Bird Gardens: Welcoming Wild Birds to Your Yard

See Table of Contents
  • Introduction: The Bird-friendly Garden by Stephen W. Kress
  • The Interlaced Biology of Birds and Plants by Stephen W. Kress
  • Twelve Ways to Design a Bird-friendly Garden by Stephen W. Kress
  • Encyclopedia of Shade Perennials by Stephen W. Kress
    • For the Northeast by Daniel M. Savercool
    • For the Southeast by Daniel M. Savercool
    • For South Florida by Richard Thom
    • For the Prairies and Plains by Beth Huning
    • For the Western Mountains and Deserts by Jesse Grantham
    • For the Pacific Coastby by Jesse Grantham
  • Common Birds by Region
  • Nursery Sources
  • For More Information
  • Contributors
  • Hardiness Zone Map


The Bird-friendly Garden

Stephen W. Kress

Most people think all that's involved in attracting birds to their yards is putting out a feeder or birdbath—but these benefit only a few species and for just short periods of time. Like all plants and animals, birds require specific habitats—for example, open meadows, shrubby gardens, and forest interiors—where specific plants provide food, shelter, nesting spots, and singing posts. Because they are highly mobile, birds move around to find good homes and depart if habitats stop meeting their needs. To attract wild birds throughout the year, gardeners must create and maintain the conditions that a variety of birds favor. Feeders and birdbaths alone will not do the job.

Habitat loss—both in quantity and quality—is the single greatest threat to native land birds. Large forests are increasingly fractured by highways, power lines, and development, allowing predatory edge species, such as grackles and jays, access to the eggs and young of forest-interior birds such as thrushes and tanagers. It is estimated that by the year 2000, about 3.5 million acres in the United States and Canada will be paved for highways and airports and 19.7 million more acres of undeveloped land—an area equivalent in size to the states of Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island combined—will be converted to sprawling suburbia.

In this increasingly peopled landscape, bird habitats simply vanish because, in the press to provide housing and services for humans, the needs of wildlife are not considered. Wild birds may be protected by state and federal laws and international treaties that apply to parks and refuges, but the vast majority of land remains in private ownership and has no formal protection. Of the 737 million acres of forested land in the United States, 59 percent is in private, non-industrial ownership, and small landowners decide how to manage these forests, leaving most bird habitats vulnerable to the crush of development.

Protecting and effectively managing large tracts of wild and rural land is the first line of protection for birds—especially forest and grassland species. There is some encouraging news: Programs such as the National Audubon Society's Important Bird Areas and the Nature Conservancy's Last Great Places are actively identifying specific locations that are especially important to birds.

Solutions to many of the threats to wild bird populations—habitat loss, acid rain, global warming, agricultural pesticides, and collisions with power lines and skyscrapers—may seem beyond your reach. But you can begin to welcome birds into your own backyard. Plant large trees and native shrubs and vines—the basic elements in a habitat that will benefit generations of wild birds that add color and song to your garden, transforming it into your own mini–wildlife sanctuary. This guide is designed to show you how.

One isolated, bird–friendly backyard in an expanse of mowed suburbia may be of limited benefit to wild birds. But your yard can become the nucleus of a more valuable improvement for birds if, with your neighbors, you can come up with a communal vision and create a series of adjacent bird-friendly backyards, each alive with variety and life. When linked together, such gardens can be meaningful stopovers for migratory songbirds, useful wintering areas, and nesting habitats.

Much of this guide consists of an encyclopedia of plants recommended for attracting birds. All are native species and are included because they provide one or more of the following benefits—food, shelter, or nesting places—and because they are highly decorative and readily available. Add them to your garden, enjoy their color and form, and know that at the same time you are making your little piece of the planet a better place for birds.

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