Creating the right backyard environment will have birds flocking to you
Ever wonder why your neighbor’s yard is abuzz with birds, bees and butterflies, while yours is void of anything that flies? Your backyard environment might be to blame, say experts, who agree on a few simple changes or additions that can bring you closer to a bustling bird community.
“If you want to attract birds to your backyard, you have to create an environment that suits their needs,” said Dr. Alice Anne
O’Donell, a past chairwoman of the Galveston County Audubon Group where she currently serves as a field trip leader. She also is a leader for FeatherFest — an annual birding festival held on Galveston Island during spring migration.
A retired University of Texas Medical Branch physician, O’Donell applies an important rule of medicine to her care of birds: First, do no harm. That means creating a safe environment, she said.
Choose the right birdhouses and place them away from windows to avoid collisions. Don’t use pesticides. Don’t let outdoor cats roam; they’re especially dangerous to fledglings.
For bird shelters, islander Debra Pence prefers bushes and trees to houses. Pence is a Texas Master Naturalist and trip leader for several local birding groups.
“Plant bushes with thick branches and foliage for protection from predators,” Pence said. “And place your feeders and water supply close to that protection so birds can escape danger quickly.”
To encourage a good ecosystem, don’t make your yard meticulous. Insects make homes in discarded leaves and birds eat insects.
Understanding the why and when of spring migration will help you understand what attracts feathered friends to backyards. The Texas Coast, Galveston Island in particular, is on the central flyway from South America to Alaska. During spring migration, birds fly across the Gulf of Mexico on their way up north.
“Galveston is often the first stop after 18 hours of flight,” O’Donell said. “These birds are hungry, thirsty and covered in salt. If we want them to come to us, we must offer them food and water before they head north.”
When you understand where they’re coming from and what they need when they get here, it makes it easier to create an environment to attract them, O’Donell said.
Song birds are here around mid-March and peak in mid-April, said O’Donell, who suggests people trying to attract them put orange slices in their yards because they’re a favorite of migrating orioles.
Feeders, a fresh-water drip system and the proper plants and trees will create optimal conditions for attracting birds, experts say.
Choose varied types of feeders and at least one feeder with a platform because larger birds require a ledge to stand on. In colder months, mix suet and other protein sources like peanut butter with seeds. It’s also important to place feeders on different levels because some birds like to eat up high while others prefer to feed on the ground.
Experts agree that overseeding can be a problem for a number of reasons.
“Uneaten seed can get moldy and spread disease among birds,” O’Donell said.
Empty and clean bird feeders regularly and more often in warmer months, she said.
An abundance of seed might cause birds to linger and attract predators.
“Hawks learn the birds’ patterns,” Pence said. “If birds linger, the hawks will hunt them.”
Pence suggests feeding once a day and one cup at a time. Seed in late afternoon, early evening — about 4 p.m. this time of year and 6 p.m. in summer months when “birds are up later,” she said.
Sunflowers are agreeable to both resident and migratory birds.
When offering water, a fresh-water drip system is best, experts say. Bird baths are good, too, but should be cleaned regularly.
Bushes and trees with brightly colored flowers will attract birds for several reasons. Small insects, such as gnats and spiders, like nectar and they make homes in clusters of flowers. Birds eat insects for protein. Nectar also is eaten by many birds, especially hummingbirds, an island favorite.
Liquid feeders will attract hummingbirds. Pence recommends a mixture of one-part sugar to four-parts water. Boil to melt the sugar and cool before filling feeders.
Pence recommends plants for your yard that bloom year-round such as honeysuckle; plants that have a heavy bloom during spring migration such as bottlebrush; plants with flowers that have nectar and attract insects such as oleander, esperanza and fairy duster; plants with bright flowers that attract pollinators such as the firecracker; and plants that have fruit and berries, including crab apples, figs and duranta; and anything that seeds out in the fall, such as Mexican sunflower.
Birds will eat home-grown vegetables, too, especially tomatoes. But be prepared for extra plants to pop up in odd places.
“As a natural part of their digestion, birds will redeposit seeds all over your yard,” Pence said.
The idea is to create an ecosystem that supports and encourages wildlife. And if you have questions, ask someone who knows.
“Go to a meeting of a local birding group, or talk to someone who is an authority in your area,” O’Donell said.