Like many people, I never paid much attention to the birds flying overhead or hopping around my lawn. Then, about a year ago, I attended a free “Birding 101” workshop hosted by my city’s parks and recreation department. And I’ve been hooked on backyard bird-watching ever since.
I know what you’re thinking: Birding is only for retired people with a lot of time on their hands. But that’s not true.
The demographics of birding are changing every year as more people take an interest in nature and the environment. Birding gives your eyes, ears, and brain something to do other than stare at your smartphone when you’re out and about. It’s often described as a scavenger hunt, since you’ll feel a thrill each time you see or hear a new-to-you species. Birding can also become a fun family activity you can do with your kids that will get them out of the house and occupied the whole summer.
The best part? It’s very easy to go birding, and your backyard is the perfect habitat where your new interest can take flight. Here’s how to get started, and a sampling of some of the beautiful new feathered friends you’ll meet.
Put up bird feeders
Birds spend much of their time searching for food, which is why they’ll gladly flock to the bird feeder in your yard.
There is a dizzying number of bird feeders available today, so it’s easy to get overwhelmed. But you can start with the basics and simply spread some bird food on an outdoor table or surface—no fancy purchase necessary.
In general, you’ll want to place your bird feeder in an area where birds feel comfortable—near shrubs and bushes so they can hide if necessary, for example—but some birds will gladly (and boldly!) visit any feeder, no matter where it’s located. You can even buy one that attaches to your window for up-close and personal bird-watching while you’re indoors.
The type of feeder and food you choose will depend on the types of birds that live in your area, as well as the specific birds you want to invite to your yard.
My region in Colorado, for instance, is home to lots of hummingbirds in the spring and summer, so I put out several hummingbird feeders and sit back to watch these tiny birds zoom and trill around.
No matter the style of bird feeder you choose, it’s important to keep up with regular maintenance and cleaning to keep your backyard birds healthy and happy.
“Clean your feeders monthly by removing old seed, cleaning them with soapy water, and dunking them in a 9-to-1 water-bleach solution,” says Suzy Hiskey of the Denver Audubon. “Dry thoroughly before adding new seed and hanging them back up.”
This handout might also attract an unruly parade of neighborhood squirrels who think your bird feeder is an all-you-can-eat buffet. Maybe you’ll think squirrels are cute, but if watching these bushy-tailed rodents eat your bird food makes your blood boil (like me!), don’t worry—you’ve got options. There are tons of squirrel-proof bird feeders on the market, featuring a variety of tricks and devices to shoo squirrels away: cages, poles, and even weight-activated levers that close off the food supply when a squirrel hops on.
Add bird-friendly plants to your yard
Plants provide much-needed shelter for our winged friends, and they can also serve as a source of food, ranging from nectar and berries to insects.
Native plants are especially helpful, as they mimic the natural environment of your local birds. You’ll want to do some research about your region’s native plants before you start digging up your yard.
“Landscaping with native plants can help attract birds,” says Austin Booth, co-founder of The Green Seed landscape design and nursery. “Many nurseries now have areas dedicated to native plants. Seeking out free advice from a local master gardener is also a good way to get suggestions.”
Booth recommends plants like huckleberry, elderberry, serviceberry, and mountain ash, since many birds like to eat berries. He also suggests ornamental grasses, sunflower, coneflower, and sea holly, because their seeds are yummy to birds.
Create landscaping levels
Different levels of landscaping not only add visual interest, but they can also help attract birds. Plant high, plant low—and plant everywhere in between—to make birds feel more comfortable. This will also improve your chances of seeing a wide variety of birds.
It’s also a good idea to place bird feeders at varying levels.
“Gardening with multiple canopy levels such as trees and shrubs in addition to perennials and ground cover will increase the diversity of bird species,” says Booth. “A more fully planted garden, rather than one with more spacing between plants, will provide better habitat and attract more birds.”
Add a water source
Birds really need just a few basics to be happy: food, shelter, and water. Adding a source of fresh water sends the message that your home is a place where birds can take care of all their various needs.
This could be a simple birdbath, a bubbling fountain, a pond, or a special bird dripper or mister.
Bird-proof your windows
Birds are territorial, especially around mating season. If they see their reflection in your windows, they’ll assume it’s another bird there to take their turf. It’s simple to reduce the reflectiveness of your windows without losing your view or natural light.
“Apply UV film or install screens to the exterior of the window to prevent birds from seeing the reflection and flying into it,” Hiskey says.
Keep cats indoors
Nope, it’s not just a cartoon plot or stereotype: Cats and birds really don’t mix well.
“The presence of a cat will discourage birds from spending time in a yard,” says Hiskey. “Cats will hunt for fun and kill a high number of birds within their territory.”
So if you have feline friends, it’s best to keep them indoors if your goal is to invite birds to your yard. (Keeping them indoors can also help protect cats from diseases and injuries, too.)
If you want to begin identifying some of the common birds you see returning to your yard day after day, there are some resources to help. You can buy a field guidebook for your region, which contains drawings or pictures and helpful descriptions of birds in your area.
You can also download some apps that can help you identify birds based on their size, color, song, and behaviors.
My favorite is Merlin Bird ID. If I spot an unfamiliar bird, I enter the bird’s characteristics into the app, and it generates a list of possible matches. This app can also provide a list of the most likely birds in your geographic location at a specific time of day.
On my daily dog walks, I’ve identified bald eagles, ospreys, herons, white pelicans, double-breasted cormorants, killdeers, western tanagers, goldfinches, yellow warblers, and more.
Binoculars can help you get close-ups of your visitors, but they’re not required by any stretch of the imagination. Your eyes and ears will do the trick just fine.
Some of the most common backyard birds in North America are the American robin, house wren, house finch, and black-capped chickadee. The best time of day to look for birds is in the early morning, when the weather is still cool and birds are the most active. Dusk can also be a good time.
If you bird-watch for long enough, you’ll notice that you tend to see different birds at different times of the year. With a little research, you can easily find out which birds will be migrating through your region and when. Some birds may also spend the summers in your backyard, then fly south to warmer climates during the winter. This carousel of bird species is what makes backyard birding so fun.