• Susan Poirier

How to make your backyard a quality stopover for migrating birds

Urban yards can offer food and respite that migrants need

Urban sprawl continues. The forests, prairies, and wetlands are nearly gone. This is why we need to make our backyards waystations for migrating birds to find food, fresh water, and protection from predators and weather.

Many bird species have adapted to migrate. It’s a cost versus benefit equation in the DNA of millions of birds that take the risk of flying thousands of miles each year through unknown territory.

Arctic terns make the longest migratory flight of any bird, about 25,000 miles annually to nest in the Arctic. So for that high-risk journey, what do they gain? Alaska’s Arctic Refuge is a pristine, secluded habitat and with good timing, they’ll arrive to a profusion of hatching insects to feed their young. For this they make an exhausting flight from Antarctica to the Arctic twice a year, making many stopovers along the way.

We’re learning more on how some birds may be adapting to the lack of quality stopovers and that even small patches of forest can provide habitat. An Ohio State University study on Swainson’s thrush (Condor, February 2010) showed that even when birds are forced to use isolated urban forest patches, these small fragmented habitats can still provide suitable food and cover.

Imagine how the quality of these stopover sites would improve if across North America we educated enough people to make just a few small changes each year to their yards, beneficial to both migrating and resident birds with the bonus of more beauty and wildlife in their yards.

What is realistic if you have a small yard or you’re limited in time or money? With a small amount of effort anyone can improve their backyard for birds whose survival depends on it.

What do birds need to find to rest and refuel?

Focus on three key elements: water, food, protection.

• First, fresh clean water is absolutely essential. With the loss of wetlands and pollution safe and abundant water is becoming more rare. Heated birdbaths are easy to clean and a backyard lifesaver, well worth the investment.

• Most migrants won’t eat from birdfeeders, so feed them by tossing birdseed directly on the ground a couple of times a day (morning and late afternoon or early evening) in protected spots under shrubs. Find several safe spots in your yard (don’t just leave one big pile of seed). This reduces the chance of non-natives like common house sparrows or starlings getting all the seed and drawing attention of predators. It’s very handy to use a very small snow shovel (like a kid’s shovel) for easily clearing snow underneath shrubs.

• Create a high-quality mix of ground-feeding birdseed. Many birds have delicate beaks and can’t crack open big seeds. Offer white millet, peanuts crushed into smaller bits (roll-out peanut halves for this), black sunflower, sunflower hearts, white safflower.

• Feed consistently, every day. Migrating birds must replenish with high-fat food quickly. If they find your backyard, you want them to stay and conserve energy for as long as they need while they rest and refuel (which could be a few days and up to two weeks).

•Probably most important, plant native, berry-producing shrubs in your yard. Research your planting zone and find local sources for buying native. Set a goal to plant a few more natives each year until you’ve created a protective thicket of habitat that provides lots of quality berries and insects. In my Midwest zone, red-twig dogwood, silky dogwood, arrowwood viburnum, highbush cranberry viburnum, and crabapple varieties are all great choices and also fast-growers—in just two or three years you’ll have good-sized shrubs and berries. Native evergreens provide both an excellent safe haven from weather and predators and provide food. One of my favorites is a blue spruce that I bought for $5 at the end of summer—it was barely a foot tall. Birds started using it just a few years later and now, about twelve years later it’s a gorgeous fifteen-foot tree that birds are nesting in every spring.

• Think messy. Create a brush-pile from downed tree limbs and shrubs. It will grow to a good size and offer safe cover plus more insects for birds. Hold off on trimming and general yard clean-up for as long as you can—birds (and insects) need the overgrowth for food, protection, and nesting material. Baltimore oriole females use swamp milkweed stalks from last year for building new nests every spring, peeling the fiber from the stalk to use in weaving their basket nests.

• It goes without saying, but ban all chemical use on your lawn, garden beds, and anywhere— buy seeds, flower and vegetable seedlings from organic farmers and companies that do not use neonicotinoids. Round-up and neonicotinoids are poisoning our birds and pollinators. Even very small doses of neonicotinoids in contaminated seeds is deadly to birds and disorientates their sense of direction and ability to migrate.

•Keep your cats indoors at all times. Cats adapt extremely well to indoor life and stay much healthier and safer. Just one outdoor cat will hide near feeders and kill birds every day in your yard (this includes de-clawed cats), regardless of how well-fed they are.

Migrating birds are facing so many threats—deforestation, loss of wetlands, chemical pollution, window-strikes from city buildings, communication towers—so we must think and act collectively. What we do in our own backyards can and does make a difference. It’s no longer just a hobby to feed birds—we must create a lifesaving backyard oasis to replenish migrating birds so they are strong enough to reproduce successfully when they finally arrive on their nesting grounds.

And they’ve got to survive migration to nest and reproduce.


Stephen N. Matthews and Paul G. Rodewald (2010) Urban Forest Patches and Stopover Duration of Migratory Swainson’s Thrushes. The Condor: February 2010, Vol. 112, No. 1, pp. 96-104. http://americanornithologypubs.org/doi/full/10.1525/cond.2010.090049?code=coop-site

Jennie Miller, How Do Tired Birds Choose Where To Stop During Migration? The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, January 7, 2015. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/how-do-tired-birds-choose-where-to-stop-during-migration/

#migratorystopovers #backyardbirding #nativeplants

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