Gardening for the Birds

Rachel Burrows


What could be better than combining two great hobbies of gardening and bird watching? A wide variety of birds can be attracted to your garden if you provide them with their four basic needs Ė food, water, protection from predators and the elements and a place to raise their young safely. As well as providing us with entertainment, colour and pleasure, birds are beneficial to our gardens. They eat huge quantities of insects and are one of the best natural means of keeping these pests under control. Anyone who has ever watched swallows swooping low after mosquitoes and flies, will know how useful they can be.

I recently moved house and wondered if I would be able to attract as many birds as I had enjoyed at my old home. I neednít have worried, as soon as my feeders went up all sorts of birds including rose-breasted grosbeaks, goldfinches and cardinals came to visit. All summer long a family of bluebirds have been perching on the clothesline pole and swooping down into the newly dug bed for insects. The hummingbird and their young have kept me busy filling up their feeders and they have enjoyed the nectar from the bee balm and annuals in my window boxes. The orioles also figured out how to feed from the humming bird feeders.

This article is going to look at how you can attract birds to your garden by providing water, suitable plants, trees and shrubs for food, protective cover and potential nesting sites. We all know that by putting out food in feeders and putting up nesting boxes, we will encourage bird visitors. However there are many other things that we can do to encourage our avian friends to visit our gardens.

All birds need to consume water to survive. In the garden a birdbath or pond will attract many varieties to bathe and drink. Water should be fresh, clean and abundant. Birdbaths should be hosed off and refilled every 2 to 3 days. This will not only keep the water fresh but will discourage mosquito larvae. A recirculating pump in your pond will keep the water fresh and clear. Birds love waterfalls and streams and will perch at the side in order to bathe and drink. Just remember; never add chemicals to control algae or insects as you may poison the birds. Birds need water in the winter too and an immersion heater designed specifically for outdoor use will keep enough water clear for them, even in the depth of winter. The water source should be out in the open with no close shrubs for cats to lurk behind. However, a dense cover of trees and shrubs about 15 feet away enables the bird to safely examine the area for possible danger before flying in.

What kind of food can we provide in our garden plantings? It is extremely important to provide varieties of plants that bear fruit at different times of year. There are many wonderful trees and shrubs that provide spectacular colour and shape in the garden as well as great food sources for birds. The Amelanchier Canadensis or serviceberry has very pretty white flowers in the spring, great fall colour and numerous berries that the birds love. The many varieties of crabapple are gorgeous when they flower in the spring and will provide food for the birds well into the winter. Mountain Ash is a very attractive small tree that will attract dozens of birds to eat the berries. The different viburnums flower in the spring and follow with heavy panicles of berries. Cotoneasters attract bees to their white flowers and the plentiful red berries attract birds. The Golden Elder looks stunning in the garden and the birds love the berries.

All the honeysuckles will appeal to birds, both for the nectar in the flowers and the berries that follow. The humming birds especially love them and I have found their tiny nests tucked into the vines. Virginia Creeper is another good vine for providing both food and shelter. Some perennials that provide flowers and seeds are Black Eyed Susanís, columbines, coreopsis, coneflowers and sedums. Donít forget to leave the seed heads of the latter two plants to provide food during the winter. These seed heads look so attractive poking through the snow. Many varieties of grasses such as the different miscanthus species provide wonderful seeds and good perches for the little birds.

I always seem to have self-sown sunflowers and right now the bluejays are having a wonderful time eating the seeds. There are many other annuals, which are lovely, long-lasting and have great seed heads. I particularly like the beautiful seed heads of Love in the Mist, Amaranthus and the Gloriosa Daisies. Even window boxes and containers will bring birds to your doorstep.

Donít forget that birds need protective cover in the form of trees and shrubs. These should be a good mix of conifers and deciduous and of different heights. A good, thick cedar hedge will help small birds survive our cold winters. Plant shrubs in groups of 3ís, 5ís or 7ís. It is more ascetically pleasing and it makes it easier for the birds to find shelter and food.

We also need to provide nesting sites for our feathered friends. Nothing is more exciting than to see a young family of swallows or bluebirds learning how to fly and feed in your own garden. The greater the number of types of plants, birdhouses and nesting materials that you can provide, the greater the variety of birds will be drawn to your garden. Donít be too tidy in the garden! Birds require small twigs, dead leaves and grass to build their nests. When I brush my Golden Retriever I put the fur in the evergreens and have found several nests lined with this soft, lovely bedding! Several birds such as robins, phoebes and swallows need mud to construct their nests. A large plant saucer sunk into an out of the way corner and full of wet, sticky soil will meet this need.

If you have an old dead tree donít cut it down completely. Make it safe, plant clematis at its base and the woodpeckers and nuthatches will love to forage for grubs and insects.

Plants are the food source for many birds, providing fruits, berries, nuts, seeds, sap and nectar. Living plants and their decomposing remains are the main food source for most insects, which in turn compose a large part of the diet of some birds. Plants provide nesting sites, resting spots and protection from predators and climate. By providing a diverse eco system in your garden you can attract many different varieties of birds and have a well-balanced garden. Plan your bird friendly garden this fall and you will have your reward during the winter and next spring!