Special features

Five backyards that birds love

How the owners of five very different properties turned their yards into rich habitats for birds
By Matt Mendenhall, Managing Editor | Published: 4/1/2014

backyards-0414-330Birds have four basic requirements for survival: food, water, cover, and places to raise young. Parks, refuges, and other protected areas fill these needs, and so can you.

Just about any property — a backyard, a schoolyard, an apartment-building rooftop, you name it — can provide habitat for birds and other wildlife. In fact, more than 170,000 gardens and other green spaces across America have earned the National Wildlife Federation’s endorsement as Certified Wildlife Habitat.

In our April 2012 issue, we featured five of them, and now we’re thrilled to present five more. They include yards in vastly different areas — urban, suburban, rural — but their owners share a common commitment to creating havens for winged neighbors.

“We’ve had homes with non-native lawns and plants in the past, and the biological diversity is practically zero,” says Lynne Weber of Austin, Texas. Her yard is one we’re featuring. “We enjoy restoring ecosystems and all the denizens those healthy habitats bring.”

Another gardener we profile, Vanessa Rusczyk, who lives east of San Diego, California, notes that a more natural yard benefits more than wildlife. “I look forward to sighting the first oriole in the spring, seeing coveys of quail, and watching Red-tailed Hawks with their young each season,” she says. “Gardening for wildlife provides year-round entertainment and beauty right outside my door.”

Watery refuge

Nine baths, a fountain, and a creek in Charlotte, North Carolina

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GOOD, CLEAN WATER: Regular bathers in Ernie McLaney’s yard include bluebirds, nuthatches, grosbeaks, and orioles. Photo by Ernie McLaney

Ernie McLaney learned about birds as a child, from his two grandfathers. Both were backyard birders who were happy to share their knowledge. Today, McLaney honors their memories by landscaping his suburban Charlotte, North Carolina, yard for wildlife.

His 0.44-acre property has many trees, including oaks, tulip poplars, Virginia pines, dogwoods, and eastern redcedars. In the last 12 years, McLaney and his wife have planted red bottlebrush buckeye, elderberry, arrowwood viburnum, and other native shrubs, trumpet honeysuckle and other vines, and trees such as wax myrtle, black cherry, and eastern redbud. They continually work to replace open grass with more wildlife-friendly plants.

The yard attracts bluebirds, finches, hawks, and nuthatches year-round, and spring and fall visitors have included Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Hermit Thrush, Baltimore Oriole, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, and, once, a surprise from the west: Rufous Hummingbird.

Wildlife can usually find natural foods much easier than a good, clean source of water, says McLaney, so he has six standard-size bird baths, three small bird baths, a large three-tier fountain, and a five-foot recirculating creek made from molded plastic. He also has nest boxes for bluebirds, nuthatches, and House Wrens, and a nesting platform for robins.

“My goal is to have various plants that offer food and beauty throughout the year,” he says. “I have berries available at both spring and fall migration, camellias that bloom in the winter, summer fruit, and plants just for wildlife cover and places to raise young.”

Yard highlights

• Trumpet creeper to attract hummingbirds.

• Nine bird baths, plus three drippers and misters in summer, replaced by bird-bath heaters in winter.

• Two hummingbird feeders, two suet feeders, three tube feeders, and four hopper feeders.

• Two brush piles, several piles of stacked logs, two compost bins, rock piles, and snags.

• A perfect view of an occupied Barred Owl nest box just across the back fence.

Wooded retreat

A lakeside property left natural near Vergas, Minnesota

FLOWERS AND FEEDERS: In Terry and Darlene Paulson’s yard, the hibiscus flowers at right are hummingbird favorites, and the jelly and nectar feeders attract orioles. Photo by Terry Paulson

FLOWERS AND FEEDERS: In Terry and Darlene Paulson’s yard, the hibiscus flowers at right are hummingbird favorites, and the jelly and nectar feeders attract orioles. Photo by Terry Paulson

After spending more than 30 years in cities in South Dakota and North Dakota, retired teachers Terry and Darlene Paulson moved a decade ago to a 1.5-acre lot on a lake a few miles from Vergas in west-central Minnesota. They decided on day one to make their yard friendly to wildlife.

When they arrived, the property already had many native trees, including maple, oak, basswood, and birch, and they have since added Black Hills spruce. They’ve also planted viburnum, lilac, and other shrubs. The Paulsons also grow native wildflowers such as goldenrod and bluebells, prairie grasses, ground covers, and vines.

Their home isn’t far from the popular birding area around Detroit Lakes, which hosts a birdwatching festival each spring. Baltimore Oriole, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Wood Duck, Tree Swallow, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak visit their yard from spring through fall. And year-round birds include Black-capped Chickadee, Wild Turkey, and four woodpeckers: Downy, Hairy, Red-bellied, and Pileated.

“Since moving to the lake,” says Terry, “we now see wildlife as we never did when living in the city. It has become a hobby and a joy to foster and maintain an environment friendly to birds and other wildlife.

“We purposely left at least half of our lot natural for this reason. There is nothing more peaceful and entertaining than seeing orioles feeding and hearing their beautiful song or hummingbirds zooming by our heads while we sit on the deck.”

Yard highlights

• Dogwood, viburnum, and other shrubs, and many perennials such as lilies, echinacea, and sedum.

• At least five tree species.

• Two bird baths, one of which is heated in winter.

• A dozen nesting boxes, plus standing dead trees with hollows.

• 150 feet of shoreline on East Spirit Lake, home of loons, herons, kingfishers, eagles, and Trumpeter Swans.

Native oasis

45 types of native plants added in urban Shoreline, Washington

BERRIES YEAR-ROUND: Christine Southwick has observed more than 80 bird species in her yard. Photo by Christine Southwick

BERRIES YEAR-ROUND: Christine Southwick has observed more than 80 bird species in her yard. Photo by Christine Southwick

Christine Southwick’s quarter-acre yard in urban Shoreline, Washington, north of Seattle, adjoins a 16-acre park that features wetlands, woods, and ponds. Over the years, Southwick, who serves as president of the Puget Sound Bird Observatory, has added to the abundance of the neighborhood’s bird-friendly habitat by planting more than 45 types of native plants in her yard.

Only a weeping willow and a white pine stood in the lawn when she moved in 12 years ago. Today the yard has lots of berry-producing shrubs, such as serviceberry, red and blue elderberries, snowberry, thimbleberry, redcurrant, and red-twig dogwood; many trees, including flowering dogwood, native and non-native crabapples, and western redcedar; plus ferns, azaleas, and columbine.

The goal, Southwick says, was to produce valuable habitat for birds. “I may not be able to save as much habitat as I wish, nor as much as I think migrating and native birds need, but I can help by making my yard an oasis, and by encouraging neighbors to do the same.”

Her efforts are paying off. Her yard list exceeds 80 species. Every winter she sees Varied Thrush, Townsend’s Warbler, and Fox Sparrow. Chickadees, wrens, woodpeckers, and Spotted Towhees are resident, and migration seasons have produced MacGillivray’s Warbler, Western Tanager, and Hermit and Swainson’s Thrushes.

A licensed bird bander, Southwick has also banded birds in winter. One year, she recorded no fewer than nine Anna’s Hummingbirds.

Yard highlights

• Year-round berries from a variety of bird-friendly shrubs.

• Circulating fountain, mister, and three shallow catch-basins.

• Nest boxes for chickadees and Bewick’s Wren.

• Three feeding stations with three or four feeders each, plus two hummingbird feeders, all maintained year-round.

• A large cottonwood that adjoins the yard has provided a perch for a Bald Eagle.

• Lots of cutting flowers, most of which produce seeds in late summer.

Southwestern sanctuary

A student becomes a teacher in warm, dry Alpine, California

PLANTS THAT WORK: In Vanessa Rusczyk’s garden, pinkish purple Canary Island sage blooms at center while Cleveland sage, native to southern California, grows at far right. Photo by Vanessa Rusczyk

PLANTS THAT WORK: In Vanessa Rusczyk’s garden, pinkish purple Canary Island sage blooms at center while Cleveland sage, native to southern California, grows at far right. Photo by Vanessa Rusczyk

Vanessa and Richard Rusczyk moved from a small suburban lot in New Jersey to a 17-acre property on the outskirts of Alpine, California, about 30 miles east of San Diego, in 1999. Vanessa soon discovered a great local resource: the annual Sage and Songbirds Garden Tour hosted by the non-profit Center to Help Instill Respect and Preservation for Garden Wildlife.

“My first forays into gardening were relatively unsuccessful, since I had never gardened before,” she says. But after attending the tour, volunteering with the group, and learning from its friendly members, her yard has never been the same. “As the years went by, I learned more about what plants work in our local area and which are best for supporting wildlife.”

Native chaparral plants now grow on most of the property, providing lots of wildlife habitat. Vanessa gardens approximately two acres, growing a mix of California natives and drought-tolerant Mediterranean plants that do well in the warm, dry climate. A small pond with a waterfall, a 50-foot manmade creek, and several small fountains provide lots of water for birds.

Coveys of California Quail occur almost year-round, as do a few hummingbird species. Bullock’s, Scott’s, and Hooded Orioles nest, and Vanessa has tallied about 40 other species. Best of all, she has been able to share her secrets with other gardeners; last year, her yard was featured on the Sage and Songbirds Garden Tour.

Yard highlights

• Flowers of manzanita plants attract hummingbirds, and other birds and animals eat the berries.

• Oak trees provide acorns and nesting habitat for birds.

• Ceanothus shrubs offer cover for quail and other ground-nesting birds.

• Aloe flowers for hummingbirds.

• 800-square-foot walk-in butterfly house hosts native butterflies spring through fall.

Canyonland preserve

A home for the rare Golden-cheeked Warbler in Austin, Texas

100 TYPES OF PLANTS: Yellow longspur columbine, purple wine cup flowers, and red autumn sage bloom beside a tiered waterfall in Jim and Lynne Weber’s front yard. Photo by Jim and Lynne Weber

100 TYPES OF PLANTS: Yellow longspur columbine, purple wine cup flowers, and red autumn sage bloom beside a tiered waterfall in Jim and Lynne Weber’s front yard. Photo by Jim and Lynne Weber

In 2007, after decades of birding, Lynne and Jim Weber expanded their interest in nature. They graduated from the Texas Master Naturalist Program, intensive training designed to help people become stewards of nature in their local communities. Since then, they have turned their yard and their Austin, Texas, neighborhood into remarkable, valuable habitat for wildlife.

The Webers’ home sits on only 0.18 acres, but they also own an adjacent eight acres behind all the houses on their side of the street. Known as Woody Hollow, the property is protected by a conservation easement and is managed as part of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve system, which protects habitat for endangered species in Austin and Travis County.

The yard and Woody Hollow contain more than 100 types of plants, most of which are native to Texas. The Webers have planted trees, shrubs, perennials, grasses, ferns, vines, and ground covers, all for the benefit of wildlife. They’ve counted 13 mammal species, 18 dragonflies and damselflies, 23 reptiles and amphibians, 85 butterflies, and 104 birds.

They also maintain seed and hummingbird feeders and bird baths. Three nest boxes for screech-owls dot the property, and many birds nest in the native vegetation. By far their most unusual species is the endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler, which nests on their land. Gardening for nature, says Lynne, “gives us a sense of place, and a sense of wonder.”

Yard highlights

• Ashe juniper, Texas red oak, cottonwood, and other large trees.

• Several plants endemic to the Edwards Plateau, including canyon mock orange, a type of hydrangea, and scarlet clematis, a vine with bell-shaped flowers.

• More than three dozen perennials, including purple coneflower, common sunflower, and tropical milkweed.

• Dogwoods, hollies, and other shrubs.

• Last winter, hummingbird feeders attracted an overwintering Rufous Hummingbird.

Lone Star Warbler

YARD BIRD: The Webers photographed this Golden-cheeked Warbler at Woody Hollow. Photo by Jim and Lynne Weber

YARD BIRD: The Webers photographed this Golden-cheeked Warbler at Woody Hollow. Photo by Jim and Lynne Weber

Not only is the endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler one of North America’s rarest birds, it’s the only bird species whose population nests entirely in the state of Texas.

The warbler spends the winter in southern Mexico and Central America, but its breeding range is restricted to 33 counties in central Texas, including Travis County, where Jim and Lynne Weber live.

The warbler prefers steep wooded canyons possessing a mix of mature ashe juniper (also known as mountain or blueberry cedar) and deciduous trees. It uses the long, stringy juniper bark along with spider webs to build its nest.

Decades ago, cedar eradication and wildfire suppression destroyed much of the bird’s habitat, and now urban sprawl is a primary threat. To help, and to protect habitat for other native plants and animals of the Texas Hill Country, a system of habitat preserves known as the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve was created in 1996. Woody Hollow, the property the Webers manage, is part of the preserve system. You can read more about the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve at www.co.travis.tx.us/tnr/bccp/bc_preserve.asp.

Matt Mendenhall is the Managing Editor of BirdWatching magazine.