How to attract birds to your yard
Jessica DamianoJessica Damiano
Jessica Damiano is a master gardener and journalist with more
Some 85 species of birds breed on Long Island, and according to the North Shore Audubon Society in Port Washington, about another 170 species pass through during migration and reside here for at least part of the year.
Getting up close and personal with them is simple. All you have to do is attract them to your backyard and entice them to linger a while, a trick that's not only easy but important when you consider that their natural habitat has shrunk considerably to make way for suburbia.
In fact, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology reports that nearly 80 percent of wildlife habitat in the United States now sits on residential property, with an additional 2.1 million acres being converted to residential use each year.
That's nothing short of a crisis to birds and other wildlife. But you can help ease their displacement by providing food, water and shelter. The birds will repay you with a song.
>>MAP: Where to see birds on Long Island (click markers to see addresses)
There are many different types of feeders available, some of which are inappropriate or even counterproductive. Stay away from those made of plastic (they get too cold and too hot), and don't waste money on expensive "decorator" models; the birds won't be impressed by your 13-room Victorian house-style feeder. Perches aren't necessary either. They make it easier for squirrels to enter, and birds can gain access just fine without them
Tray feeders are flat, open, low-rimmed boxes that can be placed on the ground to attract juncos, doves, jays, blackbirds and sparrows, or mounted on posts or railings. Though they allow for ideal bird-watching, they also expose seeds to squirrels and rainwater, which can rot seeds and encourage bacteria and fungus to grow. Plus, germy bird droppings inevitably get mixed in with food. If you choose a tray feeder, you'll have to clean and refill it daily.
Suet feeders are mesh units that hold suet or peanut butter. They attract woodpeckers, chickadees, titmice, jays, starlings and nuthatches. Suet cages are the safest dispensers to use, as birds can become tangled up in mesh bags and die if not released quickly.
Window feeders attach to windows with suction cups or hook onto frames. They allow for the most close-up view of chickadees, titmice and sparrows without leaving your house, making them ideal for winter and a favorite of children. Seed should be replaced and feeders cleaned daily, but because all you have to do to accomplish this is open your window, they're the easiest to maintain.
House-type feeders offer good protection and attract most bird species. Problem is, squirrels love them, too. They're also harder to clean than tray feeders. Mount on a pole or suspend in a tree, but install a squirrel baffle device (usually a plastic dome) to prevent the rodents from reaching the seeds.
Tube feeders are meant to be squirrel-resistant, but the critters often manage to chew through the plastic ones. Seeds are generally kept clean and dry. Models with perches located above feeding ports will attract chickadees and goldfinches, while others can lure sparrows, titmice, finches and grosbeaks. If the tube extends below the lowest port, block the bottom of the tube to minimize the growth of mold and bacteria.
Black oil sunflower seeds are the healthiest option for most birds, as they contain a high kernel-to-shell ratio, are high in fat and are easy for birds to crack open, according to results of the Seed Preference Test conducted by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. They also attract the most species of birds.
Safflower seeds are preferred by cardinals and also attract some chickadees, doves, sparrows and grosbeaks, but their shells are difficult for other birds to crack open.
White millet attracts ground-feeding birds like quails, doves, juncos and cardinals, but it's also preferred by blackbirds and house sparrows, which, according to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, "are already subsidized by human activities and supported at unnaturally high population levels by current agricultural practices and habitat changes." The recommendation is to avoid millet when these species are present, as most birds that prefer it also will eat black oil sunflower seeds.
Shelled and cracked corn attracts cardinals, cranes, crows, doves, ducks, grosbeaks, grouse, pheasants, quails, ravens, jays and others. However, it also attracts undesirables like deer, raccoons, geese, starlings and house sparrows. If you buy corn, avoid any sold in plastic, as it retains moisture, and be vigilant about keeping it dry and removing old feed. Be aware that some agricultural corn is treated with a fungicide and dyed red; it is toxic and not intended for consumption.
Suet is animal fat, which provides a very important energy source for chickadees, jays, nuthatches and woodpeckers, among others, but should only be set out during winter because it can grow rancid at warmer temperatures. Because of this, keep extra suet cakes refrigerated until ready to use.
Peanuts are a favorite of crows, chickadees, titmice, jays and woodpeckers - and are equally loved by squirrels and raccoons. They also can harbor toxins. If you use peanuts, be sure to keep them dry and replace them every couple days. Peanut butter should be mixed with cornmeal or seeds to keep it from sticking to beaks.
Milo (sorghum) is a grain favored by ground-feeding birds, so it's best scattered on the ground or set out in low tray feeders.
Seed mixes are generally a bad idea because, in addition to the good stuff, they usually contain fillers like millet and milo, which are eaten by only a few species and shunned by most others. Left uneaten, they can grow mold that will spread to fresh seed and sicken birds. Read labels for contents information.
Seed heads on faded perennials will provide food for goldfinches, redpolls and others during the winter if you wait until spring to cut the plants down. As a bonus, they'll add lots of winter interest to what would otherwise be barren perennial beds, and look pretty when snow lands on them.
Like the rest of us, birds need a fresh water supply for drinking as well as bathing. Commercially available birdbaths made of concrete actually aren't ideal for birds: They're often too deep, they can crack in freezing temperatures, and, if glazed, interiors can become slippery when wet. Plus, those on pedestals are counter to birds' instincts, which are to bathe at ground level.
Though you might consider them eyesores in the garden, the best birdbaths are recycled garbage can lids, old frying pans and shallow plastic bowls. If those are too crude for you, look to purchase one that is shallow and slopes in toward the center so birds can walk in and out; they can't fly very well with wet wings. Water should be no more than two inches deep in the center. Change it every other day to ensure droppings and feathers don't breed harmful bacteria and to prevent mosquito eggs from hatching.
When the temperature dips below freezing, fashion a grid from twigs or sticks over the top of the bath so that birds can perch on it to drink without getting wet.
Birds need shelter from the weather and from predators, and they need a safe place to build their nests during spring and summer. Avoid brightly colored birdhouses, as they can grab unwanted attention from predators. Instead, stick to muted earth tones like beige, moss green and brown.
Be sure birdhouses you purchase or build meet the requirements of the species you're trying to lure, as opening sizes and placement vary: A nesting box for an Eastern screech owl, for example, should be mounted 10 feet above ground level. An entry-opening size of an inch and a half will accommodate many small birds and deny access to aggressive species like starlings, while flickers and screech owls require a 3-inch opening. For detailed information about each species' needs, visit allaboutbirds.org.
In the spring, set out some materials to encourage birds to nest in your yard. Items they can use include dry leaves and twigs, yarn, hair (collected from hairbrushes), cotton batting (empty out old cushions before discarding), pine needles and inch-wide cloth strips. Twigs can be piled up on the ground, but items that might be blown away by wind should be put into mesh bags and tied to tree branches.
If you have a nest on your property, register it with NestWatch.org, a citizen science project and nest-monitoring database of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology funded by the National Science Foundation and developed in collaboration with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. As of this writing, 8,365 nests have been monitored in New York State since 1997.
How to attract hummingbirds
Ruby-throated hummingbirds are truly a sight to behold, measuring as little as two inches from beak to end of tail. Their eggs are the size of peas, and newly hatched chicks the size of honeybees. You might have seen them hovering, as if suspended in flight, around the nectar-rich flowers in your garden. While they may appear to be still, their tiny wings are working hard, beating 40 to 80 times per second.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds are the only species you'll see on Long Island, as they're the only ones to breed east of the Mississippi. In September they migrate south to Mexico and Central America, and they return to Long Island in late April, with the biggest population settling on the East End. However, it's not unusual to spot them in western Nassau and Queens.
To lure ruby-throated hummingbirds to your garden next spring, hang feeders supplied with nectar or sugar water from trees or posts, and plant plenty of their favorite nectar-rich plants; they consume their own weight in nectar or sugar water every day.
Plants that attract hummingbirds
Alcea rosea (hollyhock)
Antirrhinum majus (snapdragon)
Cuphea micropetala (candy corn plant)
Heliotrope arborescens (heliotrope)
Lantana camara (lantana)
Nicotiana spp. (flowering tobacco)
Petunia x hybrida (petunia)
Salvia spp. (salvia)
Verbena canadensis or bonariensis (verbena)
Zinnia spp. (zinnia)
Campsis radicans (hummingbird vine)
Hemerocallis spp. (daylily)
Liatris spp. (gayfeather)
Monarda didyma (bee balm)
Phlox spp. (phlox)
Abelia x grandiflora (glossy abelia)
Buddleia spp. (butterfly bush)
Caryopteris x clandonensis (blue mist)
Kalmia latifolia (mountain laurel)
Syringa spp. (lilac)
To learn more
In print: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "Bird Watching Answer Book" by Laura Erickson ($14.95)
On iPhone/iPod Touch: The BirdsEye app shows you where to find birds nearby (including directions) and lets you track birds you've seen ($19.99; getbirdseye.com).
Membership: Local chapters of the National Audubon Society (audubon.org)