Living Columns & Blogs

How to create a backyard habitat that’s attractive to birds

Four essential elements to a good backyard habitat for birds are food, water, nesting sites and cover/shelter.
Four essential elements to a good backyard habitat for birds are food, water, nesting sites and cover/shelter. Tribune News Service

This Christmas, how about giving a gift to our birds and other woodland creatures that frequent our properties? We need to create a backyard habitat or an environment in which birds and other wildlife will feel comfortable. A wildlife-friendly yard has a casual feel about it and while it is certainly not manicured, it is also not a wild rambling mess.

There are four essential elements to a good backyard habitat: food, water, nesting sites and cover/shelter. You may not have all four elements but you probably have a couple of natural ones, such as some seed producing plants and some dense shrubbery. Most folks need to augment them with man-made elements like a birdbath and birdhouses.

If you’re looking for a way to immediately improve the habitat of your backyard at little or no cost, consider building a simple brush pile. A brush pile is a loose mound of small tree limbs, branches, shrub branches from pruning, etc. Make sure not include soil, compost, grass clippings or leaves. A brush pile can provide cover, shelter and, depending on its size and location, nesting sites. It also attracts insects, which in turn attract insect-eating birds. It can be built off to the side of the yard in an unused corner or beside a shed or garage. The size of your brush pile can vary, though generally the larger the better. It is recommended to place the larger diameter branches on the bottom and build up and also to position the branches with the thinner tips facing in. This makes the outside of the brush pile a little sturdier and will make it a little more difficult for predators to enter. There should be plenty of open spaces between the branches, so don’t pack them tightly.

The plantings in your yard can achieve more than one objective. A shrub such as elderberry produces berries in midsummer and is also good for birds to nest in. Mahonias and hollies are good for cover and shelter and also produce berries. If you can, you should also strive to have many native plants in your garden. The birds will naturally gravitate to plantings that are native and familiar to them. Exotic plants can be beautiful, but will probably yield little in the way of a food source for your local birds. Also, try to plant more than one plant of any given variety. Multiple plants of the same type in a flowerbed are more attractive and visible to the birds.

Some bird-favorite seed producing flowering plants are: Bachelor’s Buttons, Zinnias, Black Eyed Susan’s, Asters, Purple Coneflowers, Salvia, Sunflowers, Globe Thistles, Coreopsis, Evening Primrose and Joe Pye Weed.

Shrubs are good for food, nesting sites and cover. They provide shelter in inclement weather while providing birds a good place to look your yard over before venturing in. Shrubs that produce berries that birds eat are: Chokeberry, Mahonias, Viburnums, Elderberries, Blackberries and Serviceberries. Shrubs that provide nesting habitat are: Elderberries, Yews, Sages and Alders. Finally, some shrubs that provide good cover and shelter are Rhododendrons, Mahonias and Junipers.

In the fall, let the garden stand because although the flowers may be brown the seed heads are intact and give the birds a natural source of food all winter. Also try to leave some leaves around the bases of the plants and shrubs. The leaves provide a little protection to the roots and, especially in the spring, give the insects, worms, etc. a place to be. This in turn attracts insect-eating birds.

Water is essential for a successful backyard habitat. Water is not only for thirst but also for cleaning feathers. Dirty feathers make for difficult flying, so birds take great care to preen them regularly. Set your bird baths up away from your feeders and nesting areas. Remember, water is critical during the winter months, too. There are many types and styles of birdbath heaters to accommodate just about every bath. Some birdbaths have built-in heating elements that can be turned off during the warmer months. I recently saw a bird hanging on to an icicle drinking the drops at the tip.

There are two ways to provide nesting places for the birds: natural and artificial. Artificial nesting habitat generally means birdhouses. Birdhouses will not attract all types of birds. Only birds that like to nest in a hollow tree cavity or other enclosed area will use a birdhouse. The dimensions of the birdhouse and the diameter of the entrance hole are very important, so do a little research before putting your birdhouse up. Some birds can be very picky while others are quite tolerant of “imperfect conditions.” Mount birdhouses in an area away from feeding stations. Building birdhouses can be an excellent winter project.

Give a gift to the birds and woodland creatures that will give back to you in the years to come.

Bill Lamont is a professor and extension vegetable specialist at Penn State and can be reached by email at