7 Surprising Ways You Can Help Native Wild Birds In Your Own Backyard

Bird populations in North America are seriously suffering. Here’s how you can lend a hand.

July 14, 2017
how to help backyard birds
Don Oltmann / EyeEm/Getty

Many of our favorite wild birds are in trouble. According to the North American Bird Conservation Initiative’s 2016 report, 37% of the 1,154 native wild bird species that live in Canada, the continental United States, and Mexico are in urgent need of help; another 49% are in danger, and only 14% of species are thriving. Wild birds that live in the ocean and in tropical forests are in the most trouble, followed by those that live in coastal areas, grasslands, and arid regions. Helping them involves a bit more than hanging out a bird feeder or going bird watching on the weekends.

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Many factors are contributing to the decline in native bird populations, including habitat loss, climate change, pesticides, and collisions with man-made objects. However, the biggest common-denominator of the factors boils down to one thing: a shortage of baby (bird) food. Long-term survival of any species depends on raising the next generation successfully, and, even if a bird has plenty of safe places to nest, if the parent birds can’t find enough food for their babies to eat, the next generation isn’t going to make it.

Related: 8 Ways To Keep Squirrels Away From Your Bird Feeder

For 96% of native North American birds (excluding waterbirds, which eat fish), baby food means insects, and lots of them. Loss of habitat, habitat fragmentation, changing climate patterns, non-native landscaping, and increased use of long-lasting insecticides are all contributing to plummeting insect populations, undermining birds’ ability to successfully raise their young. Climate change contributes an added twist: shifting bloom times and breeding times can contribute to serious mismatches between peaks in the food supply and baby birds hatching.

Keep reading to find out how you can lend a hand in helping ensure a stable bird population. Remember, you don’t have to do it all right now. Pick one or two things you can do, add just a few new plants, but do something: the birds will thank you for it.

organic corn
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Shop organic

Choosing organic foods, beverages, clothing, and linens is an important way anyone can support organic farming, and in turn healthy insect populations, and, thereby, healthy bird populations. Organic farms use insecticides only as a last resort; never use long-lasting, man-made ones; and never plant GMO varieties, which are designed to be used alongside herbicides and insecticides. Organic farms also tend to provide insect habitat areas and to grow a wider variety of crops, both of which support native insect and bird populations. Every dollar you spend on organic food or fiber is, indirectly, a vote for native birds.

Related: How Organic Gardens Help Fight Global Warming

Insect-friendly yard
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Make your yard insect-friendly

If you have some land or even just a few pots on the patio, the biggest thing you can do to support healthy bird populations is to support healthy populations of native insects, especially fat, tasty baby insects like caterpillars. Do this by growing the native plants that have leaves for young insects to eat (such as the 14 insects you actually want to have in your garden), learning to accept (and even celebrate) leaves with a few holes in them, using only organic insecticides and only in rare situations, and never using long-lasting, man-made insecticides (as they can get into the food chain and build up to toxic levels, even if they didn’t kill the target insects outright). While you’re at it, avoid using insecticides in the house as well, choosing safer control methods, as what happens inside eventually gets outside. We have been indoctrinated to see every insect, except perhaps adult butterflies and honeybees, as bad; but to a mama or papa bird, insects are life. You can also help by teaching and encouraging your neighbors, local park systems, and community members to do the same.

Related: 15 Native Wildflowers Every Gardener Should Plant

Why native plants? The typical suburban landscape is lush and green…and pretty much useless to the majority of native insects, because their young don’t eat grass, Norway maple leaves, or the leaves of most of the other popular trees and shrubs landscapers and homeowners plant (many originally selected, at least partly, for that very reason). Plant as wide a variety of different native plants as possible, as it increases the chances that a plentiful supply of at least one type of young insect will be available when a family of birds needs them.

diverse landscapes help backyard birds
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Diversity your landscape

Homeowners may also be able to allow some areas and hedgerows to grow wild, providing insect habitat as well as nesting and shelter for birds; and replace some or all of their lawn area with native wildflower meadows or tidy beds of native flowers and shrubs. With a little research, it is easy to turn your yard into a magnetic, year-round bird habitat.

Related: 6 Tips For Creating A Backyard Habitat That Attracts Local Songbirds

backyard birds like to eat berries
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Plant things birds like to eat

While almost all baby birds need insects to grow and thrive, many kinds of adult birds also eat seeds and fruits, and count on them to eat along their migration routes or to make it through the cold winter. Many native trees and shrubs produce nectar, seeds, or fruit that are tasty to birds and beautiful in your landscape. Lots of annual and perennial flowers produce nectar for hummingbirds and seeds that many other birds will relish in the winter. The dead stems and leaves also provide overwintering shelter for insects, so delay cutting down the tops until late winter or very early spring. Consult a local native plants group or an online reference such as the National Wildlife Federation’s Native Plant Finder to discover out what is native to your area and useful to wildlife. Native evergreens can be great choices, as they provide shelter during storms as well as seeds and berries to eat.

Related: How To Create A Wildlife Habitat In Your Own Backyard

birds like birdbaths
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Provide water

Birds need year-round access to clean water to drink and sometimes bathe in. Ornamental bird baths are great, but you can also make a perfectly serviceable one for free out of lots of things you already have lying around.

Related: Here’s Why You Should Definitely De-Ice Your Bird Bath In Winter

cat on leash
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Control you cat

Keeping kitty inside is a touchy issue, but cats can and do hunt and kill birds and many experts suggest domestic cats are the number one predator of small birds in the continental U.S. At the very least, do everything you can to make sure water sources and bird feeders are well away from anything cats can lurk in, so those crucial places won’t become death traps. (And make sure to spay and neuter outdoor and feral cats so that the population of songbird hunters doesn’t expand.)

birdfeeder
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Yes, hang bird feeders

While not as sustainable in the long run as turning your yard into a vibrant, bird-supportive habitat, many people put out supplemental bird food at least some of the year because they like watching the birds that come to feed (plus, studies suggest bird watching is good for your health). Supplying suitable food, especially during a long, cold winter or some high protein food during a chilly spring when insects are slow to emerge, can be very important to local populations.

Related: 6 Things You Should Never Feed Backyard Birds

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