Home & Design December 22, 2008

Welcoming Birds

Local bird expert Poo Wright-Pulliam shares her tricks for bringing birds to the backyard, no matter the season.

What a happy circumstance it is when robins choose the pine near our kitchen window for nesting. How lucky we feel to hear sweet melodies of birdsong, while enjoying the voyeur’s perspective on newly hatched young and parents in full feeding frenzy.

Rather than simply waiting for fickle birds to notice your perfect habitat, entice them by offering their favorite plants, an assortment of bird feeders, shelter, and a reliable source of water. Like most visitors to the Wood River Valley, the birds won’t want to leave. And, with these houseguests, you’ll benefit from the beauty, comedy, and song they bring to your garden.

My own backyard is about 75 feet by 75 feet. In it, I have numerous shrubs, trees and flowers—many planted by the birds themselves. To the back of the yard is a berm with pines and birdhouses along the top, bushes just below, and then flower beds rising above a river-rock wall. Down the center flows a little stream that tumbles into a small pond. At one side is a “duck blind” tucked into the spruces where I can hide to photograph or just enjoy my feathered friends. Between the berm and the house, the lawn is sprinkled with several aspens, more pines, and many bird feeders. A path runs all the way around.

In spring, the flowers in my yard are mostly blue to lavender. Summer turns the berm to yellows, reds and pinks, and fall brings out deep purples and burgundy. The brush changes from lime to dark green, then to oranges and flame reds as the season progresses. The birds are singing and winging about, and I am very happy!

Planting perennial flowers such as purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea), blanket flowers (Gaillardia spp.), and sunflowers (Helianthus spp.), along with annuals such as cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus) and bachelor’s button (Centaurea cyanus), brings in the seed-eating finches, grosbeaks, and chickadees. Ornamental grasses attract sparrows.

I let certain local wildflowers go to seed in my yard, so I often see flocks of pine siskin mobbing the common evening primrose (Oenothera strigosa), or a downy woodpecker searching out bugs on a common mullein (Verbascum thapsus). Watching an American gold-finch ride a dandelion head to the ground so his mate could share the riches is a memory I’ll always treasure.

To attract jewel-like hummingbirds, try planting tubular flowers such as penstemon (Penstemon spp.) or columbine (Aquilegia formosa). Actually, any red flower will bring the hummers in.

As for the shrubbery, choose types that bear fruit. By way of picking fruits and then dropping them, the birds have planted golden currant (Ribes aureum), native chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), and serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.) in my yard. I’ve added Wood’s rose (Rosa woodsii), skunkbrush (Rhus trilobata), and Oregon grape (Mahonia repens) for some more natives. Among the winged wonders that enjoy these juicy treats are robins, western tanagers, evening and black-headed grosbeaks, and Bullock’s orioles. Lining a fence with raspberries (Rubus spp.) will enable birds not only to feast, but also to move safely through your yard, and perhaps even nest.

Watching an American goldfinch ride a dandelion head to the ground so his mate
could share the riches is a memory I’ll always treasure.

And let’s not forget the trees. Some should be planted as safe havens for nesting and roosting, some for food supply. During the winter months, mountain ash (Sorbus spp.) is the top choice of my favorite bird, the breathtaking Bohemian waxwing with its black mask, crested head, and wings tipped red, white and yellow. These waxwings arrive in droves and play a game-like ritual, passing a bright orange berry from beak to beak till one hungry bird gulps it down. They can strip a huge tree of its color in an afternoon!

Spruce trees (Picea pungens) will be nested in during summer; and in winter, if there is an eruption of red crossbills, you can watch their antics as they hang upside down on the cones to extract the seeds with their specialized bills. In the spring, many returning birds will cover the branches of western red birch (Betula occidentalis), eating the seeds from the catkins.

Setting a proper dining table for bird guests is easy these days, with numerous feeders from which to choose. You can invite certain birds to dine by carefully selecting the seed you serve.>>>



It seems most of us started out with a tube or hopper feeder and filled it with “songbird mix,” and were greatly disappointed when none of the birds we were hoping for came to stay. Here’s why that approach is generally unsuccessful: “Songbird mix” consists of small amounts of milo, cracked corn, and black-oil sunflower seed, but its main component is a tiny white seed called millet. Millet is the choice of ground-feeding birds such as sparrows and juncos, not the choice of birds that use hanging feeders. So throw your “mix” on the ground, and fill the hanging feeders with black-oil sunflower seed (the number-one, all-around favorite) to make all of your bird visitors happy. It can be put into tube feeders with larger ports, hopper feeders that are easily filled from the top and spill the seed into a tray at the bottom, or platform feeders, which can be as simple as a board on top of a post.

Thistle seed (now commonly called “Nyjer” or Niger seed) is a very small (and expensive) black seed that many birds love. To save a little money, you can use a tube feeder with very small holes made specifically for thistle, or use a thistle sock—a netted bag you can refill. Only birds that can cling will use the sock.

To attract woodpeckers, put out suet feeders. Try wire baskets that hold store-bought suet cakes or make a log feeder by drilling holes partway through, adding a hook to the end, and stuffing the holes with a mix of cornmeal and peanut butter. I get four different species of woodpecker at my log feeder, plus chickadees and nuthatches.

Place feeders about eight feet from the nearest greenery, so your birds can see predators lurking and have a quick escape if necessary. Clean the feeders about once a month, and remove fallen seed and hulls from the ground below.

Last but not least, here is the best tip I know: Only certain birds eat fruits, berries or seeds, but all birds must drink water. You can easily double your species list by adding a water feature. Add the sound of running water, and birds will come from blocks away! A water feature can be simple, such as an upturned garbage can lid or a saucer with a rock in it, or more extravagant, such as a nice pond with a waterfall. Keep the water shallow, only about two inches deep, so the birds can bathe. And remember to put in a heater for the winter.

You never know who may be coming to dinner, so get busy! Create a nice backyard habitat and enjoy it along with the birds.

Bird fanatic and artist, Poo Wright-Pulliam, was challenged by a friend in 1995 to identify 100 birds. She now writes about birds, and teaches about them through Brigham Young University of Idaho, College of Southern Idaho, and the Environmental Resource Center in Ketchum. In addition to serving as an Ambassador for Project FeederWatch through the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Poo is writing a book on bird identification.


This article appears in the Fall 2004 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.