During the next two months, and again in September and October, waves of beautiful and rare migratory birds will pass through the Evanston area. They will have flown long distances, arriving tired and hungry and in need of habitat where they can feed and rest. In addition to these passing visitors, dozens of species of nesting birds will be in search of places where they can raise their young.

They face a serious challenge. In urban areas, the built environment has crowded out the trees and plants that provide the food and critical breeding habitat they require. Evanston gardens can supply a much-needed antidote, helping birds safely migrate and raise their young.

Although most Evanston gardens are already landscaped and may include some bird-friendly features, it’s likely that other elements could be enhanced to provide an even more welcoming haven. Here are a few suggestions.

Design For Birds

A bird-friendly garden offers different layers of vegetation that give diverse bird species places for feeding, roosting, nesting, and hiding. It includes plants that vary in height, arranged to create a tiered effect – larger trees surrounded by moderately sized shrubs bordered by grasses and flowers, for example.

The ideal landscape includes trees and plants that provide food for birds in every season. Gardeners should give special attention to offering a diversity of food sources for the spring and fall migrating seasons. In spring, most birds eat tiny insects that are attracted to emerging foliage and flowers. Shrubs and plants whose fruits ripen in the fall provide migrant birds with important fuel for the journey and help non-migratory birds build reserves for the winter.

Property owners who have lost a tree to Dutch elm disease or the emerald ash borer have an opportunity to plant a replacement that is particularly inviting to birds. Oaks, hawthorns, and elms are good choices here.

Birds also need dense cover where they can hide from predators and take shelter from severe weather. Low shrubs and thick brush piles provide good cover for ground-feeding species, and evergreens offer important protection from wind, snow, and cold temperatures in winter.

Provide Nesting Sites

Many habitat features that provide good cover can also serve as places where birds can nest and raise their young. Dense thickets and shrubs will entice many bird species while others prefer to place their nests among the branches of trees.

Still other species look for nesting cavities in dead or decaying trees or fallen branches. In urban areas, where property owners promptly remove damaged and dead trees, cavity-nesting birds may find few natural places to raise their young. Setting up a birdhouse or a nesting box can provide a good alternative.

Supply Water

Birds need a dependable supply of fresh, clean water for drinking and bathing. A well-maintained birdbath will be a bird magnet in any garden. The best birdbaths are shallow and have a gentle slope so birds can wade into the water. 

Birdbaths should be cleaned frequently and the water changed every couple of days. Extra care is needed in late summer when culex mosquitoes, which cause West Nile Virus, are breeding.

Properly Site and Maintain Bird and Hummingbird Feeders

Feeders should be placed about ten feet from trees or shrubs so birds will have a resting place while feeding as well as a refuge from predators. Feeders must be kept clean and will require special attention during warm weather and periods of high use.

Reduce Threats – Cats, Windows, Predators

• Free-roaming cats pose a significant threat to birds and other wildlife. Outdoor cats are especially dangerous to birds in the spring when fledglings are on the ground. Life outdoors is also risky for cats. Many veterinarians and animal welfare organizations support keeping cats indoors for their own safety.

• Roughly one billion birds are killed and even more are injured every year in the U.S. by collisions with windows. Birds collide with windows for a variety of reasons: they see the reflection of the sky, clouds, and trees; they are attracted to bright lights near the window; or windows are transparent and the birds are attracted to something inside.

Solutions for reflective windows include “dressing” windows with outdoor blinds or screens or fine-mesh net during migrating seasons, and placing bird feeders, birdbaths and other attractions either against windows or more than 30 feet away. For transparent windows, it helps to close curtains and shades, use only low-intensity lighting, and move houseplants away from windows.

• Opossums, raccoons, and other nest predators have become commonplace in Evanston. Everyone can help deter these predators by keeping trashcans covered and refraining from putting out food for wildlife. 

A more detailed discussion of bird-friendly gardening can be found in a new publication written by members of Citizens’ Greener Evanston’s Forestry Task Force, available at: cityofevanston.org/sustainibility/land-use-development.