Attracting Birds

All birds need 3 things: Habitat (primarily shelter), food, and water. You can provide all these things in your yard and your garden, through a combination of permanent plantings, seasonal plantings, and things like bird feeders and bird baths. Most homes can have yards and gardens that will attract a continuous stream of birds that are present any time you look out the window or go outside.

The most important thing to remember about attracting birds into your garden is that you will plant and grow things primarily for habitat, not for food. You may also grow for food, but as a secondary purpose if your overall goal is to attract lots of birds. Most of the food will come from bird feeders.

Gardening for bird food works, but you can’t really grow enough to support a continuous presence of many kinds of birds in your yard. You’d have to treat your garden like a farm, and most of the food would be available during the fall and early winter. You’ll be far more successful adding food through bird feeders.

Habitat

The places that naturally attract the most birds are woodland edges, because these mix multiple habitats and get enough sun to grow lots of vegetation. Woodland edge resembles lots of people’s homes, which frequently have cleared areas and lawns with plantings around the house and on the edges of the property.

Birds like places to hide, and places to perch with good views of what’s nearby, so they’ll spend most of their time on the edges or where the vegetation is and come to where the food is when they need to eat. Ideally you’ll have plantings near the feeding areas, but it isn’t absolutely necessary.

So your goal when planting to attract birds is mostly to enhance the “woodland edge” appeal. Plant groupings and along edges, and leave open spaces between clusters of plants. Thickets are great.

Planting lots of variety matters more than choosing specific species. Different birds like different things, so the more variety, the more birds. Shrubs, trees, hedges, grasses, flowers, you name it. Multiple heights is also very important.

Planting isn’t only about what you add – it’s also about what you don’t remove. Leave dead trees and fallen logs as much as possible, because they provide nesting locations and shelter, and insects that eat the rotting wood are very good food sources. Don’t remove undergrowth and forest floor litter – it’s great bird habitat. Basically, don’t clean up if you don’t need to. The more natural you leave it the better.

For food, plant for both seeds and berries. Seed sources include sunflowers and numerous other flowers. Flowers that produce seed heads full of small seeds, like Cosmos, are particularly attractive to finches. Good choices for berry shrubs include Dogwoods, Winterberry, Elderberry, Blueberry, and Spicebush. Good berry trees include Cherry, Hawthorn, and Mountain Ash.

Planting for nesting habitat is much tougher than planting for shelter, because most birds are very finicky about where they nest. For cavity nesting birds you need bird houses or standing snags with holes already in them, for non-cavity nesting birds you usually need thick cover and concealment and a quiet location.

Most of the flowers and vegetables in your garden are not particularly appealing to most birds as food sources, until they go to seed. The big exception is flowers for hummingbirds.

Bird Feeders

With the partial exception of hummingbirds, most of the bird feeding action in your yard will come from your bird feeders instead of what you grow.

There are three general types of bird feeders: Seed feeders, suet feeders, and nectar feeders. The best bird feeding setups will have all three, all year around.

Multiple feeders of each type works much better than a single bird feeder, because for most of the year most birds forage for food in flocks. The difference is not a small one – multiple feeders works much, much better than just one.

Put feeders near good cover, at least to begin with. This will make the birds feel safer and they’ll be more likely to try out your feeders. After birds are visiting steadily you can move the feeders to more convenient locations for viewing. It helps to move the feeders in steps so each new location is visible from the previous location, and you wait for the birds to come regularly to the new location before moving again.

Aside from putting out feeders, you can also scatter white millet and small cracked corn (chick scratch) on the ground. Peanuts also very appealing, both shelled and in shell.

There are two general types of seed feeders – tube feeders and hopper feeders. Tube feeders are more durable, and will exclude larger birds and discourage squirrels. Hopper feeders will attract the widest variety of birds, and squirrels. Devoted bird feeding enthusiasts gravitate to tube feeders, but usually not exclusively.

The seed of choice for most seed feeders is small black sunflower seed. Don’t use “wild bird mix” in a bird feeder, unless it’s an open tray near or on the ground. The only widely used alternative to small black sunflower seed in a raised, enclosed feeder is Nyjer seed, which is loved by small finches like Goldfinches once they discover what it is.

Seed trays are an important addition to any bird feeding setup, because there are lots of birds that like to feed on open flat areas like on the ground. You can hang these in an open area, but the best place to put them is on the ground. Put sunflower seed, white millet, or “wild bird mix” in them.

One concern some people have is sprouting bird seed, particularly sunflower seed. You can get seed mixes that don’t have any whole seeds in the shell, so they won’t sprout. These are usually mixes of sunflower hearts, chick scratch, and a few other things.

Put out suet in suet cages. It attracts a wide variety of birds, particularly shy birds that can be out-competed at seed feeders. Most experienced bird feeders depend almost as much on suet as on seed.

Leave bird feeders out and well stocked all year around. The time when they will be most active is late fall, winter, and early spring.

Water

Water is a powerful bird attractant during summer, for both drinking and bathing. A good bird bath in the summer can be almost as busy as a bird feeder, and will attract a wider variety of birds because all birds need water.

Almost any kind of water will work, so long as it is shallow enough for birds to stand in it. You can use a manufactured bird bath, or just put out a shallow tray like a pot saucer. If the saucer is very deep, or is made of plastic, put a layer of gravel on the bottom to make it easy for birds to grip the bottom as they wade in and walk around. The water should be between ½ and 1 inch deep, ideally with a sloping bottom so different birds can choose the depth they like.

Standing water works well, but moving water is even better. Birds seem attracted to the sound and sight of moving water.

What Birds To Expect

More than a dozen species of birds commonly visit feeders in the Willamette Valley, and quite a few more occasionally visit feeders or are easily found in well planted yards.

When you put out bird feeders the first birds to find them will usually be Chickadees, Nuthatches, or Jays. Probably all three. It may take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks for them to find your feeders, depending on how many people in your neighborhood already feed birds and how many birds frequent the neighborhood because of the natural plantings and food sources.

Usually within a few weeks of the initial visitors you’ll start seeing some combination of Chickadees, Nuthatches, Jays, Finches, Sparrows, Doves, Woodpeckers and more.

Expect different birds at different times of year. In winter you’ll see more birds, and more varieties of birds, because there’s less natural food, but some birds are only present here in the winter and some only in the summer. Birds tend to flock less in the spring and summer, because the males are defending breeding territories and will chase away other males, and because natural food is more plentiful.

Most birds travel in flocks, either dense obvious flocks of birds that feed together like finches, or looser collections of birds like Chickadees and Nuthatches that don’t feed side by side but move around within sight of each other.

Most birds will come to a feeder and stay a while to eat, but Chickadees and Nuthatches always come in to grab a single seed, fly away with it, and hammer it open somewhere nearby before coming back for another seed.

Your yard and garden will attract many birds that don’t come to feeders or bird baths, but you will need to pay more attention and probably use a pair of binoculars to get good looks at them..

Hummingbirds

Hummingbirds deserve a whole separate discussion because they are so different than other birds.

Hummingbirds are attracted to flowers and nectar feeders, and may be very loyal to a dependable food source. They prefer tubular flowers, and the color red, but are quite open minded.

Nectar feeders are excellent. Use uncolored nectar mix, or if you like you can mix your own with one part table sugar to four parts water. Clean and refill your feeder every few days during hot weather to keep mold and bacteria from growing, and every week or two during the winter.

Yes, there are hummingbirds around the Willamette valley during the winter. Lots of them. And they are extremely loyal to any hummingbird feeders they find.

Hummingbirds are fearless, of humans and of other birds and animals, so you don’t have to worry much about where to put feeders. It works best to start them out near your flower beds, but once they are discovered the hummers will follow wherever you move the feeders.

Hummingbirds will fight each other to defend “their” feeder, particularly during the winter, so it helps to have several hummingbird feeders placed on different sides of your house out of sight from each other.

We have two species of hummingbirds in the Willamette valley, Rufous Hummingbird and Anna’s Hummingbird. Rufous is common from mid spring through mid fall, but can be somewhat fickle about sticking around a particular yard for more than a few weeks because they tend to migrate slowly almost the entire year except for when they’re actually nesting. Anna’s Hummingbird on the other hand doesn’t migrate, and is extremely loyal to a dependable hummingbird feeder. They are quite common all year around, including the winter.

Rufous are somewhat smaller than Anna’s, and can be distinguished in all plumages by having rusty red somewhere on the body. Only males of both species have brightly colored heads (green body and purple or deep red head on Anna’s, bright rusty red all over on Rufous). Females of both species are similar and greenish, with a small amount of reddish brown on the flanks and tail of the female Rufous.