Whether you’re trying to attract photo subjects or some cute little neighbors for company, creating a songbird habitat in your yard is a great way to get nature to come to you. No matter if you’ve got a yard the size of a postage stamp or a full acreage, there are plenty of ways to draw in the feathered friends you’re looking for. Check out the tips and tricks below for making your yard as homey as possible.
Know Your Neighbors
Before you build or buy equipment for your yard, consider investing in a few good identification guides and a pair of binoculars. Go to a local park or other natural space to see which birds live in your area, and base the habitat you create at home on which of these birds you’d like to see most. Keep your expectations reasonable and be patient – it’s rare for habitat to become inhabited overnight.
Like us, birds and other animals have basic needs for food, water, shelter and space. If you want birds to live in or visit your yard, consider how best to provide all of these things in proportion within the space available. Also consider how the birds will use the resources you provide. For example, hanging a feeder in or next to a conifer will provide excellent food and shelter, but this setup will probably make it difficult to get clear pictures of visitors and may allow access to the feeder by unwanted guests, like squirrels. Recognize that some birds are more skittish than others, and if you want them to make your yard their home, you have to respect of the space they need to not feel threatened.
Feed the Fauna
Different birds like different foods, so provide the best mix for your favorite species. For birds that like feeder seed mixes, keep your feeders consistently full and squirrel-proof, and consider placing the feeders in clusters if your birds are social. A variety of birds like berries too, so see what fruiting plants are best for your yard (more on planting planning in tip #5). For birds that prefer insects, leave a small area of leaves unraked in the fall, or periodically move a small plywood sheet or log around the yard. While this isn’t the best for your lawn, it can be used in bare soil patches near the base of trees with no substantial adverse effects, and the small dark shelter helps attract many different insects and earthworms. For water, consider putting in a moving feature like a small fountain or an aerator to keep the water fresh, and keep it from freezing over in the winter with a heater.
Build a Better Birdhouse
Ultimately there is not one “best” way to build a birdhouse, but there are better ways to build them for different birds. For example, a birdhouse with a quarter-sized entrance will fit a house wren, but larger house sparrows won’t be able to get inside. For mowed lawns or pastures, bluebird boxes can be very effective, but these birds typically avoid large urban environments. Research what home best suits your desired local birds, and make the design work for you. If the birdhouse you build is near your own home, remember that panes, strips of adhesive tape, clings and other art can keep birds from accidentally flying into windows, but pictures of territorial birds or predators might scare your songbirds away. Lastly, DNR biologist Bruce Ehresman strongly recommends installing predator guards, saying he has seen very few nests survive without them in 20-plus years of experience.
Logically, many native Iowa birds are attracted to native Iowa plants. If you choose to plant an area with native prairie grasses, this can help not only provide habitat for birds, but provide nesting materials and save you time, because these plants typically take little maintenance and come back year after year. If you prefer to plant trees and shrubs, the state nursery offers various packets of songbird-attracting seedlings at a modest price. Keep in mind what space, sunlight and soil type you have available for best results.
Many predators like to eat birds and bird eggs, so try to make birdhouses and feeders unattractive or inaccessible to snakes, raccoons, and household pets. Outdoor housecats in particular put a lot of predatory pressure on wild bird populations – in some years, killing as many as four billion birds in the U.S. alone - so keep your cat indoors (yes, even if they’re declawed). Most (but not all) snakes have difficulty climbing, so build your feeders and birdhouses up off of the ground to protect nests and eggs. Raccoons are crafty, but there are ways to keep them away from your birds too. For example, house wrens can fit through a birdhouse entrance the size of a quarter, and a raccoon cannot easily reach into a hole so small. Avoid leaving other food, like trash, accessible, and the raccoons should move on to easier pickings. You can also buy predator guards to protect nesting boxes, and these are highly recommended by birding experts for their rate of success.
If you want to take photos of your birds once you have a habitat established, invest in the right equipment. A tripod can be an excellent resource for setting up shots, particularly if you use bird feeders or constructed houses in consistent places. Keep the tripod angle trained on these locations so that you can whip out your camera and shoot away when your birds drop by. Zoom lenses are another excellent piece of gear to have on hand because they help you get a close up shot without needing to physically get yourself close to the subject. Keep an eye out for secondhand or on-sale camera gear to avoid breaking the bank for your birds.
For more ideas, check out our Iowa Wildlife, In Your Own Backyard, Iowa Nature Photography and DIY Outdoors boards on Pinterest.