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Gardening for the Birds

March 5, 2012
Juliana Jensen

Close your eyes and imagine a garden.  It might be a floriferous English cottage garden or a wild woodlands landscape or a mounded garden of native plants.   But after a moment enjoying the garden, you realize you are missing something:  wildlife!  And what is more lively and charming in a garden than birds?  It is simple to provide a habitat for feasting birds that will enrich your joy in your garden.

It is not just for our own pleasure that we need to provide habitat for birds.  Research has shown a significant decline in migratory songbird species.  Urban development causes wild habitat destruction.  Exotic species often outperform the native plant species that local birds depend upon for food.  Large, open lawns do not provide the cover birds need for safety and shelter.  We can help the birds by considering them when planning our gardens.

Birds need three things in their habitat:  food, water, and shelter.  Even those birds that are insect eaters often supplement their diets with seeds, fruit, or nectar. You can provide food simply by the choices you make in plantings.  Many nurseries and garden books maintain lists of plants that provide food for birds.  

These plants are not difficult to find, as many common flowers attract birds. Asters, poppies, hollyhocks, lupines, zinnias, foxgloves, cosmos, or pincushion flowers are all good for birds.  If you have space for a tree, try a redbud or a dogwood.  Berries are easy to come by with crabapple, viburnum or our colorful native toyon.  

If you have sunflowers in your garden, let them dry on their stalks and the birds will pick out the seeds for a nutritious treat.  Or try other interesting annual seed plants such as amaranth.  Amaranth can be the color of rhubarb and grows up to six feet tall with long, pendulous tassels of seeds.  It provides an interesting oddball accent in the garden as well as a winter food fest for the birds.  I got mine at the Civic Center farmer’s market.  I can hardly wait to grow another next year.  Or, if I’m lucky, the birds will have left some seeds and it will grow on its own.  

Hummingbirds require nectar rather than seeds or berries.  They especially enjoy red tubular flowers.  There are many, many beautiful choices for hummingbirds.   Plant a fuchsia in the shade, or decorate your border with delphinium and penstemon.  Salvias are an excellent choice for hummingbirds and come in a variety of shapes and colors.  Many salvias are native and thrive in dry gardens.  A delicious winter nectar source for hummingbirds is the Ribes species, the beautiful flowering currants.  I put one in my garden last winter and was almost knocked over by a hummingbird on its way to the flowers.

A clean, fresh water source will attract birds to your garden.  If you are lucky enough to have a natural water source, restore native species and let the plants along the edge grow high enough to provide cover.  Ponds and water features are wonderful for birds.  If you intend them for use by birds, they should be shallow with sloping shorelines.

According to the Audubon Society, bird baths should also slope gently to a water depth of no more than two or three inches.  A rough surface is easier for the birds to navigate than a smooth one.  The bath should be located in an area open enough to protect them from hidden predators.  Change the water every few days and keep the bath clean.  

My best success with providing water for birds has come with a wide ceramic saucer from a long-broken pot.  It is on a slight slope so that the water is on only one side of the saucer.  Since the birds have discovered it, I have had a delightful display of splashing and preening only a few yards from my kitchen window.  

The last requirement for habitat is shelter.  Birds need safe places to hide from predators like raptors, cats, and humans.  Cover can be shrubs or trees, tall grasses, vines, or even rock piles.  If your garden is full of deciduous plants that disappear in winter, then think about planting a few evergreen shrubs to give the birds safety.  The Audubon Society even suggests, if all else fails, that you jettison your Christmas tree in your yard to give the birds a scrubby place to hide for the winter.  

So, it is as simple as that:  food, water, shelter.  With a little thought, you can turn your yard into a bird paradise.  Just get those neighbors to keep their cats inside!

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