How to Build a Four-season Bird-friendly Yard

By Lynnwood Andrews

Birds require suitable resources and habitat year-round to survive and successfully reproduce. Here is a four-season checklist for helping birds in your yard thrive. In general, you want native plants, especially ones that attract insects, and that are prolific seed and berry producers. You also want plants that provide shelter – from cold, from predators, and for nesting. Finally, you want water.

Winter

  • Evergreen trees and shrubs provide cover from predators and shelter from cold.
  • Trees and shrubs with persistent berries provide food in winter. Examples are hawthorn, winterberry, American Mountain Ash, hollies, and native viburnums.
  • A heated birdbath for water. There are electric and solar models available.
  • Bird feeders put up after bears are hibernating and before they emerge in the spring (Dec 1st-April 1st). A variety of types of feeders at different heights will service more birds than one type of feeder.
  • Install nesting boxes in late fall/ early winter so birds will find them ready in the spring.
  • Clean out existing nesting boxes.
  • Order native plants that are most important for birds. The Audubon Society’s native plant database is an excellent resource for selecting plants. Be sure to include a variety of sizes of plants from flowers to shrubs to trees.

Spring

  • Remove nonnative plants in your yard, especially the most aggressive ones in our area – Japanese knotweed, bush honeysuckle, buckthorn, burning bush, barberry, Oriental bittersweet, and Norway maple. Replace them with native species.
  • Minimize the amount of turf in your yard. Convert turf to meadow plantings, flower borders or mixed shrub/flower edges. Smother turf through the spring and summer with clean cardboard topped with mulch so you can plant wildflower seed in the fall. UNH Extension Service has a great guide for establishing wildflowers Build a brush pile, but don’t make your yard too “clean.” Leave fallen leaves and twigs around your flowers and trees to create a natural mulch rich in insects.
  • Take down your bird feeders by April 1 to protect bears.
  • Put out nesting materials – use only natural materials – no synthetics – such as feathers, twigs, cattail fluff, straw. Unsafe materials include pet fur because of tick and flea medicine, human hair, long yarn and string that can strangle hatchlings, and dryer lint.
  • An empty suet cake holder can be a good container.
  • Provide clean, fresh water.

Summer

  • Do not deadhead your flowers. Let everything set seed.
  • Leave dead trees, or standing trunks for cavity-dwelling birds, as food sources for woodpeckers, and as perches for flycatching species” as snags so cavity-dwelling birds can create holes and woodpeckers can find insects.
  • Mow your lawn no more than every other week, preferably less often, to provide habitat for insects. Do not mow your meadow or field until late fall.
  • Do not put thick mulch around home plantings. Use existing dead leaves as a loose mulch so birds can find insects.
  • Always keep your cat indoors, especially during breeding season.
  • Continue your removal of nonnative plants. Do not let them produce seed ever.
  • Put out hummingbird feeders. Clean daily and fill with fresh nectar to prevent poisonous bacteria and mold. Provide clean, fresh water.

Fall

  • Take down hummingbird feeders when you notice the nectar is no longer being consumed – usually by mid-September.
  • Delay putting up seed and suet feeders until December 1st to protect bears.
  • Plant native wildflower seeds, trees, and shrubs.
  • Leave upright “weeds” and flowers with abundant seed un-mowed so birds can feed all winter. Examples of “weeds” are ragweed, panic grasses, native knotweeds, bush clovers, pokeweed, and sunflowers.
  • Do not rake leaves from under shrubs and in wooded areas.
  • Clean out existing nesting boxes in late fall.

Most of all, enjoy watching and caring for our native birds, and create backyard conditions that can help them withstand climate change and habitat loss.

Originally published in Holiday 2021 Norwich Times