by Karin Beuerlein

It doesn’t necessarily take a big habitat project to attract more birds to your backyard. Small steps count, too, and can be a good way to start if you’re new to backyard birding. Here are some easy things you can do (and not do):

Create a Mini-Wetland

This young buttonbush has very handsome foliage–and the interesting blooms should appear for the first time next year.

You may be thinking, that sounds like the opposite of a small step. But if you have an air conditioner with a condensate drain pipe that empties into your yard, you’re halfway there. Ours created a mud pit every year right next to a walkway, and I don’t know why it took me so long to figure out the solution: native riparian plants. In other words, plants that would naturally grow by streams or ponds and don’t mind standing water. I planted two buttonbushes (variety ‘Sugar Shack,’ which stays relatively small at 4’ x 4’), which will host caterpillars and make seeds for birds, and possibly provide nest sites as well. You could also try native swamp rose, swamp azalea, or winterberry (just Google “native shrubs wet soil” or get a copy of this book for more ideas). A lesson learned, though: alleged natural preferences notwithstanding, the buttonbush a few feet downstream from the puddle is happier than the one that sits constantly in water.

Add a Nest Platform

You probably already have nest boxes installed if you’re an avid backyard birder, but what about a platform, which can help phoebes, robins, and mourning doves? We had a pair of doves this year trying to nest on top of one of our porch columns, which are hollow, and open at the top. They started bringing twigs and grass up there to no avail, and they were so persistent I was afraid they’d be up there all year pitching sticks down an eight-foot hole. So my husband attached a small half-circle of wood over the opening, providing them a narrow but comfortable nest site.

The platform is out of the sight line of hawks, and beyond the reach of cats and snakes, and the doves feel so safe up there they sleep the sleep of the dead. When they’re awake, they’re cranking out babies; they’re currently on their fourth successful brood. (This advice may be a little too good.) Check out this page for guidance on making platforms for different species.

Sometimes native bee nest entrances are neat round holes, like the one at the top, and some look more like hollowed-out tunnels, below. The little piles of excavated dirt are a telltale sign you have bee tenants.

Save a Spot for Native Bees

Making your backyard a successful bird habitat is really about creating a fully functioning ecosystem. Part of that ecosystem is pollinators—especially native bees, which are the primary pollinators for the plants that birds rely on for fruit and seeds. Bees need nest sites, especially areas of bare dirt, which we frequently eliminate in the pursuit of tidiness. A great place to let bees be is the useless area underneath your deck, especially if it gets afternoon sun, so remove any landscaping fabric or other coverings and leave some patches of dirt free. Native ground-nesting bees are mostly quiet, solitary tunnel nesters rather than social creatures. They won’t swarm and disturb your dinner.

Make Peace with Wasps

Let wasps nest in the eaves of your house and other out-of-the-way places. They are part-time pollinators and full-time pest bug enemies, which means they’re an effective substitute for the insecticides that are so deadly to birds and the food they eat. Most wasps are not aggressive unless you disturb a nest.

Let Plants Volunteer

I used to be a heavy-handed garden editor. Once I’d created an arrangement of plants, I tried to make it stay that way by pulling volunteer seedlings and dividing plants on schedule. But as my garden got bigger and I couldn’t physically chase down every renegade plant, I discovered the wisdom of letting nature do its thing. I let wildflowers like penstemon, black-eyed susan, and ironweed seed in wherever they like, and I also leave some of the tree saplings planted by blue jays. My garden is full of accidental oaks, cherries, and poplars that can’t remain in their spots permanently because there isn’t room, but for a bit while they’re young, I let them stay. Native insects feed on the leaves, which provides for my birds.

After years on task creating suburban bird habitat, I can promise you that even small steps are significant, and likely to be appreciated by the birds who stop by your yard.