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Gardening For Birds Gardening Study

by Dr. Stephen Kress is Director of the Seabird Restoration Program, National Audubon Society
March 17, 2020

                                                                          Gardening for Birds


Small ocean islands, like backyards, can lead to delusions. They seem like places where control over nature is possible. With their distinct boundaries, islands seem manageable, places where people can influence which species live and which do not. I find myself pondering this reality as I prepare for my 43rd year working to bring puffins back to Maine islands.

two puffins


I founded Project Puffin in 1973 when I brought the first six puffin chicks from Newfoundland to Eastern Egg Rock, a treeless, seven-acre jumble of rock and meadow located six miles out to sea near New Harbor, Maine. Puffins disappeared here and at several other Maine islands because locals hunted the birds for food and feathers. By 1901, just one puffin pair remained where many colonies had once thrived. When I started the project, I had no idea that I would be doing this for a lifetime. I set out naively to restore a bit of the “balance of nature.” But now I find that I am part of that balance, and if I stop tending this restored colony, the 150 pairs of puffins and thousands of rare terns will certainly vanish.

Four puffins on a rock.


I didn’t know it when I started, but I was practicing what Michael Rosenzweig calls “reconciliation ecology”: “The science of inventing, establishing, and maintaining new habitats to conserve species diversity in places where people live, work, or play.” My original vision was to bring back the puffins, then to remove myself. To accomplish this, I invented new methods to encourage puffins to reclaim the island—and in this I succeeded.

 Bringing the puffins back to Egg Rock involved translocating, hand-rearing, and fledging nearly 1,000 puffin chicks—a first for any seabird. When they returned as adults, we lured them ashore with puffin decoys. It took eight years before the first pair nested, in 1981. Then came the predators—the gulls, eagles, peregrine falcons, mink and otters—all hungry for puffin protein. Likewise, invasive weeds, such as wild mustard and bindweed, crowded out the seabirds as they overran the island, fueled by the guano-soaked soil.

I have concluded that ongoing stewardship is necessary to deter predators and invasive plants, so that the rare seabirds can thrive. Now it is clear—despite its rugged granite shore, Egg Rock is not really an island at all. For all its remoteness, it is tied to the surrounding sea and to people by a myriad of connections. My plan to create a self-sustaining, restored puffin colony has morphed into a form of bird gardening. This experience has led me to believe that as the impact of humans on our planet increases, the only way many of Earth’s rare species will survive is through direct intervention on their behalf.

The same lesson can apply to managing backyard habitats. Gardening that mimics natural habitats can help increase the diversity of life in our backyard “islands,” but ongoing tinkering is necessary to keep it there. Once we attract bluebirds, cardinals, woodpeckers and other birds to our gardens, we want them to stay. Gardeners are already good at this. They know that without paying attention to the weeds, their favored plants will be lost. Although the boundaries of backyard habitats are as porous as the shores of an ocean island to a myriad of interconnections beyond property lines, it is possible to make a difference—your backyard can be an oasis for wildlife.

Cedar Waxwing
Cedar Waxwing


Here are some tips for managing your backyard bird islands:   

P L A N T  N A T I V E  PLANTS. They are pre-adapted to your local climate and are more likely to leaf out and produce the right foods (e.g. caterpillars and fruits) at the right time for native birds. Native plants are adapted to local temperature extremes and they are the best bet for future changes because of their long history with local climates. If you are trying to attract birds to your backyard, the single best thing you can do is to plant native ground covers, shrubs, vines, and trees.  


Blue Grosbeak
Blue Grosbeak

                                                                 © Photography by David Wolfson

PROVIDE A WATER SOURCE near protective shrubs during the summer months. On hot days, birds are especially eager to bathe and drink. Bird baths should be only an inch or two deep with a shallow slope. A dripping effect will lure even more birds. Mount the bath on a pedestal if cats prowl your neighborhood. Clean it weekly with a stiff brush.

CREATE A SONGBIRD BORDER along your property edge by planting native trees and shrubs that meet the needs of PLANT LONG-LIVED NATIVE TREES like oaks and maples. Such trees can provide food, shelter, and singing perches for birds for centuries to come. Planting a long-lived tree is a gift to future generations of both birds and people. 

CREATE A BRUSH PILE in a corner of your property. Each time a storm drops limbs, pile them up. During spring cleanup, save those downed branches and tree trunks from the community woodchipper. Layer the larger logs as a foundation, then build up the pile in successive layers. In large fields that are growing into young forest, create living brush piles by cutting neighboring saplings most of the way through the trunks, then pulling them down to the ground into a collective heap. Songbirds will find shelter from extreme weather in such cover throughout the year.

Dr. Kress with a puffin
Dr. Kress with a puffin


RAKE LEAVES UNDER SHRUBS to create mulch and natural feeding areas for ground-feeding birds, such as sparrows, towhees, and thrashers. Earthworms, pill bugs, insects, and spiders will thrive in the decomposing leaf mulch, and will in turn be readily eaten by many songbirds. Many people are comforted to learn that, in general, messy gardeners are the best bird gardeners!  

REDUCE YOUR LAWN to favor meadow plants and taller grasses. Tall grasses provide seeds and nesting places for birds. Cut this meadow just once a year and let the remainder of the lawn grow at least three inches tall before cutting. Take the “healthy yard pledge” ( to avoid lawn pesticides and herbicides.

NEST BOXES provide a helping hand for cavity-nesting birds, such as house wrens, tree swallows, chickadees, and bluebirds. Remove old bird and mouse nests each spring. When setting out new nest boxes, consider the preferred habitat for different species, as well as the size of the entrance hole, and its distance above the ground. Face boxes to the east in northern latitudes to provide extra warmth. In forests, play “woodpecker” by using a power drill to create one and a half-inch holes into dead snags about five feet off the ground. These holes will serve as nest cavity starts for chickadees and titmice.

Suggested reading:

Project Puffin: The Improbable Quest to Bring a Beloved Seabird Back to Egg Rock. Stephen Kress and Derrick Jackson. 2015. Yale University Press.

The Audubon Society Guide to Attracting Birds. 2006. Stephen W. Kress. Cornell University Press.

The Audubon Society Bird House Book: Building, Placing and Maintaining Great Homes for Great Birds. 2014. Margaret Barker and Elissa Wolfson. Voyageur Press. Learn more about Project Puffin and how you can Adopt- a-Puffin to support ongoing seabird conservation in Maine; visit www.

To learn more about birds and bird gardening, consider taking a course with Dr. Kress at the Hog Island Audubon Camp, in Maine.
Dr. Stephen Kress is Director of the Seabird Restoration Program, National Audubon Society, Ithaca, NY 14850.
Article and photos reprinted with permission by The National Gardener, Summer 2019.

















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