Creating a Bird-Friendly Backyard

This year, Audubon North Carolina is working to grow the Bird-Friendly Communities initiative. A new partnership program with a vision for North Carolina, bird-friendly communities give birds the opportunity to succeed by providing connected habitat dominated by native plants, minimizing threats posed by the built environment, and engaging people of all ages and backgrounds in stewardship of nature.

Please welcome guest blogger Will Stuart. As a member of the Mecklenburg Audubon Society, the NC Native Plant Society and the Carolinas Nature Photographers Association, Will is a frequent photo contributor to ANC. Learn how Will has transformed his yard into a bird-friendly oasis.

On a cold December morning, I pour a fresh cup of coffee and pause to look out my kitchen window at our backyard feeding station. A Hermit Thrush lands on the suet feeder, surveys its surroundings and eagerly grabs a morsel of suet. This bright-eyed bird, with a spotted breast and a rusty-red tail, has been a backyard visitor for the past three winters, and he is not our only repeat customer. An Eastern Phoebe has become a regular, and like the Hermit Thrush, enjoys our homemade suet. In mid-winter, Fox Sparrows occasionally join our White-throated Sparrows, emerging from the dense cover of our back border, and scratching through the beds beneath our feeders for a bit of food before retreating to the comfort of that same border.

Hermit Thrush winter birds return by Will Stuart.

A Changing Landscape

Our yard was not always Grand Central Station for birds. I attribute these new and welcome visitors to changes we have made to our backyard. Year by year we have steadily reduced the size of our lawn, converting areas of grass to naturalized, mixed borders of native shrubs and small trees. Areas that once required fertilizing, seeding, watering and mowing are now, for the most part, self-sustaining. Annual maintenance is as simple as applying a bit of compost and perhaps a fresh layer of double-hammered hardwood mulch!

A Layered Mixed Border

Our lot, the end house on a cul-de-sac, is small and pie-shaped, totaling about one-third of an acre. As bird lovers, we are fortunate that the area immediately behind our home is undeveloped with great tree coverage.

Our first efforts to transform the landscape with native plants focused on the southwest corner of the yard, the area we see from our kitchen window. After tilling and amending a 10-foot strip, we planted four Winterberry Hollies along our back border. We added a River Birch to anchor the corner and to shade our birdbath. After some trial and error (finding the right plant for a given location is not an exact science) the south-facing backyard border now has a pair of Spicebushes, an evergreen Wax Myrtle, a Red Buckeye and two Beautyberry bushes. Several species of native ferns and clumps of spring wildflowers fill gaps between those shrubs.

Northern Mockingbird on Winterberry by Will Stuart.

Because of the added cover and structure, this area is now a favorite destination for many of our birds. Cardinals, chickadees, titmice, wrens, finches and Brown-headed Nuthatches are year-round residents. Bluebirds nest in our side yard, and visit our feeders and birdbaths in all seasons. Towhees, thrashers and sparrows love to pick through the mulched beds where we often scatter a handful of seed. Both the spicebush and the red buckeye are colorful and showy in early spring. The leafy shrubs provide cool cover, even in summer's mid-day heat. In October the winterberry hollies develop crimson fruit that attract migrating thrushes, and the arching branches of the beautyberries are loaded with clusters of bright purple fruit that are favorite treats of Gray Catbirds.

 A Four-season Tree

Our lot slopes from front to back, and a small, ephemeral stream borders the back of our property. A native Red Maple rises from the streambed, and its branches extend over our backyard. Red maples are understory trees, and our maple has a gangly shape. That same shape makes it a favorite perch for Red-bellied and Downy woodpeckers as they visit our feeders.

On the occasional winter mornings when we get a dusting of snow, fluffy Yellow-rumped Warblers and bright yellow Pine Warblers linger in the maple's branches between visits to the suet. In February, bright red flower buds emerge, attracting the attention of goldfinches, cardinals and visiting Pine Siskins. By mid-March, any blossoms spared by the birds develop into showy bright red samaras. In April, the tree leafs out fully, and throughout the summer it provides a shady way station for birds en route to our birdbath. In late fall, the leaves turn a golden yellow and, while most leaves fall back into the mulched border, the few that land on our yard are ferried to our compost pins.

A Problem Solved

Every home has a "problem area" in its landscape. We have a small area on the north side of our house, a steep, dry slope heavily shaded by our house and attached garage. After years of struggle, we covered the slope with a 6" layer of hardwood mulch and planted a pair of evergreen Florida Anise trees, a Virginia sweet spire and several varieties of native wood ferns. Patches of green and gold add color from spring to early summer, and a flowering Crabapple anchors the area. Our yard, once a patch of drought-stressed lawn, is now maintenance-free and popular with our Song Sparrows and wintering Juncos.

Native Plants for the Front

There are many choice native plants that are worthy of a prominent place in the home landscape and also add wildlife value. Few trees have the four-season appeal of our native dogwood with its textured bark, showy spring blossoms, handsome foliage, rich fall color and bright red berries. Even a casual bird watcher knows that native dogwoods are bird magnets in autumn. Native redbuds are perfect companions to the dogwoods, and fringe trees are handsome front yard specimens. Our native Black Gum can be a magnificent specimen in a front yard location, as can many of our native oaks.

Native vines and herbs add color and texture to the landscape. A cross vine decorates our mailbox and an evergreen Carolina Jessamine climbs the side of our garage. A Climbing Aster produces blossoms even after the first frost. Our front flowerbed features patches of Bee Balm, Coneflowers, Black-eyed Susans, Gaura and Stoke's Aster, which attract butterflies, bees and hummingbirds.

A Work In Progress

As with any garden, our yard continues as a developing story. We recently expanded a side yard bed to add a Bottlebrush Buckeye and a small Canadian Serviceberry.

Our yard now has a theme, a guiding principle. We will continue to enhance our home landscape with locally sourced native plants. We have learned that making birds feel more at home in our surroundings makes our home more livable and entertaining. What more can you ask from a landscape?

To see more of Will’s work, look for a copy of the recently released Native Plants of the Southeast by Dr. Larry Mellichamp, which features his photography.

Native Plants of the Southeast photography by Will Stuart.