Your Backyard Can Be a Buffet for Birds… but You Need To Be a Good Caterer!
Birds are remarkable in so many ways: their astonishing beauty, the marvel that is migration, the sheer diversity of the more than 10,000 species found around the world. They are also remarkable for their accessibility: right outside our windows is a world that we can observe, experience, and share with others. Feeding birds can bring their world a little closer to our own. Our yards can be vital habitats and following a few simple guidelines can help create a safe haven where birds can flock, feed, nest, and rest — and we can enjoy a closer glimpse into their lives. Whether you are celebrating National Bird Feeding Month in February or sharing your observations of backyard visitors during Project FeederWatch, these tips will help you create a safe and inviting habitat for birds close to home.
Keep the “Kitchen” Clean for Birds
“Bird feeders are basically the kitchens and dining rooms of our backyards,” said Jordan Rutter, ABC's Director of Communications. “It would be hard for us to imagine not washing our dishes. We should think of bird feeders and bird baths in a similar way.”
- If using a bird feeder or bird bath, maintain them with regular washes using a 10-percent bleach solution (one part bleach mixed with nine parts water), followed by a water rinse, then complete air-dry.
The same holds true for hummingbird feeders: they should be cleaned with a bleach solution and dried thoroughly once per week (or more often if necessary). With some native plants, places to perch, and water features, your yard can become a paradise for hummingbirds in its own right, but you can provide an extra sugary food source for these tiny backyard visitors if you choose.
- If you're feeding hummingbirds, look no further than your pantry. Create a healthy pick-me-up for hummingbirds by mixing one part sugar with four parts warm to hot water — no red dye needed (it's also not recommended!). Change the sugar-water mixture at least twice per week and keep your feeder in the shade to maintain cleanliness and prevent mold.
Bird feeders and bird baths are communal spaces that invite close contact, which can hasten the transmission of diseases between birds. Conjunctivitis, a disease affecting the eyes and respiratory system, is a persistent concern for some common backyard birds like finches. Regularly cleaning feeders is one of the best ways to prevent conjunctivitis and other diseases from spreading among the birds flocking to your yard.
Other diseases require a more aggressive response. Late in 2021, domestic chickens on the island of Newfoundland, Canada first tested positive for a strain of what became known as highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI). Since then, HPAI has been detected in more than 8,600 wild birds in all 50 United States and throughout every Canadian province, with new cases continuing to emerge.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is keeping track of where outbreaks in wild birds are occurring across the U.S. You can use this resource to check whether your home is near an outbreak. HPAI has impacted waterbirds like geese, ducks, and swans, as well as shorebirds. Though these birds are not commonly found in typical suburban backyards, staying aware of developments with HPAI and responding accordingly can help mitigate the further spread of this disease.
- If an avian flu, or other disease, outbreak is reported in your area, consider pausing any feeding of birds at least until this wildlife morbidity/mortality event is over.
Removing bird feeders is typically recommended to reduce any disease spread among groups of birds. If there is an outbreak in your area, follow the direction and guidance of local agency officials, who can provide localized advice. Such safety precautions are particularly important if you raise chickens or have any other kind of pet bird on your property.
- If you find a dead bird and would like to report it, do not pick it up and do not let pets near it or any bird that appears to be sick. Check with your state health department or wildlife agency for reporting information specific to your area.
Please note that the CDC and USDA continue to closely monitor the HPAI situation. The CDC also has a number to call if you see unusual behavior in any birds near your home. While the CDC reports there is a very low risk of infection from HPAI for the general human population, always avoid handling wild birds unless absolutely necessary. Only handle them if you have the proper permits and are aware of proper handling techniques.
Create a Backyard Buffet for Birds — With or Without a Feeder
Even in the absence of a bird feeder, you can still help birds that visit your yard. Creating a backyard habitat that supports birds and other wildlife luckily isn't dependent on feeders — there are many ways to create a bountiful backyard habitat.
- Garden with native plants that can provide shelter and food.
As spring approaches and the breeding season begins in the U.S. and Canada, many “feeder” birds will become more reliant on invertebrates like caterpillars and grasshoppers for feeding their young. During the breeding season, chicks need protein for rapid growth; hardworking parent birds also benefit from a solid dose of insect- and spider-based protein.
Incorporating native plants into your yard helps provide that protein. Many insect species are adapted to particular native plants; without those plant species, you won't have the insects. While the Monarch butterfly and its reliance on milkweed is a well-known example, myriad other insects rely on their specific plant hosts, too. You can maximize your food offerings for birds by researching and planting the species that support these insects! In addition, many native plants provide food of their own, including berries and nectar. If you maintain native trees, shrubs, and vines on the landscape, you will also encourage birds to nest in your yard or stop for a quick rest during spring or fall migration.
Make sure any plants you use are selected with care. Do not assume that nurseries will only sell you native and/or non-invasive plants or plants grown without the use of pesticides.
- Don't use chemicals that may harm insects, birds, and other wildlife.
Although many people think of them as pests, and garden shops are full of chemicals to get rid of them, invertebrates are a critical food for birds, including as food for their young. Just as you wouldn't want children or pets to ingest yard chemicals, the same should hold true for neighborhood wildlife. You can join ABC in advocating for major retailers to expand their selection of pesticide-free native plants.
Turn Your Backyard into a Healthy, Safe Habitat
Beyond providing a place where birds can refuel or find nutritious food for their young, you can take action to ensure your yard provides a habitat where birds and other wildlife can thrive.
- Keep birds — and your cat — safe by providing enriching indoor environments for your cat to enjoy full time. Ensure any outdoor experiences are supervised by containing your cat using a harness, backpack, or “catio.”
Practice and advocate for treating cats like dogs — that is, keeping them inside and closely managing their outdoor experiences to reduce their contact with wildlife and minimize risks to cats and wildlife alike. Educate yourself about the toll domestic cats take on birds and other wildlife; they are the top human-caused source of direct mortality to birds, killing an incredible 2.4 billion birds each year. Learn more about other simple actions you can take to protect birds on our Cats Indoors page. If you are a cat owner, you can also pledge to keep your pet responsibly contained.
- Protect birds from glass collisions.
Collisions with glass are a major human-caused threat to birds, killing up to 1 billion annually in the U.S. alone. Because birds are unable to discern glass reflections from habitats, glass poses a serious risk, especially when vegetation or other habitat is reflected in windows. From tape to screens and films, there are many effective, easy-to-install, and inexpensive home solutions to help reduce bird-window collisions. Please visit and share: birdsmartglass.org.
- Provide snags for clear sight lines.
You can “plant” a large dead branch in your garden or leave some dead branches in living trees to provide lookout points for birds. You may be surprised how quickly hummingbirds, flycatchers, and other birds adopt these “stick” perches, which help them watch for predators, as well as competitors and food sources.
- Support birds from inside, too.
You can support birds whether you have a yard or not. Consider purchasing bird-friendly coffee, “reduce, reuse, recycle” to help birds, from backyard visitors to seabirds in the middle of the ocean; and use your voice by asking your elected officials to support bird conservation efforts.
For more of ABC's top tips to help birds, read how our staff takes action at home too.
American Bird Conservancy is a nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving wild birds and their habitats throughout the Americas. With an emphasis on achieving results and working in partnership, we take on the greatest problems facing birds today, innovating and building on rapid advancements in science to halt extinctions, protect habitats, eliminate threats, and build capacity for bird conservation. Find us on abcbirds.org, Facebook, Instagram, and X/Twitter (@ABCbirds).
Director of Communications