By Brian Pirtle, Nursery Manager
Creating a habitat for wildlife in your yard will replenish resources that birds and butterflies need to survive and sustain their migration. Suitable habitat for birds is in short supply. Urban areas are expanding constantly, altering or destroying natural areas. In the United States more than 45 million acres are covered in lawn areas and we’re adding 500 square miles of turfgrass every year.¹ When you create a wildlife habitat, butterflies will pollinate the flowers in your garden. Birds will eat insects and garden pests like mosquitoes, flies, and caterpillars. As they carry out these important tasks they grace our yards with their beauty and song. By dedicating parts of your yard to wildlife habitat, you will make a lasting difference in our world.
The needs of birds and butterflies are like our own basic needs. They require food, water, protection from the elements, and a place to raise their young.
Birds and butterflies prefer a wide variety of food. If you provide them with a variety of plants that produce seeds, berries, and nectar you will increase the quantity and variety of species that visit your yard. Feeding commercial seed, fruit, and suet in feeders during different seasons will also increase the quantity and variety of species. Feeders are also a good way to bring birds, butterflies, and hummingbirds closer to seating areas and windows to enhance viewing opportunities.
Bird and butterfly feeder tips:
- To attract the greatest variety of species, provide table-like feeders for ground-feeding birds, hopper or tube feeders for shrub and treetop feeders, and suet feeders placed well off the ground for woodpeckers, nuthatches, and chickadees (suet feeders should only be offered during the winter months).
- A diverse feeding regiment will attract the greatest variety of birds. Black oil sunflower seed and peanuts appeal to many different species of birds. Thistle is best for small birds like finches and buntings. Safflower is a favorite of cardinals, chickadees, and doves but is disliked by blackbirds, grackles, and other undesirable birds.
- Suet in the winter and peanut butter mixed with corn meal in the summer is a good source of fat, calories, and protein for birds. Raisins, apples, oranges, and many other fruits provide an alternative for birds that prefer not to visit seed feeders, for example bluebirds, waxwings, and tanagers
- White millet and cracked corn are a favorite of blackbirds, house sparrows, and grackles which are not desirable in most habitats due to their tendency to invade nesting places and kill the young of other birds. Golden millet, red millet, and flax are often used as fillers in lower quality seed mixes and are not favored by most birds.
- Hummingbird feeders should be placed at least five feet off the ground and away from dense shrubs or other cover that predators may use. Fill your feeder with a sugar solution of 1-part white sugar to 4-parts water. Boil briefly to sterilize and dissolve the sugar crystals; DO NOT add red food coloring. Feeders must be washed once a week (more often when temperatures are above 90 degrees) with very hot water to prevent the growth of mold.
- Butterflies do not live on nectar alone, some species prefer, even require, overripe fruit to feed on. Decaying fruits like bananas, oranges, mangoes, and watermelon have carbohydrates and minerals, necessary to most butterflies. As fruit dehydrates the juice becomes more difficult for the butterflies to access, therefore slices need to be cut into the fruit daily, making more juice available.
Adding water to your landscape will increase the frequency that birds and butterflies visit and nest in your yard. Birds require water daily and bathing is essential to keeping their feathers in good shape for flight and insulation. A simple birdbath is a great start. Change the water in your birdbath every 3-5 days especially when the temperatures are high. Clean your birdbath weekly with a stiff scrub brush and a mixture of 1-part vinegar to 9-parts water. You can use a bird bath heater to keep the water from freezing during the winter the winter months. If you are using a garden pond or fountain as a water source for birds remember they are wary of water that is more than 2 “– 3“deep so make sure there is a shallow area. Any water source used by birds should be about 10 feet from dense shrubs or other cover that predators may use.
Birds and butterflies need protection from the elements and from their predators. Mixing evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs provide cover throughout the year. Dense plants and plants with thorns provide a fortress against prowling animals. When birds and butterflies are comfortable and safe they are more likely to nest in your yard and raise their young there.
Stumps, brush piles, and hollow logs provide cover and attract insects for the birds to eat. Old hollow trees are becoming increasingly scarce for cavity-nesters such as bluebirds and woodpeckers. A dead tree can also look attractive and add character to a garden.
Many species of birds including most cavity-nesters will live in birdhouses if the house suits their needs. Each bird species has different habitat, design, and location requirements so research should be done to match the type of bird that you are looking to attract with the type of house they prefer as well as the location and circumstances the house should be placed in. For example, Purple martins prefer apartment type houses placed on a tall pole in the middle of an open lawn area. Bluebirds prefer solitary houses in an open area. Chickadees prefer houses in a thicket or a stand of small trees and shrubs. House wrens like their house to hang from a small tree. Other factors are the size of the birdhouse, the size of the entrance hole, the height that the house is placed, and even the direction the entrance is facing.
With a little time, effort, and research you can make a positive difference in our world by turning your yard into a welcome haven for hummingbirds and butterflies as well as local and migrant songbirds.