Other Things to Offer the Birds: It’s Not All About the Seed

Truthfully, a modest yet well-conceived bird-feeding station will likely be all you need to provide to attract a reasonable number of birds. But if you want to take things to the next level and attract a vast array of species, you’ll want to provide a few additional resources to your feathered friends.

And aside from your own selfish (but benevolent) desire to attract lots of birds, doing so will help them eek out an existence in an often-difficult world.

Don’t feel like you have to provide all of these things – just pick the ones that make sense for your property. That said, you’ll provide the most value and enjoy the greatest returns on your investment if you provide resources that are at a premium in the area.

Water

Water is a crucial resource for almost all bird species. It will serve as drinking water for some, while others will use it for bathing purposes.

The best way to offer water is via a simple bird bath. There are scads of bird baths on the market, but frankly, they’re all pretty similar. They differ in terms of things like materials, size and aesthetics, so just pick something sensible that you like.

I like the Kenroy Home’s Woodland model, in case you were wondering. It’s made from concrete, stands about 21 inches high and features a relatively roomy 16-inch reservoir. Plus, I just like the way it looks.

But that’s admittedly a bit of an investment, and it isn’t ideal for small decks, porches or people living in apartments. In these cases, the Audubon by Woodlink Deck Mount Bird Bath is a better option. It only holds about one quart of water, but you can easily attach it to your deck railing (no tools required). Given that water is often at a premium for birds living in apartment complexes, this is a great way to attract more birds. 

Just be sure that you keep the water and the reservoir clean. Water that’s allowed to become stagnant will quickly become fouled with bacteria, which could end up making your birds sick.

So, be sure to empty, clean and re-fill the bath regularly; twice a week is probably a good rule of thumb, but you’ll need to use your own judgement. Don’t use soaps or detergents when cleaning the bath. Use some vinegar and a scrub brush instead.

A pump that keeps the water moving will help keep the water a bit cleaner, which will reduce the frequency with which you must clean the bath. It’ll also help reduce the number of mosquitos and other insects who deposit their eggs in the bath.

Pumps – like this solar-powered model from Qualife – are pretty affordable and usually feature multiple spray attachments or nozzles. It’s also worth pointing out that moving water may be more attractive than stagnant water to your local birds too.

If you want to skip the pump, be sure to pick up some Mosquito Dunks to prevent the biting bugs from using the bath as a breeding site. Mosquito Dunks (and a few similar products) are safe for people, pets, birds and the environment as a whole. The active ingredient is a bacteria (Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis), which only affects mosquitos and a few of their close relatives. They’re also affordable, easy to use and effective – you’ll be glad you picked up a package.

Nesting Opportunities and Supplies

In addition to food and water, birds also need places to deposit eggs and raise young. Nesting sites aren’t hard to find for some species, but others – particularly cavity nesters – may find it tricky to locate suitable places to call home.

So, by hanging up a nesting box or two, you can make your property more attractive to the birds, which will result in more birds showing up at your feeders.

Just be sure to offer the right type of nesting box for the species you’d like to attract.

Small Cavity Nesters

If you want to provide nesting opportunities for bluebirds, wrens, chickadees and other small cavity-nesting species, the Nature’s Way Cedar Box House is just about perfect.

It provides all of the things the birds need, including an elevated, mesh floor, and vents to provide proper airflow, as well as the things you’d want, like an easy-to-open door. Plus, the whole thing is built from cedar, which is naturally insect- and rot-resistant.

If you’d like something that’ll hang from a tree, Nature’s Way also makes a Cedar Wren House that’ll also work for small cavity-nesting species. It’s a bit too small for bluebirds, but your local wrens and chickadees will love it. Plus, it’s kinda cute.

Note that you may see nest boxes on the market that feature a transparent panel. They’re designed to be installed on a window, so that you can observe the birds who move in. This concept is nifty, but these types of boxes rarely work in practice – at least in my experience. All of the ones I’ve personally handled have felt cheaply made, and the suction cups used to mount them are rarely strong enough to keep the box attached. This would obviously spell disaster for any birds living inside when it plummets to the ground.

But if you’ve ever come across one of these nesting boxes that’s actually well-made and effective, I’d love to hear about it in the comments. 

Bigger Cavity Nesters

It can also be fun to provide nesting opportunities for some bigger birds. The Coveside Three Woodpecker House is a great choice, as its well-built, durable and it even comes with wood shavings you can place inside to make the house more appealing.

While this box is designed to provide a nesting opportunity for red-headed, red-bellied, hairy and other woodpeckers of similar size, it may also provide a home for flycatchers, and other medium-sized cavity nesters. For that matter, bluebirds may even use it too.

JCs Wildlife Screech Owl Nest Box is a bit bigger and makes the perfect home for screech or saw-whet owls. It’s really well made, features an easy-opening door for cleaning, and it is constructed from cedar. JC’s Wildlife also makes a Barn Owl Nesting Box Kit, but thanks to its size, it’ll set you back a bit more cash. You’ll also have to put it together yourself, but that would all be worth it once you saw a barn owl move in and set up shop.

Platform Nesters

Some birds, including robins, doves, swallows and more, prefer to nest on ledges or platforms rather than inside cavities. Nesting opportunities obviously aren’t as difficult to find for these birds, but they may still use a dedicated nesting space you provide.

Once again, JC’s Wildlife has what you need – just check out their Robin Roost. It’s super easy to install and clean, and it’s built from a combination of cedar and recycled poly-lumber, so it should last for years.

Nesting Material

In addition to nesting locations, nesting material can also be at a premium in the great outdoors. This is easy to do as well.

  • Grab some mesh bags (these guys are the typical choice, but these cotton bags are probably a little more environmentally friendly).
  • Stuff ‘em with good nesting materials. A few free things that’ll work include human hair (just pull some from your brush), dog hair, dryer lint, bits of thread, or just about anything else pliable, elongate and safe for the birds to use. 
  • Hang the bags in the general vicinity of your feeders or any good nesting sites you’ve established.

This is a fantastic project for little ones, which environmental educators across the globe incorporate into their lesson plans. For bonus enviro-ed points, pair this with a nest box camera, so you’re little ones can see the birds building their nests.

Natural Cover

Birds are pretty visible critters, who are usually easy to spot. Walk outdoors in anything approaching a healthy habitat, and you should be able to spot several within seconds.

But that doesn’t mean birds just like to hang out in the open – in fact, they depend heavily on cover to help protect them from predators. Rest assured, if you see a bird walking around on bare ground or your lawn, he’ll be keeping a close eye on his surroundings, so that he can avoid a diving hawk or pouncing cat in a heartbeat.

So, if you’d like to make your feeding station as attractive to birds as possible, consider the available cover. You may want to install some more shrubs or trees, or simply avoid pruning them unnecessarily.

If you’re going to go to the trouble of installing new plants or trees, try to select species that are especially helpful in this regard. This essentially means selecting dense, evergreen species. Hollies are an obvious choice (and they’ll also provide a food source for birds), but arborvitae, southern magnolias, cedars, and junipers can also be great choices. Pines – especially relatively dense species, such as Virginia pines – are also worthy of consideration.

Just be sure to install the plants or trees in a way that gives your birds easy access to the feeders – sort of like miniature flyways. But try to keep branches that would allow squirrels or other rodents to access your feeders trimmed.

Natural Foods

Leveraging natural food sources is a great way to make your yard more appealing to a wider variety of birds. Plus, once installed, the foods basically serve themselves up for dinner.

Providing natural foods is a bit of a long game, but it’s one that bears fruit (I apologize for that – please don’t leave).

Fruit-Bearing Plants

Fruit-bearing trees and shrubs are likely the most obvious natural food source, and you’ll have hundreds of potential options available. But you’ll have to choose from among those that’re suitable for the local conditions (including your local sun exposure, rainfall, climate, hardiness zone, soil characteristics, etc.).

A handful of particularly valuable options include:

  • Blueberries and their kin (sparkleberries, huckleberries, etc.) are as attractive to birds as they are humans. These bushes take a couple of years to mature, but they’re well worth the wait.
  • Wild blackberries and raspberries typically bear pretty gnarly thorns, but cultivated varieties abound, including a number that do not produce thorns. You’re looking at three years of more before they start producing fruit, but if you’re lucky, you may already have some of these weedy plants growing on your property.    
  • Cherries – including native and cultivated varieties – are fantastic food sources for birds. Plus, cherry trees often produce glorious blooms in the early spring.
  • You don’t want to plant mulberries and their sidewalk-staining berries over your driveway, but they’re pretty neat trees that produce bird-pleasing fruit. Mulberry trees do present some challenges though: Only female flowers will become fruit, yet some mulberry trees only have male flowers. Others have male and female flowers, and still others change sex over time.
  • Persimmons produce fruit that appeals to a variety of critters, including not only birds, but opossums, foxes, and coyotes too. Persimmons also look pretty awesome late in the year, when they shed their leaves to reveal the pretty orange-to-purple fruit. As the fruit falls, it’ll also end up attracting insects, which represent a second-level food source for birds.
  • Not only do hollies provide great nesting and roosting opportunities, thanks to their dense, evergreen foliage, but they also yield red winter fruit, which looks great and attracts birds. Some holies – including native varieties – often bear pointy leaves, but smooth-leafed varieties are available. For that matter, hollies come in numerous sizes, ranging from shrub-like to proper trees.
  • Hawthorns is a catch-all term for about 50 gazillion different species – at least, according to some botanists. Others think that the variation in these trees is deserving of less formal treatment, and only recognize a relative handful of species. Either way, they produce apple-like fruit that birds love. 
  • Dogwoods are particularly helpful as they produce fruit in the fall, after many of the summer food sources have stopped being productive.
  • Trumpet creeper and crossvine are both climbing vines that produce nectar that’ll often attract hummingbirds. So, if you have a trellis in need of some botanical decoration, consider either of these attractive plants.
  • Virginia creepers are another productive vine, although they do lack the flamboyant flowers of trumpet creeper and crossvine. But that’s OK – their real claim to fame is the combination of bright-red fall foliage, which contrasts nicely with the dark-blue berries many birds love. You may even have this plant growing up the trees in your backyard already.
  • If none of the previously mentioned vines appeal to you, you could just go crazy and plant grapes. Wild grapes grow naturally in the eastern U.S., where they’re just as popular with birds as they are people.     
  • Oak trees – particularly white oak trees – are incredibly important food sources for wild animals ranging from deer and pigs to squirrels and chipmunks. They also serve as an important food source for woodpeckers and jays.

And I’ve got one more suggestion, but I need you to hear me out:

Poison ivy.

I’m not suggesting that you deliberately plant poison ivy (or poison oak) in your yard. But, if you can allow some of the existing poison ivy in your yard to grow in a way that doesn’t represent a risk to you or your family, it’ll likely be helpful in attracting birds.

 Several species will feed on the plant’s fruit (called drupes), and as a bonus, the plant typically produces fruit in the early fall to early winter time frame, when food is tougher for birds to find.

Insect-Attracting Plants

Because a lot of species are more interested in eating small critters than any seed or fruit you could offer, you may want to consider planting some insect-attracting plants. This will provide ample prey for your local thrashers, bluebirds and mockingbirds, and increase the overall diversity of birds visiting your yard.

This primarily means installing plants that attract pollinators. We’re talking butterflies, moths and bees mostly, but plenty of fly and beetle species will also turn up.

The options available, however, are mindbogglingly varied and differ from one region to the next. So, you’ll just have to investigate a little to find the best options for your neck of the woods.

That said, I’ll throw out a few examples to get you started:

  • Clover
  • Mustards and their relatives
  • Butterfly bushes
  • Lavender
  • Sage
  • Milkweed
  • Asters

And there are countless others – just do a Google search for best nectar-producing plants in your area and you’ll turn up scads.

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If you’re really interested in attracting a ton of birds, you must not only consider the type of seed you provide, but all of the other resources you can make available. So, give thought to the nesting situation, water availability and natural foods your local birds may require.

By helping them to find these things, you’ll not only give them a little assistance, but you’ll also reap the rewards and enjoy greater bird diversity in your backyard.

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