Attracting backyard birds and butterflies for bird watching Establishing a small wildlife sanctuary in your backyard will reward you by attracting a variety of birds and butterflies for you to enjoy viewing. Many will visit, and some may actually stay to nest and rear their young in your backyard. You will want to create a yard or garden that will attract birds and butterflies and make them feel at home.
If birds and butterflies pass through your yard, but never seem to stay, it may be because your yard doesn’t provide a varied, long-term food supply. Birds that overwinter in your garden need to find food 365 days of the year. Small birds eat almost constantly during daylight hours in the winter. Migratory songbirds need large amounts of food for varying amounts of time, often just a day or two.
Creating a garden that welcomes songbirds, hummingbirds, and butterflies is a relatively simple task. It consists of supplying them with three basic requirements for survival: food, cover, and water. To birds and butterflies, the typical suburban landscape resembles an unfriendly desert. Close-cropped lawns, sheared foundation shrubs, and deadheaded flowers mean no place to nest, no food to eat, and nowhere to hide.
Fortunately, any landscape can become a haven for winged wildlife, and for the people who share it.
Landscaping with food sources in mind
To create a landscape that provides birds with a guaranteed, year-round food supply, you need to plant an assortment of plant species that provides seeds, berries, nuts, or other food throughout the year. Planting a diverse selection helps ensure that a variety of food sources is always available. Choose different plantings that produce food throughout each of the four seasons.
Deciduous plantings, plants whose leaves drop off in winter, generally bear the most fruit, nuts, and seeds for wildlife. In addition, they offer shady, leafy nesting sites in the spring and summer. Even a flower garden can provide a place for birds to eat and hide.
Evergreens, which bear leaves throughout the year, offer a good source of berries and seed-filled cones. They also offer year-round shelter, protection, and breeding sites.
The best way to start planning a food supply for your guests is to take an inventory of what is already growing in your yard. Draw a rough map of your property. Make notes about what plants are growing in your yard. Use a field guide or garden book to identify plants you’re not familiar with. Also note the sun exposure and shade throughout the day. Then use a plant guide to determine which plants your yard has that are good providers, and which are not.
You may already have a number of trees, flowers, and shrubs or a well grown in garden arbor attractive to various species of birds. Plan to supplement with native fruiting trees, shrubs, and vines. Reduce the area occupied by the lawn. Wide expanses of turf grass are sterile habitats attracting less desireable”generalist” species, such as feral pigeons, starlings, cowbirds, and grackles, all of which compete with our native songbirds for food and nesting spots.
You will want to determine when your plants are providing food for birds, for example, nuts and acorns in winter, flowers and seeds in the summer. You may want to remove some plants that do not provide food in order to make room for ones that do. Make separate lists for each season.
Begin with what your yard provides, and add to it plants you can grow that will provide more food that season. Concentrate on first adding plants that provide food during seasons when nothing much is available in your yard.
Trying to transform your yard into a haven for birds and butterflies overnight is an easy way to become frustrated, so plan on making gradual changes over the course of several planting seasons. Use your notes as a guide. Identify one or two areas to concentrate on for the first year. For example, if you have a single tree in your front yard, consider adding more trees and underplanting with berry-producing shrubs and ground covers.
Plan to add plants gradually as your budget and time allow. Buy only as many plants as you can care for at one time. Newly added plants take more water and care than older, established ones. Proper soil preparation, watering, and mulching are all essential to getting new plants off to a good start.
Providing Safe Food
Organic gardening is another essential ingredient in any landscape that welcomes birds and butterflies. One reason is that organic gardens are teeming with insects and other organisms that birds enjoy. Many of the insects that thrive in an organic garden are beneficial: that is, they eat other insects and keep the populations in check.
Birds will help control garden pests, along with insects such as gnats and mosquitos. Instead of waging war against pests and diseases with an arsenal of chemicals, organic gardening nudges the ecosystem into a healthy balance. Preventive techniques like building healthy soil are an important first line of defense against pests.
A working knowledge of organic gardening is important to a gardener intent on attracting birds and butterflies. Avoid the use of pesticides in your yard. Many insecticides remove all insects, which serve as the prey base for insectivorous birds. A poisoned insect will in turn poison the bird. Using plants native to your region reduces the need for pesticide use since the native plants are resistant to local pests and diseases.
Mockingbirds, warblers, vireos, wrens, and many others relish insect pests. Provide splashes of color in different areas of the garden. Birds and butterflies are highly visual and are attracted by brightly colored flowers and fruit. Hummingbirds are especially fond of red and orange tubular flowers. Red flowers will attract birds during migration.
Use native grasses as accent plants and in wildlife meadow patches. Many birds eat seeds of native grasses. Consider letting your garden go to seed rather than dead-heading flowers and removing spent plants. Doing so provides a wealth of nutritious food for many species of seed-eating birds. To find out which plants grow best in your area and will best fill your specific needs, consult a local gardening book, or nursery.
Plants native to your region are excellent for birds, because they are familiar and accepted as food sources, shelter, and nest sites. Native fruits and berries are nutritious, and they ripen on a schedule that coincides with natural needs at nesting and migration times, or during winter months. They are also perfectly sized for birds to eat, unlike some improved varieties or exotic plants whose fruits are unpalatable or too big.
Plant Layout for Attracting Birds for bird watching
The spacing between trees and shrubs, the preferred combination of open areas and adjoining thick cover, and the degree of seclusion and protection from the wind are all important factors when designing for birds. If possible, even open spaces should be well protected from wind and street noise to appeal to birds.
Increase the variety and numbers of plants attractive to birds in your landscape and you are virtually guaranteed more birds that stay longer. Create a layered and multi-tiered garden, increase the amount of edge between wooded areas and open areas, and provide a rich understory.
Edges between habitats are prime opportunities to offer a dense and diverse assortment of bird-attracting plants. Where woods meet open lawn is a good spot for a mixed border of shrubs and small trees. This will increase bird species diversity in your yard.
Think in layers in the landscape to attract birds. Provide several layers for different kinds of birds by planting clusters of shade-loving small trees, shrubs, and ground covers under taller trees. Look at natural woodlands around you to get ideas for plant combinations.
Many bird species appreciate edge habitat, such as hummingbirds, phoebes, titmice, and orioles. They utilize the open flying space of driveways, lawns, and other corridors, which allow them easy access to the lush plants along the borders. In all birdscapes, a diversity of plants provides the greatest benefit. Berries and seeds will ripen at different times of the year, a range of nesting materials and nest sites will be available, and a greater variety of insects will be found on the plants.
Keep in mind that a natural woodland is generally free from human traffic, which can disturb the often shy birds of the forest. Let fallen leaves lie instead of raking them away. They will settle into a bed of mulch that adds richness to the soil as well as creating insect-rich areas for ground-foraging birds. Include about half evergreen and half deciduous plants in your woodland.
This may be difficult for the tidy gardener, but try to maintain a brush pile in an out-of-the way spot to attract sparrows, towhees, and other birds. Carefully preserve dead trees. Large dead branches, standing dead trees, fallen trees, and stumps are excellent bird attractors, thanks to the insects and larvae that burrow into their wood. They also provide nesting sites for nuthatches, woodpeckers, chickadees, and other cavity-nesting birds.
Sunny landscape with areas of lawn broken up by shrubs, flowers, and fruiting trees are most likely to attract birds of a neighboring open country, for example the California Quail, Mockingbird, American Goldfinch, and Song Sparrow. Plant vines on trellises, fences, and arbors. American Robins and Mourning Doves may nest there, and the tubular flowers of vines attract hummingbirds.
Leave hedges unclipped, or prune them naturally by selective branch removal rather than shearing. Restrict pruning to late winter, after any loose fruit has been eaten and before birds begin nesting in early spring.
Hummingbirds have two major sources of food: flower nectar and the protein from small insects and spiders. In the wild these birds prefer meadows, lowland forest edges, and woodland openings, although some species also frequent deserts. The most important thing you can do to attract these birds is to plant vines or other tubular-flowered plants, especially in bright red, pink, and orange. Hummingbirds can be territorial about food sources, so it is best to include red flowers in several locations.
Protect your birds from domestic cats. No matter how well-fed your cat is, it plans havoc with new fledglings and their parents. It is unfair to attract birds to your yard if you have cats on the prowl.
Providing Water Helps
When you are devising a long-term water source for your garden, plan for the type of water feature that birds adopt most quickly: a shallow, rough-bottomed pool of still water. Birds are wary of water that is more than 2″-3″ deep. Add a few stones that emerge from the water for smaller birds, and butterflies, to land on.
The surface of the container, where birds enter the water, should be rough to provide sure footing. Textured materials appropriate for birdbaths, streams, and pools include sand, stones, pebbles, and concrete. A lip or perch at the edge where birds can alight before entering the water is an advantage. The birdbath should deepen very gradually, to no more than 3″.
Most songbirds can’t swim, so they seek shallow water with sure footing. Most birds prefer water in a spot in a clearing, so position it in a sunny spot, away from trees and shrubs. That way, bathing birds can keep an eye out for predators and will have time to fly for cover.
If cats roam your neighborhood, avoid close shrubs and overhanging limbs which will give the cats cover for watching the birds. Where hawks are more of a menace than cats, close cover over water is a necessity to allow birds a quick escape from danger. Some species, such as thrushes and quail, prefer open space interspersed with dense shrubbery, at ground level.
A natural depression in the ground that stays moist is natural-looking and a good alternative to a bird bath. You can keep it filled with a hose in dry weather. Be sure to place the birds’ water source where it is visible and convenient for you, keeping in mind your views from indoors too.
Water for birds should be as close to a faucet as possible, for refilling and cleaning. Empty and scrub the birdbath every 2-3 days in the summer, to prevent algae and bacteria from fouling the water. When water is scarce, birds will seek it wherever they can find it – a bucket, an air conditioning outlet, or a pet’s water dish.
How you decide to provide water for birds will depend on the time and money you wish to spend, and what you find appropriate and beautiful for your yard. The sound of gently moving water is extremely attractive to birds. Audible water in the garden can be provided by a simple dripping hose or by a sophisticated water fall. Remember that a little water music goes a long way. A thunderous waterfall or a huge, erupting fountain will frighten more birds than it attracts. Small drips, tinkles, and bubbles are what birds like.
Providing water for birds during the frozen winter is as important to them as food, and it is relatively easy now that birdbath heaters are widely available.
Except for birds of open country, most birds rarely stray far from dense cover, because their lives depend upon quick evasion. Areas dense with weeds or brush are frequently occupied by birds, although you may not notice them at first because birds become still and silent as you approach. Brush piles are also favored, because the tangle of branches and trees prevents cats or hawks from gaining access.
Protective cover is also vital when birds are sleeping or waiting out bad weather. Conifers and other evergreens, as well as dense deciduous plants, shelter roosting birds from predators and wind, rain, and snow. Needle and broad-leaved evergreen trees and shrubs, such as white pines, arborvitae, spruce, junipers, cedars and hollies provide essential winter protection as well as food.
Different species of birds need different types of cover, however. Species like meadowlarks, field sparrows, and bobolinks prefer grassy meadow or prairie habitat for feeding and nesting.
To arrange your cover plants, determine the prevailing winter wind direction, and plant to provide protection from these winds. Winds from the northwest are common around the country, though the east coast may have its worst winter winds from the east. Rows of evergreens, or evergreens mixed with tall deciduous trees are effective for blocking wind, if planted with the wind direction in mind.
To create an effective barrier that is also rich in food and nest sites, mix in smaller trees and shrubs along the protected side. Add beds of perennials and annuals in front of that, for seeds and nectar. Look at the conditions that prevail in your yard and area to determine which habitat you want to emulate – whether it is wet and shade-loving, or sunny and dry.
Nature centers, botanical gardens and wild bird centers have information about plant communities that are native to your region.
Providing Food Sources
Supplemental bird feeders and bird baths concentrate large numbers of birds where you can see and appreciate them. After gardening, wild bird feeding is the most popular hobby in North America. People of all ages are fascinated by watching birds at bird feeders.
A year-round feeding program will bring different species, as migratory birds pass through from north to south for winter, and south to north for the summer. The type of feed you use will depend upon the birds you wish to attract, and to discourage those you do not wish to attract.
Many excellent birdseed mixtures are available at garden centers, nurseries, and bird-feeding specialty shops. The style of feeding station will also encourage some and discourage some birds. Different elevations, environments, and openings are preferred by different species. You will attract the most birds by offering a variety of feeding spots, and types of feeders. Squirrel proof bird feeders are particularly nice, because they help save the bulk of the bird feed for the birds.
Just as important as a dependable source of food for winter birds is the availability of fresh water. When people are not watering lawns and gardens, a bird’s water supply diminishes critically. The importance of water is overlooked by most people interested in having birds in their back yards. In return for providing birds with food and water, you will reap the pleasure of their company.
Attracting Butterflies with a Butterfly Garden
Few sights lift a gardener’s heart more than a butterfly floating from bloom to bloom. Butterfly gardening is a labor of love requiring smart planning, and a little knowledge of the butterfly’s life cycle.
A butterfly garden can thrive on a sunny patio, but it will include wild birds if it encompasses the whole yard. Blend the needs and preferences of butterflies with landscape plans, and plant to attract butterflies that are the most common in your area. Butterflies are particularly attracted to pinks, yellows, oranges, reds, purples, whites, and blues.
There is a little sacrifice on the gardener’s part, and that is where the life cycle of the butterfly comes in. There are three remarkable transformations that take place: egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, to becoming the butterfly. This is approximately a six-week metamorphosis. The adult female lays her eggs on a “host plant”, which is eaten by the young caterpillars upon hatching. The caterpillar then attaches itself to a stem or branch as a crysallis, and creates a butterfly.
Local field guides are your best source to know which species of butterfly are common to your area, and which native plant species they use as larval host plants. It is important to provide a good quantity of larval food plants for the butterflies, as larval food plants lure females into the garden to lay their eggs.
Planning a butterfly garden landscape is not difficult. Make the most of your natural setting. As with wild birds, butterflies like edges and layers in their habitat. For example, low flowers at the edge of the lawn, and high flowers at the edge of trees. Sun is important – butterflies need sun to warm their body temperature. Butterflies will perch on flat stones or on bare soil to sun themselves, to raise their temperature high enough to fly.Provide a flat rock in a sunny, windless spot along the edge of your butterfly garden.
Butterflies avoid high winds and appreciate windbreaks. If your garden offers no shelter from wind, plant tall, dense shrubbery, or trellised vines, then butterflies will not stop for long. Native wildflowers serve as butterfly lures. Growing native species not only restores habitat, but also provides special nectar and larval food sources for the butterflies. When food sources disappear, butterflies go elsewhere.
A combination of wildflowers and grasses that bloom from early spring through early fall will keep butterflies well fed throughout their season. In designing the layout of your garden, try to use large splashes of color. Butterflies are first attracted to flowers by their color, and a large mass of blooms is easy for them to spot.
It is possible to combine nectar and host plants in a pleasing border. First, select a sunny, open site protected from the wind. In most cases, flowers grown in full sun produce more nectar, in turn attracting more butterflies.
Host plants may be scattered in the back of the border or in remote areas of the yard to minimize their ragged or weedy appearance. Young and old trees provide perches, larval food, nectar sources, and shelter. Leave thick brush under some of the trees, for this is where butterflies find warmth and shelter from rain.
Many species of caterpillars pupate here as well. It is important that you not use insecticides or herbicides anywhere near your butterfly garden, the larval food plants, or the adult nectar sources. These chemicals will kill all stages of the butterfly.
Butterflies often “puddle”, or gather at muddy places in the landscape, to get soil salts and minerals as well as moisture. A puddling place can be created with a shallow plastic container filled with builder’s sand and fine gravel, “flavored” with a small amount of compost.
Chunks of over-ripe fruit are also attractive to butterflies. A conventional birdbath or other shallow container that is filled with flat stones can provide a safe drinking spot. The stones should emerge from the water, allowing butterflies to alight and drink without getting wet.
Butterflies visit literally thousands of plants both to sip nectar and to lay their eggs. If you include some plants from each of the familes listed, you will increase your chances of attracting a variety of butterflies:
* Daisy family (Compositae), including sunflowers, marigolds, and zinnias;
* Pea, Clover, and Legume family (Leguminosae);
* Mint family (Labiatae);
* Milkweed family (Asclepiadaceae);
* Parsley family (Umbelliferae);
* Violet and Pansy family.
Growing a garden that welcomes winged wildlife provides benefits for people as well as birds and butterflies. Natural insect control, low maintenance, increased property value, and energy conservation from windbreak plantings are less obvious benefits of a well-planned wildlife garden.
Over the years, you will undoubtedly find new trees, shrubs, vines, perennials, and annuals to add, or new combinations of plants to try, that will improve the habitats you’ve created. Trees and shrubs will grow larger, bear more fruit, and provide opportunities for underplanting with shade-tolerant species. Enjoy your changing landscape and the wildlife that it attracts.