An Informal Guide to Creating Bird-Friendly Habitat

✏️ By Chris Bick, Houston Audubon 2021 Young Professionals Advisory Council

I wanted to create an informal guide or informational source to creating a backyard habitat using my experience and my yard dimensions as the basis for the guide. These recommendations can be scaled to fit your yard size and restrictions when you create your outdoor space.

  • Location– When selecting an area that you want to transform, the location plays a significant role in which plants can be successful in growing. You want to ensure your location has adequate drainage so that water does not pool or stand for more than 24 hours. Too much water can cause plant roots to rot and ultimately lead to plant death. Find out how many hours of sunlight your selected location receives each day. Certain plants will require full sun while others require partial shade or half sun. By knowing how much light your location receives, you will be able to make decisions on which plants will grow in that area.
  • Preparing the Space– Once you have selected your location, you will want to prepare the area by removing any weeds or obstructions that are in the way. You will also want to remove any grass that may be in the area to make way for the plants you want to grow. From personal experience, removing the existing grass is a crucial step because it allows your new plants room to grow, is easier to maintain in the long run, and has a general improved visual appeal. The two ways in which I have had success is manually removing the grass with a shovel/other garden instrument or laying cardboard across the existing grass and adding at least 4-6 inches of garden soil on top to kill the grass underneath. I would say that this step is the most labor and time intensive but well worth the effort in the long run for your garden.
  • Selecting Plants– There are many websites with information on native plants that are available for you to browse and begin to choose what to add to your space (like www.birdfriendlyhouston.org). Make sure to look at the light requirements for the plant so that it matches what your space receives. Find out how large the plant gets so that you can measure out the spacing that you will need between each plant. If your plant produces flowers, find out when it blooms and if it blooms multiple times throughout the year. This will help you gauge the health of your plant as well as plan in terms of what your space can offer wildlife. For the past two years, I have moved towards purchasing native wildflower seed packs and it has done well thus far. They can produce a wide variety of flowers that various bees, butterflies, and birds utilize, are cost effective, and have the potential to self-seed the area you plant them in, so you don’t have to continuously add plants to your space. I personally use Native American Seed which is a family-owned business in Texas with a wide selection of seeds for a variety of plants. They provide great information regarding each item which helps you in deciding what you want to add to your garden. A few of my personal favorites are Lantana, Maximillian Sunflower, Scarlet Sage, American Beautyberry, Firewheel, Frog-fruit, Mexican Plum Tree, and native Mulberry Tree.
  • Providing Water– I would argue that by far, providing different water sources will attract a wider variety of birds when compared to providing conventional bird seed. Some birds prefer a traditional bird bath, some prefer a steady mist and collect moisture droplets, and some prefer a small pond that produces steady water movement through a light trickling water fall or stream. Whatever your choice is, you must ensure that the water is clean and not stagnant. Check your water source every few days to see if you need to clean the source and add fresh water. Place your water feature in an area that provides the birds with a safe place away from predators, so they feel comfortable in approaching the water. You will have greater success attracting birds when you place your water feature near a tree or dense bush as it provides the birds with concealment from predators along with an escape route if needed. My main water source is a small 3 foot by 2-foot pond that was surprisingly easy to build myself. I purchased a pond liner from a local hardware shop and dug out the outline of how I wanted the pond to be adjacent to a few Vitex bushes that provide concealment. The pond averages a depth of 2-3 inches which is perfect small and medium size birds and has a circulating pump that provides a trickling stream of water and reduces the chances the pond becomes stagnant. If this is something that interests you, take the time to envision where you want to place your pond and begin to sketch or draft your pond so that you have an idea and start point when you apply the materials.

In conclusion, I’ll leave you with a few thoughts and tips that will hopefully help you when you create your outdoor space.

Take your time and start out slow. What that means is to improve or create an area that you will realistically be able to complete. Don’t stretch yourself out so thin that the process begins to have a negative effect on you.

Research, research, research. Dive into finding information that can assist you in creating your space whether it be about plants, water sources, or birds, find out as much information as you can to help you towards your goal. Be patient and observe what works and what doesn’t. Your space isn’t going to be what you envision overnight and it’s easy to get discouraged when you think it’s going to slow or isn’t working out. Give it time and your plants will fill in and produce the result you intended.

Pay attention to how the birds and wildlife react to a certain area. If you notice the birds gravitating towards a specific area, note what is there that is attracting them and see if you can replicate that in another area of your space. Likewise, if you think that something isn’t working, make note of that in case you want to re-plant something that you know will work.

Be creative and make the space enjoyable for you. Think outside the box, experiment with different ideas, and make the space an area in which you can find enjoyment and comfort in when you spend time there.

Learn about Chris' journey to bird-friendly backyard habitat!

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