It takes more than a bird feeder to attract a colorful variety of songbirds to your backyard. Think of your feeder as a drive-thru fast-food joint in an unsafe neighborhood: The birds will stop to eat, but they won't stick around for very long. They want to get home to their comfy nest in an exclusive deciduous broadleaf community, where they can get fancier food anyway.
If you want to see more than bird backsides at a millet buffet, you need to give them all the luxuries they've come to expect.
Create a habitat
Birds prefer townhomes to single-level ranch houses. They need perches for preening, thickets for hiding, branches for bickering, wide-open spaces for showing off, and, eventually, a tree cavity where they can nest and paint their nursery a nice robin's-egg blue.
Give them privacy by planting walls of foliage. Native shrubs, small trees, and even tall grasses and perennials offer the versatility they need to make a quick escape.
Create a ceiling of tall deciduous and evergreen trees at the back of your property, and plant small understory trees between them and your house. Selectively prune lower limbs of shrubs and small trees so you can easily see perching birds from your window. They'll appreciate the perch, and you'll appreciate the camera angle.
Grow your own birdseed
Money doesn't grow on trees, but, conveniently enough, birdseed does! It also grows on shrubs, perennials, grasses, annuals, and anything else that qualifies as a plant.
To grow the seed that your local bird species prefer, however, choose the native plants that they'd otherwise find in the wild. Native plants vary by region, but some good choices include coneflower, blanketflower, beautyberry, asters, and sunflowers.
Attract hummingbirds with nectar-filled trumpet honeysuckle and cardinal flowers. Native oaks, hollies, dogwoods, sumac, cedars, and spruces provide nuts and berries, as well as shelter.
Stage your birdhouse
Research the birds that you'd like to attract, and give them the house that suits their needs. For example, bluebirds like their nesting boxes out in the open, while chickadees like thick leaf cover.
Whichever bird you try to attract, keep that nesting box away from human noise and activity so you'll never have to witness the heartbreaking sight of abandoned eggs in an empty nest. Also, keep your cat indoors, if possible. Otherwise, you may find birds not only in your backyard but on your front doorstep, too.
If birds haven't moved in yet, be patient. Sometimes all your birdhouse needs is a little lichen, moss, or wear and tear to make it more appealing.
Turn a birdbath into a Jacuzzi
If your birdbath is emptier than a swimming pool in January, there could be a reason. The ideal birdbath doesn't look like you'd expect - it's placed directly on the ground in a shady space with nearby shrubs.
Add some gravel to the basin so birds can find their footing, and even add a few rocks on the outside to serve as steps. Include a small pump or fountain, if possible. This turns your birdbath into a miniature water feature, and the circulation keeps the water clean and helps birds cool off on hot days.
Leave the leaf litter
If you’re looking for an excuse to get out of gardening chores, you'll be pleased to know that you’re absolutely allowed to keep that accumulation of dead leaves and small branches on your garden's floor. It gives birds everything they could ever ask for - bugs and other small animals for snacking, materials for nesting, and even a hiding place from predators.
If things begin to look untidy, just break down the larger branches by hand or with a pair of anvil pruners, and spread everything out evenly. Everyone loves free mulch.
Invest in your feeder
Rather than spending money on multiple feeders that you have to replace year after year, invest in a feeder that's made with quality materials, has a tightly fitting lid, and drains easily. Better yet, purchase a sturdy pole and squirrel baffle before you leave the garden center.
Even the best feeder will need maintenance, so give it a thorough cleaning every year, and break up any clogged holes so moisture doesn’t accumulate. Trust me on this - cleaning out a maggot-infested feeder is something nobody should have to experience in his or her lifetime.