For the Birds: DIY steps to help save birds

Here’s the latest For the Birds column.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Tufted titmice gather near a container with coneflower during November 2018. Coneflower is a native plant that attracts birds.

The study released a few weeks ago that reported a 29 percent decline in the number of birds in North America since 1970 did not merely throw out some discouraging facts and leave it at that.

It also included many reasons why bird populations are decreasing, most notably habitat loss. There is not a whole lot the average person can do about habitat loss — other than plead with local officials to stop the development of critical habitat. But the authors of the study did include seven actions that we can all do to help improve birds’ chances of survival.

The actions are as follows: use native plants, avoid pesticides, keep cats indoors, make windows safer, do citizen science, reduce the use of plastic and drink shade-grown coffee. Now, let’s take a closer look at each of these actions.

Planting native flowers, bushes and trees gives birds and insects a source of food they have evolved with. It restores the natural balance of an area and limits the spread of invasive plant species. A simple internet search will yield dozens upon dozens of bird-friendly native choices for your garden and yard.

Pesticides should be avoided for much the same reason. Killing off insects, especially native insects, limits the food available for birds. Many birds rely on insects as the main part of their diet. This is particularly important during the nesting season as birds feed their youngsters and teach their fledglings how to hunt. If an area is void of insects, it is likely void of birds.

I know how difficult it can be to keep cats indoors. Most cats want to be outdoors and it’s hard to deny them that desire. My cat sneaks out on occasion when I have my hands full of groceries and the screen door closes too slowly, so I have work to do in this area as well. But it really is in the birds’ best interest to keep kitty inside. Feral cats? That’s another bigger problem.

If you have some particularly problematic windows that bird keep crashing into, consider buying decals to put on the outside of those windows. The decals are relatively unobtrusive and may be found at bird stores or online. The decals break up the scene that may otherwise be confused as an extension of the outdoors. Building windows? That’s a way bigger problem that many developers are starting to address with bird-friendly design.

Participating in citizen science projects such as the Great Backyard Bird Count, Christmas Bird Count and Project Feeder Watch gives important data to ornithologists that they use to track bird population trends. In fact, this data was a key source of information for the latest study.

There are several easy steps to take to reduce the amount of plastic used. Reusable water bottles, although many are made of plastic, greatly reduce waste. Filling a water bottle each morning instead of drinking two or three store-bought waters has a great impact over the course of time. 

Similarly, reusable shopping bags reduce the need for the one-time use plastic bags. That also keeps those annoying bags out of trees, which I often mistake for birds from a distance.

Industrial-scale coffee plantations are an environmental nightmare as large swaths of land are clear cut on many birds’ winter grounds. Thankfully there are many bird-friendly, shade-grown options. Birds and Beans brand is based in New England.

Employing some of these strategies will help the birds that live in and around your property. It may seem like a drop in the bucket compared to the 2.9 billion birds that have disappeared in the last 50 years, but enough drops will eventually overfill a bucket.

Lingering garden scene

Scenes like this are quickly fading as winter starts to creep into New England. These coneflowers have lingered into late fall because I purchased them at a box hardware store on clearance a few weeks ago. I’m hoping the flowers return next year, but until then I’m enjoying their later-than-usual blooms. The birds are, too, of course.

Plant native trees, shrubs, flowers for the birds

Photo by Chris Bosak An Eastern Towhee eats a crab apple during a cold winter day at Weed Beach in Darien, CT., Jan. 2014.

Photo by Chris Bosak
An Eastern Towhee eats a crab apple during a cold winter day at Weed Beach in Darien, CT., Jan. 2014.

I’m far from a landscaping expert. Anyone who has seen my jungle of a garden in the summer can attest to that. But I do know that using native trees, shrubs, bushes and flowers are the way to go.

Whether they are planted with the intent to attract birds or not, using plantings that are native to your area reduces the risk of potentially using an invasive exotic species that will eventually overtake native species. It also is better for the native insect population because in many cases the insects can not feed off the non-native plants, thereby reducing the number of insects that serve as valuable food for birds. Reducing the number of insects may sound like a good thing at first, but we’re not talking about pest insects such as mosquitoes, we’re talking about insects that you probably never see, but have high value to birds.

There are a million other reasons to use native plantings and a million great options for doing so. Again, I’m not a landscaping expect, but a simple internet search of “planting native species [enter your state here]” will lead you in the right direction.

Quickly though, here are a few suggestions of native plants that have worked well for me – coneflower [great for goldfinches and other small birds], black-eyed susan, crab apple, sunflowers, and bee balm.

Feel free to comment below to say which native plants work well for you in regards to attracting birds.

Thanks for visiting