Inspiring backyards

How birdwatchers in five states turned their yards into sanctuaries for birds — and how you can, too
By Matt Mendenhall | Published: 2/24/2012

BRD-B0412_500

In a survey last fall, we asked readers what they did that attracted the most birds to their yards. The response was enormous! Many birdwatchers described using a wide variety of feeders, as well as ponds, bird baths, and other water sources. And more than a fourth of our readers said they choose shrubs, wildflowers, and trees that birds love.

A reply from Beth Thomas in Columbus, Ohio, especially caught our attention. She joined forces with her neighbor Linda Procker to use bird-friendly flowers and other plants to attract hummingbirds, goldfinches, and other species to both yards.

Here you’ll meet Beth and her neighbor, as well as four birders whose yards are among the 150,000 across the United States that the National Wildlife Federation recognizes as Certified Wildlife Habitats. The long-­running certification program honors homeowners, apartment dwellers, and schools for providing birds and other animals with food, water, cover, and places to raise young. Learn more about it — and how to get your yard certified — on NWF’s website.

Scroll down for slideshows and descriptions of the beautiful yards. You’ll also find advice gleaned from the hundreds of survey respondents who shared their secrets to attracting lots of birds. And as a bonus, we describe NWF’s efforts to certify wildlife habitats in communities across the country.

Urban oasis in the Midwest

Neighboring yards work as one in Columbus, Ohio

  • Linda Procker's backyard includes sunflowers, bee balm, red canna, a bird bath, a koi pond, and a line of mature evergreens in the background.

  • A stunning mix of red and pink impatiens, blue salvias, and other flowers covers Linda's front flowerbed.

  • A Ruby-throated Hummingbird approaches a black-and-blue salvia flower.

  • Climbing vines and potted plants decorate a privacy fence that separates Linda and Beth's backyards, creating more habitat for birds and what Beth calls "a superhighway for squirrels."

  • A Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeds at a pink zinnia.

OH inset

PEOPLE WHO WALK PAST Linda Procker’s front flowerbed in Columbus, Ohio, can’t help but stop and admire her handiwork. A stunning mix of red and pink impatiens, blue salvias, and other flowers covers the yard and abuts the sidewalk. Hummingbirds visit, especially in spring and fall, and buzz from flower to flower, sipping nectar.

Beth Thomas, a BirdWatching subscriber, has the good fortune of living next door to Linda. Five years ago, Beth began taking pictures of the birds and plants in Linda’s yard. Linda liked the photos so much that she gave Beth access to her backyard, which is full of even more bird-friendly plants.

Linda also began sharing gardening tips with Beth and gave her starts of a few plants, so she could attract the birds to her yard, too. Now the two yards together offer a sizable oasis to hummingbirds, goldfinches, woodpeckers, and other birds in the middle of busy Columbus.

Coneflowers, a grape arbor, red cannas, bee balm, lilacs, zinnias, and petunias are available to the birds. Climbing vines, potted plants, and bird feeders decorate a privacy fence that separates their backyards, creating more habitat for winged visitors. The birds also find refuge in the neighbors’ large trees, including a magnolia and dogwoods.

“Even though our yards are smaller and we live in an urban setting and have all four seasons,” Beth explains, “we still have a lot of wildlife and great yards for them to visit.”

READER TIP: ATTRACT TANAGERS

To attract tanagers, put out a leaky hummer feeder with a high dose of sugar to attract bees and wasps. That will bring any tanager in the yard for days. — Nancy Threadgall, Clarksville, Tennessee

Home in the desert

Water stations and wildflowers near Tucson, Arizona

  • Autumn sage plants grow behind benches in Ellen's yard.

  • A female Costa's Hummingbird perches on the edge of Ellen's bird bath.

  • A Curve-billed Thrasher perches in one of Ellen's cholla cacti.

  • Yellow brittlebush blooms in spring amid cacti.

  • Yellow flowers bloom on Englemann's prickly pear cacti, and red flowers grow atop a red torch cactus near a fence in Ellen's yard.

AZ inset

ELLEN FOUNTAIN HAS BEEN gardening for wildlife for more than two decades. Her first home in Tucson, Arizona, earned Certified Wildlife Habitat status in the 1980s. In 2001, when she moved to Sweetwater in the Foothills, a community just west of the city, her yard was the first in the neighborhood to become certified.

Her 3.3-acre property has two self-filling water stations and two water fountains that attract quail, hummingbirds, thrashers, and other species.

Ellen has also planted native wildflowers such as wooly desert marigolds, penstemon, desert verbena, and fairy duster, as well as flowering shrubs (salvias, chuparosa, desert honeysuckle, and little leaf cordia), and cacti. Trees around her house include desert willow, willow acacia, velvet and hybrid mesquites, ironwood, and palo verde.

“I like our desert trees because once grown to a reasonable size, they begin to provide a microclimate beneath them, where plants that prefer filtered sun rather than the full-blast variety will thrive,” Ellen says. “They also provide shade for wildlife during the hottest part of our summer days, and of course, the native mesquite and palo verdes are also food and nesting resources.”

READER TIP: PEANUT BUTTER SUET

Peanut butter suet attracts a larger variety of birds to my yard than anything else. I put the suet in a dead limb with four 1 1/2″ holes drilled in it. It is fitted with a piece of removable rebar that holds it upright and makes it easy to move anywhere in the yard. Birds started coming to feed last fall, and this summer I was thrilled to see parent birds feed their young ones from it. Just this week, a male cardinal brought his three youngsters and fed them. At least 18 different kinds of birds have feasted on the suet that I make. I have enjoyed more birds and better pictures because of it. — Susan Byerly, Rural Retreat, Virginia

Refuge in the Pacific Northwest

Shade and sunshine on Camano Island, Washington

  • The collection of bee balm, Helenium, and purple salvia flowers at center attracts hummingbirds. In the background, two suet feeders, a hopper feeder, and a nyjer thistle sock hang from a wire, making them squirrel- and deer-proof.

  • A wide variety of plants grows just off Linda's deck. The tall plant at right with tiny purple flowers and tall spires of pointed leaves is purple toadflax. At left in front of the cedar stump is Autumn Joy sedum, a greenish white plant that will turn pink as it matures and attract lots of bees, butterflies, and birds in summer and fall.

  • A Fox Sparrow forages in Linda's yard.

  • A pine white butterfly, native to western North America, alights on a yellow coreopsis flower in Linda's garden. The pink flowers nearby are a type of penstemon known as 'Burgundy Beauty Beardtongue.'

  • Pearly everlasting, a favorite of butterflies, blooms in Linda's yard.

WA inset

LINDA WEBB CREDITS HER FATHER, two birds, and a stranger for inspiring her to turn her yard into a place for wildlife.

As a child, her dad taught her to care about such wild neighbors as spiders, snakes, and baby birds. Later, as a young adult, she heard the songs of two birds in her neighborhood and didn’t know what they were. She bought a field guide and eventually discovered she was hearing a Northern Flicker and a Varied Thrush. “That’s what really started my interest in birds that has carried through to this day,” she says.

And in 1995, after she bought a two-and-a-half-acre plot of land on Camano Island, about an hour’s drive north of Seattle, Washington, a stranger left a flier on her fence. It described the benefits of creating wildlife habitat and how to certify a yard with NWF. “That sounded great, and by 1998 or so, my yard was certified,” she recalls.

Today Linda’s yard is home to hundreds of plants that thrive in the mild Pacific Northwest climate. The yard has dry shady areas, evergreens, native thickets, rock gardens for lizards, two hummingbird gardens, a group of bird baths, and a bubbling fountain that attracts lots of wildlife.

She has enjoyed watching Dark-eyed Juncos and Mourning Doves nest on her property. And her yard list, at 51 species and counting, includes Black-headed Grosbeak, Red Crossbill, Wilson’s Warbler, Rufous Hummingbird, and the birds that sparked her interest so many years ago: Northern Flicker and Varied Thrush.

READER TIP: MOSS ATTRACTS BIRDS

I went into the bush and pulled out dead branches with moss and fungi on them. I tied them up around the feeders for perches. The birds use them all the time before flying on to the feeder. I also keep them wet so the moss keeps growing. I see the birds picking at the moss every day. — Richard Chamberland, Beaumont, Alberta

Paradise in the lowcountry

Nature left alone on Callawassie Island, South Carolina

  • A walking path in Dorothy's backyard snakes between ferns and native yaupon holly. A snag of a live oak tree just right of center shows it's a clear favorite of woodpeckers.

  • A Yellow-throated Warbler perches on a peanut feeder.

  • Yellow lantana plants bloom in Dorothy's front yard. At left is a sabal palm tree. In the background, among the shadows in native hardwood trees, is a snag of a red oak that was struck by lightning. It was left standing for the benefit of woodpeckers and sapsuckers.

  • Dorothy's side yard includes sabal palm, southern magnolia, and loblolly pine trees. She also grows perennials such as swamp milkweed, lantana, coral bean, and pineapple sage (small red flowers at center).

  • A Tricolored Heron perches on a branch near a freshwater pond in the backyard.

SC inset

TWELVE YEARS AGO, AFTER Dorothy Mosior and her husband had retired, they moved from the Chicago suburbs to Callawassie Island, about 10 miles from the Atlantic coast in southern South Carolina. Their house sits on a half-acre lot with a freshwater pond in the backyard.

For butterflies and hummingbirds, Dorothy maintains a side-yard garden that includes swamp milkweed, honeysuckle, pineapple salvia, and lantana plants.

In the backyard, she’s planted a shade garden next to the house, and she has ferns in hanging baskets along with bird feeders, but for the most part, she allows nature to take over. Native trees such as wax myrtles, yaupon, and live oak provide lots of shade in the back and along the edge of the pond.

A few years ago, lightning struck a red oak in the yard, killing the tree. Rather than have it removed, the Mosiors left the trunk standing because it’s a favorite of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers and other woodpeckers.

The payoff for cultivating plants native to the South Carolina lowcountry is that her property is “blessed with birds,” as Dorothy says. She has seen and photographed warblers, egrets, herons, flycatchers, wrens, chickadees, waxwings, sparrows, and (in summer) Painted Buntings. One winter, an immature female Baltimore Oriole hung around for the season. “She was so beautiful,” Dorothy recalls.

“I love the birds,” she says. “What can I say? I find them to be fascinating. There’s always so much to learn about them.”

READER TIP: ADD BRUSH PILES

When we moved into our current home two-plus years ago, there was no cover for birds (or plants for seeds, etc.) in the backyard. One of my first steps was to create two brush piles and then begin bird- and butterfly-friendly plants near the brush piles. This summer, I had towhees and Brown Thrashers as regular visitors in addition to the typical finches, cardinals, chickadees, etc. — Diana Rudloff, Pennsburg, Pennsylvania

Sanctuary on a busy street

Pesticide- and chemical-free in Montclair, New Jersey

  • A delightful mix of purple coneflowers, black-eyed Susans, liatris, coreopsis, and coral bells decorates Jose and Dave's front yard.

  • Monarch butterflies feed on grapefruit in a dish feeder.

  • Pink and purple beardtongue grow in the butterfly garden, as well as two grasses: blue fescue, and dropseed grass. A trumpet honeysuckle vine adorns the arbor in the background. The two tall yellow flowers in the foreground are a rare variety of echinacea.

  • A redbud tree grows next to signs declaring the yard's benefits to wildlife. To the tree's left is purple monarda (bee balm). The short spiky plant with purple blooms next to the stones is liatris. Purple coneflowers are behind the signs, and behind the green "Welcome" banner is Oakleaf hydrangea.

  • Bright red leaves and berries grow on a serviceberry tree. It is popular with catbirds, waxwings, and other birds.

NJ inset

A SMALL LOT ON A BUSY STREET didn’t stop Jose German and Dave Wasmuth from turning their property into a wildlife habitat.

Their yard in Montclair, New Jersey, measures 45 feet by 135 feet. When they learned about NWF’s Certified Wildlife Habitat program in 2002, “we fell in love with the idea,” Jose says. They immediately began to select plants that would attract birds and butterflies.

Today Jose and Dave grow more than 170 plants native to the Northeast, including more than 10 species of shrubs and bushes that produce berries to feed birds. The garden is free of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. “At the beginning of the spring, we have about 30 different plants blooming at the same time,” Jose says, “and a higher amount during the summer.”

For two years, Dave hung a hummingbird feeder in hopes of attracting a Ruby-throat. Not one showed up until he planted trumpet honeysuckle, cardinal flowers, bleeding hearts, and petunias — plants the birds can’t resist. Now Ruby-throats return every year.

“We live in a very urban area on a main street, and the traffic is heavy,” Jose says. “But the birds find our yard. It’s an oasis for them.” Their visitors include woodpeckers, catbirds, and warblers.

READER TIP: BIRD BATH WITH A DRIP

I have a concrete birdbath on a detachable pedestal. I scrub it out well every other day and hang a gallon jug of water a yard above it with a pinhole that lets it drip into the birdbath for hours for every fill. Birds of all size and description come to drink and bathe exuberantly. They line up on a nearby branch and wait their turns. The bath is busy all day every day. — Pete Michaelis, Columbia Station, Ohio

NWF-logo

NWF honors community wildlife programs

In addition to its Certified Wildlife Habitat program, which recognizes individual yards, the National Wildlife Federation now honors Community Wildlife Habitats. So far, 57 communities have been certified and many more are working toward the recognition.

Callawassie Island, South Carolina, was recognized after more than 200 of the 450 homes on the island were certified as individual wildlife habitats. Dorothy Mosior, a leader of the local effort, says a bluebird nest box program on the island last year produced 220 fledgling Eastern Bluebirds from 68 nest boxes.

Across the country, Camano Island, Washington, has more than 770 individual certified yards and nine certified neighborhoods. Residents get together regularly for work parties and meetings, and they can participate in a bee census to help researchers track populations of the pollinators.

Learn more about how to certify a community at www.nwf.org/community.