Backyard Habitat Quiz created by Hanae Bettencourt
Backyards, patios, and balconies can provide a myriad of fun activities. An outdoor space can be a great place to read a book, host a BBQ with friends, get some fresh air, grow herbs and tomatoes (if we are lucky in the PNW!), and enjoy wildlife watching.
An outdoor space doesn’t have to be all about our human needs and enjoyment, though. We can enhance even small outdoor areas to protect and offer benefits to wildlife, especially those navigating the unique challenges of an urban environment.
Let’s take a look at some features and hazards that might be present in outdoor spaces and some ways we can create a safer and more attractive habitat. By building biodiversity, we are improving the environmental health and quality of life for both birds and people in our area.
Take a look at this example outdoor space and identify features that might attract birds, or features that might pose a hazard.
So, how did you do?
Some of these features are easy to identify, and others can be a little more tricky to understand. Let’s go through them together!
When thinking about attracting birds and other wildlife to your outdoor space, you want to first consider safety. Some of the basics include keeping cats inside, treating glass windows, and removing poisons like rodenticide or pesticides.
Domestic cats are the number one threat to birds, killing up to three billion birds a year. Keeping your cat indoors is the safest thing for your cat, as well as for birds and other wildlife. If you have a cat that enjoys fresh air and a little extra paw room, consider creating some kind of “catio” (an outdoor enclosed cat patio) for your feline.
After cats, glass collisions are the number two killer of birds. Collisions are more likely at a residence with a bird feeder. A variety of window treatment options are available to reduce collisions. Some of our favorites include: screens, bar soap, Feather Friendly tape, and paracord. Or consider an art installation, like the one on display at the Nature Shop.
Remember, proximity to windows matters when selecting a location for a feeder or bird bath. Windows cause the highest mortality rates when feeders are placed between five and ten meters from untreated glass. Feeders placed within one meter of a window is considered the safest for birds, though mortality rates also begin to drop when a feeder is placed beyond ten meters from glass.
Pesticides come in a variety of forms—fungicides, herbicides, insecticides, and rodenticides. Fungicides and herbicides that you might use to control weeds in your yard can also be a hazard to birds. Additionally, fungicides and herbicides can wash into storm drains and end up in the Puget Sound and other waterways, impacting birds and other marine life that don’t ever venture into your yard.
Many bird species consume insects and spiders. Insecticides, even if just targeting one type of bug like slugs, spiders, or ants, reduce food sources. By eliminating food sources, you are reducing the diversity of birds you will attract.
Rodenticides, a.k.a. rat/rodent poison, can be particularly harmful to raptors like hawks, owls, and eagles. Raptors who consume dead or dying poisened rodents can themselves fall victim to poisoning.
Time to attract
Once you have created a safe space for birds and other wildlife, now comes the fun part — attracting them! There are a variety of techniques but it all comes down to the basics of providing food, water, and shelter.
Something to sink your beak into
Yes, feeding birds with a seed, suet, or hummingbird feeder is one option, and will diversify the types of birds you attract to your yard. Planting a variety of native species is another great way to increase biodiversity.
By allowing flowers to “go to seed” or dry out without removing the flowers, you are providing a food source for birds. These seeds, particularly from native plants, provide lots of calories and nutrients. Sunflowers, alliums (onion, garlic), daisies, and marigolds are some of the many plants that offer great seeds for birds.
Think slugs, spiders, mosquitos, grubs, worms, and everything in between. Leaving snags (a dead tree stump or trunk) is a great way to attract woodpeckers to feed on the insects in the decaying tree. Leaving fallen leaves on the ground in the autumn (even in tidy piles) brings bugs, which brings birds, specifically ground feeders like towhees and juncos.
Oregon Grape, Salal, Snowberry, and Serviceberry are all great native plant species that will attract a variety of fruit-eating birds. If you also happen to cultivate raspberries, blueberries, or strawberries, don’t be suprised if you get a few nibbles from an American Robin from time to time.
Native flowering plants like Honeysuckle and Red-flowering Currant attract pollinators. Bees and butterflies can provide great food sources for birds, and the nectar from flowers can also be feasted upon by hummingbirds.
Dried Sunflower by Sunara, Oregon Grape by Thomas Zsebok, American Robin with worm, Rufous Hummingbird and Fireweed by Jeff Huth,
Nest sweet nest
Different types of nesting boxes are available depending on the type of species you want to attract. Another option is to provide nesting materials and shelter materials from things you already have in your yard.
Sometimes also referred to as “bird houses”, nest boxes can offer a safe place to build a nest that is more protected from the elements and from predators. They are also a good alternative if tree cavities don’t exist in your yard. Most commonly used in spring and summer to raise young, nest boxes can also provide shelter in winter months during cold snaps and wind storms. You should select a box, and mount it in a location, that corresponds with the bird species you are trying to attract.
Birds are very resourceful and can use a variety of materials to build a nest. Not all materials provide the same level of insulation and sturdiness, however. In general, any of these items in your outdoor space can be great nest-making materials: fluff from cattails and cottonwoods, thistledown, spider webs and cobwebs, moss, lichen, grass trimmings, small sticks and twigs, and mud (for nesting swallows).
Songbirds have to stay alert when on the ground and out in the open in order to avoid cats, owls, hawks, and other predators. Dense brush or foliage provides good ground shelter. Leave out piles of brush, an old Christmas tree, or dead woody debris like stumps and logs, to create crevasses and small nooks for smaller birds to hide and forage in.
Tree variety results in bird variety. Deciduous trees (oak, maple, serviceberry) can often have dense patches of leaves and branches for birds to perch for a rest while remaining hidden from predators. Most coniferous trees (fir, cedar, pine) keep their needles all year long, so can protect birds from the elements and make excellent year-round roosting perches. Different species also prefer to roost at different heights within the canopy so a variety of trees provide options for more types of birds.
Nestbox by Val Lefrias / Canva, Cattail fluff by Aquatarkus / Canva, Dark-eyed Junco in fallen leaves by J Pavlish / Canva, Northern Flicker on branch by Jen DeVos / Canva
We often think of a bird needing water when it is really hot outside. That is true, but it is also important to provide fresh water during freezing temperatures. A bird bath, fountain, or simply a dish of water works well. Just like bird feeders, bird baths and other water sources should be cleaned regularly. During cold snaps, floating a cork or ping pong ball on the water can help keep it from freezing.
Want more? See some of these bird-friendly ideas in action!
Other articles in this issue of Earthcare Northwest
While full-scale gardening allows for a large, varied planting palette that birds love, container gardening on a balcony or patio can also provide habitat. Jose Gonzales, a local garden professional and plant expert, walks us through how to get the most out of a small space container garden that encourages birds and other natural pollinators to thrive.
Trees are essential for birds, even when the tree is dead or dying. We hear from Stuart Niven, a professional arborist, about how snags and woody debris can remain in your yard safely, and provide excellent habitat and food resources for birds.
How can we improve access and connectivity for people and wildlife? Seattle Audubon, the Capitol Hill EcoDistrict, and the Seattle Bird Conservation Partnership are finalizing a guide to improving habitat values and human access to green space in urban Seattle.