On the fourth day of Christmas my true love gave to me, four calling birds. Birds are a welcome sight in the garden, whether they are soaring between the trees or scratching for seeds in the mulch. I was fascinated recently as I watched a robin feeding on a fat juicy bunch of mahonia berries. It’s always a delight to watch the diversity in their color, shape and size, but did you know that birds provide many useful services to the gardener? From Gaia’s Garden Toby Hemenway says: “They are supreme insect predators, attacking both leaf-munching caterpillars and flying bugs. Many birds eat seeds, reducing the number of weeds. In return for this food, they leave small gifts of rich manure. Individual bird droppings may not amount to much, but when a gardener concentrates manure by hanging a feeder or by some other tactic, plenty of fertilizer can accumulate. Birds also scratch the soil, simultaneously tilling the ground, removing insects and weed seeds, and uprooting weed seedlings. Some small birds are good pollinators. And then there is the simple joy that birds bring, with their bright plumage, burbling song, nest building and family raising, and their endlessly varied behavior as they hunt, court, stake out turf, and socialize. A yard without birds seems a sterile place.”
Birds also have an important place in literature. “Stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks, and the setting sun with the last light of Durin’s Day will shine upon the key-hole.” –The Hobbit. I enjoyed this movie, along with the beautiful landscape of New Zealand. It takes a diverse habitat, like the shire, to attract birds. Here are some of the key elements:
1. Food. Birds will come around to visit if they find the food that they prefer… fruits and berries, insects, or seeds and nuts. Hummingbirds and some others drink nectar, but they still get nutrition from insects. To feed a wide variety of birds, a garden should offer plants that provide all of the above. The more, the better. You should never feel guilty again about that next plant purchase. The best garden will provide food during the entire year, with berries that persist into the winter and a thick layer of mulch and leaf litter to house insects.
2. Water. A natural source is the best, but most of us don’t have a babbling brook nearby. An alternative is a shallow birdbath with shrubs nearby for shelter. Birds need water for drinking as well as preening. Moving water will attract more birds because the motion catches their eye and they can hear the splashing.
3. Shelter and Protection. Without shelter from predators and the environment, birds won’t stick around. A protected garden will include dense shrubs, tangles of vines, plants with thorns and leafy tree canopies. Birds nest at different heights, so an assortment of shrubs and trees that range from short to towering will attract a greater variety. Wide, dense plants are often preferred by birds who feel safer deep inside a hedge.
4. Food and Habitat Diversity. Hemenway lists a diversity of plants that nuture and attract numerous birds throughout the year:
- Evergreens—These offer winter shelter and summer nesting sites. Some provide buds, seeeds, and sap for food.
- Grasses, Flowers and Herbs—These provide cover for ground-nesting birds and seeds and nectar.
- Nectar Producing Plants—Red tubular flowers are irresistible to hummingbirds (Penstemon, Phygelius) and larger producers like maple, Elaeagnus, honeysuckle and black locust are used by orioles and other small birds to supplement their diet.
- Summer-Fruiting Plants—Plants that produce berries from May through August are integral to a bird-attractive garden. Blackberry, blueberry, cherry, chokecherry, honeysuckle, raspberry, serviceberry, mulberry, elderberry and wild plum.
- Fall-Fruiting Plants—Migratory birds need fat reserves for their long voyage southward and locals need plenty of food to survive winter cold. These plants are essential and some examples include: dogwood, mountain ash, snowberry, sea buckthorn, buffaloberry and cotoneaster.
- Winter-Fruiting Plants—Some of these fruits need repeated freezing and thawing to be palatable. Winter fruits include black chokecherry, snowberry, sumac, highbush cranberry, crabapple, barberry, hawthorn, strawberry tree, bittersweet, Virginia Creeper and chinaberry.
- Nut and Acorn Plants—These trees provide food as well as good nesting habitat: oaks, hickories, butternuts, walnuts, buckeyes, chestnuts, pinon and stone pine and hazels.
Invite more birds into your garden— plant a berry bush, fill a fountain and plant, plant plant!