According to the North American Bird Conservation Initiative’s 2016 State of the Birds report, a whopping 37% of North American bird species are in need of urgent conservation action. That’s 432 species. Most of these birds have been dropping in numbers for decades, and the causes are varied, the biggest threats being habitat loss, pollution, climate change, invasive plants and predators, and collision with windows, cars, power lines, and other things we make.
This situation can seem pretty grim, considering that these threats often occur on a global scale. How much can you and I as individuals reduce carbon emissions? How much can one person do to save the habitat of a species that breeds in Canada, winters in South America, and spends weeks migrating thousands of miles in between? Ultimately, we can’t solve such issues without strong conservation programs carried out by our national governments.
However, conservation usually requires the local efforts of concerned citizens as well. There really is a good deal that you and I can do on an individual level to help birds, starting in our own backyards! The combined efforts of ordinary people have done a lot to benefit birds in the past, and it seems likely that the public’s role in conservation will only continue to increase in this era of social media. Let’s take a look at some of the best things you can do to make your backyard a safe haven for birds and even a science lab!
While most species that visit feeders are fairly common, feeding them may act as a sort of safeguard against growing threats and ensure that their populations remain strong for decades to come. Setting up feeders is also the easiest way to attract birds to your yard in general. There are several common types of feeders, which hold different kinds of food and attract different sets of birds.
Regardless of the type of feeder, it is important to clean regularly and change out any old seed that doesn’t get eaten. This keeps mold from growing, and it also helps prevent the spread of avian diseases. If the feeder is on a pole, it is usually necessary to put up a squirrel guard, since squirrels usually don’t like sharing with the birds. Also, avoid placing feeders below or next to tree branches where squirrels might be able to jump off from. Be sure that there are no dense shrubs right next to the feeder from which cats might be able to ambush birds feeding on seed spilled on the ground.
Putting out a bird bath is a simple way to add to the effect created by your feeders. This will attract even more birds to your yard, help them stay clean, and provide a reliable source of drinking water in case of a drought.
Plant native plants: Millions upon millions of homeowners maintain a yard that is little more than a lawn of mowed grass. The only bird species you will regularly find feeding in an empty lawn is the robin, and no one is going to nest there. Imagine if all these homeowners converted their millions of acres of lawns into gardens overflowing with nesting habitat and food for birds!
Making your yard into habitat for birds doesn’t have to take lots of time or money. In fact, it can even save you time and money! By simply letting a portion of your lawn go unmowed, you are allowing for the development of a more diverse plant community that will, as it grows up, support an abundant supply of insects and seed-producing plants. Sparrows and finches, among others, will most definitely enjoy this patch of food.
If you want to get more involved, you can transform your whole yard into a complex plant community catering to a wide variety of birds in all seasons. To start off with, it is best practice to use plants that are native to your region. By planting native flowers, shrubs, and trees, you are contributing to plant conservation, supporting native pollinators, and avoiding the spread of invasive plants. Also, birds are often better adapted to native plants anyway. It’s a good idea to plant a few shrubs and trees, which provide shelter from the elements and from predators, and may with time provide attractive nesting sites! Audubon has a great native plants database where you can just enter your zip code and find out what plants are best for your area. The database also allows you to search by what type of bird you want to attract. Another wonderful online resource is Habitat Network, where you can see gardens that others have created and even create a virtual map of your backyard to help plan where and what you will plant.
Provide bird houses: Once you have a little bit of habitat and food sources in your yard, you can start setting up bird houses to provide a place for potential residents to raise a family. Many species nest only inside cavities, meaning that providing them with a nest box may be the only way they can nest in your area if natural tree cavities are lacking. Make sure that the nest box you use is designed specifically for the species you are trying to attract since most species have a narrow set of preferences regarding size and shape.
Perhaps the species most in need of nest boxes from a conservation perspective is the Purple Martin. This graceful bird has mysteriously declined by nearly forty percent in recent decades. Setting up a few houses in your backyard is a great way to help out this bird in need. Just keep in mind - as with all species in general - that you might have to wait a few years before birds discover and use your nest boxes. Once they do, you will likely find that the same pair or their offspring return year after year.
Avoid pesticides: Toxic chemicals found in lawn treatments, fungicides, insecticides, and rat poison may poison the birds in your lawn, as well as the entire local ecosystem. Across North America, grassland species have suffered particularly severe decline, likely as a result of the application of insecticides to agricultural fields. The same process could be at work in backyards. It is best to avoid these chemicals entirely, but if pesticides are necessary, try to be as efficient as possible with their use. National Geographic reports that a group of pesticides called neonicotinoids are particularly harmful to birds. Diazinon, Bacillus thuringiensis, and sevin are also known to be toxic to birds. Safer alternatives include applying insecticidal soap directly to the pests, or in the case of rodents, using traps. And remember, the unfortunate truth is that chemicals harmful to birds are likely harmful to humans as well!
Keep Cats Indoors
Keep cats indoors: Sometimes it is hard for cat lovers to hear this piece of news, but cats are among the biggest threats to birds worldwide. Within the past several hundred years, humans have brought cats to many regions of the world (such as the Americas) where they had never been before, where local birds are not adapted to defend themselves against this predator. The American Bird Conservancy estimates that outdoor cats kill about 2.4 billion birds each year in the United States alone. If you have an outdoor cat, bringing it indoors could be one of the best things you can do for birds. Likewise, please do not feed feral cats, and if there are feral cats on your property, consider trapping them and bringing them to a pet shelter.
If for whatever reason you absolutely cannot keep your cat inside, be sure it is spayed or neutered so that it doesn’t contribute to the feral cat problem, and consider sprucing up your cat with a large, colorful collar to act as a warning flag to birds.
Avoid Light Pollution
Turn off outdoor lights: Yet another change we have brought all over the planet, just in the past couple of centuries, is the illumination of our night skies with artificial lights. Scientists refer to this phenomenon as “light pollution,” as it not only prevents us from seeing the stars and planets but also has negative effects on many animals that are adapted to the rhythm of day and night, light and darkness. Birds, for instance, often rely on the positions of celestial lights to navigate during migration, and competing for artificial lights from cities distracts birds and causes the real stars to fade. In the case of particularly large, bright lights, migrating birds are often fatally attracted and end up circling around for hours until they collapse from exhaustion. If you need an outdoor light at night, consider setting up a motion-triggered light, or check with the International Dark Sky Association to find a type of lighting that minimizes pollution.
Become A Citizen Scientist
Become a citizen scientist: By reporting the birds you see coming to your feeders, nesting in your bird houses, or feeding in your backyard, you can help scientists understand how bird populations are changing! Every year in February since 1998, there is a weekend called the Great Backyard Bird Count, when thousands of people all across the world take a look around their yards and submit lists of what they see and hear. All these lists combined create a sort of snapshot of bird abundance and distribution which scientists can compare with previous years. This yearly snapshot helps alert scientists if a bird’s population is falling, tells them how climate change and weather are affecting birds, and allows them to see if timing or pattern of migration is changing.
If you want to be involved throughout the whole winter, check out FeederWatch, a citizen science program run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. All you have to do is take a few minutes every so often to make a list of the birds you see at your feeder. And in case you want to be a citizen scientist all year-round, take a look at eBird, the biggest program of them all. eBird has the ambitious goal of collecting bird lists from not only backyards and feeders, but from all points on the globe!
If you have birds nesting in your backyard, whether the nests are natural or inside a house, you have set up, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has yet another citizen science program which wants your data: NestWatch. All it takes is visiting the nest every three or four days and reporting what you see on their website. Not only does this program help scientists, but it also gives you a fun excuse to peek in on your birds and watch the nestlings from the time they hatch to when they leave the nest!