Attracting Backyard Birds

Author: Karen Marquardt

Backyard birdwatching is one of the most popular outdoor activities in America. When I was preparing to write this article, I jotted down all of the birds I have seen in my yard or around my home here in Round Rock, Texas, and I counted over 50 kinds. I have seen whistling ducks, great blue herons (they like to eat my goldfish), several kinds of woodpeckers, cardinals and goldfinches, just to name a few.

If you want to attract a variety of birds into your own yard, all you need to do is meet their basic needs of food and water.

The easiest place to start is with setting up a bird feeder or feeder station. Placement is important because you want to be able to see the birds, make them feel safe, and prevent them from hitting your house. There are thousands of different kinds of bird feeders out there, and some are pretty specific. I usually have several different kinds of feeders which helps attract a variety of birds. Here are some hints for feeder selection, food types and placement:

  • Place feeder either within three feet of the house or more than ten feet away to avoid bird strikes

  • Place the feeder near natural cover, especially if you want to attract birds like cardinals, but somewhere that isn't easily reached by squirrels

  • Consider feeder style and landing surface, some birds like a sturdy surface to land on and some prefer a small perch

  • Use a good general feed that has sunflower, safflower, some white millet, corn and peanuts

  • Avoid feed with milo and lots of white millet as fillers since most birds won’t eat them

  • Black oil sunflower seeds attract cardinals, blue jays, chickadees, titmice and other birds without the waste of some other types of food

  • "No Mess Mixes" attract many different kinds of birds, but squirrels love it too

  • Use specialty feeders such as hummingbird feeders, suet feeders and niger/thistle seed feeders

  • Clean feeders frequently, and discard food that birds aren’t eating

You can also plant or maintain plants in a way that attracts birds. Plant seed bearing flowers and leave the seed pods standing in your yard, coneflowers are especially attractive. In my yard I have a large patch of sunflowers, and my finch feeder is near my veggie garden. It is a treat to see tiny birds landing in my oregano to eat the seeds. Adding native plants also provides food and shelter for birds. My yaupon holly feeds mockingbirds, robins, cedar waxwings, chickadees and others. Often a mockingbird will chase away all other birds.

To provide water for visiting birds, the simplest thing to do is to put out an attractive bird bath. Get in the habit of emptying and refilling it every other day to keep the water clean for your visitors, and to ensure that any mosquito eggs laid in the birdbath never become adults. It takes longer than that for mosquito eggs to develop into adults, so by turning the water over regularly, you interrupt the mosquito life cycle.

Birds are even more attracted to running water and there are many clever devices on the market to add water movement to a bird bath, and if you're feeling ambitious, you can even put in a fish pond!

A final topic to address is squirrels. Deterring squirrels can become an obsession with people who feed birds. Squirrels can empty feeders in minutes, make huge messes and chase away the birds you want to feed. There are things you can do to discourage squirrels, but a determined squirrel is a creature of amazing innovation and skill; they will help themselves! One of the easiest ways to deter squirrels is to choose feeding options that don’t appeal to squirrels, NIger seed and safflower taste bad to squirrels, but birds love them. Niger will attract chickadees, finches of all kinds, and other small birds. Make sure the niger seed is fresh, otherwise birds will scorn it! Other ways to deter squirrels are feeders that are too small to support their weight (also gets rid of dove pileups), squirrel baffles on your feeder poles or feeders, or squirrel “proof” feeders. You can also add hot pepper flakes or powder to your feed mix, at about a tablespoon for 10 pounds of feed. The hot peppers deter mammals like squirrels and other rodents but don’t affect birds.