Landscaping and Gardening for Birds
Attracting birds to landscapes and outdoor areas is an activity that can bring much enjoyment to the entire family. Landscaping and gardening for birds is gaining in popularity as people become more aware of the benefits of having a diverse environment around them. Bringing these beautiful creatures near homesites also helps manage insect populations and maintain the ecological balance of outdoor environments.
Birds need three things to survive — food, water, and shelter. These elements can easily be supplied in your backyard. One of the key elements for attracting many species of birds is a wide variety of plants arranged into sheltered areas of shrubs and trees, open areas of lawns and gardens, and/or wet areas around ponds and streams.
Gardeners and landscapers should be aware that the predominant habitat type in the area will determine which bird species can be attracted to a yard. For example, if the entire neighborhood is heavily wooded, purple martins will be difficult or impossible to attract. On the other hand, areas with many tall, mature trees will have numerous birds, such as some of the owls, vireos, and warblers, that open areas may not attract. Some species such as the cardinal and mockingbird require shrub cover. In particular, a new house in a recently built residential area, will need time for the yard to mature. As the shrubs and trees grow, so will the number of birds that visit the yard. New areas with few mature trees and little shelter for birds will take several years to become hospitable places for birds requiring trees and shrubs.
Use a diverse selection of plant materials to provide food and shelter for birds. Fill the yard with fruit- or seed-bearing plants for the best habitat development. Although most plants are beautiful, not all benefit wildlife other than to give shelter. For example, a forsythia (Forsythia spp.) or lilac (Syringa spp.) hedge can provide shelter and be a spectacular sight in the spring, but they provide no seeds or fruits for birds. On the other hand, an evergreen holly (Ilex spp.) hedge loaded with berries will be attractive, provide shelter in the winter, and still feed wildlife.
Use native plants whenever possible. Our native birds are adapted to the native plants, which are often drought resistant, cold and heat tolerant, and many are proven bird attractors. An additional benefit is that they are often low maintenance.
Use flowering plants. Hummingbirds require a constant and diverse supply of flowers on which to feed from April until late fall. Some early blooming plants are the American columbine (Aquilegia spp.), petunia (Petunia spp.), foxglove (Digitalis spp.), hardy fuchsia (Fuchsiaspp.), and larkspur (Delphinium consolida). Late blooming plants include red bergamot (Monarda spp.), cardinal flower (Salvia coccinea), scarlet trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicer spp.), salvia (Salvia spp.), and trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans). For best results, choose plants that prefer bright sunny areas. The plants will yield greater quantities of nectar given adequate access to sunlight, and the hummingbirds will benefit from the sun’s warming rays.
Trees and Shrubs
Many tree and shrub species can be useful for both wildlife and gardeners. There are several selections in the listings that follow. An example would be the many oaks that grow throughout Oklahoma such as chinkapin (Quercus muehlenbergii), live (Q. virginiana), red (Q. rubra), and shumard (Q. shumardii) oaks. Check for species best adapted to your location and soil type. (See Tables 1, 2, and 3.)
Herbaceous plants can be either annuals or perennials. Annuals are those plants that need to be replanted each year. Perennial plants that are adapted to Oklahoma’s Winter Hardy Zones 6 and 7 should provide years of benefit to the landscape. Some perennials are tender and need extra protection by mulching during the winter. There are also a few tender perennials grown as annuals. Many grasses, both ornamental and native, may serve as resources for food, nesting material, or shelter.
Vines on fences and other supports can turn a part of the yard into prime real estate for food, nesting, and shelter. Bittersweet (Celastrus scandens), trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans), clematis (Clematis spp.), honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.), grapes (Vitis spp.), and Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) have the added attraction of flowers and/or fruits. (See Tables 4 and 5.)
Miscellaneous Plant Materials
Vegetable crops make nice choices for many birds. Sacrifice a few vegetables each year by picking damaged pieces and leaving them in another open location for the birds to eat. Many times the rest of the crop will be left alone.
In a smaller section of the garden or landscape, incorporate legumes, grains, or native grasses like alfalfa, clover, millet, quaking oats, sea oats, or switchgrass. Harvest a few heads for feed during the winter and then let the finches, quail, pheasants, mourning doves, and juncos eat what is left. Farm supply stores carry these seeds.
Bark, leaf, or compost mulches attract insects on which many animals and birds feed.
Lawns play a role in feeding several species of birds such as robins, mockingbirds, and flickers because of the insects and worms they find there. For this reason pesticide use should be minimized.
Allow weedy areas to grow up at the back of the yard or wherever the homeowner and the neighbors will not see them. Weeds in the right places, usually far away from gardens, can be very useful for animal food and shelter. Dandelion seeds are a favorite of goldfinches, buntings, chipping sparrows, and finches.
Supplying bird feeders in the landscape will create additional opportunities to watch birds feed. Place bird feeders where they can easily be seen from the house and enjoy the activities of the birds. Keep feeders stocked, especially during bad winter weather, but do not forget that summer feeding can also be rewarding. Shrubs or trees should be no closer than 10 feet so birds can escape in case of danger.
Bird feeders should be cleaned regularly. Diseases can grow in wet and moldy seed, in bird droppings, and in warm sugar water. It is a good idea to move your feeders each season to give the ground underneath time to break down the seed debris and bird drop-pings, or rake up the seed debris and place it in the compost pile.
Seed feeders are visited by cardinals, juncos, sparrows, chickadees, finches, mourning doves, blackbirds, squirrels, chipmunks, and others. Fruit feeders (wedges of oranges, apples, bananas) are favored by orioles, bluebirds, towhees, woodpeckers, tanagers, brown thrashers, catbirds, and robins. Nectar feeders attract hummingbirds, orioles, and occasionally a variety of other seemingly unlikely birds such as woodpeckers and chickadees.
For the best success, hummingbird feeders should be placed in or near the hummingbird garden to encourage feeding from natural sources. However, additional feeders may be placed near a window or porch in order to see and photograph the hummingbirds up close. When placing the feeders near the house, be sure to use several feeders and hang them far apart. Hummingbirds are extremely territorial and aggressive around a single food source.
It is important to use a feeder with a bee and wasp guard. This will eliminate aggressive competition for nectar between these insects and hummingbirds. However, do not be concerned if small insects are found in the mouth of the feeder. They fulfill the protein requirements for hummingbirds and should not be removed from the feeder until cleaning.
Never use honey or a sugar substitute when making a nectar mix. Honey will attract bees as well as a black fungus that will cause a fatal liver and tongue disease in hummingbirds. Also, the use of red food coloring in the solution is both unnecessary and unhealthy for the birds, especially when the feeder already has the appropriate red plastic blossom. Either buy a commercial nectar solution or simply make one using one part granulated sugar to four parts boiling water. Allow the nectar to cool before filling the feeder.
Hummingbird feeders require cleaning every two to three days, especially in warm weather. Feeders made of plastic, glass, or ceramic should be washed with a solution of 1 tablespoon white vinegar and 1 cup water. Use a bottle brush to clean hardened debris on feeders, and rinse thoroughly with warm water.
Water can be supplied by bird baths, shallow edges of decorative ponds, or natural streams, ponds, or lakes. Dripping water is especially enticing to birds and can be as elaborate as a fountain or as simple as a garden hose turned on at low volume. Equally effective is a milk jug (with a small hole in the bottom) hung from a tree branch over a bird bath.
Bird baths should have a clear area of ten feet in diameter around the bath to prevent predators from sneaking up on birds drinking from the water. The water level should be no deeper than two inches. Place a rock in the center to make it easier for birds to use. Keep the bath away from the bird feeder to prevent food from spoiling the water. The bath should be washed out every three to four days and disinfected once or twice a year with bleach. Do not add any chemicals to the water. A bird bath heater can be used during the winter to keep the water from freezing and thus attract an amazing variety of birds.
Birds require shelter for nesting as well as protection from predators and inclement weather. Shelter can be provided in many ways. If there is room, pile broken branches, prunings, and other miscellaneous plant materials into an open pile for cardinals, wrens, towhees, and sparrows. Thorny or densely branched trees and shrubs, such as shrub roses, blackberries, raspberries, barberries, trifoliate orange, and rose acacia provide excellent shelter.
Evergreens provide shelter during the winter when other plants have lost their leaves. Pine trees, hollies, southern magnolias, and rhododendrons are examples. Junipers also provide berries in the winter but are so common in Oklahoma that wildlife may benefit more from less prevalent evergreens.
Bluebirds, wrens, chickadees, and woodpeckers can be attracted to the yard with the right nest boxes. Boxes should be cleaned and ready for occupancy by mid-February. Clean nest boxes at the end of each nesting season to prepare them for next year’s occupants.
The European starling and English (house) sparrow are introduced species of birds that may cause problems in nest boxes. Both species compete with native songbirds for nest cavities and structures. They often physically drive native species from nest sites. Neither of these species are protected by law and should be controlled if necessary. One good way to control starlings is to make entrance holes less than 1 3/4 inches in diameter. Removing house sparrow nests is a way to successfully control sparrow numbers in the yard.
Purple martin houses are especially popular and widely used. For success with martin houses, place them in an open area within 100 feet of a house, as martins seem to prefer being close to humans. There should be no vines or shrubs by the pole and no trees within a 50 foot radius of the martin house. Cleaning the martin house requires raising and lowering the apparatus. It may be necessary to regularly evict starlings and house sparrows until a colony of martins finds the house and starts to occupy it; use a crescent shaped opening to eliminate starlings. Once they use it to nest, the martins should come back around the middle of March year after year. For additional information in building bird houses and feeders, you may obtain Shelves, Houses, and Feeders for Birds and Mammals from your local OSU Cooperative Extension office.
Nest Box Specifications for Oklahoma Cavity Nesters.
|Species||Floor of Cavity (inches)||Depth of Cavity (inches)||Entrance above Floor (inches)||Diameter of Entrance (inches)||Height above Ground (feet)||Preferred Habitat|
|SMALL CAVITY NESTERS|
|Eastern Bluebirds||4x4||12||6||1 1/2||3-6||Open land with scattered trees|
|Chickadees||4x4||12||6-8||1 1/2||4-15||Open woods & edges|
|Titmice||4x4||12||6-8||1 1/2||4-15||Open woods & edges|
|Nuthatches||4x4||12||6-8||1 1/2||4-15||Open woods & edges|
|Wrens||4x4||12||4-6||1 1/2||3-10||Old fields & thickets|
|Prothonotary Warblersa||4x4||12||4-6||1 1/2||3-12||Wooded streams & swamps|
|Swallowsb||5x5||10||1 side open||1 1/2||3-8||Open land near ponds or lakes|
|Great-crested Flycatchers||6x6||12||6-8||1 3/4 c||6-20||Open woods & edges|
|House Finches||6x6||8||4-6||2||5-10||Backyards & porches|
|Purple Martins||8x8||6||2||2 1/4||15-25||Open country near water|
|LARGE CAVITY NESTERS|
|American Kestrels||8x8||18||9-12||3||8-30||Open farmland & wooded edges|
|Screech Owlsd||8x8||18||9-12||3||8-30||Farmland, orchards, woods|
|Wood Ducks a,d,e||12x12||24||12-16||4||3-30||Wooded swaps, rivers, marshes|
|Barred Owlsd||14x14||28||18-20||8||15-30||Mature bottomland forests|
|Barn Owlsd||16x20||16||4||6||15-30||Farmland; on barn, silo, or large tree|
|Downy Woodpeckers||4x4||12||6-8||1 1/2||5-15||Forest openings & edges|
|Hairy Woodpeckers||6x6||14||9-12||1 1/2||8-20||Forest openings & edges|
|Red-bellied & Red-headed W.||6x6||14||9-12||2||8-20||Forest openings & edges|
|Northern Flickers||7x7||18||14-16||2 1/2||8-20||Farmland, open country|
|Pileated Woodpeckers||12x12||24||16-18||4||15-25||Mature forest|
a – Species prefer nest box mounted on post 3 ft. to 4 ft. above open water
b – Staple 3″-wide hardware-cloth “ladder” directly under hole on inside of nest box
c – Use a 1 9/16″ hole if starlings are problem
d – Add 2″ to 3″ wood chips to simulate floor of natural cavity
e – Staple 5″-wide hardware-cloth “ladder” directly under hole on inside of nest box
f – Pack woodpecker nest box with sawdust for birds to “excavate”
Seven Steps To Landscaping Your Yard For Wildlife
- Set your objectives and priorities. Decide which types of birds or other animals you may feasibly attract given the habitat surrounding your yard and already in place (for example, whether the area is open, forested, etc.). Organize your landscape design accordingly, using plants that you know will work best for you.
- Draw a map of your property. A map will help determine how much available space you have and other features about your yard. A map can help you experiment with different designs, keeping in mind those areas that are either shady, sunny, wet, dry, or scenic.
- Review the basic needs of birds (food, water, shelter, cover) and determine those components already present in your yard and those that may be lacking. Check the tables for listings of plants to determine which plants are appropriate for your area that you may want or need to obtain. Realize that while your yard and garden may not provide all of the necessary components, your neighbor’s yards may contain some of these. Emphasize native plants!
- Check with natural resource professionals and various reference books at your library or bookstore for practical tips.
- Develop a planting plan. It is important to draw shrubbery and trees at full or mature size to plan for space needs. Determine how much money you are willing to spend. Realize that you do not have to plant it all in one season. Use native plants where possible.
- Implement your plan. Shop local nurseries and garden centers as well as catalogs of plant and seed suppliers to determine the availability of plant materials. Keep records of your expenses and take pictures as your plan develops.
- Maintain your plan. This involves watering, fertilizing, pruning, weeding, and mowing. Remember, native plants will be more forgiving of lack of care and will require less maintenance than exotics. Maintaining nest boxes and feeders on a regular basis is also necessary.
Further Wildlife Enhancements
- Leave as many thick, dead branches and tree trunks (snags) in the landscape as possible. Woodpeckers, chickadees, warblers, nuthatches, and brown creepers will look for insects on them. Other birds can use the cavities in dead wood for homes. Safety of the trees must be considered, too.
- Place short pieces of yarn (4 to 6 inches), hair, or the feathers from an old feather pillow in the yard. Birds will use the material for their nests.
- Keep a small area of the garden muddy for robins and swallows to use for making their mud nests.
- Minimize the use of chemicals in the yard. The more insects around the yard, the more birds will visit. Try to remove problem insects by hand. Some insects can be ignored without damaging plants too much. Most plants can tolerate some insect or disease damage without harmful effects.
- If you have a cat, keep it indoors as much as possible. Keeping the cat inside all the time would be best. Cats are very efficient predators and can kill numerous birds each day, generally more than the owner realizes. Encourage your neighbors to keep their cats inside or to use collars with bells.
- Open, dry, dusty areas are great for birds to use as dust baths. Leave a small area of the garden unplanted and dry to make a dust bath. Stir up the soil occasionally to get it started. A pile of sand or crushed egg shells nearby can also serve as grit for birds that need it for digestion of food.
Of all of the hundreds of bird species, hummingbirds are particularly interesting and delightful to attract to the yard. These tiny, energetic birds can provide hours of enjoyment through their dazzling flying abilities, acrobatics, and bold personalities. In addition, hummingbirds are often as brightly colored as jewels.
The hummingbird is the smallest native bird in North America, length totaling about 3 1/2 inches overall. Its weight is only about 1/4 of an ounce. Hummingbirds are identified by the extremely rapid movement of their tiny wings that creates a humming sound as they fly or hover. The average wingbeat of a hummingbird in flight is 55 strokes per second.
The metabolism of hummingbirds is also one of its distinguishing features. For its size, it surpasses all other warm blooded creatures on earth in energy consumption. On average, it must feed every fifteen minutes during the day in order to survive. Because there is no way for the hummingbird to continue this feeding activity during the night, it must either store up excess fat and carbohydrates prior to nightfall or go into a torpor, which is a period of dormancy. By becoming torpid, its feeding requirements are drastically reduced. Torpor is utilized by all species of hummingbirds except for those females that are incubating or brooding their young. Torpor will usually not occur unless the outside temperature is less than 95°F, or there have been negligible sources of food.
Hummingbirds are unique in their method of feeding, which requires them to extract nectar from blossoms using their long, split, retractable tongue. Contrary to popular belief, hummingbirds do not use their tongues as humans would a straw, but rather, exhibit a licking motion at a rate of about 13 licks per second. Their tongues have tiny fringes along the split edges that help with the ingestion of small insects trapped in nectar. Hummingbirds also capture small insects flying about in the air, especially when raising their young.
Male hummingbirds exhibit their most dramatic display of color and behavior during courtship and defensive displays. In these displays, the male will ascend to varying heights and then dive straight down toward the object of his affection or irritation. His wingbeat will sometimes increase to up to 200 beats per second, which creates both a loud humming sound and a wonderful visual display of his iridescent feathers.
All North American hummingbirds are migratory except the Anna’s hummingbird which remains in California. The two species of hummingbirds most frequently seen in Oklahoma are the two that migrate the farthest distance each year. These are the ruby-throated and the less frequently occurring rufous hummingbirds which may travel 2,000 miles or more. For the ruby-throat, 500 of those miles are nonstop over the Gulf of Mexico. In order for the ruby-throated hummingbird to sustain itself for the journey, it must accumulate about half of its normal body weight in fat. These trips are made individually and not in flocks or small groups. In addition to the ruby-throated and rufous hummingbirds, the black-chinned and broad-tailed hummingbirds can be seen, although rarely, in the western part of the state.
Hummingbirds have many similarities with butterflies, moths, and skippers (Lepidopterans). Hummingbirds are probably able to distinguish all wavelengths of light which is functional for feeding and mating. They have iridescent colors on their bodies, although these are produced with tiny feathers rather than with scales. The most prominent similarity between lepidoptera and hummingbirds is that both feed on nectar, although lepidoptera prefer more fragrant blossoms than hummingbirds. Lepidopterans need petals to provide a secure landing place because they must perch before nectaring. Hummingbirds and some sphinx moths hover and therefore prefer flowers with tubular corollas. As a result, some plantings for lepidoptera may also benefit hummingbirds, and vice-versa. Like lepidopterans, hummingbirds cannot survive on nectar alone.
To fulfill their nutritional requirement, hummingbirds rely on the protein found in small insects trapped in the sticky nectar that they ingest from flowers. This protein is especially important for the feeding of young. Last, hummingbirds and lepidoptera share a dependence upon body temperature for the ability to fly. Hummingbirds cannot fly if their body temperature is below 86° Fahrenheit. For additional information on lepidopterans, see Fact Sheet No. HLA-6430 Landscaping to Attract Butterflies, Moths, and Skippers.
Inquire about Oklahoma’s Backyard Certification Program through:
Landscaping for Wildlife
Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation
1801 N. Lincoln Blvd.
Oklahoma City, OK 73105
The National Wildlife Federation
PO Box 1583
Merrifield VA 22116-1583
Oklahoma Partners in Flight
Mark D. Howery, Wildlife Diversity Biologist
Assistant Extension Specialist, Consumer Horticulturist
Extension Floriculture Specialist
Extension Horticulture Specialist