Planning Your Garden
Designing a garden with birds in mind can make a big difference in a very short time. You can start small and gradually transform your outdoor space. Here, we help you design a diverse, attractive outdoor space that includes the crucial life-saving elements of food, water, and shelter.
Get to know your space
Getting curious about your outdoor space is the first step to successful gardening for birds. Try to get a sense of your yard by looking at key elements like soil, moisture, and light conditions. This will help you decide what plants to include and where to put them. Developing a site-appropriate plan with attention to detail is an important step for a successful bird garden.
Soil and Moisture
Putting a shovel in the ground at different areas around your yard and examining the soil type can help you determine what plant species are likely to thrive in your area. Does the soil feel dry, well-drained, and sandy? Or, does it hold water because it’s hard-packed and clay? Or, is it soggy, with a lot of organic matter? Conditions may vary in different parts of your yard, so assess each area where you are planning to plant.
What areas of your yard receive the most sunlight throughout the day? Are there some spots that are always shaded by trees or buildings? Are there areas that receive a mix of sun and shade every day? Some plants love sun, and some don’t, so getting a sense of how much sunlight different areas in your outdoor space receive will help you plan more effectively.
As you plan your bird garden, take into consideration the surrounding area, including neighbouring gardens or an adjacent green space. What kinds of plants grow there? You may want to increase the plant diversity of your local area by including species that differ from what is currently present. Or, you may want to build upon nearby features – for example, by creating a larger conifer corner for enhanced shelter or windbreaks. If neighboring trees shade your yard, it may be hard to establish a pollinator garden, but those trees could offer the opportunity to create a forested habitat garden instead.
Elements to Include
Maximum Native Plant Diversity
Aim to plant species that naturally occur in your region (native species), and avoid non-native, invasive exotics. Plants that already grow in your specific region are likely well adapted to the soil and climate. It’s also likely that they have co-evolved with the native fauna in your area and may increase the insect diversity available as food for birds. Many invasive exotic plant species, including some originally introduced as ornamental garden plants, have contributed to complex and at times devastating ecological problems. However, even some native species can become aggressive in a garden setting, depending on the conditions of your property, while not all exotic species are invasive and likely to spread out of control.
Some bird species may have specific habitat preferences at certain times of the year and different requirements at other times. Some species prefer to forage in the tree canopy, while others sing from the tops of shrubs, and some nest in grass thickets on the ground. Some species take cover in dense vegetation, and others prefer an open line of sight to defend their territory. An outdoor space with plenty of diversity – a variety of native plant species, various heights, mix of densely planted and open areas, dust baths, or brush piles, for example – can cater to the diverse habitat preferences of various species. Think “less lawn, more garden” when designing your outdoor space. A heavily manicured lawn requires frequent mowing and costly maintenance; by reducing it in size, you can create an attractive yard that also provides healthy habitat for wildlife.
Some species of plants produce seeds or fruit during the spring and summer, and others hold onto their fruit and seeds long into the fall and winter. Native grasses can produce nutrient-rich seeds, shrubs can produce nuts and berries, and flowers can attract insects that are particularly important for insectivores (birds that feed on insects) – a group now facing steep population declines. By including a range of “food-bearing” plant species in your garden, you can provide food for birds between and within seasons. You may also wish to use bird feeders to provide a supplementary food source for resident birds. If you have bird feeders and want an easy way to turn your birdwatching into conservation action, check out Project FeederWatch!
Birds may choose specific habitat features to protect them from the elements or avoid detection by predators. Trees, clusters of shrubs, or dense ground cover can make it safer for birds to move during migration, forage within their home range, and defend their territory. Your plantings can also provide sheltered habitat where birds can safely nest and roost throughout the year. Adding small, abrupt changes in elevation, even a rock wall, can create hiding places or habitat for birds or ground-dwelling wildlife. Placing appropriately sized and situated nest boxes around your property may also attract breeding birds, which can be recorded through Project NestWatch.
Soil: freepik. Sunlight: Grant Davis. Surrounding area: Natasha Barlow.