8 Ways to Ensure a Bird-Safe Backyard

Keep your feathered friends healthy and happy with clean bird feeders, fresh birdseed and a natural yard free of pesticides.

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A lot of planning, time and money go into attracting and feeding backyard birds. But making your space appealing to them with food and plants they love is only one part of the equation. You also need to ensure that birds stay safe while in your yard. With these tips, you are on your way to a bustling backyard full of feathered guests. Creating and maintaining a bird-safe yard requires a bit more work and dedication beyond simply putting up a feeder. But the peace of mind that comes with doing your part to keep birds safe is extremely rewarding.

Learn how to create the ultimate backyard wildlife and bird habitat.

1. Clean Feeders Regularly

Black-headed Grosbeak Pair at FeederKeithSzafranski/Getty Images
Black-headed grosbeaks at a feeder in Colorado.

Dirty feeders can spread disease. Completely empty yours about once every two weeks, and more often in wet weather or if the food looks moldy. Take each feeder apart, then clean it thoroughly with dish soap and boiling water or a dilute bleach solution (one part bleach to nine parts water). Rinse the feeder well, dry it completely and refill with fresh seeds or other bird food. Clean hummingbird feeders and change the sugar water every three to five days.

Learn how to clean a bird bath.

2. Monitor for Bird Feeder Disease

If you see birds that look ill—watch for crusty eyes, growths on their bodies or unusual behavior — take your feeders down immediately. Clean them thoroughly and wait several weeks before you put them back up. Keep an eye out for news stories about bird epidemics in your area and follow all recommendations to protect your feathery friends.

3. Say No to Pesticides

Birding and gardening go hand-in-hand, and understanding how birds, bugs and plants benefit one another greatly enhances the rewards. As an active gardener, you probably have found bugs eating your plants and felt the urge to take action. But it’s important to know that most pesticides are nondiscriminate killers that don’t just eliminate specific bugs. Pesticides kill important pollinators, like honeybees and butterflies, as well as helpful insects like lady beetles.

Although many kinds of lawn fertilizers with weed killers are harmful to wildlife, you still should consider organic fertilizers. Building your soil with a strong combination of compost and organic fertilizers is critical. If you forgo all fertilizers, you can end up with poor plant growth, fewer bugs for birds to eat, and soil erosion as plants decline. Psst—here’s the best natural way to kill weeds.

And reducing the overall use of harsh pesticides in yards is healthier for humans, too. A pesticide-free healthy lawn is the safest option for your favorite birds, other wildlife guests, pets and even you, too!

Check out 7 natural ways to keep bees and wasps away from hummingbird feeders.

4. Use Bird Safe Glass for Windows

yellow rumped warbler Dale ChristnerCourtesy Dale Christner
Yellow-rumped warbler in flight

Windows pose a huge risk by reflecting the sky or trees nearby, which invites birds to fly right into them. Researchers estimate that window collisions kill up to 1 billion birds a year, especially during migration season. New data indicates there is no truly safe distance from a window to put bird feeders, so be sure to make any windows facing your feeders easy for birds to see. Deck these windows with specially designed anti-collision stickers, decals, bird tape or films that create an opaque surface outside. Or mark the window using soap in a grid pattern of 4 inches by 2 inches. Here’s more tips to prevent bird strikes on windows at home.

5. Keep Cats Indoors

how to keep cats from killing birds, indoor cats watching birdsCourtesy Bobbi Russell/Country magazine

Cats are lovely and make wonderful companions. But if you love birds and enjoy feeding them, it’s best to keep your cats indoors. Studies prove the devastating impact that roaming house cats and feral cats have on birds and small mammals.

House cats are not native and also are not part of the natural ecosystem. Many people believe that a well-fed kitty wouldn’t have any reason to hunt birds, but even cared-for cats have the instinct to go after birds. Feeders and roaming cats are a lethal combination. If you have an outdoor cat, or if many strays visit your yard, it may be best if you refrain from feeding the birds, for the birds’ own safety. Or, you can create an outdoor enclosure or cat patio for your feline friend. This allows your kitty to be outdoors without being a threat to birds. Remember that, according to veterinarians, indoor cats live longer, healthier lives. So keeping your pets inside not only protects the birds, it’s also better for the cats.

6. Stop Hawks at Bird Feeders

Cooper's hawkCourtesy Charlene Denise Maples
Juvenile Cooper’s hawk

Feeders provide a quick lunch, but they also can turn diners into an easy meal for others. Add plenty of shelter nearby where backyard birds can escape when hawks circle above. Shrubs and trees are perfect choices. Foil ground predators such as foxes by hanging feeders high and using a squirrel baffle beneath. A cage-style feeder gives smaller birds an extra layer of protection while they feast. What foods do hawks eat?

7. Avoid Red Dye in Hummingbird Sugar Water

hummingbird feederCourtesy Gayle Jones
Hummingbird feeder

Beware: Some retailers offer hummingbird food colored with red dye. Most leading experts agree that the dye can be harmful to birds, and at the very least it’s unnecessary. The top recommendation for hummingbird food is to make it at home. Here’s the sugar water recipe. Any other kind of sweetener besides white granulated table sugar may be unsafe.

Check out 9 foods you should never feed to birds.

8. Grow Beneficial Plants and Trees

Bnbbyc16 Lorane Fought 001Courtesy Lorane Fought
American goldfinches on coneflowers

Birds rely on berries, seeds, nectar and the insects that plants attract for food. Grow native plants, shrubs and trees in your yard to attract a wider variety of birds in every season. Birds also use native trees for nesting, and evergreens provide winter shelter. Visit your local plant nursery to ask for recommendations.

Jill Staake
Jill Staake's lifelong love of nature turned into a career during the years she spent working with native Florida butterflies, caterpillars, and other wildlife at the Museum of Science & Industry in Tampa, Florida. During this time, she helped to maintain 30+ acres of gardens and backwoods, all carefully cultivated to support the more than 20 species of butterflies displayed indoors and out. She now writes for a variety of publications and sites on topics like gardening and birding, among others.
Kirsten Schrader
Kirsten has more than 15 years of experience writing and editing birding and gardening content. As content director of Birds & Blooms, she leads the team of editors and freelance writers sharing tried-and-true advice for nature enthusiasts who love to garden and feed birds in their backyards. Since joining Birds & Blooms 17 years ago, Kirsten has held roles in digital and print, editing direct-to-consumer books, running as many as five magazines at a time, and managing special interest publications. Kirsten has traveled to see amazing North American birds and attended various festivals, including the Sedona Hummingbird Festival, the Rio Grande Bird Festival, The Biggest Week in American Birding Festival, and the Cape May Spring Festival. She has also witnessed the epic sandhill crane migration while on a photography workshop trip to Colorado. Kirsten has participated in several GardenComm and Outdoor Writers Association of America annual conferences and is a member of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology. When she's not researching, writing, and editing all things birding and gardening, Kirsten is enjoying the outdoors with her nature-loving family. She and her husband are slowly chipping away at making their small acreage the backyard of their dreams.