How to help nesting birds with our yards and bird feeders

How to help nesting birds with our yards and bird feeders

An American Robin sits on its nest wary of predators.

Nesting season is in full swing for all North American residents. This vital season brings hungry nestlings and fledglings, with parents careening around yards looking for frequent, easy meals. Since birds do not have a drive-thru option to bring quick food home to famished babies, backyard feeders can adjust their summer bird feeder diet to help exhausted parent birds. Read on to learn how to support local baby birds through the summer!

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Help nesting birds nestle in

a black-capped chickadee builds its nest cavity
A Black-capped Chickadee clears out its nesting cavity.

Every bird species utilizes a nest of some shape, size, form, and material. And while we cannot provide a prebuilt home for every species around our homes, there are steps every homeowner can take to provide nest space, construction materials, and safety for birds.

For the first step, let's talk about nest space. At Birds Choice, we have a bountiful inventory of birdhouses for over a dozen species of birds. In previous learning opportunities, we wrote about the best practices for our nest boxes and helpful hints for mounting those houses. How can we create a nest space for birds that do not use a birdhouse? Structure! We need yards with varying heights of natural and artificial structure. If this idea is unfamiliar, let's break it down more. Birds will nest at different heights and construct nests facing different directions. To allow birds to accomplish this, we need mature trees providing a canopy, medium-sized trees providing a mid-story, and shrubs and brush to give an understory to our feathered families. This practice allows the most tremendous diversity of birds to build their temporary homes for nestlings. Combining nest boxes with a habitat of layered height creates a space where birds can hatch, grow, and fledge.

yellow warbler nest
Check out the variety of plants fibers in this Yellow Warbler nest!

Next, it is time to stock nesting materials. What types of items will birds use? Dead grass, animal hair, spider webs, plant fibers (cotton, leaves, seed pieces), lichens, mud, twigs, sticks, branches, and pine needles are just a FEW of the many building blocks used to assemble a comfortable place to raise nestlings. Many of these materials are likely already found in our yards, so the most straightforward way to ensure nests can be built is to leave the "yard litter" somewhere around our bird havens, where birds can still access them! If someone desires to set out clumps of their pet's hair outside for birds to grab, please ensure the hair is untreated by pesticides, antibiotics, and insect deterrents. This guarantees no dangerous chemicals are absorbed through the skin of the baby birds. Keeping a well-stocked hardware store for nesting birds is an easy step. By doing a little less yard work, we can allow full nests to be built around our homes. Oh, and leave outdoor spiderwebs alone! 

In our final step, we strive to create a safe space for eggs to hatch, nestlings to grow, and fledglings to learn how to be birds. This is accomplished by limiting access to vulnerable baby birds by non-native predators. For nest boxes, predator guards help against invasive birds like House Sparrows and European Starlings, and baffles protect against ground predators that are native but can create issues for nesting birds.

Keeping our cats indoors (and encouraging our neighbors) stops the biggest KNOWN threat to our native species by an invasive organism. When a bird leaves its nest as a fledgling, its ability to fly is almost comical. However, this comedy can become a nightmare if an outdoor cat sees the helpless bird struggling near the ground. Keeping cats inside and native birds outside is one of the most surefire ways to help bird populations rebound.

Additionally, while dogs are less of a threat, off-leash dogs can be a risk to ground-nesting birds and grounded fledglings. If dogs are free roaming in a fenced yard, watch for baby birds on the ground!

western meadowlark fledgling in tall grass
A fledgling meadowlark hides in the grass from predators.

These few actions alone help keep the human-caused threats to baby birds at a minimum. Helping nestlings and fledglings is an easy goal we can all strive for. Simple measures can create significant change for the safety of baby birds. What other simple actions can be taken? Plant some native plants! Read on to learn why this can be a baby bird boon.

Natural for nestlings

Planting native plants is crucial in supporting the development and growth of nestling and fledgling birds. Native plants have evolved alongside local bird species, providing a natural and abundant group of food sources. Native plants produce fruits, seeds, and nectar that not only feed birds but also attract insects. These insects, in turn, serve as an essential food supply for young birds. By incorporating native plants into our landscaping, we create a replenishing feeding system that fills the bellies of hungry baby birds every year. These invertebrates meet the specific dietary needs of nestling and fledgling birds.

a say's phoebe carries an insect to its nest
A Say's Phoebe collects invertebrates for its chicks!

Furthermore, native plants also provide suitable habitats for nesting and shelter for young birds (see the above section). Many native plants offer dense foliage, creating safe havens for nests and protecting young birds from the eyes of predators. By planting native plants, we can create a nurturing environment that not only supports the nutritional requirements of young birds but also offers a secure space for them to grow and thrive throughout their early developmental stages. Without baby birds, we cannot have our yards, parks, forests, and grasslands full of song and color.

A yard full of bird friendly plants is a great start, but we still need to address a glaring problem that sits on the shelves of many garden stores. The killer of most baby bird food. Pesticides.

Please, without poison

Baby birds eat A LOT. And for most species, the baby bird food formula consists of what humans view as a significant pest: insects. Without a diverse diet of caterpillars, beetle larvae, flies, and countless other insects, baby birds are unable to develop correctly. How can we keep insect populations bustling around our green spaces? Cut the use of pesticides.

a common yellowthroat carries an insect
Common Yellowthroats need ample green space with lots of understory and no pesticides!

The use of pesticides in yards and gardens not only lessens the available food sources for nesting birds but also threatens the poisoning of adults and nestlings. Pesticides can cause egg destruction and developmental issues or possibly force a complete nest failure. The most prominent example of pesticide use leading to significant nest failures can be traced back to the use of DDT in the 1900s. DDT caused the thinning of eggshells for several species of birds, including the Bald Eagle and the Peregrine Falcon. When females would sit to incubate eggs, the shells would be crushed. While we no longer see such a drastic loss of large nesting birds, modern pesticides can cause other issues like limiting the fat buildup in migrating birds. This inability to store fat can lead to higher stressed birds and increased mortality rates during migration.

Insects play a vital role in the diet of baby birds. With this critical fact understood, it is time to explore a final strategy to ensure a successful nesting attempt during the summer months. While insects are abundant in the warmer seasons, there are ways we can further support the bird population by providing alternative types of bird food. By diversifying their diet beyond wild captured insects, we can help sustain healthy growth and development among our feathered friends. We can now delve into the exciting possibilities that come with changing the type(s) of bird food used in summer and discover how we can contribute to the well-being of these remarkable creatures.

Change your summer bird food

an eastern bluebird feeds a mealworm to its fledgling
Bluebirds LOVE mealworms!

While many insects are abundant in the warmer seasons, there are ways we can further support the bird population by providing alternative types of bird food. By diversifying their diet beyond wild captured insects, we can help sustain healthy growth and development among our feathered friends. We can now delve into the exciting possibilities of changing the type(s) of bird food used in summer and discover how we can contribute to the well-being of these remarkable creatures.

Bird food options available to those of us with feeders have exploded in recent years. Not only are seed options being diversified, but insect larvae are also becoming commonplace. Birds Choice offers dried mealworms that can be added to most feeder types. Insect-filled suet blocks are also available for the more selective birds! These seed alternatives help supplement birds when insect hatches are inadequate for local birds or missing altogether.

a hand holds mealworms
Mealworms make for a great supplemental bird food!

This suggestion of an additional food type does not mean we need to remove birdseed in the summer. In fact, several species of birds are almost entirely granivorous, meaning they will eat ONLY seeds! Plus, hungry parents will also look to feeders as an easy meal after a day of hunting food for hungry chicks. Having feeders can help supplement adult birds that need a boost to fill all those hungry mouths. Diversifying resources and providing more food choices for birds can only help our avian neighbors. Just be sure the choices you provide are the correct choice, the Birds Choice. (See what I did there?)

Need a feeder to hold mealworms? Platform and hopper feeders provide a lot of flexibility in food types!

a chickadee sits on a platform
Platform feeders provide maximum flexibility for food types!

Bugging out for baby birds

Thank you for joining this journey to support local baby birds through the summer and help rebuild our declining bird populations! As the nesting season reaches its peak, North American residents are witnessing the bustling activity of hungry nestlings and fledglings, with their dedicated parents tirelessly searching for nourishment. While birds lack the convenience of ready-made meals, backyard feeders have played a crucial role in providing frequent, easy meals for these exhausted parents. Adjusting to a summer bird feeder diet can make a significant difference in supporting these feathered families. Combining feeders with native plants and safe nesting areas is a recipe for happy, healthy baby birds.