Conservation Outdoors

The Wild Truth: Create a Welcoming Haven for Birds

American Goldfinch on Purple Coneflower

By Paula Musto

You can make a difference! Think native when landscaping or planting even a small garden this year. It’s one of the greatest things you can do for wildlife, especially birds—a species that desperately needs our help.

More than three billion birds have vanished in recent decades, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which chronicles bird populations in the US and Canada. If you were alive in 1970, more than one in four birds have disappeared in your lifetime.

There are a number of reasons for this staggering decline, but the loss of natural habitats is a major contributor. Human activity has eliminated wilderness areas where birds can thrive. Just look around. Most of us live on land previously heavily forested or farmed, eco-systems that once supported large numbers of bird species. Even in Asheville, an area teeming with natural resources, development has taken its toll.

“One easy way to help the environment is to look at the green space outside our windows and take action,” says Casey First, owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in North Asheville, which is partnering with the National Wildlife Federation to encourage people to shed their manicured lawns in favor of a more sustainable habitat for wildlife. “We owe it to the planet to become stewards of our backyards.”

The time is ripe for changing long-held ideas of what constitutes an attractive yard. Think of making it attractive to wild ones. The best long-term approach is to add native plants that provide nectar, seeds, nuts, fruits, berries, foliage and pollen, and attract insects eaten by a wide variety of animals. Birdfeeders are great additions, bringing in even greater numbers and more avian species.

For bird-friendly management of a backyard wildlife habitat, consider three main requirements: food, water and cover.

You can learn about native plants online including the excellent Garden for Wildlife website sponsored by the National Wildlife Federation. Another great resource is the Blue Ridge Chapter of the Audubon Society which partners with local plant nurseries and growers to offer bird-friendly native plants for local buyers. Check out the organization’s database at To get started, it’s not necessary to tear up your entire lawn. Rather, gradually add natives each year by reserving less and less space for manicured grassy expanses

Fresh Water
This is an often overlooked resource that birds need year-round for drinking and bathing. Hollowed boulders that catch rainwater or a man-made bird bath are valuable additions to your garden. The sound of running water is particularly attractive to some species, making drip fountains popular with feathered creatures.

Do wildlife a favor and leave a portion of your yard fallow—not mowed or disturbed. Save yourself some backaches and blisters by skipping leaf raking in the fall. The dry leaves are important because they rot and enrich the soil, providing a place for birds to forage for food. A healthy layer of undisturbed soil and leaf litter means more insects and worms: crucial food sources for birds.

“People cannot just depend on the government to fix our environmental problems; everyone can get involved through their own backyard,” says Beth Gurnack, an Asheville area resident who is working on a Blue Ridge Naturalist Certificate through the North Carolina Arboretum. Not only does Gurnack adhere to ecological gardening in her own backyard but she participates in public outreach efforts to help educate others.

“My yard may not be one that people think is manicured enough,” she says, “I keep it mostly as a natural woodland landscape.” She is especially adamant about not removing leaves, asking next-door neighbors (less fond of messy lawns) to simply blow their leaves onto her property. But Gurnack stresses that going native is an evolution and she often waits for non-native species to die before replacing them. And you don’t need to be one hundred percent native. A balance of 70 percent natives and 30 percent exotics is a reasonable goal.

Wild Birds Unlimited takes the same approach when advising on how to transition to a more natural yard. “Your landscaping does not have to look like a jungle,” First says. Even if people turned a third of their yard into a natural habitat, he adds, it would contribute significantly to helping wildlife.

The staff at Wild Birds Unlimited can assist in getting your yard certified as a wildlife habitat through the National Wildlife Federation. A $20 application fee supports the Federation’s wildlife programs. For information, call 828.575.2081, or stop by the shop located at 946 Merrimon Avenue.

“It’s our responsibility to be advocates for wildlife,” First says. “We can make a big difference not only for birds but many species of neighborhood wildlife, and it all starts in our own yards.”

Paula Musto is a writer and volunteer for Appalachian Wild, a nonprofit whose mission is to help injured or orphaned wildlife, support WNC’s wildlife rehabilitation network and provide wildlife conservation education. To help save wildlife, donate and learn more, visit

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