One of my strongest and favorite childhood memories is filling the bird feeders on the porch of my grandparents’ house and watching the birds come from the big kitchen window. It was a normal part of their routine that seemed like a special adventure for me. Their home in Virginia was the perfect place for a kid: It was surrounded by water and pine trees, with a dock for crabbing and sitting and racing pine cones, a yard full of flowers, and a wooded area for exploring and tree-climbing.
It felt so different from where we lived: exotic but also simple, both exciting and peaceful. It didn’t hurt, of course, that my grandmother always had cookies waiting for us in tins and my grandfather had all kinds of neat things to occupy us, like his old paratrooper helmet or a small John Deere tractor.
But of all of these memories, the vision that comes to me most often is sitting at the counter looking out the window at the bird feeders they diligently filled. It’s interesting how that little activity has stuck with me the way it has.
I was thrilled to receive our first bird feeder as a gift from my parents, picked out by my dad for its squirrel-resisting features. It hangs from our dogwood tree and has become the source of two favorite morning activities: waking up before all of the others in our house and watching the birds flutter to and from the feeder, and then showing Mae the birds as they come and go. A few days ago, I pointed out a woodpecker that’s recently become a regular, and she repeated the word back to me and said, “Again!” when he flew away.
Creating a habitat for birds is a simple thing you can do that can provide endless amusement for your kids, a sense of peace for you and a real lifeline for local wildlife. More specifically, it’s a great way to work together as a family and create memories that your children will think about decades later, which neither of you will realize now.
Here are some things you can add to your yard to attract birds:
- Native plants. When you garden with native plants, you’re not just providing food in the form of seed and fruit, you’re supporting a food chain by providing habitat for the insects birds eat. If you want to learn just how fascinating and complex this chain is, read Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home. You’ll learn that if you want to attract certain birds you have to learn how to attract the bugs they need. It’s common to think birds and bugs will eat whatever they can get; that’s not at all the case. Birds keep their babies alive by feeding them insects. Besides providing nourishment for birds, plants of varying heights give them a place to live and take shelter from predators. For more info, check out this Audubon.org post on the topic.
- Bird feeder. Sure, in an ideal world, birds would get all they need from the wild. But we’ve made this world not so ideal for other species, and so you’ll need to set up at least one feeder to help supplement the food sources lost to, well, us. One thing that caught me by surprise was just how quickly the birds discovered our feeder and how fast the seed disappeared. I mean, they really like it. They like it so much that I immediately started worrying about our budget, and we decided to put more money into plants and then focus on keeping the feeder full during winter months.
- ?Bird bath or other water feature.? This is one that I’ll admit we have not put in place yet. A water feature is on the Certified Backyard Habitat checklist, as well, so I’d like to have one in the meadow area by the spring. Baths that are pretty, sturdy and well-made tend to be pricey, so it’s been a delayed purchase for us. It’ll happen and when it does, I’ll let you know what we found. If you do plan to put in a bird bath, it’s best to change the water every few days in the summer and use a heater in the winter. According to the National Wildlife Federation, baths should be placed “about 10 feet from dense shrubs or other cover that predators may use.”
- Bird house(s). This is a pretty obvious one, but consider the types of birds you want to attract or are most likely to attract before buying the house. We have one that’s best for chickadees, and sure enough, chickadees have made it home. Just remember to clean the houses out after the family is done using it so that another family can move in next year (or even earlier).
- Keep dead trees. I know, I know, this one is a stretch for most. Dead trees aren’t considered pretty because they aren’t what they were when they were alive. You can read all about the value of dead trees to birds here, but just know that a U.S. Forest Service study shows that 85 species of birds use dead trees in this country. And here’s the thing: Dead trees can be beautiful. Have you ever seen a lichen-covered bark? Visually, it’s like the tree-version of patina. You know, it’s really the whole eye of the beholder thing.
- Keep a bird book handy. It’s actually really fun to see a bird in your backyard and find it in the book, because, well, learning and discovering are fun. Getting to know the birds you’re attracting makes the whole activity more interesting, and if you show that desire to learn and get to know the littler beings, you’ll instill a sense of wonder and an interest in nature in your children. We have a copy of?Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America by the back door so that it’s easy to grab if either of us see someone interesting. Mae calls it “bird book” and just enjoys flipping through it:-). This one would also be a good choice too: Peterson Field Guide to Feeder Birds of Eastern North America.
- Listen. In the warmer months, grab a cup of coffee and be still. Turn off the music. Sit outside and just listen to the birds going about their business. I’m not somebody who can recognize bird calls or songs (yet!), but I still get that peace and joy that comes with hearing the sounds of the wild. If you’d like to match calls and songs with the birds singing them for your own knowledge and enjoyment, or to share with your family, Wikipedia pages tend to have audio files and there are lots of apps out there for birding. The Audubon Bird Guide: North America app includes photos and audio files for 810?species, as well as detailed info on their habitats.