Sunday, July 22, 2012

Create Your Own Bird Sanctuary

If you love birds, you’ve probably visited a nature sanctuary near your home and marveled at the wildlife. The feeders at the visitor center are teeming with birds of all kinds. It may be only a 15 minute drive, but it might as well be an entire world away.

Apple trees are the perfect cover for birds year round. They have insects in spring and summer, apples through the fall, and thick masses of branches in the winter

So, what is the difference between YOUR back yard and THIS place? You have a feeder or two and get your share of Cardinals and Chickadees, especially in the winter. Still, your yard pales in comparison to the local nature center. They always seem to have something special.

Don’t you wish that your backyard was more like the nature center? It could be. You may not have 100 acres, a pond, open fields and wooded acres like they do, but there are things that you can learn from them to attract more birds into your own yard. I live less than 30 miles from New York City and sometimes feel like I’m directly in the flight path to the Newark Airport, but my yard is swarming with birds. While writing this article, I took a break to take care of the birds in my yard. It’s going to be over 100 degrees today, and they appreciate a little extra attention. I put out some dried meal worms for the Bluebirds and their newly fledged young. The Hummingbird feeders needed to be cleaned and refilled. The Catbirds and Woodpeckers have emptied the suet feeder again. I wiped the birdbaths clean and filled them with cool water. Some seed in the platform feeder, another handful sprinkled on the ground, a few peanuts for the Squirrels, and I was back inside in less than 10 minutes.  During that time, I encountered about 50 birds and close to 20 species. If I had stayed out an hour, I would have probably had closer to 35 species.

Even if birds that don’t come to your feeders may use butterfly bushes like this Common Yellowthroat. Hummingbirds and butterflies will visit in the summer for nectar and insects

Was my yard always like this? Certainly not. It took years to entice Bluebirds to nest here, but they are now fixtures in my neighborhood. The same is true for Hummingbirds. They can be difficult to attract to nest in my part of the country, but I have them visiting my feeders all summer long like clockwork – about every 10 minutes. How did I do it? More important, how can YOU do it too?

Think of creating a backyard bird sanctuary the same way you would think about planting a beautiful garden. Most new homeowners have had the experience of moving into a house, admiring the neighbor’s beautiful garden, then rushing to the garden center for a few flats of flowers. Once in the ground, most of the flowers died within a few weeks and we moaned “I just don’t have a green thumb.” It’s the same thing with birds. We bought a feeder and bag of seed at the hardware store and set it up. It either attracted nothing and the seed spoiled, or we got only Starlings and House Sparrows. “There just aren’t any good birds in my neighborhood,” we said. Why did the flowers die? Why no flock of pretty songbirds? The answer is pretty much the same. They didn’t get what they needed. Flowers need the right soil, the correct amount of light and the proper amount of water. Needs differ for each type of flower. Birds are no different.

Some feeders are designed to prevent “undesirable” birds such as Starlings like this suet feeder that can only be accessed from below 

Each species of bird has very specific needs. If you give them what they want, they will probably come to your yard. Okay, what do they need? 
  • Safety from predators
  • Food
  • Water
  • A place to nest and raise their young (assuming that they breed in your area)
ALL of these are important. Let’s look at each of them.

Safety From Predators – A bird’s eye view of the world is one filled with danger. Hawks above, cats and other predators below. The best shelters come from trees, bushes, brush piles and tall grass. Of course, predators use the same things for cover, so keep a little open space between sheltered areas so that the birds can use their keen eyesight to keep watch. Plan and manage the habitat – that’s what they do at the nature center.

 Hummingbird feeders need not be fancy. Red feeders with yellow flowers are recognized by most hummingbirds as a good source of food. This feeder is about the size of a roll of quarters and cost less than $5.00

Food – This is something that might take a little research. For optimum success, you need to know what birds are in your area at each time of year, what their favorite foods are, their preferred type of feeder, etc. You need to match the type of feeder and food to the species you want to attract. Cardinals, for instance, prefer platform feeders with black oil sunflower seeds. Hummingbirds want sugar water feeders. Woodpeckers, Catbirds and Titmice love suet. A visit to the local nature center can put you on the right track here. Don’t go crazy at first. Just get a few feeders with the appropriate food at first and work your way up slowly. Remember to place the feeders close to the safe places mentioned above. Make sure they are where you can see them as well so that you enjoy your new friends and remember to feed them. Keep the feeders clean, but you don’t need to fill them to the top until the birds are eating more. Having fresh food is important. Since the species of birds in your area changes with the seasons, so will the types of food you should offer.

 This birdbath is heated for year-round use and can accommodate the whole family

Water – Birds need water year-round. Birdbaths range from expensive heated affairs with cascading waterfalls to something homemade. Try turning over a large flower pot, placing the base on top and filling the base with water. The important thing is that the water be clean and available at all times. Not all birds come to feeders, but almost all come to water.

  Here is part of the same family bathing in a bath made from a large, broken flower pot and its base

Nesting – Some songbird species will nest in birdhouses and some will not. Bluebirds, Swallows, Chickadees and Wrens are among some of the more popular songbirds that use nest boxes. Each prefers a slightly different kind of box that will meet their needs while discouraging other species. You might want to buy birdhouses that target the species you want from a manufacturer such as Duncraft ( that has different birdhouses for different species. Other birds will probably nest in the sheltered areas listed earlier.

Birdhouses can be made from plans easily found on the internet and can be customized for different species. This box has a wide hole to let more than one baby Tree Swallow look out at a time.

If you are a photographer, like I am, think about lighting while you make your plans. I have a spot in my yard that gets fantastic light in the afternoon. Guess where I put the Bluebird house. Most of my feeders and birdhouses can be rotated to follow the sun provide different backgrounds. I do most of my photography from a blind that keeps me out of the sun and minimizes disturbance to the birds.

Smaller bird houses are perfect for smaller birds such as Wrens, Chickadees and Titmice

Like a beautiful garden, a backyard bird sanctuary grows and matures over time. Every year, you can make it a little better, a little safer and a little more attractive to you and the birds that will come to call your yard home.

Steve Byland is a wildlife photographer living in suburban New Jersey. His photos can be seen at – many of which were taken in his own backyard. You can email him at

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