Birdscaping 101: How to Keep Birds Safe in the Garden
The last time a well-fed domestic cat crept into my backyard, utter pandemonium occurred. Crows let out loud warning cries, and sparrows, chickadees and nuthatches rapidly took flight. Meanwhile, I shouted out stern warnings, while my indoor cat ran for cover. Truth is that scare tactics sometimes work, but not always. It’s not easy keeping birds safe in the garden – especially if you like cats.
Most days, I feel confident that my backyard garden provides a safe refuge for wild birds, even during short stopovers during migratory flights. Birds face many challenges these days. Across North America, wild bird species are dwindling due to habitat loss, climate change, invasive plant species, fewer native plant and insect species and, yes, threats from domestic and feral cats.
Wildlife experts say that to create a garden for birds, we need to offer water, food, habitat and nesting spaces. These are intended to keep birds safe, and yet threats lurk in backyard habitats. Here are a few practical ways to reduce risks for our feathered friends.
A female red-winged blackbird perched on a branch.
Provide Safe Water
Birds require fresh water year-round. Providing and maintaining a birdbath, pond or stream is a good way to attract and keep birds healthy. A dirty birdbath, in contrast, harms birds by spreading pathogens and viruses. Stagnant pools attract mosquitoes that can also carry disease. West Nile virus, for instance, is a mosquito-borne disease that kills birds and can sometimes harm people, too.
I use a strong scrub brush to clean birdbaths daily, or sometimes even more often during summer heat waves and busy migratory periods in spring and fall. A garden hose with a high-pressure spray is useful. Following advice from the American-based National Audubon Society and Canadian Wildlife Federation, I avoid using hazardous synthetic soaps and cleaners. To remove algae, I scrub birdbaths with a solution of nine parts water to one part vinegar, letting them dry well before refilling. In the garden, a bubbler or circulating pump helps to keep water moving.
A regularly cleaned birdbath helps keep birds healthy.
Birdbaths can either be purchased or, if you’re handy, you can make one using reclaimed or recycled materials such as old ceramic or glass bowls and vintage dinner plates. If the surface is slippery, add some pea gravel and small stones to make it skid-free. Situate it farther than pouncing distance from thickets and other places where cats like to hide.
A palm warbler perched on a branch.
Offer Safe Food
Gardens filled with seed- and fruit-bearing trees and shrubs provide natural sources of food for birds, including insects. To attract winter birds, I hang outdoor feeders. Again, clean feeders are critical to the wellbeing of birds. Salmonella outbreaks, a common and often fatal bird disease caused by the bacteria, have been attributed to dirty feeders. Among finches and other wild bird species, there have been outbreaks of trichomonosis, a microscopic parasite that can be transmitted via moist birdseed. Clean feeders every week or two. Having an extra feeder is handy so they can be rotated and taken inside to clean and air-dry thoroughly for a day or two before refilling.
I use small, long-handled wire brushes to clean feeders, dissembling them, if possible, to remove debris. I then soak them for a few hours in a 50/50 mixture of water and vinegar, or use a recipe of one part non-toxic oxygen bleach to ten parts water. Afterward, I spread the parts on a clean, dry towel and allow them to air dry well before reassembling. I also wear gloves or wash my own hands after cleaning the feeders.
A Baltimore oriole perched on a feeder.
I purchase better-quality seed to avoid spoilage. I also use more reliable feeders to keep seed dry. Wet or damp feed should always be thrown out. It’s also wise to consider seed-specific varieties for different species, selecting ones that work best for your backyard birds to avoid waste, contamination and disease. Dispose of hulls and uneaten seeds found on the ground area beneath the feeders regularly. Remove unused suet in spring so it won’t go rancid. Avoid tying suet or other food with string that might get tangled in small claws and feet. Also, be careful with home recipes, as some may be harmful to birds. If you have multiple feeding stations, try to spread them across your property to avoid overcrowding.
Finally, when feeding hummingbirds, never use red dye, which can be harmful to these tiny birds. Hummingbird feeders, because of their sweet nectar solution, need to be changed every few days in hot weather.
A hummingbird feeds on nectar.
Create Safe Habitat
Collisions with windows cause millions of bird fatalities in North America each year. Windows reflect light and sky, causing birds to fly into them. Some cities, to their credit, are working to become more bird-friendly by specifying bird-safe window glazing and building designs. Meanwhile, homeowners can use window film or tape, appropriately placed, to help avoid bird crashes. You can also close curtains or pull down blinds. At night, turning off lights helps prevent after-dark collisions.
Consider safe places to position any bird feeder or bath. Feeders should either be placed close to a house – less than 0.9 metres (3 feet) away – so that any direct hit by a bird isn’t too hard, or farther away than three metres (10 feet) from windows to divert a bird’s attention away from the house.
A woodpecker taking advantage of a suet feeder.
If you grow vegetables or berries for home consumption, take care when using netting or wire. Pull it taut or instead use cloth covers to prevent birds from becoming tangled. Also, avoid pesticides and other chemicals that do harm to birds.
Safe backyard habitats for birds resemble miniature forests. They provide abundant trees and shrubs of varying heights to offer shelter from the elements and safety from predators. A dense planting, such as a thicket or hedgerow, is ideal. Native species appropriate for your zone and growing conditions work best. In my own backyard, native viburnum, elderberry, serviceberry, spruce and Eastern cedar grow well.
A cedar waxwing sits among the coniferous trees.
Maintain Safe Nesting Places
Birds also need safe places to rear their young in trees and shrubs, including dead trees called ‘snags’. Birdhouses, which provide artificial nesting sites, also need to be safe. That means finding a good spot to shade them from extreme mid-day temperatures and ensuring the entrance faces away from prevailing winds. After breeding season, birdhouses should be cleaned to keep out mice, parasites and insects that can harm birds. I learned the hard way to always use portal entryway protectors to stop squirrels and other predators from entering. Birdhouses need proper placement heights and different locations, depending on what bird species you hope to attract.
A well-hidden red-winged blackbird nest.
Helping Injured Birds
A bird stunned by a window crash may recover. Temporarily putting it in a shady spot in a well-ventilated cardboard box with holes and a lid will help keep it safe from backyard predators. Birds with injuries may need to be safely transported to a wildlife rehabilitation center. Check local resources. Fortunately, trained volunteers and staff at my own local wild bird center help to rescue thousands of injured birds annually before rehabilitating them back to the wild.
A Boreal owl released after rehabilitation.
Text by Julianne Labreche
Photos by Barbara Adams
Julianne Labreche is a freelance writer and garden enthusiast who volunteers as a Master Gardener and Master Naturalist in Ottawa.
Barbara Adams is a member of the North America Nature Photography Association and a volunteer with the Ottawa Wild Bird Care Centre.