Q: How can I attract more birds to my yard?

A: A brightly colored hummingbird zooms past on its way to a feeder. A finch fills the air with music. Birds provide us with hours of entertainment.

Like other animals, birds have a basic need for five essential elements: water, food, shelter, safety from predators, and a place to raise their young. While it’s fun to provide bird houses and feeders full of seed, you can design your landscape to offer these necessities and truly give yourself a yard for the birds.

Setting out fresh water is an easy and useful first step. While elaborate “water features” are beautiful and enhance the landscape, a simple plastic plant saucer will suit birds just as well. The water only needs to be an inch deep, as birds prefer splashing to swimming. A non-slippery surface offers the best traction. To keep birds healthy and prevent mosquito larvae from breeding, change the water daily, and clean the saucer regularly.

Wondering what kind of food is best for your birds? Look at their beaks. Generally, birds with narrow beaks, like nuthatches, are insect eaters. Birds with wide beaks, like house sparrows, prefer seeds. Many birds gobble up insects during the summer, then switch to seeds and berries during the colder months. Others eat seeds year-round. Hummingbirds are attracted to flowers that are red, orange and purple. They delight in sugary nectar, but get their protein from tiny bugs.

The easiest way to provide a healthy variety of foods is through proper landscaping. By selecting native plants—ones that occur naturally in this area—and other xeric plants, you’ll save on water, fertilizer and pesticides. The added bonus is that a natural landscape is easier to maintain than one requiring constant mowing and pruning!

Many plants produce fruit enjoyed by birds. Examples include serviceberry, mountain ash, junipers, pyracantha, and honeysuckle. Look for plants that are suited to our climate and will thrive on limited rainfall. See the Colorado State University publication on native shrubs at www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/garden/07422.html.

Meticulous gardeners often balk at the idea of inviting insects into their yards. Keep in mind that 95% of all insects are either useful or neutral in our gardens. Even those that damage our plants often don’t require control. Nature will limit the damage without any help from us. The first rule of thumb is to avoid the urge to spray at the first sign of insect life. CSU discourages the use of insecticides, as most are indiscriminate, and will kill the good bugs along with the pests. If you must spray, check to make sure the chemical you are applying won’t hurt the birds, and follow the directions carefully. CSU offers information about using soaps to reduce insects at www.ext.colostate.edu/Pubs/insect/05547.html.

Next, a little messiness can be a good thing. Robins, towhees and other ground-loving birds are pros at digging through fallen leaves in search of tasty bugs. As long as the leaves fell from a healthy plant, it’s all right to let them remain as mulch. For a neater look, try shredding them with a mower before returning them to the landscape, which also aids in decomposition.

Making a brush pile in an out-of-the-way corner of your yard also benefits birds. The assortment of insects and other small creatures that live in such a pile provides another source of bird food. In addition, the pile itself offers shelter from extreme weather and safety from predators.

The plants you choose can also supply shelter and safety. Some birds prefer to hide in the dense branches of thickets and hedges while others seek the highest treetops. By including trees, shrubs and groundcovers, you provide cover at all levels. Evergreens such as pines and spruces protect birds from winter storms.

Eliminating predators is another way to be a good host. Keep cats indoors! According to the National Audubon Society, domestic cats kill hundreds of millions of songbirds every year. See www.audubon.org/bird/cat/. Likewise, a yard with a barking dog will discourage feathered visitors.

Sometimes, birds are preyed upon by other birds. Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks are well known for staking out feeders and swooping in to carry off a house finch or two. To help with this problem, locate bird feeders near trees and shrubs where smaller birds can take shelter. It’s probably most appropriate to consider hawks as added guests, and be awed by their hunting skills.

The same plants that shelter birds provide nest sites. Finches, native sparrows, and hummingbirds are some birds that nest on branches. Other birds prefer more secure housing, and build their nests in cavities. Since dead trees full of holes are in short supply, nest boxes are welcomed by birds such as chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, and bluebirds.

Nesting birds may create a mess of droppings and other debris. A swallow’s mud structure may not belong over the front door to your home, but think twice before removing one from a less obvious location.

House finches also tend to choose inconvenient spots nest sites—hanging baskets, door wreaths and light fixtures are popular. If the nest already has eggs or nestlings in it, try to leave it undisturbed. However, you can move it to a more desirable spot near-by—a much better choice than destroying it. The parent birds will readily adapt to the new location.

While you may not be able to put into action every idea mentioned here, taking any of these suggestions will increase the number of birds you can enjoy in your yard. Besides, a garden designed for birds is also inviting to people.

Contributed by Leslie Holzmann, Colorado Master Gardener. For answers to your horticultural questions, contact the Master Gardener Help Desk at 636.8921 or CSUmg2@elpasoco.com (A version of this article appeared in The Gazette on 3/21/09.)