Editor's Note: This is the third article in a four-part series on the basics of attracting, feeding, and sheltering birds.
First, there's water. Water is essential for all birds, which seek it out wherever they can. Simply providing clean and accessible water, therefore, will attract a surprising number of birds, including many insect- and fruit-eating species. Waxwings, thrushes, vireos, and warblers rarely come to feeders but visit birdbaths and water stations regularly.
Whether you purchase a birdbath at the store or build one yourself, make sure that it's shallow and not too slippery. You can place it atop a pedestal or stump or set it on the ground. The key is to have a trickle of water running at all times. It acts as a magical lure that thirsty birds and those that want to bathe find irresistible. And if you position the bath near cover, birds will be less shy about using it.
Besides water, there's also shelter, specifically artificial nest boxes and nest platforms. The birds attracted to these structures include various waterfowl (provided there's a lake, pond, or river nearby), American Kestrels, various owls, woodpeckers, parrots, and parakeets, Tree Swallows, Purple Martins, various wrens, chickadees, titmice, and bluebirds, European Starlings, and House Sparrows.
Of course, not all these birds will live in your area. And since starlings and House Sparrows need no help in keeping their populations healthy, we suggest you focus on offering nest sites for other species. Pick your favorites, then do some research to learn exactly what type and size of nest structure the birds require and where these structures should be placed. In addition to bookstores and libraries, where you'll find entire books devoted to the subject, specialty bird and nature stores often have plans, kits, or ready-to-use birdhouses for sale.
One final point: Remember that nesting birds, whether they're in your yard or in the woods, need space, personal territory that almost always extends beyond the confines of their nests. For this reason, don't overload your yard with nesting structures. Start with one or two birdhouses, then gradually add others if space allows.
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