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


The Joy of Bird Nests

by Jane Malec

Creating a diverse habitat in our yards in one of the best ways to help keep our environment in balance. This can often be an overwhelming task as some of Mother Nature’s “gifts” can be so frustrating – such as Japanese beetles, tomato horn worms and deer! However, not long ago, I was reminded of one the rewards of our hard work.

While watering the hanging ferns on my front porch, I discovered a deep-bowled bird nest in each one. They were made of small stems and leaves which reminded me of nests on a decorative wreath. Thankfully they were still empty. Over the next few days activity around the nests increased dramatically including a disagreement between possible tenants. About two weeks later while carefully watering the ferns, I discovered light blue eggs in the nests. By then the parents were visible so it was easy to determine that we had two families of House Finches. So now we are trying to keep our traffic to a minimum despite the lure of porch sitting on warm summer evenings.

Around the same time, I was wringing my hands over a hanging begonia in the back yard obviously struggling to survive. Ever the plant detective, I moved some the dead mess out out of the way and found the most beautiful speckled eggs buried in the middle. More research brought me to the conclusion that House Wrens moved into my begonia. Their body style and markings are similar to a house finch but the nest are very different. Wrens really like eclectic homes with everything from grass to animal hair. The finches actively fly in and out of their homes but this little wren rarely leaves her nest.

The type of nests you find along with the shape and coloring of the parents will give you good clues as to the bird taking up residence. Often you won’t see the nest as it may be hidden in a shrub or tree but it is a treat when you do. There is a terrific website from Cornell University that will help you identify both the nests and the parents.

So say you find a nest: what should you do? First off, leave it alone unless it is somewhere inconvenient, say on the wreath of your front door. In a case such as this remove it immediately before there are any eggs. Hopefully you can find a way to coexist and leave it alone especially once the mother has laid her eggs….maybe use the back door!

There are some simple guidelines to use while watching and waiting for the hatchlings. Here are a few:
Don’t check the nests early in the morning or before/after dusk. The parents are really needed during these times.
Avoid nests in bad weather. Your instinct maybe to cover them up but don’t!
Afternoons are the best time to check on the progress but exercise caution.
When you start hear the babies chirping keep your distance. They might jump or fall out of the nest if frightened.

Incubation and fledging periods will differ according to specie but count on about a month give or take to enjoy the process.

Years I ago I was blessed to have been home when a brood of finches left their nest for the first time and hopped up the hill behind our house. I will never forget the simple joy of watching them struggle to keep up with their mom while hiding behind the flowers in my garden. I didn’t have one thought about Japanese beetles or deer …only those sweet little birds. I hope Mother Nature treats you to the same pleasure this summer!IMG_1385