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Garden Design

Designing a Bird Garden

Gardening tips: The Helpful Gardener brings the pleasure of gardening to your home. You will find our garden design articles collected in one spot.

Bird Gardening
How to attract birds to your garden

There are very few of us who do not enjoy the sight and sounds of birds in the garden. Even in the gray of winter, our feathered friends bring you joy and happiness as they flirt playfully about the feeder bringing color and excitement to our lives.

Like all wildlife, birds need reasons to be attracted to our property. Stocking a winter feeder or providing a few birdhouses or a birdbath is a good start. By adding a few basic requirements in the form of landscape plantings, we can attract and keep birds of many species close to our homes.

As you know, some species of birds, especially the more colorful ones, migrate to warmer comates during the winter. Many of these species such as hummingbirds, Baltimore orioles, scarlet tanagers, robins, vireos, etc. have the remarkable ability to return to the same locality, i.e. our yard, year after year to raise new families as long as satisfactory and predictable cover, food sources and nesting sights are provided. Much of the time this is in the natural form of plant material.

In keeping with this, here are a few recommendations suggested by the National Audubon Society to provide a natural and satisfying landscape for both our feathered friends and us.

Birds of a feather flock together!
It is important to remember that different species of birds prefer different environments or, to use the vernacular, occupy different niches in nature. While one species may be more suited to living on or close to the ground another has adapted to life high in treetops. It is therefore important to know the type bird you wish to attract and develop your birdscape appropriately. While some species are more forgiving and adapt to most landscapes, others, frequently the more colorful species, need very specific habitats to love and breed successfully.

Plant to suit yourself and the birds
It is important to plant your new birdscape in a style that suits you and your existing landscape. For instance a wild or loose fitting landscape added to attract birds may not fit well with an otherwise formal or well trimmed existing landscape. With the vast amounts of cultivated plant material available today, there is assuredly one that will suit both you and the birds you wish to attract.

Don’t think you have to provide everything!
It may be impossible to provide everything a bird species requires on your property. For instance it is unlikely Baltimore orioles will visit you if tall trees for nesting are not available in the area. But more likely than not, if you have ever sighted a Baltimore oriole on your property this requirement is provided in close enough proximity so that the orioles can be enticed to your property by some other requirement, such as a consistent food source.

Some birds go undercover
One of the basic requirements of all creatures is protection for themselves and their young from predators and foul weather conditions. Birds are not exception to the rule. While some species are more adaptable to wide range of protective covers, all species have preferences, and some may be very specific. Ground-frequenting birds like quail and sparrows may prefer the low cover of ornamental grasses and cotoneaster, while orioles and cardinals prefer the protective heights of thorny quinces and hawthorns, or upright junipers. Learn the habitat preferred by the birds you want to attract before you plant.

In a recent poll, most bird species preferred household landscapes without cats by an overwhelming margin. We’re only kidding of course, but you don’t have to be a birdbrain to realize even the best-planned birdscape will not attract birds if the family cat decides to lounge there. Cats and birds have just never learned to play well together.

Food Sources
During the winter months it is common to offer a feeder full of seed to our feathered friends. Loaded with oils and carbohydrates “wild bird seed” (especially sunflower seed) provides the high energy that birds need to survive the cold. However, their dietary requirements change markedly as the weather warms and thoughts of raising a family enter their minds. Depending on the species, warmer season food requirements may take the form of nectar, insects, fruits, berries and other succulent plant parts. These provide the higher protein and essential nutrients needed to breed and raise young. Food sources in the form of plant material will vary depending on the species of bird being attracted.

Nesting sites
You may already be familiar with the various nesting site preferences of birds. Some prefer cavities and adapt well to birdhouses, while others prefer nesting on the ground, in communities, or in the branches of trees at various heights. Study the birds you want to attract to determine what might best be provided for nesting sites. Don’t overlook the fact that birds use a lot of plant material in building their nests wherever they are found. Providing plant material used in nest building can only help to entice more birds to your property.

Leaf litter
Remember how you cursed all those leaves that fell on your lawn last fall? Well curse no more! Those *&%^() leaves on the ground are affectionately called leaf litter and are extremely valuable to ground feeding birds. You see, the leaves are used as hiding places for insects in the fall, winter and spring. Often you will see sparrows, titmice or other ground feeders “playfully” turning over leaves in search of a succulent snack. Is this a good enough excuse to not rake the leaves? That’s an individual decision to be sure. But consider providing a portion of your landscape where the leaves remain undisturbed until late spring for this purpose.

A source for clean drinking water is essential for birds of all species. There may be a natural source near your property or you may decide to provide in the form of a birdbath, or even better, a water garden.

Dust Baths
After feeding, feather maintenance occupies much of a bird’s time. Although not fully understood, dust bathing, is a favorite pastime for many bird species. Provide an area not less than 3 square feet and approximately 6” deep with an equal mixture of sand, loam and sifted wood ash. Dust baths can be edged with brick, stone or wood to increase their appearance. (Hint: Horseshoe pits make great dust baths)
The sand in dust bath mixes is a wonderful source of grit needed for digestion of food in birds.

Sources of Information for Bird Gardening

Books and Pamphlets

General Plant Guide to Attracting Birds in the Northeast

Purple finches
Cotoneaster, Ornamental grasses

Cedar Waxwing
Cotoneaster, Pyracantha, Mountain Ash, Junipers

Flowering Dogwood, Crabapples, healthy and unhealthy lawns

Eastern Phoebe
Serviceberry, Sumacs

Downy Woodpecker
Serviceberry, Dogwood, Mountain Ash, Virginia Creeper

Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Trumpet vine, Weigela, Columbine, Bee Balm, Quince, most flowering plants producing red or orange flowers

Indigo Bunting
Unruly lawns, Dandelions, Goldenrod, Thistle

Pine, Spruce and Fir trees

Winterberry, Serviceberry, Viburnums, Bayberry, Junipers

Pileated Woodpecker
Serviceberry, Elderberry

Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Cherry, Dogwood, Virginia creeper, Elderberry, Mulberry

Ornamental grasses, Roses, Junipers

Scarlet Tanager
Pines, Serviceberry, Elderberry, Maples, Elms, Oaks

Grasses, Conifers, Cosmos, Zinnia

Red-winged Blackbird
Marsh grasses, open pastureland

Gold Finch
Thistles, Grasses, Echinacea, Rudbeckia

Northern Flicker
Elderberry, Blueberry, Dogwoods

Oaks, Grasses, poorly maintained lawns

Baltimore oriole
Quince, Serviceberry, Maples, Elms, Oaks

Winterberry, Roses, Dogwood, Junipers

Bayberry, Serviceberry, Elderberry, Sumac, Dogwood

Oaks, Serviceberry, Elderberry, Bayberry

Dogwood, Virginia creeper, Holly, Juniper, Sumac, Serviceberry


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