Bird-Friendly Backyards

It’s National Pollinator Week (June 22-28)! This is a great time to appreciate all the important benefits our pollinators provide and reflect on what we can do to help protect them. As bird enthusiasts, we should be concerned about pollinators and how our actions impact them as they are critical in supporting habitat for bird populations. There are lots of things you can do to help pollinators and birds (which you can learn about here) but one of the most impactful things you can do is integrate native plants into your yard. 

There are many benefits of native habitat landscaping, including increased food and shelter for wildlife, less water and pesticide use for homeowners, and the pleasing aesthetic of having nature right out your backdoor. Golden Eagle Audubon Society (GEAS) recently asked some of our members to share their bird-friendly backyards with us so you can learn more about what native habitat can look like at home. 

The three yards are pretty different from each other and will give you a sense of the variety of options you have if you decide to incorporate native plants into your outdoor space. We hope these photos and stories provide you with inspiration and ideas on what you can do in your yards, patios, and communities spaces. Whether you turn your entire backyard into bird habitat or plant just a few natives by your front door, any step you take will be impactful for our native birds! 

Dondi Black, GEAS Vice-President

1. What inspired you to incorporate native habitat into your yard? 

Native plants are better adapted to our environment so typically require less care and maintenance than popular nonnative plants that prefer different soils and climate conditions. Easier maintenance was a huge perk for us! Reading Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home as well as Noah’s Garden by Sara Stein during Snowmageddon really hit home the importance of native plants and especially native insects. We had created a certified wildlife habitat about ten years earlier in a previous yard and while it included many native plants, the emphasis was more on drought-tolerant and xeric plants. This time we would focus on attracting as many insects as possible with native plants. 

2. Tell us a little bit about the background of your backyard habitat. 

It wasn’t our intention to recreate the yard. We were busy with other things but needed to replace an old and failing retaining wall - 100 feet long and 10 feet high. In the process of doing that, all of the surrounding habitat was destroyed and removed. Due to unforeseen circumstances, “snowmageddon” hit before the project was completed. We spent the winter with a barren landscape full of snow, ice and mud. It was a long stressful winter for all. I provided a lot of food and water but had no shelter for the birds. The birds brought me joy during those never-ending winter days and it was during that time that I became committed to creating an oasis for the local birds, bees and butterflies. Or at least doing what I could with our little piece of land. 

Once spring finally arrived and the construction crews and equipment were out of the yard, nurseries were starting to open and I began collecting plants. We spent most of our free time breaking up compacted soil, planting, and laying drip lines. We have several species of penstemons and buckwheats, the superstars of desert landscapes and popular with bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. Other favorites include serviceberries, milkweeds, purple desert sage, sumacs, globemallows, rabbit brush, wild rose, gambel oak .. too many to list, I love them all! 








3. What has been the most challenging aspect of having native plant 

species in your yard? 

It is challenging to know which plants will do well and where without just trying it. I believe it is best to go about it as an ongoing experiment - try it and see what works. Some plants will thrive and spread while others will struggle and disappear. Everyone’s yard, light, water, soil situation is unique. And every year might be different. 

4. What is your favorite part of having native habitat in your yard? 

I love seeing wildlife benefit from the habitat we created - lizards, snakes, birds, butterflies, bumblebees, etc. Especially after removing all of our habitat, it makes me happy to see wildlife returning and I was impressed by how quickly it happened! It really does make a difference right away. 

5. What would you tell someone who is considering incorporating more native plants in their outdoor space? 

Be patient and flexible. If something doesn’t go as planned, do something else. Check out the native plants at the Idaho Botanical Garden for inspiration and ideas and for knowledge about shape and size and growing conditions as well as what they look like throughout the year. Creating habitat is a long-term project. A lot can be accomplished right away - planting annual sunflowers in the spring will attract bees and birds in the summer. Creating dense cover for nesting and shelter takes more time. Most available native plants are tiny at first and will take time to grow extensive root systems - which is a good thing! 

When considering plants, I look up their natural growing conditions - where they are native and what insects/birds use them. Not all native plants are created equal, some seem to be more beneficial to wildlife than others. I read most Xerces Society publications including ‘100 Plants to Feed the Bees’ which I found very helpful. It includes native range maps and growing conditions. It doesn’t mention birds specifically, but finches do enjoy the seeds and hummingbirds appreciate the nectar. Shop native plant sales in the spring! 




Alex Takasugi, GEAS Member & Former Board Member




What inspired you to incorporate native habitat into your yard?

First off, not all my plants are natives (Western US). My aim was to make a pollinator/bird-friendly habitat that provides food all season long. Most of the larger items are area natives—Douglas Hawthorn, Red-twig Dogwood, Golden Currant, Syringa, Showy Milkweed—but I also put in things like Pawpaw trees and Elderberry bushes that are native to the eastern US.

Tell us a little bit about the background story of your backyard habitat.

I retired in 2010 and took over the yard work (my husband grew up on a farm and had had his fill of outdoor labor, so he does the housework). After a few years, I realized how much I hated trimming the bushes and it occurred to me that I didn’t have to keep them, I could change the whole thing if I wanted. So, in 2014, I tore out all the bushes in the front of the house, ripped up the weed barrier, tilled in new garden soil and covered everything in bark. I finished the first pass, the front of the house, before July. It just took off from there.

Because I love a good research project, I actually spent 6-8 weeks sitting on the patio before supper each night going through the Sunset Western Garden book and making a list of all the plants that grew in our area and which had the bee/bird/butterfly symbols. Once I had the list, I went online and researched them to find the best types, the ones that bloomed the longest or provided good fruit. Finally, I looked for places to buy seeds for them. Because I started most of the non-bushes from seeds, it didn’t cost a lot. I hit the native plant society sale for most of the bushes. I’m also a fan of the “death row” Labor Day sales at nurseries—my honeysuckles came from there; they looked ratty but are now beautiful.

I can’t put a time frame around it, as the project is never done. One of the best features of gardening is that you learn new things every year, and you can always edit your plants. Some things work out, some don’t. I love to be outside, so it’s not a chore, but more of an enjoyable hobby.

What has been the most challenging aspect of having native plant species in your yard?

Actually, the biggest challenge is having too much water. The neighbors’ houses were built after ours and their contractors graded their yards to slope down to mine, so I’m always dealing with too much water. I’m still working on a drain system for the one side.

What is your favorite part of having native habitat in your yard?

I like the colorful flowers and the bees, as well as the birds. I have tons of penstemons, and I sit by them and watch the hundreds of bees working. Someone always eats the berries (elderberries, hawthorn berries, serviceberries, currants) and the plants are just getting started producing. I love hummingbirds, and they have a seasonal banquet—first the penstemons and honeysuckle, then the bee balm and salvia, agastache and zauschneria and lobelia, all with big red trumpet flowers. In late summer, the echinacea are going. There’s always something to eat. There are plenty of bugs to eat too, both for the birds and my recent guests, the toads. The bushes they replaced did nothing for any wildlife and were as useless as a patch of lawn.

What would you tell someone who is considering incorporating more native plants in their outdoor space?

Start small! Replace one or two things and take it from there. When I put in my first Elderberry, neighbors asked me what it was because it was so beautiful. I had the time and interest to treat it as a big research/work project, but you certainly don’t have to.

Also, native or not, don’t forget shelter. I have a lot of birds because I have a lot of places they can hide, like big hedges and the rhododendrons next to the house, which are the chickadee clubhouse in the winter. My feeders are near big conifers, so when the hawk blasts through, there’s a place to escape to.

Although I would ordinarily never recommend a book I haven’t read yet (I’ve just bought these and flipped through them prior to in-depth reading), I would recommend either or both books by Douglas Tallamy—Bringing Nature Home and his new Nature’s Best Hope—for inspiration. They have lots of pictures and Mr. Tallamy explains WHY we should be doing this, and BNH has suggestions on what to plant by region. Unfortunately, the Intermountain West is not one of his regions, but you can find lots of recommendations locally. I will be using these books to “edit” the landscape as I go on.





Alex’s Plant List:

Trees and bushes:

Douglas or Black Hawthorn

Pawpaw (3 kinds)

Syringa

Golden Currant

Red-twig Dogwood

Black Elderberry (regular and laceleaf)

Rhododendrons

Winterberries (just put in 3, these need a male to pollinate)

Honeysuckle (Dropmore Scarlet, 2 plants)

Flowers:

Penstemons (many, many different kinds, mostly blue/violet, some red)

Agastache, especially Apache Sunset

Rudbeckia (brown-eyed Susans)

Showy Milkweed

Butterfly weed

Gaillardia

Bee Balm (3 kinds)

Echinacea, mostly Cheyenne Spirit

Orange Globemallow

Evening Primrose

“Red birds in a tree” plant

Salvia with red flowers, trying Windwalker because they’re supposed to be perennial, but also annual S. coccinea (aka Texas hummingbird sage)


Alan Crockett, GEAS Member & Former Board Member

1. What inspired you to incorporate native habitat into your yard?

We are members of the ID Native Plant Society, Master Naturalists, and ex Master Gardeners as well as Audubon members, so naturally we are interested in native plants. We moved into this home with a small, fully landscaped yard, 6 years ago from a home in Idaho Falls with 2 acres, a stream, over 150 trees, and a native plant garden. While we have added some native plants to our new yard, we have declined to totally revise the yard and irrigation system to accommodate lots of native plants.


2. Tell us a little bit about the background story of your backyard habitat.

As noted above, we have not done a great deal. We put in vegetable gardens and a small herb/cactus garden. We took out some trees and added columbine, golden currents, Oregon grape, serviceberry, some small forbs, and varieties of yarrow, penstemon, buckwheat, flax, blanket flower, pussy toes, milkweed, coneflower, and ice plants.




3. What has been the most challenging aspect of having native plant species in your yard?

The challenge has always been the amount of sun we receive. Our yard is shady because of our large trees. But the trees are great for birds, attract many birds, and provide natural air-conditioning.


4. What is your favorite part of having native habitat in your yard?

Alice (my wife) has been the main gardener and she loves to try out new little native plants while I provide the muscle for the larger shrubs/trees.


5. What would you tell someone who is considering incorporating more native plants in their outdoor space?

I would remind them that for this area in southwest Idaho, native plants thrive in the sun and that, once established, watering can be at a minimum. Aside from native plants and the pollinators that are attracted to them, I would tell them to attract birds by providing a full time source of water, ensure there are conifers nearby for bird shelter and provide food via those native plants and bird feeders. Before starting up a planting project, develop a plan, read up on species available, and consider what you want to accomplish via the plantings. Also visit a variety of yards and find out what is practical for your home considering the area you live in.


Membership starts at just $20/year and supports our programs, education, conservation, and advocacy work.

©  2014 Golden Eagle Audubon Society. All rights reserved.

"Golden Eagle Audubon Society" is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. P.O. Box 8261, Boise, ID 83707

Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software