Making Your Outdoor Space Welcoming to Birds and Beneficial Insects

by Megan Van de Mark, Backyard Habitat Program Manager,
& Stephanie Herman, Wildlife Care Center Manager

Spring is rapidly approaching. The following are tips from our Backyard Habitat Certification Program and Wildlife Care Center on how to make your outdoor space welcoming and safe for birds and beneficial insects.

BHCP Photo of yard with flowers and bird bath

Provide Water by Installing a Water Feature

Sufficient and reliable sources of clean, fresh water are essential for birds and beneficial insects for drinking and bathing. You can help by installing and maintaining a bird or bug bath in your outdoor space. It doesn’t need to be fancy. In fact, decorative bird baths can be less effective than do-it-yourself versions made with repurposed shallow pans, trays, or plant pot saucers.

Whatever container you use, a shallow depth is key—no more than two inches. Fill with an inch of water. Add pebbles, small rocks, or twigs to give birds something to stand on or bugs to land on. Birds are drawn to the sound of moving water, so consider adding a moving or dripping water feature, such as a solar bubbler. Place the bath near shrubs, and when appropriate, at ground level. Keep it clean, changing the water frequently.

Provide Food by Planting Native Plants

Access to adequate, reliable, and appropriate food is vital to birds and beneficial insects. Loss of habitat and decline in native plant species, among other factors, directly impact food availability, and consequently, bird and beneficial insect populations. You can help by planting locally native plants in your outdoor space. The majority of birds and insects are specialists, adapted to and reliant on a particular food source, oftentimes specific plants native to an area.

By planting locally native plants from multiple vegetation layers and with different bloom times, you can supply needed food to a diversity of birds and beneficial insects over multiple seasons. Fall, winter, and spring are all good times to plant. Putting plants in the ground during the cooler, moister months gives roots a chance to grow before the dry, hot summer months.

When choosing what to plant, observe the conditions of your outdoor space. To help plants not only survive but thrive, choose those that are adapted to the site’s soil, light, and moisture conditions as well as the size of the area. When there’s space, consider planting a large canopy tree.

Black-headed Grosbeak
Black-headed Grosbeak, photo by Scott Carpenter.

Provide Shelter by Easing Up on the Cleanup

We all need appropriate shelter. For birds, shelter is necessary for protection from predators and weather as well as for nesting habitat. You can offer shelter for birds and beneficial insects in your outdoor space by planting native plants, but also by easing up on the cleanup. Unkempt outdoor spaces can make great habitat for birds and other wildlife.

Hundreds of insects and arachnids overwinter in the leaf “litter” layer. When you leave the leaves, or even delay cleanup, these beneficial critters are able to complete their life cycle. Many insects and arachnids are critical food sources for birds, including baby birds. When conducting maintenance in your outdoor space, such as removing thicket-forming noxious weeds (e.g., blackberry), clearing brush, or having tree work done, be aware of nesting times. Consider delaying until fall or winter, after nesting season. When pruning trees and shrubs, look for active nests. If possible, repurpose downed branches on site, creating wildlife brush shelters.

Learn to Be a Good Wildlife Neighbor

Creating space and resources for native wildlife can be fun and rewarding. That said, an important part of being a good neighbor to wildlife is being aware of how this proximity can create opportunities for harm to wildlife and sometimes damage or inconvenience for people. Learning to prevent or respond to these potential conflicts in a humane way is crucial.

Reduce Hazards

  • Turn off unnecessary outdoor lighting, particularly during spring and fall migration.
  • Avoid using pesticides, rodenticides, and glue traps.
  • Keep cats indoors or in an outdoor enclosure, such as a catio.
  • Treat your windows to prevent bird collisions.

Bird Alliance of Oregon has some great campaigns that provide loads of information on addressing these challenges. Check out our Bird-safe and Lights Out webpages and our Cats Safe at Home website, developed in collaboration with the Feral Cat Coalition of Oregon.

Cat in Catio

Solve Conflicts Humanely

At some point, one of your wildlife neighbors might do something inconvenient or harmful, such as digging up your flower bulbs or nesting in your attic. Normally you might be willing and able to tolerate these impacts, but sometimes it’s necessary to intervene. A common first response is to try to remove the animal. However, killing, trapping, removing, or relocating animals are never humane options, nor are they long-term solutions. Remove one squirrel from your attic without addressing why it was there in the first place and others will come.

Also never intentionally feed wild mammals such as raccoons and coyotes. These animals can very quickly become habituated to human handouts. There are many studies linking habituation of wild mammals to conflicts.

The good news is that most situations can be humanely resolved by taking simple steps to prevent access (e.g., capping your chimney), remove attractants (i.e., removing or securing food sources), or offer alternatives (e.g., putting up nest boxes). Successful approaches depend on the animal’s natural history. Our Wildlife Care Center hotline (503-292-0304) is available 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day for humane solutions consults.


Give Wildlife Space

Inviting more wildlife into your outdoor space means you will get to see more of their lives! It’s exciting to observe them coming and going, having babies, and using the resources you’ve prepared for them. But sometimes nature can be hard to watch: when a crow predates a nest you’ve been following, or when you’re worried that momma goldfinch is not with her fledglings enough. While we want to reduce and respond to human-caused harm, we don’t want to interfere with natural processes (that crow needs to eat too, and baby goldfinches need to stay with their parents). It’s helpful to remember that wildlife are well adapted to taking care of themselves, and every healthy relationship needs boundaries!

Enroll in the Backyard Habitat Certification Program

Discover how you can make your outdoor space a welcoming and safe habitat.

Learn More