The Buzz

How to turn your yard into a haven for birds

White-breasted nuthatch eating on a feeder
(Photo by Chris Cheng)

Bird watching is big business in the United States. It's included in the more than $80 billion that wildlife viewing contributes to the U.S. economy each year, according to the Outdoor Industry Association.

While catching a glimpse of a moose or a sea lion may mean packing your bags for a vacation, bird watching is something you can do right from the comfort of your own home. And you certainly aren’t alone, with more than 45 million Americans enjoying the pastime. 

If your yard isn't exactly bustling with birds, there are things you can do to make it more appealing to them. Birds have the same basic needs as humans, and all living creatures for that matter — food, shelter and water. If you want birds to visit your yard, you’ll have to meet these needs, the National Aviary advises. 


Adding a bird feeder or two to your landscape is an easy way to make your yard more attractive to birds. If you want to attract a larger variety of birds, consider stocking feeders with different types of seed, the National Wildlife Federation suggests.

Black-oil sunflower seeds are the most popular, attracting all manner of birds, but other good choices include nyjer or thistle seed, safflower seeds, peanuts and corn. You can also use seed mixes, but look for high-quality mixes that don't include a lot of fillers such as red millet, golden millet and flax, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Make sure the seed you buy will work in your bird feeders. Some feeders are designed for particular types of food. For example, nyjer seed is very small, so you need a special feeder so it doesn't fall out. And peanuts and corn are big, so the birds may not be able to get to the food if it isn't in the right kind of feeder.

Also, remember to clean your feeders about every two weeks, the Cornell Lab reports. You may need to clean them more often during times of heavy use, wet weather or when there are reports of salmonella in your area or sick birds in your yard.


Feeding the birds doesn’t only include stocking your bird feeders with seed or suet. The plants in your yard are also a valuable source, both because birds eat the seeds and nuts and because plants attract insects, which many birds rely on for food.

The best flowers, shrubs and trees to plant in your yard to attract birds are native plants because they are adapted to the habitat and climate. Not sure what plants are native to your area or what kinds of plants will work best in your yard? The Audubon Society maintains its Audubon Native Plant Database, which is searchable by ZIP code. From the list specific to your ZIP code, you will find all the trees, shrubs, vines, grasses, succulents, annuals and perennials native to your area, including a listing of the best results for your locale. 


For birds, shelter mostly comes in the form of plants in your yard, and the more the better. Trees and shrubs offer places for birds to perch and hide from predators, as well as nesting spots, according to the Cornell Lab. Plants that imitate a bird's natural habitat work well, so consider planting vines and shrubs that will form a hedge or thicket. And again, native plants are best.

A neat and tidy yard isn't always best for birds. Instead of burning your brush or putting it out with your yard waste, consider making a brush pile in a corner of your yard or another out-of-the-way spot. If you have trees in your yard, rake the fallen leaves each fall into your flowerbeds or under the shrubs and bushes instead of getting rid of them altogether. All this plant debris will be a good place for birds to search for insects. 


Water is the requirement people most often overlook when creating a bird habitat in their yards, according to the National Aviary. You don't have to have a pond or stream in your yard to meet their needs; a simple bird bath will do the trick.

Even better, a bird bath may also help you attract different birds than those that visit your seed feeders, according to the Cornell Lab. A bird bath only needs to be 1 inch to 2 inches deep, and a shallow slope is best.

You don't have to buy a fancy bird bath. You can improvise with a sled, garbage can lid, an old pan or any other shallow containers that can withstand the elements outdoors, the Cornell Lab reports. No matter what you use, make sure to change the water every day or two. 

The sound of water will help birds, particularly those on their migratory journeys, find it, so consider adding a fountain, bubbler or mister to your bird bath, the National Wildlife Federation suggests. And don't forget that birds need water in winter too. This can be difficult when temperatures are below freezing. To combat this, look for bird baths with heaters or simply put out water in a plastic bowl at the same time each day.

More tips to make your yard and home bird-friendly

  • Keep cats inside. In the United States, outdoor cats kill 2.4 billion — yes, billion — birds every year, according to the American Bird Conservancy.  While feral and homeless cats are most destructive to our bird population, pet cats that spend time outdoors are also a threat. 
  • Make your windows bird safe. Collisions with windows kill as many as 1 billion birds in the United States each year, according to the Cornell Lab. You can help prevent these window strikes at your home by making them more visible to birds. Screens are a good way to do this, but if you don’t have screens you can affix decals to your windows or hang string, ribbon or something similar from them. Even dirty windows are more visible to birds, because they aren’t as reflective. 

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