Wild Birds to Your Garden with Bird Seed
Now that you know who might show up, what kind of food should you serve? You can buy a sack of generic bird seed at your local grocery store and hope for the best OR you can take a strategic approach. You can also try a bit of both – get started with some generic seed for wild birds and branch out into items for tempting specific birds you’d like to encourage.
According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the best-loved backyard bird feeder seed is the high-energy black oil sunflower seed. In fact birds will often pick the tasty sunflower seeds out of a typical seed mix and leave the rest to rot!
If you want to attract ground feeding birds like spotted towhees, juncos, house finches, buntings, thrushes and more, inexpensive millet or white proso millet is a good bet.
If you love watching the antics of jays and crow, toss out a few shelled peanuts and watch as the circus rolls in.
Pull Out the Good China (Bird Feeders)
Because of their different feeding habits and preferred foods, a variety of bird feeders will help you attract many different kinds of birds.
Hummingbird feeders – clear glass or plastic tubes with ports on the bottom for hummingbirds (and some orioles, woodpeckers and warblers) to sip liquid “nectar” from.
Hopper feeders – these may be house shaped and can be made of either wood or plastic. They usually have clear sides and large openings that allow seed to flow out the bottom onto a small tray. Hopper feeders should be cleaned and sanitized monthly and checked often to ensure the contents are still unspoiled. Chickadees, finches, jays, titmice, buntings, cardinals and grackles like hopper-type feeders. Squirrels too.
Tube feeders – these are, you guessed it, hanging tubes that offer seeds through feeding ports or the openings in a mesh. Port type feeders usually have small perches for the birds to sit on while feeding. Mesh or screen feeders are usually used for nyjer (“thistle”) seeds which are very small, thin black seeds that many birds, especially finches and pine siskins, go crazy for!
Large tube feeders will attract sparrows, goldfinches, titmice, chickadees, bushtits, wrens, redpolls, starlings, warblers and gray cardinal-like birds called “Pyrrhuloxia”.
Trays and platforms – these are flat, open surfaces, sometimes roofed, with perhaps a rim for birds to stand on. They attract all kinds of birds but also expose the feed to the elements, making spoilage easier. The best platform feeders have mesh bottoms to let water and bird droppings fall through. In addition to robins, crows, chickadees, blue jays, thrushes, towhees, sparrows, starlings and blackbirds, this type of feeder may also attract squirrels, deer and other wildlife.
Suet feeders – “suet” bird food is usually a cake of rendered fat mixed with various seeds and grains. The cake is placed in a wire cage so birds can reach into the enclosure to eat. Suet attracts wrens, chickadees, titmice, jays, nuthatches, jays, woodpeckers and starlings. To discourage starlings, mount the feeder so that only birds that can feed upside down can access it.
Window feeders – these are small plastic cups you can attach to window glass and platform feeders that hook onto window frames. They will attract smaller birds such as sparrows, chickadees and titmice. Place them somewhere you can easily reach, as these should be cleaned every day. (Birds usually have to eat while standing on the seeds and may poop on the food.)
Splish Splash, Birds Love Takin’ a Bath!
For an extra warm welcome to local birds add a bird bath to your garden. Not only does a bird bath provide clean water for drinking, something about bathing seems to soothe aggression and allow for otherwise competitive birds to have a good splash before settling in for the night, even in winter.
A bird bath can be anything from a simple puddle to an elaborate pond and waterfall setup, but the shallow-bowl-on-a-pedestal type is widely available and affordable at most home and garden centers.
Whatever type you choose, make it no more than a couple of inches deep and add some moving water if you can – a drip, fountain or spray. Birds can’t resist moving water and the movement helps keep water from freezing when it’s cold outside. Clean it every few days and if possible, heat it in winter.
Here’s an amazing video that shows just how attractive a birdbath can be. As you may know, hummingbirds are usually terrible squabblers, but in this jaw-dropping video all that’s missing is a few frozen cocktails!
Savor Your Success
Provide a friendly environment and the right kind of food and you’ll have feathered friends flocking to your outdoor spaces in no time. Don’t despair if it doesn’t happen right away though. Birds are wary and need to feel safe before getting close. It may take a few weeks, but soon you’ll have a private airshow right outside your windows, now that you know how to attract wild birds to your garden.
What have you done to bring in the birds? Share best tips in the comments below.