Befriend the Birds

Your family can be a good neighbour to local backyard birds.

This spring put out nesting material. See who prefers the fluff to the moss. Then learn to identify birds by song with fun mnemonics, as they settle in to nest and raise a family of their own.

Show passion for some part of our living world. It’s experiences in nature that shape who we are and how we live. To help our non-human kin brings us a little more magic and helps make friends with mystery. Nature is potent!

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A mnemonic is a pattern of letters, ideas or associations to help you remember something. It aids the memory. (You use them all the time.)

How to provide nesting material

To “rewild” your yard, plant native trees, shrubs, and forbs. Trees species with the best downy-like fluff have catkins (a flowering spike) like cottonwood, maple, willow, and poplar. (Allergy sufferers will know exactly where these wind-pollinated trees are in the neighbourhood.)

All types of bird nests need a combination of twigs, dried grasses, moss, hair, mud and even spider webs. It’s easy and fun to attract birds and enjoy observing them by putting out nesting material. My local hummingbirds chose the moss, while pine siskins preferred the cattail fluff!

Other natural, biodegradable, pesticide-free materials:

Dog fur (free from chemical flea and tick treatments), horsehair (clean their body brushes) or wool. DON’T use human hair.


Dry grass

Cattail fluff

Twigs and strips of bark

Dried leaves

Don’t use dryer lint (it’s a chemical soup), yarn or string and synthetic fibres. Human hair is also too thin and can cut or tangle birds.

Take a handful of nesting materials and stuff a repurposed metal whisk or use a winter cage-like suet feeder. Then hang it in a tree or shrub (sheltered from rain) where you can watch the action! Continue to restock and offer nesting materials March to July. It’s common for pairs to have a failed nest and they’ll need to rebuild after a storm or if a predator comes thru.

Note: Shop for bird-nesting material with cotton, hemp and wool fibers at wild bird stores or anywhere that sells bird seed and houses.

Keep a patch of bare ground with exposed soil to help swallows and robins. They need mud for their nests (you’ll help native mason bees and butterflies, too). Sounds silly but chances are you already have a place they use. It could be the corner of the yard that gets trampled or a low spot that puddles.

Beginner bird mnemonics for common species

Now that you’ve observed which birds are nesting in or near your yard, get to know them by song. You’ll learn which species love living near you and get to know the birds on your favourite walking routes, too.

When I birded for a living in the boreal forest of Alberta, songs were the easiest way to identify birds. Songbirds were often hard to see in dense over- and understory or they were far away and high up. Luckily, birders train in mnemonics and you can too!

Jon Young, author of What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World says the bravest to most secretive birds to reveal their presence to you are: chickadees, sparrows, juncos, thrushes, warblers, then towhees.

Twelve phrases and clues to identify Vancouver Island birds by song:

American Goldfinch says “po-ta-to-chip” while in flight

Barred Owl says “Who-cooks-for you? Who-cooks for you all?”

Chestnut-backed Chickadee says “Sika-dee-dee”

Chipping Sparrow sounds mechanical, like a sewing machine

Olive-sided Flycatcher says “Quick, three beers!”

Ruby-crowned Kinglet says “Chubby, chubby, cheek, chubby cheeks”

Song Sparrow says “Maids-maids-maids-put-on-your-tea-kettle-ettle-ettle” or “Hey! Hey! Put on the kettle, kettle, kettle”

Spotted Towhee says “Tow-hee?”

White-breasted Nuthatch sounds like a nasally French horn

White-throated Sparrow says “O, sweet, Canada, Canada, Canada”

Yellow Warbler sings “Sweet, sweet, sweet, I’m so sweet”

I also recommend learning songs of the Pacific Wren, Dark-eyed Junco, Brown Creeper and Yellow-rumped Warbler, too

Don’t hear it? Don’t stress. Listen to a variety of bird song recordings online to train your ear. Prefer to learn in the field? Join a local naturalist group or register for a nature sanctuary guided birding walk.

Lindsay Coulter
Lindsay Coulter
Lindsay Coulter is a writer, educator, facilitator, naturalist, creator of culture, soul activist, and mother of two. She’s the co-founder of EPIC Learning Community a forest and nature school in Victoria, B.C., Program Coordinator at Victoria Nature School and in the process of attaining her certification in Equine Facilitated Wellness.