Most homeowners can attract a few birds to their property simply by hanging out a bird feeder, but a wildlife specialist and a horticultural researcher in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences say people fond of these flying visitors can customize their landscape to attract a variety of birds.
"The best way to attract birds to your home is to think like a bird," says Margaret Brittingham, associate professor of wildlife resources in the School of Forest Resources. "Consider what the birds need and then see if your property meets those needs."
Brittingham suggests that homeowners consider the following factors:
- Food. Birds will visit a house with just a feeder, but a wider variety of birds will appear if a mix of feeders and fruit-bearing plants is available. "Limiting use of insecticides also is important because most birds feed on insects during breeding season," Brittingham says.
- Cover. Trees, shrubs and other plants offer cover from predators and the elements. Brittingham recommends using plantings of various sizes. "Birds divide their habitat vertically," she says. "Some bird species occupy only the shrub layer, while others are found only in tree tops."
- Nesting sites. Certain bird species require specialized areas to nest, such as tall grasses or evergreens.
- Water source. A birdbath or simple ceramic dish filled with water can serve as an excellent water source. Brittingham says songbirds are attracted by the sound of running water, so homeowners might consider installing a re-circulating waterfall or fountain. Robert Snyder, research support assistant in horticulture and an avid birder, recommends that homeowners offer a variety of plants to prospective winged visitors.
- Fruiting plants. Snyder points out that small trees and shrubs are excellent sources of low- to mid-canopy cover. Plants that provide food in summer months include serviceberry, dogwood, elderberry and common spicebush. Food sources in fall and winter include honeysuckle, fruiting crabapple varieties and common winterberry, a native holly. "Many of the berries produced by these plants are brilliantly colored and can provide a bit of color in the winter months," Snyder says.
- Evergreens. Snyder says evergreen trees and shrubs provide cover for birds year round and, when planted together, can act as a windbreak for birds. Evergreen cones can be a source of food as well, particularly for winter finches and crossbills.
- Native shrubs. Snyder says native shrubs that bear fruits preferred by birds in the wild can be used to landscape marginal areas. He says alders and hawthorns can tolerate poorly drained areas, and brambles such as dewberry, raspberry and blackberry will grow in poor, dry soils. "There are several catalog suppliers that carry native plants," Snyder says. "Larger nurseries or garden centers may stock them as well."
- Grasses. Several game birds, sandpipers and songbird species are ground-nesting, requiring long grasses or meadow-like conditions. "Allow grasses to grow up along fencerows or drainages, or plant a corner of the property with native grasses to make a meadow," Snyder suggests.
- Pile things up. Snyder says some birds like to nest in brush, rock or wood piles. "Be sure to put the pile in an area where it looks unobtrusive and will not attract wild animals such as skunks near your house," he says.
- Vines. Vines such as trumpet creeper, American bittersweet and wild grape can conceal piles and provide additional cover and food for birds. Vining plants that attract hummingbirds include runner bean, morning glory and Virginia creeper. Snyder suggests hanging twine down from a tree or feeder and training vines to climb the lengths.
- Flowers. Brittingham says hummingbirds are attracted to the color red. Beebalm, cardinal lobelia and columbine are just three of the many plants that can attract hummingbirds.
A fact sheet, "Pennsylvania Wildlife #2 -- Attracting Wildlife: Sources of Assistance," lists sources for additional tips on attracting wildlife. Single copies are available free of charge by contacting your county Penn State Cooperative Extension office, or by calling the College of Agricultural Sciences Publications Distribution Center at (814) 865-6713.
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