Science for a Blue Planet

Featuring cutting-edge work, discoveries, and challenges of our scientists, our partners, and the larger conservation science community.

Calling All Backyards

We’ve heard the news—North American birds are declining. Recent National Geographic articles and State of the Birds reports cite habitat loss as the primary factor.

This isn’t surprising in states like California (38.8 million people), Texas (27 million people) and Florida (over 19 million people). The resulting urbanization can mean more strip malls than natural areas, and more birds dying in the claws of domestic cats and after crashing into windows.

Wilson's Warbler 6-22-2014 CROP
Wilson’s Warbler. Photo: Ryan DiGaudio

Some common bird species, like Wilson’s Warbler, Varied Thrush and Rufous Hummingbird, have declined 50 percent or more over the past four decades. And this doesn’t take into consideration the predicted impacts of climate change, with shifting precipitation patterns and more extreme weather expected to affect their habitat.

Yet, within this dismal news, there is some hope. Many organizations and individuals are sharing the reports, further studying the birds and their habitat, and working together to change these trends.

Plus, those of us with backyards can provide bird habitat right now. An article in the February/March 2015 Nature Conservancy magazine extols the liveliness of “subirdia” where neighborhoods are filled with the “dawn chorus of thrushes, tanagers, wrens, towhees, finches, crows and woodpeckers.”

Song Sparrow. Photo: Ryan DiGaudio
Song Sparrow. Photo: Ryan DiGaudio

Backyards, along with urban parks, schoolyards, cemeteries, stream corridors and other greenways, can offer birds a variety of habitats in a small area with a rich mix of grasses, flowers, shrubs, trees and ponds.

We may not be able to reverse the statistics for all bird species, but if more backyards offered habitat, who’s to say what’s possible?

Here are a few tips for attracting more birds to your neighborhood. These are drawn from Point Blue Conservation Science‘s decades of research on songbird nesting ecology in California.


Plant a Variety of Native Plants

Not only do native plants require less maintenance, but their flowers, foliage and leaf litter support a high abundance of insects and other food for migratory and year-round resident birds. A diversity of grasses, flowers, shrubs and trees creates foraging, nesting and shelter sites for birds and other wildlife. Native plants like monkey flower, fuchsia, elderberry, wild rose, willows and oak trees are just a few of the known species that attract birds.

Go wild

Mow grasses less often, and consider skipping fertilizers and pesticides. Thickets, evergreens, dead trees, brush piles, rocks and logs can provide shelter, hiding places, and nesting and roosting areas. Avoid bright lights at night and let natural predators, like hawks and owls, thrive in the backyard too.

Scrub Jay. Photo: Ryan DiGaudio
Scrub Jay. Photo: Ryan DiGaudio

Offer a Welcome Haven

Birds are attracted to and enjoy small water features and bird baths. They will eat from feeders (especially hummingbirds) and will produce young in nest boxes. Maintain this friendly atmosphere by keeping your cat indoors and making large windows visible using etching, frosting or simple decals. Learn about safe bird-feeding here.

For more information, contact your local Audubon chapter, conservation district or garden center. There also are numerous factsheets and guides online.


Main Photo at top:  Spotted Towhee. Photo: Ryan DiGaudio

Read a Sacramento Bee article on backyard bird habitat featuring Point Blue’s Partner Biologist, Corey Shake.

Tips for backyard bird habitat from the National Fish and Wildlife Federation.

Resources for bird habitat from Point Blue Conservation Science.

Learn more: State of the Birds 2011, San Francisco Bay.