Attract Nesting Birds to Your Yard

You love birds. And nothing would make you happier than to have them nest in your backyard. But wanting it isn’t enough.

While you might luck out and occasionally have birds call your backyard home, you’re more likely to have them set up house if you provide incentives.

You can set out nesting boxes, but only a handful of species nest in cavities and will use such houses. Most birds nest right in the branches or even on the ground. To attract them, follow these tips, and you just might transform your yard into a baby bird nursery.

Encourage Insects

The number one food source for nesting backyard birds is insects. Studies have shown that in some areas, 96 percent of birds raise their young on a strict diet of insects. If you have no insects, there will be no birds. That means you need to ditch the pesticides and also fill your garden with native plants that support insects. Such a landscape can attract 60 percent more insects than just lawn and exotic ornamentals. You can even supplement the natural insect population with special feeders stocked with freeze-dried mealworms or wax worms.

Males of many species, such as this northern Cardinal, help their mates gather nesting materials.

Offer Nesting Material

Some birds nest on bare areas they’ve scratched out on the ground, but most species construct a nest from twigs, grasses, plant fibers and feathers. Some will even use mud as a kind of mortar. To make nest-building materials available to birds, don’t be overly obsessive about keeping your garden neat, or you’ll remove the very materials they need.

Provide Water

Birds need to drink and bathe, regardless of whether they’re nesting. Install a birdbath, and you’ll attract birds in all seasons. Increasing the avian traffic in your yard makes it more likely some will pick your real estate in which to raise their brood.

Keep Cats Indoors

Domestic cats take a huge toll on birds as well as other wildlife, but nesting birds and their young are particularly vulnerable. If camoufl age fails them while sitting on the nest, bird parents can become victims of cats, leaving their young to the elements and starvation. Young birds that can’t fl y are especially easy targets. So do the birds a favor and keep the kitties indoors. You’ll be doing your cat a favor, too; indoor cats live longer, healthier lives than outdoor ones.

American robins build their nests from the inside out with dead grass, twigs, paper, feathers, rootlets, moss and mud.

Imitate Nature

The design of your garden is just as important as choosing native plants. Look to natural settings for inspiration.

Underplant large canopy trees with smaller understory trees and shrubs to create layers of habitat, just like in a native forest. Different bird species nest in different layers to minimize competition. This is true for birdhouses, too. For example, bluebirds prefer a cavity 4 to 6 feet off the ground that faces an open meadow. If you hang a bluebird box 30 feet high in dense woods, you won’t be successful.

Install nesting boxes early—in other words, now! Most species that nest in cavities are non-migratory and stick around for the winter. By late February, these winter-resident birds are already beginning to scout out the best nesting spots in anticipation of the spring breeding season.

Visit to learn about the nesting habits of your favorite backyard birds.

Photos: Francis & Janice Bergquist / Don Jones