Gardening for Backyard Birds

Visit Don and Lillian Stokes at their Hancock home, and you quickly understand that birds are big there. Their sweeping lawn and fields have nine birdfeeders and 25 birdhouses of all shapes and sizes. The gardens and grounds are designed especially to attract birds. Inside, overlooking all this, is a two-story room with a wide picture window; a telescope and binoculars sit nearby, ready for birdwatching. The bookshelves are lined with dozens of books about birds and nature, including the sizeable number (30 at last count) they wrote themselves.

“The best show in town is right out your window. We want birds in our yard 24/7,” says Lillian. “It’s so wonderful, seeing birds so close. It’s like you’re connected to that bird — an amazing and intense connection to the beauty and wonder of other creatures.” Don agrees: “It’s being a part of wildness. It’s getting back in touch with our own roots as animals living in this world.”

The Stokes’ love affair with birds began early. Lillian says she absorbed nature at her family’s summer lake house and, as a young adult, got interested in birdwatching. Finally, she decided to give up her career as a psychiatric social worker to become an ornithologist.
As a first step, she took a course in bird behavior at the Massachusetts Audubon Society. It was taught by Don Stokes. He had gotten interested in nature as a child, just as Lillian had. By his late 20s, when he and Lillian met, he had written two books about nature. “Our separate passions merged into a passion for one another, “ Lillian says. “The rest is history.”

Twenty-five years later, the Stokes are considered two of the country’s most prominent and respected authorities on birds. Aside from authoring books on birds and other creatures of nature, they have created and hosted two television nature series, one on public television and one on cable (more information at They also frequently jet across the country, giving lectures and keynote speeches.

Two years ago, they moved to New Hampshire from outside Boston. “We wanted something more rural,” says Lillian. “Where we were was too crowded and there was an airport near us. The planes would come right over the house.”

Lillian and Don encourage people to enjoy backyard birds, and to entice a wide variety of them by providing an environment that makes birds happy. “Different birds like different types of plants. Try to create a variety of habitats,” Don advises. Ideally, you should have an area of forest and lawn, a water’s edge, vines, fields with wildflowers, shrubs with berries, and gardens with bird-attracting flowers.

The Stokes say purple coneflowers are a favorite of finches and other seed-eating birds. Sunflowers attract jays, grosbeaks, cardinals and chickadees. For hummingbirds, plant cardinal flower, bee balm, honeysuckle and fuchsia. (For more information about bird-attracting flowers, read the Stokes’ books on the topic, including “Stokes’ Bird Gardening Book: The Complete Guide to Creating a Bird-friendly Habitat in Your Backyard.”)

For birds that feed above ground such as chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and finches, put up a birdfeeder filled with mixed seed with a high percentage of sunflower seeds. For birds that feed on the ground, like robins, mourning doves, juncos and sparrows, spread out smaller seeds like millet and cracked corn.

Don advises the use of birdhouses. “Some birds, like the bluebird and tree swallow, live in tree holes. If there are no holes, they have no place to nest,” he says. A well-built, wooden birdhouse (paint or stain on the outside is OK) with a roof overhang and mounted 4 to 6 feet above the ground will create a safe environment for birds to raise their young.

“Birds are dealing with the same things in life that we are; they’re creatures just like us,” says Lillian. “They’re concerned about how to find a mate — a good one with lots of territory — how to raise kids, and how to get them out of the nest.”

The Stokes hope a closer relationship with birds will lead to greater conservation efforts. Lillian says, “In a nutshell, the more people have knowledge about nature, the more they appreciate it; the more they get rich reward and a feeling of connection, the more they’re led to be conservationists.” The health of our environment, says Don, is “a sign of what our health will be in the future.” NH