Tips on Creating a Bird-Friendly Yard

Vicki Piaskowski and Larry Hopwood stand in their carefully crafted backyard, which is designed to provide habitat and food for birds. Note the red bird feeder with a black baffle that sways if predators try to climb the metal pole. Such baffles cost about $20 online or at stores that sell bird feed. This feeder is filled with black-oil sunflower seeds, eaten by a variety of birds, including black-capped chickadees, northern cardinals, and nuthatches.

Now’s the time to plan how to make your back yard a bird-friendly place. Our beautiful songbirds need all the help they can get. In winter, of course, you can install a bird feeder. Looking toward spring and summer, you can map out changes using some of the ideas mentioned here. Or check out the tips in the January 2009 issue of Alive, the Zoological Society’s member magazine.

Our bird researcher, Vicki Piaskowski, and her husband, Larry Hopwood, have made a bird paradise in their Wauwatosa, Wis., yard. They worked on it gradually, starting in 1986 and finishing the main work in 1994. Today the yard—with a prairie garden, woodland garden and little pond -- is a demonstration of what you can do with a small yard. Their back yard is 60 by 80 feet. The total size of their lot (including the house and a small front yard) is 60 by 143 feet. The diagram below shows how they’ve replaced much of their lawn with native shrubs, trees, gardens, paths and a pond. They also have an area for a compost bin and a brush pile. Native plants need a lot less water and maintenance, says Piaskowski. Since they are adapted to our climate, these plants grow very well once they are established. And they attract birds. She has counted more than 75 species visiting her yard. Note that an L-shaped patio overlooks their little piece of heaven.

Vicki Piaskowski is the main author of our 2008 bird guide: “The Birds Without Borders-Aves Sin Fronteras® Recommendations for Landowners: How to Manage Your Land to Help Birds (Wisconsin, Midwest and eastern United States edition).” The section titled “What You Can Do to Help Birds” is probably the easiest to read and most useful for homeowners working on their yards. If you’d like to view this book or download it free, click on this link.  

To get started on your yard, decide how much time you have and what kinds of changes you would like to make first. You could take a natural-landscaping class, as Piaskowski did. You could read books and visit Internet sites. Keep it simple at first. Here are some suggestions:

  • Wild Ones® Natural Landscapers, Ltd., is a non-profit organization that supports native plants and gives instructional seminars. Web site:
  • “Birdscaping in the Midwest: A Guide to Gardening With Native Plants to Attract Birds” is a helpful 2007 book by Mariette Nowak (Itchy Cat Press).
  • Backyard diagram

    Click diagram for a larger view. This is a diagram of the Wauwatosa back yard of Vicki Piaskowski and Larry Hopwood. In the front of their house they have a small traditional yard (not shown). Diagram by Vicki Piaskowski and Roberta Weldon.

  • Don’t try to do everything at once. Piaskowski broke her yard into sections and did one section per growing season. First they removed non-native plants and prepared the soil. Then they put in a woodland wildflower garden. The following year, they added native shrubs on the north side of the yard. The next year, they put in a prairie garden and added white cedars and native shrubs on the east side of the yard. The year after, the south side got white pines, hemlocks and native shrubs. The last significant addition was a small pond surrounded by native plants. Spreading the work over several years spread out the time and money needed to re-do the yard. She and her husband, Larry, and son, Kelley, did most of the work on the weekends. Since the main plantings were finished in 1994, they have continued to add fruiting shrubs and woodland and prairie plants such as trillium, wild ginger, and coneflowers.
  • Don’t remove a tall tree just because it’s not native to Wisconsin. “Because of the expense of removing tall trees, we pruned them instead and then added native shrubs and native evergreen trees beneath the tall trees,” says Piaskowski. She has nine tall, deciduous trees in her back yard. They are a mix of native and non-native species. As the non-native species die off, she replaces them with native trees such as pussy willows. (The non-native trees she has are apple and mulberry trees and a Norway maple.)
  • Avoid  pesticides whenever possible because they can harm birds. For good information about healthy yards and alternatives to pesticides, go to these Audubon at Home online sites: