Backyard Habitats for Birds

October 25th, 2022 by georgann

Backyard habitats, groups of mature trees, and even large open grassy areas nearby, all contribute in some measure to a matrix of habitat types that are used by migrating birds and permanent forest residents.

Wildlife establishes their home range, for a period of the year or year round, in an area that provides the essentials for their survival. You can attract wildlife to your backyard by offering basics such as water, food, and shelter. Native plants are valuable sources of year round foods, they form an assortment of shelter spaces, nesting places and escape cover for wildlife. The types and placements of native plants largely determine the abundance and variety of wildlife living in any area. Planting a variety of native trees, shrubs, vines, and flowers can transform a backyard into a wildlife haven while enhancing the beauty and the joy of watching wildlife for many years to come.

You can attract additional birds by placing bird feeders, nest boxes, and birdbaths in your yard. Of the 375 species of birds found in the southeastern US, approximately 70 species may be attracted to your backyard. These birds include year-round residents and migrants that stop by on their journeys north or south. In addition to attracting birds, you can increase the overall ecological value of your backyard by providing good habitat for other wildlife such as amphibians and reptiles.


A constant source of clean water is simple to provide in a backyard setting.

In fact, multiple sources of water from a raised birdbath, perhaps with dripping water, to a small frog pond or water garden on your property will appeal to a variety of animals. Birds drink and bathe in birdbaths, so these should be kept clean. Birdbaths are commonly available, but many types of common shallow containers work fine. Fill a suitable container with water from a faucet or garden hose. Every two or three days, empty, scrub well, and refill with clean water. Dripping, splashing or moving water attracts even more birds than standing water. Amphibians may take advantage of a backyard pond for breeding. Gently sloping sides ease entry and exit for small creatures. To bolster the survival of amphibians keep your pond free of fish. Fish are a major predator of amphibian eggs and larvae.


Hollow logs, downed trees, standing dead trees, brush piles, and rock piles provide a diverse array of shelters for wildlife. Neat gardens may appeal to some humans, but many animals are drawn to areas that are not manicured. There is no need to create straight lines for wildlife, plan for curves, or better still uneven edges. Leave some piles of brush and dead limbs. Designate an area of grass that you no longer mow and plant a variety of native wildflowers.

Nest boxes are another way to provide critical shelter for birds. Each type of nest box is designed to meet the needs of a single type of bird. Decide which bird you want to attract and select a house for that particular species. Be sure to choose the right size and shape of the box and opening, only some bird species will use a perch, and arrange for the proper placement (consider height from the ground, proximity to feeders and other bird houses; a north or east facing entrance hole is best during our hot summers). Wood is the best building material for any birdhouse. It is durable, has good insulating qualities and breathes. Cypress and red cedar are more durable than pine. It makes no difference whether the wood is rough-cut or finished as long as the inside has not been treated with stains or preservatives. Fumes from chemicals could harm the birds. Regardless of design, rain can enter a birdhouse. Allow for water drainage by drilling holes or cutting away the corners of the box floor.

Plants for wild birds

Diversity is the key to native landscaping and attracting the greatest array of bird species. A thoughtfully chosen assortment of native plants can provide a year-round food supply for birds. Nurseries cultivate native shrubs, vines, herbs, and trees that will visually enhance your yard while offering sustenance and shelter to numerous animals, especially birds. Conifers are evergreen trees and shrubs that include pines, junipers, cedars, spruces, and firs. These plants are important as escape cover, winter shelter, and summer nesting sites. Some also provide sap, fruits, and seeds. Grasses and legumes provide seeds. Nectar-producing flowers attract hummingbirds. Summer-fruiting plants, such as chokecherry, grape, mulberry, elderberry, serviceberry, hackberry, greenbrier vine, blueberry, and blackberry, attract brown thrashers, robins, thrushes, cardinals, towhees, and grosbeaks. Fall-fruiting plants, such as dogwoods, sassafras, and poison ivy provide food for migrating birds and nonmigratory birds that need to build fat reserves for the winter. Plants that retain berries into the winter, such as sumacs, hollies, and Virginia creeper provide important nourishment in a time of scarcity. Nut and acorn plants including oaks, hickories, chestnuts, walnuts, and butternuts supply both a source of food and nesting habitat.

Bird feeders

The single most important year-round food to offer birds from feeders in Georgia is black-oil sunflower seed. It is important to keep your feeders clean. Moldy, rotting seeds can kill wild birds. Occasionally, pour a generous amount of boiling water onto your feeders to kill harmful bacteria and molds. Toxic cleaning chemicals are not necessary or desirable; they can leave harmful residues in the feeder.  It is also extremely important to keep all bird seed off the ground.  By choosing proper seeds and proper feeders, you can avoid birds eating spilled seeds that harbor bacteria and fungi.

Protection from pets

Nesting birds are extremely vulnerable to cats, as are fledglings and birds roosting for the night. Bell collars on cats offer birds little protection. Nailing a sheet metal guard or cone to a tree trunk may be considered unsightly, but may deter less agile felines. Houses mounted on metal poles are the most difficult for predators to reach, especially if you smear the poles with a petroleum jelly and hot pepper mixture. The best deterrent is for owners to keep their cats inside whenever possible. Dogs are a hazard to nestlings in the spring and summer. Don’t let your dog run loose during nesting time.

Invasive non-native plants

Some researchers believe that, next to the loss of habitats (to development, farming, forestry, and other human activities), invasive non-native species pose the greatest threat to native biodiversity worldwide. Relatively few of the thousands of plants introduced into North America accidentally or for horticultural or agricultural reasons are problem species. Invasive non-native (sometimes referred to as non-indigenous or exotic) plants are aggressive, fast growing species that commonly outcompete and over time replace native plant communities. Invasive non-native plants often reproduce unusually successfully, for reasons that might include early maturation, self-fertility and high seed set, remarkable vegetative vitality, an ability to inhibit the growth of other species nearby (a phenomenon known as allelopathy), and others. Once established, invasive non-native plants usually maintain dominance over their neighbors often though allelopathy or by shading out other plants. Many non-native plants leaf out earlier in the spring and retain their leaves later than native woody species.  Invasive plants usually colonize new locations more efficiently than other species, and tend to thrive in disturbed habitats. Invasive plants have few significant pests or diseases in their new locations, although they may be prey to a number of pests in their native homeland.

Controlling invasive species

 Because most invasive plants are disturbance-adapted, the best way to prevent invasion is to minimize disturbance, especially near existing populations of pest species. Maintaining a forested buffer along a stream will help keep the bank intact and protected from a number of non-native plants. Other measures include avoiding using construction fill or topsoil that might contain seed or rhizomes of invasives. Of course, never purchase species known to be threats. Control methods for terrestrial plants include pulling out individuals, cutting and re-cutting until energy resources are exhausted, and burning.

Biological diversity

Biodiversity is often equated with species richness, or the number of species in any given area. However, to fully understand biodiversity one must consider the ecological complexes in which organisms naturally occur and the ways they interact with each other and their surroundings. In addition to species richness, biodiversity includes genetic diversity (variation within a species or population), higher taxonomic diversity (variety of living organisms in genera or families), community diversity (variety between groups of organisms interacting in the same habitat), and ecosystem diversity (variety of communities of organisms interacting with their physical environment).

Habitat islands

One of the threats to biological diversity is habitat fragmentation. Fragmentation occurs whenever a large, contiguous ecosystem is transformed into one or more smaller patches surrounded by disturbed areas. Loss of plant and animal diversity occurs directly from reduction of habitat and indirectly from the isolation of individuals and the reduction of available resources. The size of a habitat influences the number of species and the populations that it can support, but the surrounding habitat is just as important. Today, there are many small “islands” of protected greenspace surrounded by a “sea” of disturbed land making these greenspaces less likely to provide enough habitat for many species of wildlife.

Habitat destruction affects a much larger area than is actually destroyed. Destroying an area of habitat produces edges in adjoining habitats that are suddenly converted into spaces that are inadequate to maintain much of the previously established wildlife. These newly formed edge-habitats are vastly different from the interior of the original forest. For example, many species of woodland birds require protection from predators that is provided within a mature forest. Habitats that share a boundary with newly disturbed areas of land lose the vitality of their outermost areas. These new spaces adjoining a clearcut experience harsh desiccating sunlight, trees on the new frontline are directly impacted by high winds, and wildlife is exposed to predators that were excluded when forests surrounded the area.

You can improve conditions in your backyard, schoolyard  or other urban greenspace so that it attracts and supports a variety of wildlife. Planting an assortment of native trees, shrubs, vines, wildflowers and grasses will expand the biodiversity in your area. Even the best backyard habitats are modest contributions to the real and growing need to protect large-scale and ecologically intact ecosystems. Even so, you can make an immediate, and delightful, difference in your area and enrich your wildlife experiences at the same time.

A single backyard will not host every species that is found locally, but an area that provides food, water, shelter and a safe space will attract a great diversity of wildlife. An apartment balcony can supply some of the essentials for life for a limited number of species. A small backyard can provide for more species and a large, backyard with a variety of trees and a small pond will accommodate still greater numbers. If several  neighboring backyards, or a schoolyard, offer life support for wildlife the entire neighborhood will benefit with increased species richness.

Birding Adventures, Inc.

Georgann Schmalz


[email protected]