Backyard birding: Seeing the outside while staying in

Getting out with the intent of seeing birds is a fabulous past time for families–I have many fond memories of making bird lists, arguing with my dad about the identity of tiny sparrows, and seeing much of Utah through my binoculars…

But birding in your backyard can be just as rewarding.  What’s more, building a bird paradise in your backyard is helpful to the little critters–especially in cities and urban areas where food isn’t as plentiful as it once was.  And it’s a great project for you and your kids.  Migration season is just getting started in some areas of the U.S., as birds from Mexico and South America make their way north, and food is scarce in areas inundated by winter.  Spend a weekend preparing a stop-over for weary birds.  Many bird feeders can be home-made; the same is true for nesting boxes and bird baths.  Involve your kids in making suet, hummingbird nectar, and fruit feeders.  Together, map out where to put different types of feeders for maximum visibility.

What’s more, ‘backyard birding’ is something that can be enjoyed by your kids when truly getting outside just isn’t in the cards.

Get some bird feeders

There are a few different kinds of feeders on the market (and many can be made by you and your kids at home).  At a minimum, pick up a platform feeder and a tube feeder.  For the platform feeder, because they aren’t sheltered from the weather, it’s best to get one with a screen bottom, or a few drainage holes.  These feeders are the favorite dining place of juncos, jays, pigeons, sparrows, and blackbirds.  A tube feeder with several right-side-up and upside-down perches will bring in finches, sparrows, chickadees, and titmice.  Also consider window feeders (these are especially nice because of the proximity of the birds, and because there are less window-crashes with these types), sock/thistle feeders, and (of course) a hummingbird feeder in the summer.  Separately (and one of my favorites), pick up a suet feeder.

I’m a make-your-own kinda gal, and many of these feeders can be made from scraps around the house.  Here are plans for a platform feeder.  Here are instructions for a coffee-can feeder.  And here are instructions for a sock feeder (for thistle).

Get some bird food

Sunflower seed attracts the greatest diversity of birds.  There are two types: black oil and striped.  The black oil sunflower seeds are like candy–with a nice thin shell any bird can eat them!  Striped sunflower seeds are a little harder for some bird beaks (this can be a good thing–if you’re getting too many birds and they’re eating you out of house and home, try switching from black oil to striped sunflower seeds).  Sprinkle safflower and peanuts on your platform feeders to attract grosbeaks, cardinals, and jays.  I love watching jays take peanuts off of a platform feeder and bury them in the backyard.  You can bake egg shells at 250° oven for 20 minutes, and put them on the platform feeders –a great source of calcium for little birdies.  Finally, nyjer or thistle seed is good for finches and siskens… but you’ll need a thistle feeder because the seed is so small.

Those pre-mixed cheap bags that you can buy?  Don’t.  They’re full of filler that birds won’t eat and you’re wasting your money.  Another fun way to attract birds is to cut an orange in half and nail it to a fence post.  Orioles, tanagers and waxwings love these! You can either buy suet in order to attract wrens, woodpeckers, and nuthatches, or make your own.  Here is a good suet recipe.  Finally, don’t forget to make your own hummingbird food in the summer.

Here is a more comprehensive list of what birds like to eat.

With all of these feeders, when you refill them, be sure to empty out any old seed that has been sitting… mold will do serious harm to birds!  The same goes for hummingbird food.  In both cases, don’t let seed or nectar sit for more then two days–that’s when mold starts to grow–especially in the more-humid east!

Put ’em up!

The best spot for feeders is either three feet or closer to a window (any further away, and a bird who takes off quickly will be going dangerously fast when it hits), or well away from the windows… say near/under a tree where birds can hide easily.  There are bird feeder hanging poles that you can stick in the yard to put up your feeders wherever you want.  And if you’rereally on the ball, you can put up a whole birdfeeding station!

Make a birdbath

Rather than spend money on one of those fancy concrete ones, just use an old frying pan, a circle sled, or an inverted trashcan lid.  Put it near or on the ground; under three feet (but if there are outdoor cats around make sure that there is no place nearby for kitty to hide and sneak up on the bathing birds!).  Fill it so that at it’s deepest it’s about two inches deep.  Put a little gravel in the bottom for good purchase, and place a stick or dowel over the water for the birds to land on in order to drink.

Put out some nesting material

Cut yarn in to 4 inch pieces, brush the dog and save all the hair, put out cotton batting, save up pine needles, short sticks, put out grass clippings… all of these things are great for birds that have nests to build!  Get a second suet feeder and fill it with your offerings.  For piles of pine needles, sticks, and grass clippings, place them all in one of those cardboard berry boxes.

Make a nesting box

Many birds make their own nests and don’t really need your help, but many will nest in boxes built to the right specifications…  And watching baby birds grow is extremely rewarding.  Here are plans for a variety of nesting boxes, depending on what you want to attract.  And here are plans for a simple nesting tube out of a pvc pipe.

Finally, if you want to go all out, you can plant shrubs and trees that provide food and shelter for little birds.  Here is a great list of some to foliage that is good-looking, and also great for birds!


Now that your backyard bird retreat is all set up, get to watching!  A bird book and some binoculars will help (we’ve written before about how to teach kids to use binoculars).  Put a sheet of paper up by the backdoor and keep track of what you see that is new.  Help out the scientists studying bird migration patterns by joining project feeder watch! Take pictures of the birds and submit them to a photo contest online.  Participate in the great backyard bird count (February 18th this year!).  Or (my favorite) practice the art of holding still near the bird feeders.

6 Comments so far

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  1. Daktari

    Glad to see I’m not the only one who finds a way to recycle dog hair. No matter how much I put out there (winter coats seem to be shed at the same time that birds are building nests), it is always used efficiently. Another tip I have for attracting winter birds is not to cut down the seed heads on your fall flowers. I have coneflowers that attract finches throughout the winter months.

  2. Jana

    What an AWESOME post! Bird watching and taking care of birds is one of my favorite things to do! Thanks for all the great tips and ideas.

  3. Sarah

    Ollie (almost 11 months now) noticed the chickadees in my mom’s yard today. He was fascinated! He kept saying “oh, oh, oh!!” as he watched them flutter around the yard! Lots of joy!

  4. Joe

    I spent hours as a kid watching birds in my backyard. I hung a home-made bird feeder in the tree next to my treehouse so I could sit in my treehouse and watch the birds. I need to follow your advice so my kids can enjoy our local birds like I did when I was young.

    • Joe – Yes, we need a bird feeder, and a small bird trap. wink wink.

  5. Ellen

    We really need to do this in our yard. ONly problem I see is that we’re in a rental and don’t dropping bird seeds create weeds in the lawn? Our landlord is pretty crazy about his lawn…


    I'm Lindsey. I'm an environmental educator, my husband's a biologist. The outdoors is infused into everything we do; which explains why I'm better at mud pies than home decorating. More About Me

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