The Garden Spotter

How to Attract Birds to Your Garden


Hang a bird feeder and they will come.

It is spring migration time, and a variety of birds have appeared in our yard over the last few weeks: grackles, goldfinches, purple finches, downy woodpeckers, titmouse, robins, nuthatches, sparrows, ravens, cardinals, and a first for me – what serious birdwatchers refer to as a “lifer” – cedar waxwings.

I do not think waxwings are all that uncommon, but for a relatively new birdwatcher such as myself, it is the first time I’ve noticed their existence. With smooth, lemon-colored bellies and light umber heads and crests, black masks, and bright yellow tails, waxwings are one of the most beautiful birds I’ve seen this spring. A flock of 30 or so visited our neighborhood for several days, taking in the afternoon sun in the barren branches of the trees and snacking on leftover holly berries.

Sparrows, above, are a new obsession for me. ¬†According to the bible for birdwatchers, the Peterson Guide, there are more than 25 species of sparrow in eastern and central North America alone. The differences between them are so subtle – a song sparrow, for example, is best identified by a dark spot at the center of its breast – it’s nearly impossible to tell them apart without taking a picture and examining it closely. As far as I can tell, the three sparrows pictured above are: tree sparrow (top), chipping sparrow (bottom left), and song sparrow (bottom right). But then again, being a new birdwatcher, I could be wrong. What do you think?

Woodpeckers can also be tough to identify, as their coloring is very similar: always black and white, and sometimes with varying degrees of red on the head, breast, or tail. The woodpecker above is a Downy Woodpecker, which has no red at all, just the black and white.

How to Attract Birds to Your Yard

It really is fun to watch the birds in your yard, but more important, though, is to attract them in the first place. There are a number of things you can do:

  • Feed the birds through the winter, and make sure to refill the feeders during snowstorms ; after all, when it snows, it covers the ground and makes it difficult for birds to find food on the ground. That, combined with the fact that many birds need extra calories during the winter, supports the idea of winter feeding.
  • Locate feeders, if possible, to areas close to an evergreen bush or pine tree. Most birds like to land on a branch or roof first before they attempt to land on a feeder. All the better if the bush has berries or the tree, fruit or nuts.
  • A member of the Maine Birds Facebook page recently posed the question of what berry bushes to plant to attract birds to the yard. Responses included: holly (my suggestion) to elderberry, hawthorne, serviceberry, cranberry, red osier dogwood, high bush blueberry, Witherod (wild raisin), dogwood, chokeberry, and huckleberry.
  • Spring is also a great time to put feeders out – and to perhaps add a hummingbird feeder. Migrating birds often travel hundreds of miles in a day, and by the time they reach your feeder, they are just plumb tired, and ever grateful for an easy meal. Later, as summer takes over, you can slow down on the feeding, encouraging the birds to search flower beds and yards for seeds and other delights.
  • Another hospitable thing to do would be to set up a bird bath, because birds need water just like we do, plus, a cool bath is also always a treat in the heat of summer.
  • Don’t let your bird feeders seeds go to mold in the feeder as it can make the birds sick. Better yet, just get in the habit of rinsing out the feeders with warm soapy water each time you fill them.
  • Birds are also attracted to flowers and seed pods or heads. In spring, my flowering quince out front always buzzes with hummingbirds. In late summer through winter, the seeds of my monarda plants are a treat for juncos and other birds that like to feed off the ground.
  • Lastly, leave at least some of the flower heads and seed pods on your plants to keep the birds interested year round. Some of us love to obsessively dead head our flowers, but try leaving some of them intact for your feathered friends.

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