how to build a bird garden

Before you begin designing your bird garden, be sure to visit several nearby natural areas, such as parks and wildlife sanctuaries. These will give you a sense of what kinds of plants and plant communities make up the natural bird habitat in your area. Take notes on what species grow in these natural places and how the plant communities are structured—how they form vertical layers, for example, and how some plants occur in large drifts. Re-creating a similar type of growth using species native to your area is the key to a successful bird garden.

Once youve gotten a sense of the structure and makeup of the local bird habitat, make a drawing of your property and its perimeter, and sketch in all of your existing plants, especially trees and shrubs. Also note the herbaceous plants that benefit birds, such as pokeberry (Phytolacca americana) and black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia species). Sketch in your house, outbuildings, driveway, and other primary features. With this map in hand, youll be able to identify the resources you already have for attracting birds; you should protect and nurture these. You can also use this sketch to plan additional plantings appropriate for your area.

Following are 12 general guidelines on how to design a garden that appeals to both birds and people.

6. Leave vines or plant them.

Birds can find perches, nesting places, and leaf surfaces on vines like poison ivy, greenbrier, and Virginia creeper, which allow insect-eating birds like kinglets and warblers to gather good, plentiful fruit crops. At least 51 different species of birds eat wild grape, a popular vine among them, and at least 16 of those species use the stringy bark to help construct their nests.

2. Select plants with an eye to providing nutritional foods during different seasons.

Different birds require different kinds of foods in different seasons. For instance, parent birds obtain the energy they require during the demanding days of raising chicks by eating sweet fruits like wild cherries, mulberries, and blackberries. While wintering birds (finches, sparrows, and waxwings) need abundant, persistent fruits (conifers, bayberry, hawthorns, crabapples, and sumacs) to help them survive subfreezing temperatures, fall migrants (thrushes, vireos, and warblers) need fatty fruits (flowering dogwood, spicebush, and mapleleaf viburnum) to build fat reserves for their long journey. These long-lasting fruits are also crucial for early spring migrants like robins, thrashers, and bluebirds. Make sure to add a range of plants that will support the different birds that come to your garden throughout the year.

10. Provide nest boxes.

Because natural cavities are few, birds that build their nests in tree cavities frequently lack suitable locations to do so. These cavities are created when branches break off and the wound does not heal itself, allowing the inner wood to decay. The majority of cavity-nesting birds depend on woodpeckers to construct their roosts and nests. To obtain food, woodpeckers chip holes in trees, which are then frequently enlarged by small cavity nesters such as titmice and chickadees for their nests. These holes could get bigger thanks to squirrels and bigger birds like the Great-crested Flycatcher. Appropriately sized cavities have probably always been hard to come by, but today they are even more in demand as native birds compete with European Starling and House Sparrow, which take millions of nesting sites that native birds would have historically used.

A Virginia creeper vine and an Eastern Bluebird share a post thanks to a nest box. (Photo: Richard Thom).

Nest boxes are a simple way to encourage a wider variety of birds to build their nests on your property. Nest boxes act as an artificial tree cavity substitute. There are 48 species that are known to raise their young in nest boxes, including prothonotary warblers, purple martins, bluebirds, and tree swallows. While some species construct intricate nests out of sticks, grass, and feathers, others prefer to cradle their eggs in wood chips in the bottom of their nest box. Any type of wood can be used to make boxes, but paint and wood preservatives should not be used inside as they may harm the eggs or young. A sloping roof to shed rain, drainage holes in the bottom, an access door for yearly late-winter cleaning, and a predator guard to prevent raccoons from reaching in to steal eggs and young are all necessary features of any good box design. To keep starlings out, keep the entrance hole 1-1/2 inches in diameter or less. Adjust the opening sizes and box dimensions to suit particular species.

Location is another important consideration. If you put bluebird houses in the woods, titmice and chickadees will use them; if you place them near the edge of the forest or in thickets, house wrens will likely use them. But if you put the same box in an open field, you’ll probably draw Tree Swallows or Bluebirds.