Becoming a Bird-Friendly Habitat

Martha Keehner Engelke, EMGV

The Durham County Extension Master Gardener Volunteer Demonstration Garden is a unique space that welcomes and inspires visitors with innovative displays of research-based gardening techniques. Visitors can relax on one of the benches and share a conversation with a friend while they admire plants that are suited for heavy shade, partial shade, partial sun, and full sun. Adults and children are entertained as they walk along the paths and learn the actual name of a plant they have admired.

On August 30, 2023, the Demonstration Garden was recognized as a haven for another creature besides humans: Birds. The New Hope Audubon Society certified the Demonstration Garden as a ‘Bird Friendly Habitat’.  (

Joan Barber EMGV, Chair Demonstration Garden Committee
Photo taken by Martha Engelke

The process of certification recognizes spaces where birds and wildlife can thrive, but it is also a learning opportunity. The main criteria are using native plants from the tree canopy to perennials and ground covers; removing invasive plants; and adopting practices that support wildlife.  

Although the Demonstration Garden contains many native plants, we learned that some native plants are particularly important when it comes to fostering a healthy bird environment. Doug Tallamy, Professor and Chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware has developed the concept of Keystone Plants. This term describes native plants that support the most caterpillars and thus are the best food source for baby birds. We were pleased to learn that our Willow Oak (Quercus phellos) was at the top of the list for Keystone plants in the tree category. The top Keystone plant in the shrub category is blueberry (rabbiteye varieties do particularly well here). We didn’t have this plant in the Demonstration Garden, but three have recently been added.  A list of  Keystone plants for each group can be found at:

Photo: Ailanthus altissima NC Plant Toolbox Andreas Rockstein CC-BY-SA 2.0

Another criteria is the removal of plants that are invasive or harmful to birds. Although we thought this was not a problem since EMGVs don’t intentionally plant invasive species, a Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) sapling was found. Not only is this plant invasive, but it is also the main host for the Spotted Lanternfly. It was immediately removed.

We knew that we were including many bird friendly practices at the Demonstration Garden such as providing water sources and nest boxes. The demonstration garden includes a birdbath sculpted by stone artist Bob Simchock. Watch the video below and you can see that it is an attractive play area for not only the birds but for people enjoying the birds.

Photo and video contributed by Joan Barber, EMGV

We also do not rake the leaves and leave plants that die back to be enjoyed by the birds in fall and winter. We used organic matter and electric rather than gas power tools.

Photo by Martha Engelke, EMGV

However, one area of concern that can only partially be remedied relates to minimizing lights at night and reducing the danger of bird collisions with windows. As a public building, the Extension Office must include good lighting for safety reasons since meetings occur there in the evening. We spent some time educating employees in the building about how to make it less likely that birds will fly into windows.  The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has developed an excellent article which can be used as a guide to prevent bird collisions with windows.

As development increases in our area, the native habitat of birds and other wildlife are being destroyed. Using native plants, eliminating invasive plants, and using bird friendly gardening practices can help to reduce this alarming trend. Obtaining certification as a Bird Friendly Habitat was not only rewarding but informative. It is a process that is open to all gardeners. To learn more about the certification process, visit:

Resources and Additional Information

New Hope Audubon

NC Cooperative Extension (2022) Managing backyards and other urban habitats for birds.

NC Cooperative Extension (2021) Preparing your yard for winter birds.

Tallamy, D. (2020). Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard. ISBN: 978-1604699005