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The Importance of Habitat

Birds seek out areas where they feel comfortable. They congregate where they find ample food and cover. We can be successful in attracting birds by creating conditions that fulfill their life requisites. Developing our "backyard habitat" creates islands of usable habitat for birds usually adjacent or nearby natural habitat fragments such as greenbelts and stream corridors.

In addition to offering a variety of goodies in various feeder styles and locations, one must also consider the quality of the habitat structure (the plants) you are providing and where your clients (the birds) are most likely coming from. The answers to a few questions can reveal which birds you are most likely to attract and what you can do to enhance your landscaping to attract a wide range of species. For example:

  • How far is your feeding station from the nearest creek or greenbelt if you are in a suburban location?
  • Do you live in a relatively young neighborhood or do you have an abundance of mature trees?

When sufficient cover is developed in residential neighborhoods, appropriately managed yards can serve as additional habitat for many species all year around. Landscaping with native plants from your area is vital. Using natives helps restore species diversity and rebuilds the fractured food web that has resulted from the extensive planting of exotic monocultures.

In general, you should attempt to have as complex a vegetative structure as possible. This begins with combinations of turf, ground cover and herbaceous plant material. It continues with pockets of a perennial and woody shrub layer, and is followed by under-story tree species, culminating in larger tree species that ultimately form the canopy of your wooded habitat. Some native species are adapted to shade and others to open, sunny areas.

Regardless of the size of your yard, you can find an appropriate variety of native plant species to fit the space available. Some of these species produce attractive flowers for hummingbirds and a variety of butterflies and other beneficial insects. Some also produce fruit or seeds that are popular forage for many birds. Others may provide basic structure for nesting, roosting, and shelter from predators. There are often areas on fences or borders that are conducive to the growth of vines.

Not only does this vegetative structure provide continuous layers of forage and protection for birds, but it also allows the maximum evapo-transpiration of water vapor from leaf surfaces and thus provides for the least amount of runoff after heavy soaking rains. These are very important conservation issues for all landscapes to address with increasing amounts of impervious surfaces in developed areas. One can integrate many species of native plants into the landscape and create habitat that, even before a feeder is hung, has an abundance of natural food and cover that will attract birds.

You may want to consider some aspects of managing your landscape. Sometimes there is a knee-jerk reaction to cut everything back as soon as it is finished blooming or as with many perennials as soon as the first frost turns them brown, because we have been conditioned to think of them as "messy". If these plants are left in place for the winter, they provide valuable habitat structure not available in your neighbor's stark, empty, albeit tidy, landscape. If you have done your homework on the plants that you have selected, you will probably have a vast variety of seeds and fruit to be found throughout the various strata of your landscape. As winter comes to a close and just before the new growth emerges from many of these plants they can be cut back for the spring season. By composting the cuttings from your plants and using the previous years' compost on your beds you can further limit the input of unnecessary material going to the landfill. Many native plant species require less water to maintain, are better adapted to the climate and soils, and are more resistant to local pests than exotic species. Also, use of pesticides can be greatly reduced if not completely eliminated because of the numbers of beneficial insects that colonize the area.

Native plant gardening goes hand in hand with bird feeding. It allows you to share your plants with your neighbors. Established plants propagate themselves so you will have plenty to share. The more neighbors you share with, the more extensive the local habitat becomes, ultimately creating significant patch sizes of habitat. Larger patches of habitat are easier for birds to find than small ones. Large patches often can be easily connected to greenbelts, producing corridors that are more useful to wildlife species than isolated patches.

An important aspect of developing your backyard habitat and educating your neighbors to do the same is the indirect effect on the conservation of our watersheds. While we are providing great habitat for our birds, we can also reduce the amount of runoff, and eliminate the usage of pesticides.