Attracting Birds to Your GardenBeckoning birds to your garden with a few easy steps can result in season after season of enjoyment for the whole family.

By Cheryl Withrow

Birds have fascinated mankind for thousands of years, and today there are literally millions of bird lovers in the United States. In fact, a report from the Kaytee Avian Foundation estimates that 43 percent of U.S. households, or about 65 million people, provide food for wild birds.

Some birders travel hundreds of miles in an attempt to add that elusive bird to their life lists. In fact, the Great Florida Birding Trail, which includes a section in the Panhandle, recently was completed. With more than 2,000 miles of highway connected by exceptional bird-watching sites that are identified with special highway signs, this Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission program is a boon to birders and supports ecotourism in a grand fashion.

Other bird fanciers prepare a welcome mat in their own corner of the globe with bird-seed gardens, feeders, flowering shrubs, nesting boxes and water vessels. Why not add your name to this fast-growing list of bird fanciers and be rewarded in the process? Consider this: With the growth in development in our area, natural habitat is disappearing at an alarming rate. Because of this human invasion, having a bird-friendly yard never has been more important.

The melodic renditions of various birds, drifting through open windows, keep you up to date on neighborhood happenings. Squawks of blue jays let you know some animal probably is bothering their nest. The trill of a male cardinal says he is looking for a mate. A male chuck-will’s-widow says “whip-poor-will,” all night long, until he finds the perfect wife. Carolina wrens make our hearts glad with songs so sweet, you would almost think they must be related to Mozart. Doves coo to their hearts’ – and yours for that matter – content.

Some, however, seem to sing for the sheer pleasure of it. Mockingbirds, permanent residents of the Panhandle and the Florida state bird, repeat, repeat and then repeat again. In fact, one prolific soul was recorded in Baltimore mocking 36 different species! And Carolina chickadees and their buzzy “chickadee-dee-dee-dees” are always welcome.


Feeding Your Feathered Friends

Bird watching is an exercise the whole family can enjoy. When our 7-year-old grandson Joseph visits, the first thing he asks is, “Grammy, is it time to fill the feeders?” Even if it is not, we do it anyway. He also enjoys identifying the birds in our yard and recently started his own life list.

With all that said, let’s get started.

One of the first things you have to consider is that birds have enormous appetites relative to their size. For instance, a gargantuan flock of gold finches invaded my yard this past spring. I filled all eight of my feeders with black-oil sunflower seeds on an average of every three days while they were in residence preparing for their excursion to the northern climes. They also did a decent job on my thistle feeder and a pair of thistle socks hanging in my front yard.

Attracting birds to your garden does not have to involve a wholesale rework of your yard. You can start small and expand if you so desire. Providing food, water and shelter easily attracts many of the 950 species known to the North American continent.

First, hang a feeder. Remember, birds are food for many predators, so it is best if the feeder is near an area where birds can easily escape, such as large trees or dense shrubbery. Songbird mixes and wild birdseed are readily available throughout the area. I generally recommend against these because most of the small brown seeds are lost on the ground as your bird friends scavenge for prized sunflower morsels.

I have found most birds’ favorite feed is black-oil sunflower seeds, available at most lawn and garden outlets, including Sandi’s Farm, Lawn & Garden in Lynn Haven. Sandi’s owner Sandi McQuaig even offers a “no-waste” songbird seed she blends herself.

“This is the choice of our avid bird fanciers,” she said. “It contains white millet, black-oil sunflower seeds and oat groats.”

The special mix costs $16.95 for 50 pounds. Black-oil sunflower seeds are $10.95 for 25 pounds and $18.95 for 50 pounds at Sandi’s. She also carries standard wild bird and songbird mixes.

“I even have safflower (songbirds) and thistle seed (gold finches), as well as peanuts,” McQuaig said.

Be sure to keep your feeders clean. Wet seed will mold, which can be deadly to our avian buddies. Keep seed in a cool, dry place, preferably in a rodent-proof metal can.

Water and Shelter

The first time you see a hummingbird take a bath on the wing, you will welcome the investment you made in your birdbath. A simple pedestal bath will suffice, although a water feature such as a fountain or garden pond is an aesthetic plus. Water, too, must be kept clean. In the dog days of summer, I clean and refill my birdbaths on a daily basis. This maintenance chore will be substantially reduced if the water is circulated, such as with a pond pump, which will also discourage a mosquito invasion.

Upgrading to a water feature does not have to be cost-prohibitive. According to Joe Forstman III, lawn-and-garden department head at The Home Depot in Destin, “We have complete pond kits in stock for around $100 that are popular with our customers. We also carry pond liners. People can get real creative with these by cutting them to their own design. We have two such ponds in the garden center, one Japanese and one with koi that people can walk through. In fact, none of us had ever built a pond before and had no difficulty building these.”

The next step is to provide shelter from severe weather and predators. Dogwoods are a popular choice for songbirds; so are magnolias, no matter the variety. Hawthorns, which have fruit that look like tiny apples, are sure to provide shelter and treats to a multitude of birds.

Even though we do not have to put up with the snow and ice of Northern winters, it does get cold here, and dense shrubs seem to be a popular haven for those species that winter with us. With a corridor of cover, birds can move safely from one end of the garden to the other and will not be zip-in, eat, zip-out visitors.


All-Natural Birding

If you are interested in a more natural approach to attracting birds, try landscaping your yard to cater to their needs. Several ornithology experts recommend “going wild” to make your flock happy. Let your backyard, or maybe just a portion of it, become overgrown with thickets and trailing vines, which should not be a problem in Florida. This will provide the bird’s natural summer diet of insects and spiders, while in winter, the fruits and seeds will help them survive.

Also consider putting in a birdseed garden. Consider this: Seed-eating birds will forage for months in a garden full of foods that are naturally appealing. However, many of the best plants for birds are ones we consider weeds. But if you have ever seen a flock of sparrows feasting on a field of weeds, you know just how attractive these plants are for them. I suggest some of the prettier self-sowing plants, which the birds should clean off well enough to keep them from being too offensive. They include Russian mammoth sunflowers, foxtail millet, zinnias, lamb’s quarters, sensation cosmos and autumn beauty sunflowers.

Have a penchant for hummingbirds? Plant a hummingbird garden. It is best to think of their beak when you choose flowers. Hummingbirds prefer blooms with long tubes that produce sweet nectar. Red flowers act as a hummingbird magnet, so keep that in mind when making your choices. Once these tiny birds have found your special spot, tubular blossoms will encourage them to linger longer. Self-sown petunias, white-flowering rose-of-Sharon, grandview scarlet bee balm, hardy fuchsia and white-flowered impatiens are just a few hummingbird attractants.

Although many may say it is not necessary to feed birds in the summer, I do it all year long. I cannot possibly imagine an early-morning coffee or a time of conversation with my husband, Charlie, after dinner on our front porch without the songs of our friends. Nor would I ever want to miss the joy on Charlie’s face when he, a bird-watching novice, catches a glimpse of some new bird he can add to his life list.

So follow the lead of literally millions of your fellow Americans and reap the benefits. You will be glad you did.


Reasons to Attract Birds to Your Garden

  1. Declining habitats bring with them a moral obligation to provide food and water so the future of the bird population is ensured.
  2. Bird watching is a catharsis for those who embrace its wonder.
  3. Attracting birds to your garden can be an exercise in family fun, with everyone, both young and old, reaping the benefits.

The Necessities

  1. Food – Black-oil sunflower seeds, available at most feed stores and garden centers, are a staple of many birds’ diets.
  2. Water – Necessary for drinking and bathing. A simple pedestal-type birdbath will provide an adequate means for both.
  3. Shelter – In Florida’s temperate climate, shelter may be provided in the form of dense bushes and large-leaf trees.

Web Sites to Help in Your Quest

Birdsource.com – Sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon, this site provides research and information about the bird population. Get involved in the Great Backyard Bird Count.

Floridabirdingtrail.com – Get the lowdown on 446 birding sites throughout Florida.

Audubonofflorida.org – Audubon news and advocacy infor-mation compiled by this group that is committed to solving the conservation challenges of the 21st century.

Nwf.org/backyardwildlifehabitat – Check out fun projects to enhance your bird-watching efforts. You may even be tempted to enroll your yard as a National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat.