Our feathered friends mark the seasons and enliven the landscape. Here's how you can accommodate them with food, water and shelter from harm.
Birds as Season Markers
We gardeners mark the cycle of the seasons by what's growing around us. Have the snowdrops come up yet? Has the forsythia finished blooming? Is the soil warm enough to plant beans?
But there's often another set of observations that we draw upon in spring. How many of us mark the arrival of robins? Or the brightening of the goldfinches from sombre winter garb to courting colours?
The wheeling of swallows above our property sends us out to open up the hayloft window in the barn so they can nest again; we put out hummingbird feeders usually long before the hungry hummers have returned.
If you garden, chances are you also have an interest in watching and feeding birds. Birding and gardening go together naturally-and some gardeners design their plantings to attract birds.
Let me make it very clear: I'm no bird expert. At best I'm an amateur when it comes to identifying more than the most common songbird species. But throughout the years I've learned a fair bit about attracting birds to the garden. Like many people I've become conscious of their diminishing habitat, and developing a wildlife-friendly garden is one way to help our feathered friends.
Our home is in a rural location surrounded by open spaces and wild habitats, but that doesn't mean you have to be a country dweller to attract birds. In fact, some people would argue that developing a bird-friendly garden in suburban and city locales is even more crucial than it is in rural locales. Think about walking in the downtown core of a city. How many types of birds do you usually see? Pigeons, for sure, and starlings; seagulls, particularly if the city is near ocean; ducks in parks; but you won't find too many songbirds unless there are green spaces. This is where gardens come in-creating fragments or corridors to bigger green spaces.
Birds and Plants
But it isn't just that birds rely on plants for shelter and food; many plants need birds to help with pollination, and later, with seed dissemination. If you've ever had a plant appear in your garden seemingly out of the blue, chances are a passing bird dropped the seed. As a result seedlings will develop far away from the parent plant, where they might've had to compete for nutrients, light and water; birds help to ensure the survival of plant species. Of course, sometimes less than desirable species are disseminated, but that's a small price to pay.
If you want to develop plantings for birds, start by seeing what you already have that they may find attractive: fruit-bearing trees or shrubs, perennials with seed heads, thorny bushes that offer protected nesting sites… Birds have simple requirements: food, water, shelter from enemies and nesting sites. In all likelihood, you probably just need to add a few bird-friendly plants; perhaps a water feature, a bird feeder and some sheltered areas.
Making Your Garden Bird-Friendly
The first cardinal (pun intended) rule is to put away the pesticides. Synthetic chemicals and birds do not mix, as we first learned more than 40 years ago in Rachel Carson's seminal book Silent Spring. Nature is great for supplying her own solutions when there's a pest problem. Last summer many gardeners were plagued with the viburnum leaf beetle, whose voracious larvae can denude a viburnum shrub in a few days. Our highbush cranberry (Viburnum trilobum), had leaves skeletonized by the bugs. I had almost decided to break out the Bt spray (Bacillis thurengiensis, an organic insecticide) when one evening I noticed a lot of activity in the shrub. There were several dozen Bohemian waxwings moving among the branches, and I realized they were feeding on the insects. So much for needing chemical warfare-even of the organic variety.
The same goes for not breaking out the herbicide every time a weed pops up in your yard. Many of the so-called weed plants are critical food sources for birds. Thistles, chickweeds, lamb's quarters, even the ubiquitous dandelion all produce seed eaten by various bird species. We leave an area between pasture and pond unmowed so that thistles, goldenrod and wild asters can grow there. Even if this isn't to your taste, instead of using herbicides it's better for birds to pull out or dig up plants you don't want; or mulch around borders and beds to suppress the so-called volunteers.
Siting Your Bird Garden
It's a good idea to develop a bird garden somewhere within sight from a window in your home-some of your birdwatching will inevitably happen from indoors. Right outside one of my office windows there are several rhododendrons, a very thorny 'Topaz Jewel' rugosa rose, a couple of hydrangeas, some perennials and grasses, and a post with two different feeders on it, which we leave up and fill year-round. I have a birds-eye view, quite literally, of juncos, chickadees, finches and other small birds that relish the seeds and the sheltered location. Of course, our cats also enjoy watching "bird television" from the office window, but that's another story.
What should you plant in your bird garden? Think about the food preferences and nesting requirements of the types of birds you want to attract. Sally Roth's Bird-by-Bird Gardening (Rodale, 2006) shows how to design your garden to appeal to specific types of birds. Take those wonderful waxwings, for example. While in the off-seasons they eat insects like viburnum beetles, their favourite food is fruit. Any kind of fruit will do, including that of wild shrubs and trees, although cherries are a particular favourite. Of course, many species of birds love fruit that's been cultivated as well, including cherries, bramble fruits, blueberries and apples. Not everyone wants their fruit to be harvested by birds; there are bird-deterrents such as hologram ribbon or nets that you can use while waiting for fruit to ripen.
Many plants don't bear seed or fruit until later in the growing season. To offer a consistent source of food, consider putting up seed and suet feeders. There's a wide range of seed mixes and feeder types available. Goldfinches and siskins, for example, are fond of niger seed; we've counted as many as a dozen and a half goldfinches hanging off our large tube feeder at one time.
Food, Water and Nesting Sources
While some people only offer supplemental bird feed throughout the fall and winter months, others leave their birdfeeders up-furnished with food-year-round. Many birding societies, including Audubon and the British Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, recommend that if you provide supplemental food you should do so on a year-round basis. Feeding year-round often attracts species that might not otherwise be attracted to your garden, and of course, you'll get to see colourful species up close in their summer finery, not just in their more drab winter colours.
If you're new to putting up feeders, be aware that it may take time for birds to discover them. Try using a variety of seeds to attract different species, and even sprinkle some seed on the ground for those species that don't land on feeders (but be cautious of doing this if you have cats outdoors). We routinely toss seed on the ground for the mourning doves and pheasants that come to our yard.
Birds also require a source of water year-round, not just for drinking but also for bathing. You'll often find birds visiting water features-but you don't have to have a pond or stream to provide water. Even clay plant saucers work well, especially for small birds. Although it's more of a challenge to provide water in the winter (at least in an average Atlantic Canadian winter), you can purchase birdbath heaters that keep an open source of water even during the coldest times.
Consider putting up nesting boxes or birdhouses, and offering a supply of nesting material such as string, wool, dryer lint and small rags. Birding shops carry handy wire holders that you can fill with bits of string or yarn in spring-and with suet in the winter-but keep the pieces short to make it easy for birds to transport and use in nest building. With any luck, you'll be able to watch some species raise young in your bird garden nursery.
Many perennials and annuals provide food sources for birds, primarily from seeds or from insects that are attracted to the plants. Deadhead plants early in the season to promote more flowering but resist doing so late in the season, so seeds form. Ornamental grasses are not included here, but don't forget that these also provide great food sources.
Many of the following plants offer shelter and nesting sites as well as food. Perhaps your property isn't large enough to have a collection of large trees, but you may have room for a shrub or two. Species recommended for hedges such as holly, bayberry, firethorn and roses are generally popular bird plants. Native plants are marked with an asterisk (*).
Crabapple (Malus, various species and cultivars) Birds love its small sour apples-they're easy to pick and swallow, and stay on the tree well into winter.
Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis)* Robins, blue jays and wood thrushes prefer this tree as a nesting site; its fruit is a vital food source for chickadees. A shade-tolerant and very hardy tree, though not ideal for small spaces.
Hawthorn (Crataegus, various species) Hawthorns range in size from small shrubs to good-sized trees; its scarlet fruit attract many bird species. The thorny branches provide protected nesting sites for robins, blue jays and others.
Mountain ash (Sorbus americana)* Also called dogberry, its clusters of scarlet fruit are loved by a variety of birds, including waxwings, grosbeaks and thrashers. The rowan or European mountain ash (S. aucuparia) is considered invasive in many regions.
Shadbush or serviceberry (Amelanchier, various species)* A delightful tree (or shrub) given its attractive foliage and spring flowers as well as the fruit that birds love. Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum)* A magnificent tree at any time of year-and beloved by maple syrup enthusiasts-but also used as a nesting site for various birds. Warblers and wrens routinely eat insects from the leaves, and other species will dig under fallen leaves in search of dinner.
Alder(Alnus rugosa)* Yes, you read that correctly. Alders are despised by many but should be respected. They are great naturalizers and stabilizers for the banks of ponds and streams, and also filter out impurities and toxins including runoff from pesticide- and fertilizer-laden fields. The seeds are eaten by redpolls, siskins and goldfinches, among others.
Chokeberry (Aronia)* Whether you opt for the red chokeberry (A. arbutifolia) or the black (A. melanocarpa), the fruit of these small shrubs is relished by a variety of birds, including waxwings.
Dogwoods (Cornus, various species)* One of the most beautiful and versatile of deciduous shrubs-whether you're growing a native species such as alternate-leaved dogwood (C. alternifolia) or red osier dogwood (C. sericea) or, if you live in a mild area in the region, Chinese flowering dogwood (C. kousa), with its showy flowers and large, unique fruit. No bird garden should be without a dogwood or two.
Elderberry (Sambucus, various species and cultivars)* A deciduous shrub with attractive leaves and large clusters of tiny white flowers that develop into equally large clusters of tiny red-purple fruit. There are various new hybrids with gold or purple-black foliage, but birds will make do nicely with the native species, S. nigra ssp. Canadensis.
Junipers (Juniperus, various species)* These low-growing evergreens are a gardener's delight; they're also popular with many species of birds, which eat the berries and insects from the needles-they even nest in the large species.
Northern bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica)* Only the females of this deciduous and fragrant shrub bear the grey-blue berries favoured by tree swallows and other species, but some birds also use the shrub as a nesting site.
Viburnum (various species) Native viburnums are gaining in popularity-and rightly so; most have lovely spring blossoms and terrific fall colour, and bear fruit in assorted shades. Waxwings love the highbush cranberry (Viburnum trilobum) and dine on its fruit; wild raisin (V. cassinoides) and hobblebush (V. alnifolium) are also good garden choices, far moreso than the disease and pest-ridden snowball bush (V. opulus).
Perennials and annuals
Anise hyssop (Agastache species and cultivars) The seeds of this mint relative are food for small birds but these perennials-both hardy and tender-are also irresistible to hummingbirds.
Bee balm (Monarda species) A must-have perennial for any wildlife garden-its flowers are appealing to bees and butterflies as well as hummingbirds; seedheads also provide food for birds.
Calendula Also called pot marigolds, these are fragrant, easy-to-grow annuals that often self-seed, but not aggressively. Columbine (Aquilegia) Tuck these in among late-blooming perennials; as their foliage becomes untidy they'll be camouflaged.
Clematis Technically it's not a perennial but a woody, vining plant, offering sheltering sites as well as food sources from striking, feathery seedheads.
Coneflower (Echinacea) This is one perennial I couldn't be without. Its seeds last well into winter, when they are a much-appreciated food source. Try the new orange, yellow or coral coloured hybrids for something different.
Gayfeather (Liatris spicata) Sometimes mistaken for purple loosestrife, gayfeather isn't invasive, and its bottlebrush flowerheads produce seeds beloved by finches.
Globe thistle(Echinops) Globe thistles spread easily, so aren't great for small gardens unless grown in containers, but their striking seedheads provide lots of nourishment for finches and other birds.
Michaelmas daisy (Aster, various cultivars) A great late-summer and fall flowering perennial, but resist deadheading so that seeds will form.
Poppies (Papaver, annual and perennial species) The most strikingly beautiful are the oriental poppies, their huge flowers and attractive seedheads bursting with food, but annual species also provide seed for small birds.
Soft rush(Juncus effusus) If you have a water garden, you may want to plant this as a food and shelter source for small birds that enjoy water. A more unusual form, the corkscrew rush (J. spiralis), is a striking plant for the margins of wet areas.
Sunflowers (Helianthus) No bird garden would be complete without sunflowers. If you want to collect seed for your own use as well as to share, you'll have to cover the flower heads of a few plants so that birds don't eat them all immediately.
Teasel (Dipsacus) A favourite of finches, and a marvellous plant for winter interest. Be aware, however, that teasel self-seeds prodigiously; even though birds eat some of its seeds you'll have to mulch heavily around plants, or be prepared to remove many seedlings.
Tickseed (Coreopsis) An attractive perennial with bright yellow flowers; lanceleaf coreopsis (C. lanceolata) produces generous quantities of seeds.