• A northern cardinal in a tree

    Attracting a range of birds to your yard is easy with a few simple and inexpensive modifications. (Photo: Alexander Wywial/Can Geo Photo Club)

Millions of Canadians are staying home to avoid spreading the coronavirus and are looking for ways to stave off boredom. Why not take steps to add some colour and song to your yard, not only for your entertainment but also for the sake of helping out the birds?

As a companion to the latest edition of Pocket Birds of Canada, here are my top tips to attract birds to your property and enjoy their presence.

Bird baths

Installing a bird bath is perhaps the easiest way to enjoy backyard birds. Any receptacle will work, whether store-bought or naturally occurring, as long as it is shallow (2.5 to five centimetres deep), slightly sloped, and ideally with a non-slip surface. Place your bath reasonably close to perches for drying off and to provide cover against sudden attack by predators such as cats or hawks, and within reach of a garden hose for easy refilling. Clean the bath weekly with a plastic scrub brush using a weak bleach solution (nine parts water to one part bleach) to deter algae and breeding mosquitoes. An addition of moving water like a drip or a spray to make noise is a nice touch!

Hummingbird feeders

Perhaps no other group of birds brings as much pleasure to backyard birdwatchers as hummingbirds. Feeders should be easy to clean (dishwasher-safe), functional on windy days, and equipped with insect guards. Hang your feeder with easily visible string or wire out of direct sunlight to prevent the development of mould, sheltered from heavy wind to avoid spillage, and either very close to the window to enjoy the birds or about four metres away to avoid collisions by spooked birds. Putting up more than one feeder will reduce fighting. To make a sugar solution, bring to a boil one part white sugar (no honey!) to four parts water, let cool, and store in the fridge. Change the solution in the feeders often enough to avoid mould, and wash feeders in warm soapy water before refilling.

Calliope hummingbird at feeder

A female calliope hummingbird visits a backyard feeder in Penticton, B.C. (Photo: Meghann Fletcher/Can Geo Photo Club)

Responsible feeding

Feeding birds can provide hours of fun, but it does come with the price of responsibility. Myriad ways of offering food exist, including platform feeders, hanging cylindrical tube feeders, and box-shaped hopper feeders. The best designs are made of durable plastic or wood that keep the seed clean and dry, and that can be easily filled and cleaned. Feeding the birds year-round allows you to enjoy the different varieties frequenting your neighbourhood and to even watch parents bring their young to the feeder. The best all-round foods accepted by the greatest variety of birds are black-oil sunflower, nyjer or thistleseed, and shelled peanuts. Clean feeders regularly by removing and discarding old, mouldy seed, and soak them in a weak bleach solution of nine parts water to one part bleach.

Naturally, seed feeders can also attract squirrels. Feeding the squirrels should be discouraged to prevent them from getting too well-fed and having lots of babies, which grow up to become major predators of birds’ eggs and young. The best ways to keep squirrels out of feeders include installing suitably sized conical or tubular baffles above or below; covering feeders in coated metal mesh; using squirrel-proof hopper feeders and durable metal tube feeders equipped with weight-sensitive perches; substituting safflower seed for sunflower seed; or only offering nyjer seed or plain suet. Applying hot pepper or capsaicin to bird foods is not recommended.

Squirrel at a bird feeder

Sure they’re cute, but you want to discourage squirrels from helping themselves to the contents of your bird feeder. (Photo: Richard Zazulak/Can Geo Photo Club)

Other feeding strategies used to attract birds include putting out grape jelly for robins, and offering rendered beef or mutton suet year-round for woodpeckers, nuthatches, and dozens of other backyard species. Halved oranges impaled on large spikes and sugar solutions are attractive to orioles and other nectar feeders. Laying out grit in the form of coarse builder’s sand or chicken grit will help seedeaters grind their digested seeds. Crushed oyster shells or oven-baked, broken eggshells serve as calcium and mineral supplements for birds, especially laying females.

Bird-friendly plants

If you'd rather not put out bird food, an alternative way to attract birds is to grow various plants that are used by birds in many ways, including for nesting locations and nesting materials, as a source of food, and as a safe place to seek shade and sleep at night. While a tiny hummingbird will happily be attracted to most nectar-bearing tubular flowers (especially red ones) for food, a large owl or hawk will favour a huge deciduous or coniferous tree to roost in or even as a place to build its nest! You can find information online for the ideal soil and weather conditions for growing various kinds of bird-loving plants in each region across Canada. But here are two general “rules-of-green-thumb:” Grow the vegetation in layers ranging from ground cover to flowers to shrubs to trees of various sizes, and choose plants so that fruit and seeds are made available year-round.

Nest boxes

Putting up artificial homes for nesting and roosting birds is another way to help out birds and encourage them to stick around. First, do some homework to ensure that you pick the appropriate nest box and install it in the correct habitat for the kind of bird you'd like to attract. Avoid cute, ornately-painted boxes, but instead use ones built of wood, such as cedar, that naturally shed water. Waterproof stain or paint in earthy colours, including greens, greys, and browns, is okay for the outside only. Cutting grooves or providing ladder-like steps inside will assist the young in leaving the box. Prevent predators from accessing the box contents by installing slippery, cone-shaped baffles on the trunk or pole and by having the entrance hole eight inches higher than the bottom of the box. Minimize your visits to see the nest contents; cleaning of the box is controversial and need only be done if the nest material is especially dirty or damp. Alternatively, you can just leave out berry boxes filled with smallish pieces of various nesting materials such as dry grass clippings (pesticide-free!), bark strips, pine needles, plant fluff, feathers, and dead twigs and leaves. Do not offer dryer lint, yarn, string, thread, plastic strips, or tinsel.

Tree swallow in nest box

A tree swallow peeks out of a nest box at the George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary in Delta, B.C. (Photo: Anne Grant/Can Geo Photo Club)

Spotting and identifying birds

While most feeder birds can be enjoyed with the naked eye, using a pair of binoculars can really heighten your fun! Always buy the best you can afford and ensure that they feel good in your hands. When shopping for binoculars, insist on taking them outside for a quick try-out. Magnification from seven to 10 times is preferable, as higher magnifications can increase handshake and provide a smaller field of view, a darker image, and a shallower depth of field. If you wear eyeglasses, you will need a minimum of 15 millimetres of eye relief. 

Besides owning a decent pair of binoculars to bring the birds in close, it is also useful to possess some sort of book depicting the “usual suspects,” i.e. the birds that you might see in your neighbourhood. Such a book should offer many visual and written tips on how to identify a given bird but also provide a range map to determine whether it is even found in your part of the country. There are two ways you can go: You can have on hand a large volume that is stored near your preferred bird-watching window, such as Birds of Canada, Birds of Eastern Canada, or Birds of Western Canada, or you can go with the much smaller, easily portable version, Pocket Birds of Canada.

Making your home and yard bird-safe

Here are two important considerations for enjoying birds in your backyard. First, between 100 million to one billion birds are killed each year by striking windows. While there are more expensive and/or permanent options such as non-reflective surfaces, visible frittered glass, and affixing special bird tape, a good start is to break up large panes of glass with stick-on images or hanging ornaments such as wind chimes, planters, and windsocks in front of windows. Other options include installing awnings, window screens, or tight bird netting, or hanging domestic bird feathers on strings. A good temporary fix that costs almost nothing is painting images on the glass with a corn-starch paste.

Second, free-ranging cats kill over 3.5 billion birds in North America each year. Install your feeders and bird baths so as to minimize ambush tactics by cats, and consider making your cat (or at least your next one!) an indoor pet.