Start Here for a Birdy Yard

How can I get birds to come to my yard? I hear that question a lot, as I’m working part time at a store that sells feeders, nest boxes, bird seed, etc. People come in and want to buy a feeder, but they’re not sure the birds will notice. What kind of feeder should they get? What should they put in it? Is that even the right place to begin?

Of course, my job is to promote sales, so I dutifully point out all the appropriate products. (I also dole out a lot of free advice.) But what would I say if I met you somewhere else, where I don’t work? I would tell you that there are three “first steps” to attracting birds to your yard. Here’s where you should start.

Provide water. Some birds eat one kind of seed, some birds prefer another. Many birds only eat insects, so they don’t care what kind of seed you put out. But all birds need water, in some form or another. (Not only that, but water is much cheaper than seed!) We live in an arid part of the U.S., so a source of drinking and bathing water will act as a magnet to thirsty wildlife.

You don’t need to be fancy. I have a heated birdbath, but I started with a simple plant saucer that I refilled daily. It cost me well under $5. I put it on the ground, but a low stump would work as well. Keep it near a place where wet birds can perch to preen and dry off, but not too close to a shrub where a cat or other predator could lurk.

Provide black oil sunflower seed. Sure, there are lots of mixes available, but black oil will entice the most variety—finches, nuthatches, chickadees, jays, magpies, grosbeaks, crossbills—they all love black oil sunflower seeds. You can buy 25 or 50 pound bags, which brings the price per pound down substantially.

Put the seeds on a platform feeder. Tube feeders are great, but only perching birds use them. Everyone uses a platform. If squirrels are a problem, put your platform on a pole, and use a cone-shaped baffle. Realize that it may take a week or two for the birds to discover your largess. Once you get your first customers, often House Finches, you won’t have to wait long for the rest of the gang.

Provide suet. At this time of year insects are sparse, but the birds still appreciate fat that they can burn to stay warm. Hanging a suet cake will bring in woodpeckers, nuthatches, Bushtits, and other species, and you’ll be doing them a real favor. By the way, I haven’t found that the birds have a preference among the various flavors you can buy—I think that variety exists to please the birdwatchers, not the birds. Again, if squirrels are a problem, consider a suet holder inside a cage. I have a cylindrical holder, and the squirrels leave it alone, too.

Of course, you can spend hundreds of dollars for an elaborate set-up, with all sorts of feeder styles, mounted in an assortment of ways. Then there are all the different foods you can fill them with—millet, nyjer, safflower, and other seeds, tree nuts, peanuts, etc. And we haven’t even touched on adding nest boxes, or landscaping with wildlife-friendly plants. But if you’re just getting started, start with these three things. Then patiently wait for the birds to discover your yard.
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The answer to last week’s bird quiz was… Western Bluebird.

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