How to Attract Birds and Butterflies to Your Garden

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One of the questions I get asked the most at my plant sales is, “What kinds of plants attract birds?” Birds are a wonderful addition to your garden any time of year, but it is particularly nice to have them around in the winter and early spring season when the yard isn’t doing a whole lot. They bring with them movement, excitement, bright colors and music!

How to Attract Birds

Just like people, birds need only a few things to survive – food, water, shelter and a safe place to raise their young. By providing these things in your garden you can make your home a hot spot for birds and they will love you for it! OK, maybe not you personally, but they will love your yard.

For a couple years I lived on the edge of a large forest that was miles across. We had all kinds of birds who would visit our yard daily. They didn’t need anything from us. They had the forest to provide their every need. But, we would put bred crumbs or seeds out on the patio table and watch birds come in all directions for a free lunch. Now we live in a suburban area. There are still lots of trees in the area, but there is definitely less habitat for birds here than in our old place. Believe it or not, in cities, and even in suburban areas, good bird nesting spots can be hard to come by. If you set up your yard to give birds what they need and want it will be easy to draw them in by the droves.

Here are a few things you can do to increase bird traffic to your yard:

1.) Provide water for the Birds

Bird BathBirds love water for drinking and bathing. A birdbath or pond can provide this for them. Our bird bath is pretty busy in the early morning as well as in mid day. Even in the evenings a bird or two will stop by for a sip or a rinse.

As birds fly overhead the reflection of sunlight on the water surface will catch their attention. They will even fly out of their way a bit if they can get some water from a safe place. An elevated source such as a bird bath is ideal. This ensures they have some protection from prowling cats, and gives them a birds-eye view before plunging in for a bath. If you have never seen a bird take a bath you are missing out! Set up a bird bath and in no time they will be stopping in.

Make sure you dump out and refill a bath with fresh water every few days. They can get gummed up with dirt, leaves and other stuff pretty quickly. In the heat of summer you may need to refill the bath every couple days. If you station the bath so it catches water from the sprinkler that will save you a little effort. Surround your bath or pond with larger shrubs and trees to reduce evaporation on sunny warm days.

Adding a large rock or other stable object in the middle of the bath provides birds a safer place to stand while drinking. If you have a pond try to create a sheltered spot for the birds where it is harder for cats to get to them. This can be accomplished by creating a small island in the middle of a larger pond. Remember, cats don’t like to get wet!

2.) Provide Shelter for the Birds

Birdhouses are not just a decoration. The main purpose of the birdhouse is to give birds a safe, protected space to lay and hatch their eggs and raise their young. As was already mentioned, good quality nesting places are hard to find in densely populated areas, or any place where there are few trees. Birdhouses help fill the gap. Don’t worry, you don’t have to put up a big neon “Vacancy” sign. If you’ve done the other things in this article to attract birds they will find the birdhouses you set up. If, one day, you notice a bird flying busily back and forth in your yard you know you have gained a tenant.

Keep birdhouses up high, out of reach of cats. Ideally they should be placed such that birds have easy access to them, but they should also be in a sheltered location, such as under a patio cover or eaves, or in a tree. They should also be near food and water sources.

Birdhouses are only temporary residences. Birds move in, lay their eggs, hatch them, raise their young, and then the whole family moves out once the kids are ready for the great big world. You should clean out your birdhouses in the fall to make sure they are ready to go next spring. It is always interesting finding out what the birds found to use for their nest. Along with grass and some stringy leaves and branches you will often find bits of cloth, paper and other soft materials. You might even discover something you’ve been missing that got left out in the yard!

3.) Provide Bird Food

bird feederNow that you’ve given birds water and a place to nest you should also provide them with some food. Don’t worry that you are training the birds to be too dependent on humans. For one thing, birds that live in populated areas are already somewhat domesticated anyway. They are used to being around people and most are good at scavenging whatever they can find. Also, most of the birds you will be attracting are not hunters anyway. They tend to eat only stationary (berries, flowers) or slow moving (worms, snails, bugs) things anyway, so eating from a feeder is not all that different.

As with houses and water sources, feeders should be elevated on poles or attached to the house in some way. Feeders come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Many of them are quite decorative and will enhance your landscape on their own. Some feeders are designed to feed lots of birds at one time. Some have anti-cat or anti-squirrel features. Different kinds of feeders are designed for different kinds of birds, too, so make sure to get a few different kinds.

What should you feed the birds? There are lots of choices, from the simple to the elaborate. Some of the simplest are sugar water, suet/peanut butter mixes, store-bought bird seed and fruit wedges.

Hummingbirds love sugar water. Simply mix 1 part granulated sugar with 4 parts water (1/3 cup sugar and 1 1/3 cups of water is an ideal mixture). Boil for 2 minutes, then allow to cool completely. Serve. Note that this is like candy to birds and provides no nutritive value.

Birdseed will sprout as weeds after it has been eaten and passed through the bird’s system. To prevent this you can bake it on a cookie sheet for 8 minutes at 300 F. You don’t have to do this with thistle seed, though, as it is already treated.

Peanut butter provides excellent nutritive value year-round for birds. The fat and protein is especially helpful to them in the winter months. Don’t try using it in hot weather, though. You’ll end up with a gooey mess! Peanut butter should be mixed with other foods or some birds may choke on its sticky texture. You can use uncooked oatmeal or cornmeal. Use one part peanut butter with five parts oatmeal or cornmeal.

A really simple feeder/food design involves sticking a half-orange on a peg sticking out from a wall. Sweet, juicy and nutritious, all in one! Fresh fruit will draw in orioles, tanagers, thrushes and other shy garden visitors (if you live in their region).

You can occasionally use stale bread, morsels of old dog/cat food or table scraps, but don’t make a habit of this. They don’t provide as much good nutrition as other options.

If you want to try something more fancy there are a few recipes for things like corn pudding, bird cakes and coconut delight that you can try.

4.) Choose bird-attracting plants

There are lots of plants that work like bird magnets. Birds are usually drawn to bright colors, whether from flowers, leaves or berries. At Clover Creek Nursery we sell a number of plants at our plant sales that birds love, including asters, Japanese flowering quince, coreopsis, dogwoods, candytufts, beautybush, potentilla, spirea and especially weigelas. And there are many other kinds of plants that will do the trick, too. Birds love plants as much as we do! By the way, most bird-loving plants also attract butterflies and dragonflies!

Begin by selecting a spring-flowering plant, a summer-flowering plant and a fall-flowering plant. That way you will have something to draw in birds most of the year. Plants that produce berries in winter will make sure you have a natural banquet spread all year long. If you provide enough bird-attracting plants to your yard you won’t need to supplement with feeders unless you want to. One nice thing about feeders is that it is easier to get birds right up close where you can see them.

5.) Create Bird Habitats

Use landscaping to create habitat areas. This is an advanced method. It requires focusing on the kinds of birds you wish to attract, learning about their natural habitats and then creating similar micro-habitats in your yard. It also requires more time and planning on your part. Some basics to consider:

Create “forest edges”. In nature birds hang out at the edge of forests, where trees give way to smaller shrubs and then to meadows. By including a few larger shrubs and trees in the background along with smaller plants in front you can provide just the sort of area birds crave for hunting, foraging and socializing.

By keeping a mixture of different sizes and shapes of plants and trees, as well as differing bloom times, you can provide habitats for a wide variety of birds.

A closely manicured lawn is the least desirable habitat feature for birds. A wide open field of low grass is an opportunity for predators to strike. If you have a large lawn and don’t need it, consider breaking it up with islands of raised planting beds that include tall ornamental grasses, low shrubs and taller shrubs. If you can spare the space, keep one area “wild”. Let nature take its course, to a certain extent. Let grasses grow tall and go to seed. Allow brambles to grow, which provide good nesting cover. Keep a water source nearby. This will guarantee a variety of birds will nest in your yard year after year.

Birds are a wonderful addition to the home garden, and attracting them to the yard is not that hard at all. With just a little effort you will soon turn your garden into a bird’s paradise!

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