Bird Bonanza

Norma Evans

Having a bird feeder and watching birds flit in and out with sunflower seeds can warm the "cockles of your heart". We know that spring is on its way when we hear the chirrup of the robin. Birds and gardens go together, but rarely do we give birds and their diet credit for keeping garden insect populations in balance.

There are very few birds that do not eat insects including seed eaters and nectar sipping hummingbirds. Where food is abundant, songbirds may stay longer and perhaps nest in the area. Scientists are not sure how many insects a certain bird will eat on a given day, but ornithologists have recorded birds bringing over 500 insects per day to nests where there are a rapidly growing brood of nestlings.

Bird feeding during the winter and a bird-friendly garden will go a long way to keeping insects under control all year long. With a good population of birds, most "bug" problems are taken care of before they spiral into big bug problems. In my own garden, only two kinds of creepy crawlies ever do much damage---slugs and earwigs. Both are mainly night-time feeders and do their munching when the bird patrol squad is asleep. A garden that is a bird haven, can hope that birds will return the following year. Friends in Bridgenorth fed a hummingbird (they called it Gertie) that returned each year and pecked at the window to announce his/her arrival.

While some birds may fill up at feeders during the winter months, insects are never out of picture. Chickadees check old spider webs for any uneaten leftovers, nuthatches patrol down trees looking for an over-wintering insect meal. Much harder to see are tiny brown creepers doing the same thing, but going up instead of down. Hairy and downy woodpeckers stay about 10 minutes at my suspended tube feeder with shelled peanuts and then they fly off to find some other variety of protein. This peanut feeder is great in that it has been filled only three times so far this winter, many birds pay short visits, and there are no shells or hulls to remove. Not quite as tidy, but very popular with the smaller birds is a small tube feeder filled with niger seed. The ground-feeding doves are reasonably efficient at cleaning the area under the feeder.

Even though we prefer songbirds and attract them by providing their favourite sunflower seeds, the starling is one of the best insect eaters we have. Best of all, they are one of the most efficient demolishers of Japanese beetles and also eat Colorado potato beetles. Knowing that few birds are as voracious as starlings may improve their reputation. Apparently young starlings really relish cutworms.

Of course, small birds eat insects as well, but larger birds have really big appetites. When a flock of these big guys arrives suddenly to scour your lawn, you can smile and be assured they won’t be leaving with empty stomachs.

Red-winged blackbirds will eat moths, spiders, grubs, grasshoppers, some caterpillars and beetles. Our American Robins favour beetles and grasshoppers, along with earthworms. Grackles, who seem to be such pigs at the feeder, love beetles, grasshoppers, ants, flies and grubs. Birds have been known to "polish off" a wasp or two and that is very beneficial.

Backyard habitats should provide food, water, protective cover and a place to raise a family. A garden that has plants, trees, vines and shrubs at many different heights is a "bird-attractive" site. These plantings can provide seeds, fruits, nuts and nectar plus plant-munching insects that will appeal to ground feeders, tree feeders and those birds like swallows and phoebes who snatch lunch on the fly.

The greater variety of plants in a garden the greater variety of birds it will attract. Birds need places to hide from predators, build nests and roost safely during the night. Vines, and small trees and shrubs such as mulberry, mountain ash, honeysuckle, crabapple, elderberry and juniper can help fill this need.

Just like humans, birds like a wide variety of foods, so it doesn’t hurt to continue feeding during the summer. Feeders do not require filling as often as in the winter, but harried parents with a hungry brood may appreciate a few easy meals and you may be rewarded with sightings of many different species.

Have a look at your landscape and consider making it a more bird-friendly place come spring . You should be rewarded with less insect damage, delightful bird songs, and better than ever bird watching opportunities.