Make your backyard a home for the birds
Videography by Jeanne Galatzer Levy
The plants chosen by residents for their yards are more important to the diversity of native birds in suburban neighborhoods than surrounding parks, forest preserves or street-side trees, UIC biologists found.
“We were surprised by the diversity of species we found in people’s neighborhoods — 36 species in all,” said Amy Belaire, doctoral candidate in biological science, first author on a study published in the journal Ecological Applications.
Areas with bird-friendly yards had nearly twice as many species as neighborhoods whose private yards were less attractive to birds, she said.
The UIC biologists surveyed 25 neighborhoods in the Chicago area during June’s peak breeding season. They scored the number and type of birds, plus bird-friendly landscaping features such as berry bushes, evergreens, bird feeders, bird baths and ponds.
Because backyards are private, their impact on bird populations hadn’t been studied before, said Emily Minor, associate professor of biological sciences and principal investigator on the study.
“The backyards are where people feel more comfortable landscaping things that they think are important,” said Minor. “So a lot of people’s bird-friendly efforts are in the backyards.”
Belaire walked one kilometer down 25 selected streets near forest preserves throughout Cook County, stopping every 100 meters to look for birds and listen for birdsongs. She identified and counted the birds in each area based on these observations.
Going house-to-house, Belaire and undergraduate student Hannah Gin asked people to fill out a survey of their yards, identifying environmental characteristics including bird-friendly landscaping. They also asked if cats or dogs lived outside.
The researchers found that the neighborhoods most attractive to birds were those where many yards had fruit- or berry-bearing trees and shrubs, plus a mix of evergreen and other types of trees and, to a lesser extent, other environmental features.
They found that the outdoor animals, especially cats, kept birds away.
Their research grew from wondering how many birds from forest preserves fly into nearby neighborhoods, Minor said.
“Birds are really living out in the neighborhood,” she said. “We found that there were simple guidelines for people to follow to increase bird diversity in their own backyards.”
Chris Whelan of the Illinois Natural History Survey is co-author on the study.