Exploring the Possibility of Balconies for Birds
by Fern Wexler
One of the reasons making your yard a friendly place for wildlife is important is because it helps our native species reclaim some of the space they’ve lost through urbanization. But what about those of us that live in apartments and condominiums? While it can seem daunting at first to create your own personal slice of habitat, there are ways to help wild animals thrive even without a backyard!
If you live on a higher floor, it might feel pointless to put a bird feeder out on your balcony. But did you know that hummingbirds will fly more than 500 feet into the air? That’s higher than a 40-story building. While they usually achieve such feats during migration, they routinely make foraging trips at well over 100 feet, and will go higher if they know there’s a reliable source of food above them. Hummingbirds are arguably the most consistently-reported visitor to high-rises across Oregon and Washington, and delight all those they visit with their antics.
Hummingbirds aren’t the only ones to visit apartment-dwelling bird lovers. Birds like crows, jays, and finches are routine visitors to balconies even before any feeders have been set up. Once feeders appear, this opens the floodgates for other species including woodpeckers, nuthatches, and even ground-feeding birds we don’t often think of as high flyers. Dark-eyed Juncos and Song Sparrows. In fact, these birds may feel safer visiting a balcony because it’s out of reach of most ground predators. Some customers even report juncos taking advantage of this and nesting in pots on their balconies the same way they nest in hanging baskets on porches. While many non-migratory birds change their feeding patterns during winter (i.e., Bushtits forming large flocks instead of traveling in single-family groups), juncos can be reliable balcony birds no matter the weather.
(A Dark-eyed Junco watching curiously on a balcony during 2022’s Christmas freeze.)
If you’re not allowed to install bird feeders, consider setting out a birdbath. Birdbaths can serve a stylistic function as well as a practical one—they’re good for the birds and they make a confined space like a balcony more beautiful. A small birdbath can easily fit in most spaces, and an accent like a solar bubbler can add a charming burble as an audio component.
It’s possible to garden for wildlife on a balcony, too! Small native plants hardy of warm temperatures like Oregon Sunshine (E. lanatum) can thrive in pots and, as the name suggests, add a cheerful splash of yellow anywhere they grow. These flowers are used by a variety of native pollinators, and don’t be surprised if you see a warbler snagging a visiting insect as a snack. Trying to attract hummingbirds and working with a shadier spot? Oregon’s native red columbine (Aquilegia Canadensis) is beloved by plenty of pollinators, hummingbirds included. Even something as simple as securing branches to a railing can help birds find brief shelter during migration or encourage them to stop by for a visit. Why not snag some nesting material on a few of their twigs to provide some mess-free assistance to aspiring feathery architects?
(An Anna’s Hummingbird perched on a branch secured to a balcony.)
While it might be disheartening to see how urbanized even a “green city” like Portland has become, don’t let the size of the space you’re working with discourage you! Everything counts, even if it’s as small as encouraging your neighbors to apply ultraviolet window decals or plant native plants in that pot they keep saying they’re going to use. The birds—and the ecosystem—will thank you for it.