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Marin IJ Articles

Invite birds into your garden

  • Karen Gideon
  • Birds are the most popular and frequent subject of wildlife observation in North America. In our yards they offer song, color and personality to the attentive gardener.

    Their appetite for caterpillars, insects, snails and other pests helps keep our gardens in good stead. Watching a hummingbird dip into a flower in your garden bodes well as birds are also pollinators. Hawks, kestrels, herons and owls prey on gophers, moles, rats and mice. Birds are on call year-round keeping an eye out for pests. Unfortunately, their numbers have been in decline and one major reason is loss of habitat.

    To build a bird-friendly habitat that will keep these pest patrollers on duty, review their needs and see how you can improve your garden to meet their requirements.

    Birds have simple needs that are easily met. They need water, natural food, cover and nesting sites. Most birds spend their time nesting and foraging in the space from the ground to about 5 feet off the soil. To gardeners, that’s our understory made up of flowers, grasses, shrubs and thickets. Stone or rock walls with lots of crevasses offer birds cover and insects.

    Birds also need canopy of differing heights depending on how they like to nest and rest. The more diverse your garden structure is, the more diverse your bird populations will be. And diversity is a good thing in nature.

    Native plants offer birds their natural food — nuts, berries, fruit and nectar. Removing non-native and invasive species gives your native plants a better chance of survival. Look for a mix of evergreen and deciduous trees, some vines, and snags. In forest ecology, a snag refers to a standing, dead or dying tree or some dead branches. Birds like the acorn woodpecker use snags for food storage and other birds use the dead wood and cavities for nesting and foraging. Don’t be too tidy! Leaving leaf litter on the ground gives birds a feeding ground for grubs and other bugs that thrive in a pile of decomposing leaves.

    Birds need water and those needs are easily met with a simple bird bath or bowl of water, changed regularly, set at least 3 or more feet off the ground. Refresh the water frequently so it doesn’t become home for mosquito larvae.

    There are gardening practices and products that can destroy a bird habitat. Using a blower to remove leaves and debris in the garden targets that bottom 5 feet of foraging space that the birds count on. Between March and July, when the birds are nesting and raising their young, avoid using a blower in your garden. Any disturbance can force the birds to abandon their nests. Be careful pruning and mowing, and if you see bird activity in your hedges, avoid walking close and handling the area.

    Keep your cats inside. Cats kill millions of birds each year. Raccoons and skunks will also disturb and kill birds so secure your garbage so these animals aren’t attracted to your yard. Crows, jays, magpies and cowbirds also are attracted to trash and garbage. These species tend to take over a garden and frighten less-brazen species away. If you have large windows, use decals and cutouts on your windows so the birds don’t attempt to fly through the glass.

    Reduce or eliminate the use of pesticides in your garden. That includes the neonicotinoids that seem to be pervasive in many nurseries. While originally touted as insect control without damaging animals higher on the food chain, the jury is out on whether that is indeed true. Using rodenticides, rat and mouse poisons in the garden can inadvertently cause the death of raptors that provide rat removal services for all of us.

    We are blessed with a diverse population of birds in Marin County; providing a habitat for them in your garden has many advantages. It provides a safe and successful location for them to flourish and provides the gardener with a hungry and effective pest patrol. The Audubon Society provides lists of native plants and the birds they attract by zip code at audubon.org.