Backyards for Birds

By Irene Fedun, Founding Member of FLAP Canada

     As a founding member of the Fatal Light Awareness Program, I am all too familiar with the painful thud of a bird hitting a window….at the glass towers of downtown Toronto.    I’d never known – and never expected – a bird to hit a window in my own home. 

     I congratulated myself that I’d created a wildlife haven.  I imagined that my Manitoba Maple, which offered insects and shelter to migrating birds, was too close to the windows for its reflected image to be a problem.  My fond delusions were shattered this spring when an Ovenbird smashed into the glass.

     My initial panic (it’s amazing how a decade of experience rescuing birds can dissolve instantly when you realize you’re as much the problem as the solution) gave way to calmer reflection.  How do we attract birds to our yards… and still protect them from the perils of “civilization”?

Planting tips         

Cedar Waxwings love Serviceberries! Photo: Carol Edwards

      Birds are drawn in by the promise of food and shelter:  trees, shrubs and flowering plants.   Planting a variety of woody and herbaceous species ensures a constant turnover of flowering and fruiting.  Though one could argue (and I do) that plants native to the region are best, non-native or hybridized plants can be equally desirable to you and the birds.   After all, if you love delphiniums or clematis why not have them?  Just be aware that many trees, shrubs and even perennials routinely planted in gardens are alien species whose native counterparts are less liable to disrupt natural ecosystems.  A good example is the sunflower:  we have a multitude of stunning native species that may lack major economic potential but feed wildlife just as well.  

      Often introduced species grow rapidly, producing copious quantities of seed or spreading by aggressive roots, so that they out-compete natives.   Some cause dramatic environmental damage. European buckthorn, a small tree whose berries are much loved (and the seeds readily disseminated) by birds, has been known to choke out woodlots.   The wetland escapades of purple loosestrife are well-publicised.  And blankets of garlic mustard now cover the forest floor where trilliums or mayapple once thrived. Certain species establish a monopoly, eliminating the diversity that is key to just about any ecosystem on the planet.

     Variety in our gardens as much as in our conservation areas is important for us and the birds.  So carve away at that monocultured lawn.  Just lay several layers of newspaper or a double layer of cardboard over the grass and cover it with two inches of soil.  In a few weeks you can dig holes through the decaying paper and plant your multitude of flowers or shrubs.  The paper acts as a mulch helping to keep the foreign invaders (weeds) out too.

     Autumn leaves also make an excellent mulch.  Rake them off the lawn but leave them on the beds.  They’ll protect the soil, and therefore the plants’ roots, through the vagaries of winter. During the next growing season they will feed and shade the soil as they decay.  What’s more, the leaf litter provides migrating Fox Sparrows, Eastern Towhees and others with wonderful foraging opportunities.  A brush pile serves much the same purpose – highly recommended.   

     Of course, pesticides must not be used.  Even insecticidal soaps made from natural ingredients should be avoided when possible.  Though much safer than conventional pesticides they still kill beneficial insects such as ladybugs, or at best, deprive them of aphids (insect food for them, warblers and other birds).  A diversity of plants, especially those that repel insects, will keep your little ecosystem in balance.

      As for fertilizers: most are unnecessary and can sorely upset Nature’s chemical balance.  Exceptions might be fish emulsion, which supplies nutrients and battles powdery mildew, and other “naturals” such as seaweed.  Purveyors of native plants recommend a sprinkling of bone meal when planting or transplanting.  High in phosphorus, it supports the roots during the traumatic transition.  

     Compost is the ideal plant food.  It does triple duty, preventing vegetative matter from entering our landfills, replenishing the soil and supplying food for birds & mammals. (The excavation of one huge old compost pile revealed a wealth of worms and insects, much to the delight of passing Hermit Thrushes.) 

     Avoid using peat moss.  It serves no purpose that cannot be served by compost or manure, and its extraction destroys centuries-old peat bogs (rich wildlife habitat). 

     The key is to choose plants that fit your conditions of soil, sunlight and moisture levels.  Sometimes we cheat a bit and produce an acceptable rose or butterfly-weed in partial shade, but more often it pays to know what you have to work with and use well-suited plants.  As an example, cardinal-flowers are gorgeous and beloved by hummingbirds, but unless they’re planted under consistently moist conditions they may not survive.   Planting variety will temper your disappointments and keep everybody happy.

     Wild plants must, of course, not be dug from the wild, unless you’re rescuing plants that are being sacrificed to development. The North American Native Plant Society can supply source lists for native plants.  Visit

Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Photo: Carol Edwards

Water sources

    Water is a crucial element in backyard wildlife habitats.  A birdbath should be shallow for ease of bathing.   In urban areas situate it in the open so that domestic cats cannot sneak up on unsuspecting bathers.  Or make the bath tall enough that cats can’t jump onto it.  In rural areas where raptor predation could be an issue, placing the bath close to shrubbery gives birds a quick escape route.

     A pond with a recirculating pump would be even more enticing since a mini ecosystem can be planted around it benefitting amphibians and other small critters too.  Tiny fountains or streams are great; the sound of running water attracts birds.    But stay alert to predation hazards.   Keep a far-ranging water pistol on hand to discourage cats.

    Specially-designed heaters will keep birdbaths or ponds ice-free in winter, providing a most welcome source of water for wildlife.

Window safety

If you want to attract birds to your yard, make sure your windows are bird-safe! Learn how:

     Arguably windows pose the greatest danger to birds.  We all have them and they all reflect the trees and other vegetation we so lovingly planted to attract our feathered companions.  Try screens, perforated window film, strips of ribbon or beads hung outside the window, multiple hawk silhouettes or other stickers that form a visual barrier on at least 80% of the glass surface.  All will act as a warning signal to birds.  Glass block and stained or frosted glass are usually not transparent or reflective enough to pose a problem. 

Safe backyards

     We bird lovers ache to see warblers and woodpeckers, wrens and whip-poor-wills on our home turf.   Fulfilling their needs for survival and bringing them closer to us should not endanger them or the environment.  Awareness combined with home-grown ingenuity can make our backyards a safe magnet for birds and other wild beings.

     And the Ovenbird? He recovered and was released far away from my offending windows (which are now bird-safe).

This article first appeared in a past issue of FLAP Canada’s Touching Down Newsletter