Defining Your Universe
If you want to know which species of birds will frequent your backyard, you first need to define the universe of wild birds that are native to your area. In this article, I'll give you five ways that you can find out. While this is not a necessary step to get started, it is helpful in setting expectations.
For example, as badly as I want a wild Scarlet Macaw to fly to my window, that will never happen where I live. They are a tropical bird native to Central and South America. We may think of them as "pet store birds" in the United States, but in Brazil, for example, they simply fly around in nature.
This may seem like an obvious point - whoever shows up is native to my area, right? Not necessarily. You may have a traveler passing through during migration season that you may see once and never again. Or there may be less common ones that you don't know exist until you set out a specific type of food.
Once you learn which birds are native to your area, then you can drill down a step further to determine which birds might come to your yard. And that depends on what's in your backyard. Are you in a suburban neighborhood? Are you near a body of water? Are you in a forest? In a desert? In a tropical region?
Birds go where the food is. If you live in a waterless suburban neighborhood, like me, you may see birds that feed off plants, insects and small mammals. If you live on a fish-stocked lake, you may see ducks, egrets and herons.
If you are most interested in feeder birds, then there are specific resources for that category, too. Backyard birding lists are typically more expansive than feeder bird lists.
Why does it matter?
1) Bird Identification
By knowing which birds are native to your area, you can significantly narrow your search when attempting to identify a bird. Let's take where I live in Northern Virginia, for example. There are around 10,000 species of birds in the world, depending on how you count. Around 900 of them live in North America, and around 700 in the eastern region. Less than 500 have been documented in Virginia. With that in mind, I only have to sift through about 5% of the world's bird population to determine the name of a bird that visited my house.
Let's take a specific example. There are over 300 species of hummingbirds in the world, but only one - the ruby-throated hummingbird - is likely to show up in my backyard. And if I want to see more hummingbird species in the wild, I'd have to plan a trip to the southwest.
2) Habitat Preparation
By understanding my bird universe, I can ask which bird species COULD be coming to my backyard but AREN'T and WHY? If I know that bluebirds could come to my yard but aren't, I can find ways to improve my habitat to attract them. Conversely, I won't bother planting cherry trees in hopes of attracting macaws to my yard because they never travel to Northern Virginia.
While there are some things that you can't control about your backyard - like the temperature or a the presence of a coastline - there are some proactive measures you can take to attract specific birds. More on that in future articles.
3) Seasonal Preparation
Some birds come to your yard year-round, while migratory birds will only stay for specific months. If you know when they're likely to arrive, you can plan your feeding efforts accordingly. For example, knowing that the migratory hummingbirds don't arrive in Northern Virginia until April, I put away my glass hummingbird feeders and bottles of nectar over the winter to protect them from the harsh weather. But for the birds that remain during winter, I supply plenty of suet to help keep them warm.
When I began backyard birding, I was very surprised by the amount of bird traffic I was receiving during winter months, particularly during snow storms. I had assumed that most feeder birds migrated during the winter, but found that they do not where I live. Dormant plants and snow-covered ground limits their food supply, so they become more dependent on my feeders. These days, when I know a storm is coming, I fill up the feeders and watch them swarm. It's a good feeling to know that I'm helping to sustain bird life.
How do I determine my bird universe?
1) Simple Observation
By observing birds in you see in your own community, you can get a baseline grasp of which birds might come to your yard. If you see bluebirds or blue jays at your neighborhood park with a similar habitat, then there's a good chance you can lure them your own backyard with proper preparation.
2) Bird Guides
You can purchase bird identification books, laminated folding cards or flash cards created specifically for your region, state, or type of birding. Starting at the top of the hierarchy - birds of the world - here's just a sample of what's available. In future articles, I'll provide a list of state guide books.
Birds of the World
Birds of North America
Birds of North America - Western Region
Birds of North America - Eastern Region
Backyard & Feeder Birding
Feeder Birds - Cornell Labs Laminated Card Series
3) Online Databases
These are a tremendous resource because of their search capabilities. Here are a few:
This website by Cornell Lab of Ornothology is a database of bird sitings recorded by citizen scientists. Individuals can use this program to track and maintain their bird siting lists. The aggregated data from all individuals provides valuable information that can be queried by state, county, or region. If you have active birders in your area, you can pinpoint which birds they have spotted in your area, when and where they were spotted, and the frequency they've been reported. This won't necessarily tell you what's in your specific neighborhood, but with a few clicks, you can generate a list of possibles in similarly situated habitats.
Cornell Lab of Ornithology also hosts an annual project called "Feeder Watch," where citizen scientists report their bird feeder data over the winter months. If you are more interested in which birds come to feeders, then take a look at these lists, which are divided by region. Click on an individual bird and you'll find out which feeder foods they like and types of feeders they prefer.
This is another online database where you can search by region and taxonomic family, or by typing in the name of a bird.
This is a search engine by Mitch Waite to identify birds of North America. You can search by state (under Basics - Location Common) and habitat to identify birds in your area. There's even a search category for backyard feeder birds.
This wiki lists birds by region across the globe. Within the United States, the data is provided by state.
4) Local Parks and Gardens
Your local park authority, nature center or botanic garden are often excellent resources for birding information. Quite often, they have birding checklist pamphlets available in their visitor centers that tell which birds have been spotted there, another way of finding out which birds are native to your area. Many parks keep feeders and nesting boxes on their grounds, so you can observe first-hand which birds will come to feeders in your area.
5) Your Local Wild Bird or Pet Stores
I've found that the employees at local wild bird, and sometimes pet stores, are usually passionate birders themselves. Since their products are concentrated on backyard wild bird feeders, they often have in-depth, personal knowledge of which products worked for them and which birds visit their feeders. Or they will readily share how they worked to get those less common birds to come to their feeders. They can also steer you to other resources if you want to expand your birding beyond the backyard.
The first step in birding is knowing who is going to show up. Have fun learning all the ways you can determine your bird universe. Talk to local experts who are passionate about sharing their birding experiences. It's a great way to meet people and a good step toward learning how to identify birds.