Birds in the Garden

Birds and butterflies are the two most likely creatures you want to attract to your garden. While much time is spent by gardeners deterring deer, squirrels, and gophers, an equal, if not greater, amount of time is spent on attracting the colorful and lively aviators. That’s a good thing. Today’s focus is on the birds.

While many birds will visit your landscape, getting them to stay is where your work begins. Songbirds are the ones many people prefer to attract, but there are birds that never sing a note and are beautiful to behold. It’s difficult to design a garden to attract just one kind of bird so try to attract as many as you can.

Birds are looking for three basic requirements when they land and consider claiming a new territory: food, water, and protection. Look around your garden with a bird’s viewpoint. Is it inviting? If you were a bird would you want to stay?

A nice stopover for a bird

A typical suburban landscape doesn’t offer a lot to a bird that is passing through looking for a nice spot. Close-cut, chemically-sprayed lawns offer no protection from predators and, except for the occasional worm, offer little in the way of food. Deadheaded flowers aren’t a food source and sheared shrubs aren’t a good nesting site. There are few food sources and no place to hide when needed. Are you surprised that they aren’t impressed?

Birds eat a lot. Even more so during the cold months. If your garden doesn’t supply the food they need, they’ll move to some place else. So the first step in attracting birds is giving them a food source. This can be as simple as a tray on a table or a feeder hanging from a tree. Or you can plant flowers, fruits, and vegetables for the purpose of attracting birds and offering them sustenance. I grow many sunflowers for their beauty, because my wife asks me to, and because they are a great food source for birds (see my blog “Sunflowers are for the Birds“).

Finch socks

In my garden I have bird feeders around every corner. There are socks filled with seed hanging from a pine tree for the finches. There’s a big tray on an old picnic table filled with a seed mix that is a smorgasbord for all types of birds; the jays and magpies pick out the big pieces, the doves follow, and the sparrows and chickadees clean up the small bits. Hummingbird feeders hang in different sections of the garden. My wife and I share the effort of keeping the feeders filled. With so much food available we have an abundance of avian activity.

A simple tray of seed

There are also the plants to add nutrition to their diets. The colorful flowers like penstemon and agastache for the hummingbirds, the berries on the elder, and the cones from the pines for the bigger birds. When I select a new plant for my garden I think about the ecological impact it adds. If I have a choice between a flower that attracts hummingbirds and one that just looks nice, I typically choose the first one. When planting shrubs and bushes, I pick ones that produce berries. The extra color is always nice to see, but the birds need them more than me.

Water is another important requirement. Birds need to drink and take an occasional bath. Shallow water features add sound and interest to your garden while they supply water to birds. Just setting a pan on the ground to catch a few drips from your faucet will provide a wonderful source. Concave stones add visual interest and don’t take long to fill with water.

You can install a functioning birdbath, but it shouldn’t be more than two or three inches deep. If cats roam your neighborhood the birdbath should be in an open area so birds can see a predator approaching; if hawks or other predators are more likely, a birdbath should have some cover. I leave a water dish out for the dogs all year and it’s often visited by birds, even in winter. If you set out a birdbath or water dish, be sure to empty it and clean it every few days to keep algae and bacteria from developing.

See the birdbath behind the horseradish?

Birds also need a place to land when confronted with weather, potential predators, or to sleep. Trees are an obvious stopover place, but they also like bushes, tall grasses, and all manner of evergreens. Arborvitae, junipers, and hollies add color to your garden year-round, and supply food and cover. Consider making a corner of your yard a bird sanctuary by allowing the plants to become overgrown. If you have the space, create a brush pile in an out-of-the-way spot where birds can nest or hide. I have a big pile of brush pile my compost pile.

My bird brush pile

Birds will come to your garden. If they find food, water, and protection, they’ll stay. If you want to watch them from the comfort of your home, provide these necessities just outside your window. If you want to enjoy them while you immerse yourself in your garden, add a bench or sitting area in the middle of the bird-friendly landscape.

Sure, birds can be pests when they feed on your newly-sown seeds, when they ravage your corn, and when they eat your strawberries, but they also feed on caterpillars and other insect pests. When given an easy food source they’re less likely to disrupt your garden. Regardless of the troubles they might cause they add interest, and interest in your garden is one of the reasons you have it. Attracting birds is easy and something you should consider.

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