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For the birds
This season don’t just landscape your yard; birdscape it instead

By MARY LOU SANTOVEC

May 2007

Want to make your yard a premiere destination on the avian fly-over map? With the right materials and a little know-how, you can provide a five diamond, year-round resort for all of your fine feathered friends.

Popular on the coasts, birdscaping is now just "winging" its way to the Midwest. Homeowners who practice birdscaping intentionally design their yards to encourage avian visitors.

To survive, all birds need food, shelter, water and a place to nest. Any location must consistently provide each of these components to make it attractive for them to initially stop and eventually return.

Sounds like a lot of work, but homeowners don’t have to rip out all of their existing flora and start from scratch. Many times it’s simply a matter of leveraging current resources and supplementing them with some additional enticements.

"Using native plants and plants with seed heads, fruit-bearing trees and shrubs provides you with the landscaping material you need along with food for the birds," says Belinda Abendschein, a landscape designer with Durham Hill Nursery in Mukwonago. "I try to use a lot of natives. Birds themselves are more familiar with them." A birder herself, Abendschein is one of the area’s proponents of the birdscaping trend.

Birds prefer native plants and shrubs says, Durham Hill Nursery’s Belinda Abendschein.


Fruit-bearing plants such as viburnums and flowering crab trees provide homeowners with a fabulous show of flowers in the spring and food well into the winter for the birds. "The top runner for birdscaping is the viburnum, which comes in many varieties," says John Lamm of the Jackson-based Lammscapes Nursery. Other desirable shrubs include mock orange, forsythia and snowberries. Don’t forget feeders filled with seeds for those who only eat seeds.

But be careful what you fill those feeders with, says Abendschein. "Use high quality seed. Lower quality seeds attract house sparrows and European starlings, both of which are invasive. They compete with the native birds for food and will even kick bluebirds out of their nests." Nix the bread crusts and day-old bagels too, which only attract starlings.

Their small size belies the fact that they need a consistent source of water. Unless a homeowner installs a heated bird bath or a pond system that runs all winter, our feathered friends have to rely on getting their liquid refreshment from snow. When a lack of snow cover eliminates that option, they will look elsewhere for water.

A backyard pond with a running waterfall or stream almost guarantees an extended stay. "Any time you add water to a landscape you’re certain to attract a lot of birds," says Doug Hurth of Hurth Construction and Ponds Plus in Saukville. "At my house I have a stream and I always have birds."

"Running water seems to be a real trigger for birds," Abendschein adds. "I think it’s the sound that attracts them." There’s no need to turn your yard into Niagara Falls. Small pools with pumps or waterfalls keep water moving and eliminate the need for algae-preventing chemicals.

Predators such as cats and foxes view birds as a tasty treat so shelter is an important consideration when designing your yard. "Junipers give a lot of cover low to the ground," says Lamm. "Evergreens protect birds from wind and snow."

Placing a hummingbird feeder amongst flower beds is sure to attract attention.


Along with shelter there should always be areas for nesting. Shelter and nesting places are not necessarily the same thing. Wrens, chickadees and woodpeckers are cavity-dwelling birds that don’t build their nests in a tree. Nesting boxes provide a simple yet adequate rental home for these species.

Beverly Karweik’s rural Mukwonago backyard is on its way to becoming a top-rated avian destination. Last April, the Karweiks hired Durham Hill to update their yard. Abendschein drew up a plan that would capitalize on what the Karweiks already had, filling in with some additional plants and shrubs for support.

Removing existing bushes that weren’t contributing to the overall plan, Abendschein kept the Karweiks’ evergreen and pine trees, a flowering crab and a flowering almond tree. Flower beds with a variety of plants were installed with grass borders. A new bridge now covers the septic system. Water was routed through a hollowed log into a pond. And just for fun, a fire pit was included in the final plan.

Already their yard is the talk of the bird grapevine. Since last summer, the Karweiks have played host to cardinals, robins and bluebirds, downy woodpeckers, orioles, juncos and finches. The sand hill cranes came by to lunch on the ornamental grasses. Red-bellied sapsuckers, scarlet tanagers, even rose-breasted grosbeaks and goldfinches have paid a visit. "You name it, we’ve just about had them," says Karweik. "The hummingbirds went for the bee balm located off the deck. They were having their feast."

Hummingbirds were what Lisa Bienkowski wanted to attract when she redesigned her Pewaukee gardens. Having gotten tired of the usual flower suspects, she planted lots of "tropical things that don’t survive well in Wisconsin," she says. "I had some in my yard when I lived in Ohio and I was thinking about what kind of garden to put in. I decided I wanted a different kind of garden." So seven or eight beds are now filled with flowers such as salvias, bee balm, candy cane vine, lantanas and honeysuckles. And more are on the way.

Knowledge of this veritable buffet has made the rounds among the hummingbird population. "I would see a few every day," says Bienkowski, "but in the fall during migration, I would see five to 10 at a time. It really picks up during September and October."

Many birds remember where the good locations are and are apt to return in the spring. "It’s true that they remember where the food is, especially hummingbirds and orioles," says Abendschein.

Choose the right components and your yard, too, can be added to the avian equivalent of MapQuest.