What do we need to do to encourage cardinals, orioles, and hummingbirds to nest in our own backyard? We need to ensure that our backyard habitat provides all their needs: a safe place to build a nest, the materials with which to build it, and an abundance of natural food to sustain the adults and growing young. Each species has its own unique requirements to meet all three basic needs.
Adult carrying a juicy caterpillar to the chicks.
Woodpeckers, chickadees, and other birds that excavate a nest cavity usually select a tree that has some heart rot. Some species require fairly large trees; others, especially downy woodpeckers and chickadees, can use very small trees. Many people get concerned when they notice dying limbs on a tree, and immediately remove the dead wood or even the entire tree. This is prudent when the tree could fall on people, cars, houses, or power lines, but when that isn't the case, giving a dead or dying tree a few years may encourage birds to move in.
Black-capped chickadees sometimes use bird boxes, but often excavate their own nest or take over an old downy woodpecker nest. This pair used an old downy woodpecker nest in a dead cherry tree.
Catbirds, thrashers, song sparrows, northern cardinals, and many other songbirds nest in shrubs, often preferring dense tangles. Beautifully manicured ornamental hedges aren't as pretty to most birds as they are to us; most birds prefer a more natural look.
Some birds, such as chipping sparrows, usually select a conifer (evergreen). Some, such as orioles, prefer a deciduous (leafy) tree. Robins often build their first nest of the season in a conifer; they more often choose a deciduous tree for their second and third nests, which are built after leaves come out.
Many birds use dead twigs and small branches for the outer nest structure. Robins and barn swallows also need a good supply of mud. In a very dry spring, they appreciate a nice little mud puddle if you have a bare spot in a hidden area of your yard that you can keep wet. Chickadees and hummingbirds incorporate bits of moss and lichens into their nests; hummingbirds also require a lot of spider silk. Protecting your backyard spiders and leaving cobwebs alone during the nesting season can help them.
This pair of red-bellied woodpeckers nested in a backyard in Minnesota. The nest was excavated in an old box elder. None of the adjacent yards are treated with any lawn pesticides, and the birds found lots of insects to feed the young. Later in summer, the parents brought their fledged young to a cherry tree as well as to many shade trees, teaching them to find food.
Most birds, from hummingbirds to crows, feed their young a lot of insects. Lawn and garden pesticides not only can be directly hazardous to backyard birds but can also eliminate food supplies for their young.
Nectar-feeding birds, especially hummingbirds, need tubular flowers. Hummingbirds can also get some sweet fluids from sapsucker drill wells and from the oozing tips of spruces and some other trees.
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