The Grumpy Gardener's Guide to Backyard Birds

Tweeting tips to all of you who love our feathered friends.

What big issue torments you? Did a meteor come crashing through the roof last night? Did Fido swallow your wedding ring? Did you mean to buy Swiss cheese and discover you came home with Muenster? Well fret not! No such disasters need steal your serenity ever again once you embrace a simple practice: just step outside to your porch or yard, and observe your outdoor friends, the birds.

If this all sounds decidedly not Grumpy, then forgive me. My rapidly senescing brain seeks harmony within a fractured world. So whenever necessary, I repair to the refuge of a screened porch facing our little woods, chirp toward the feeder that dangles from the witch hazel (yes, I really do chirp), and call them to dine. Invariably, the chickadees arrive first, followed shortly by the tufted titmice, cardinals, finches, woodpeckers, wrens, and nuthatches. Seated in my favorite chair with a cocktail in hand, I am at peace.

Don't think Grumpy has become an ornithologist. I don't sleep with Audubon's field guide tucked under my pillow or race through neighbors' yards with birding glasses pressed to my eyeballs, rapturously hollering, "Ruby-crowned kinglet!" No doubt, many of you know more about birds than I. But for those who seek to learn the basics of attracting them to your garden, I'm your guy. Let's begin.

Eastern Bluebird on Cherry Blossom Branch
Larry Keller, Lititz Pa./Getty Images

Choose Food for the Birds You Want

Goldfinches, juncos, and pine siskins like thistle seeds (squirrels don't); buntings, towhees, sparrows, mourning doves, and Carolina wrens prefer millet seeds (squirrels don't); and almost all songbirds love black oil sunflower seeds (squirrels do too). A bagful of mixed seeds usually contains all three. As an alternative, I highly recommend Cole's Hot Meats (available from Though expensive, these shelled sunflower seeds, infused with chili pepper, torch the evil mouths of marauding squirrels but don't affect birds in the least. High in protein and fat, they provide a huge draw for adult birds tending hungry chicks—even insect eaters that rarely come to the feeder. One spring day, I encountered five Eastern bluebirds enjoying a big family feast! (If I were able to cry, I would have.) Prime times for avian diners? Morning and late afternoon.

Provide Shelter and Safe Nesting Sites

Birds feel vulnerable on the ground—and rightly so. Predators abound. It's smart to have nearby trees that they can fly to after grabbing a seed. Tall evergreens offer safe, hidden nesting sites well above the ground. Be careful where you put birdbaths. While these creatures need water for drinking and bathing, landing on a basin on the ground could attract the unwanted company of natural predators, so give a tufted titmouse a break. Basins must be on pedestals or suspended from chains with clear visibility. Birds prefer shallow water that's no more than an inch deep. Heated baths are especially welcome where water freezes in winter.

Get a Good Feeder

Some are for small birds, while others are virtually universal. Place yours in the open, mounted on a pole or hung from a branch so it's beyond the reach of cats and other predators. You will also want to make sure it resists those (expletive deleted) squirrels. Some claim to be "squirrel proof," but I'd have to see that to believe it.

Plant a Buffet

Birds love fruits, nuts, and seeds, so grow them in your garden. For fruits, plant beautyberry, pyracantha, Eastern red cedar, viburnum, hawthorn, sumac, palm, crabapple, serviceberry, dogwood, bayberry, persimmon, black gum, holly, and wax myrtle. For nuts and seeds, plant oak, pine, spruce, beech, maple, birch, sunflower, and coneflower.

Keep an Eye Out for the Wanderers

Most of the birds I've mentioned stay in my neighborhood year-round. And Grumpy will confess to committing the woeful sin of taking these feathered ones for granted, on occasion. But then a particularly brilliant cardinal flies in and shows me the error of my ways. Every bird is a real treasure, especially those that migrate seasonally and may show up in my garden only briefly each spring or fall. Sighting one brings such joy. Still dressed in my pajamas, I'll seize my birding glasses, dash to the yard, and proclaim, "Scarlet tanager! Scarlet tanager!"

Grumpy's Frequent Fliers

Three of the songbirds I especially look forward to watching in my garden

01 of 03

Carolina Chickadee

Caroline Chickadee on Branch

(Poecile carolinensis)
Easily distinguished by their black-and-white cheeks, these fearless little creatures dive-bomb the feeder, ignoring bigger birds. They're named for their distinctive call that sounds like "chick-a-dee-dee-dee."

02 of 03

Tufted Titmouse

Tufted Titmouse bird on branch

(Baeolophus bicolor)
Spot tufted titmice by their orange flanks combined with blue-gray crests, wings, and tails. Males and females look similar, and they often associate with chickadees.

03 of 03

White-Breasted Nuthatch

White-Breasted Nuthatch bird on branch

(Sitta carolinensis)
Their long bills and habit of walking up tree trunks reminds me of woodpeckers, but these birds have white faces, dark crowns, and gray and black feathers. They like to eat bugs and seeds.

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