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Marin IJ Articles

Birds in the garden — friends or foes?

  • Karen Gideon
  • If you’ve ever been jarred from sleep by the drumming of a woodpecker against your house you might pull up the welcome mat for birds. Perhaps you spent a day preparing your soil and carefully sewing seeds for vegetables only to find a flock of robins upending your garden rows. And then you remember seeing a chickadee with a moth in its beak and a phoebe hunting stealthily through the air for mosquitos. So which is it — should you attract birds or keep them out of the garden?

    Birds are the sustainable gardener’s primary pest patrollers as flies, caterpillars, spiders, beetles and snails make up most of their meals. And during the spring, when insects are flourishing in warmth and moisture, birds are feeding spiders and other bugs to their nestlings all day long. One approach to managing this garden asset is to attract the birds while limiting their exposure to your plants or home. You can garden with nature rather than trying to eliminate it from your garden.

    To attract birds to your garden you can supply the basics — food, water, a place to nest and safety from predators. A birdbath is as simple as a bowl of water in your garden or an elaborate fountain. Make sure the water is moving or cleaned regularly so it doesn’t become a home for mosquito larvae. Birds like to nest discreetly so make sure you have a mixed canopy of shrubs and trees. Cultivate native plants with seeds that they love to eat. Native grasses like Calamagrostis foliosa attract wrens, juncos and sparrows and native shrubs like toyon or Myrica californica offer flowers and berries.

    To ensure the birds have insects and snails, hold back on blowing away your leaf litter and let the decaying leaves provide a home for beetles, crickets and slugs. The leaf blowers can damage bird nests in the spring and drive away your birds. Put a bell on the cat or bring your cat inside so they don’t hunt and frighten the birds.

    To protect your home from nesting birds, make sure you have sealed all holes and loose boards. Nesting can be messy, so hanging something flashy like foil from the corner or eave the birds are eying will deter nesting there. Mesh netting placed over eaves and flashing can deter woodpeckers and flickers.

    To protect seeds and plants from birds, you can tent your vegetables with ¼- to ½-inch mesh netting, making sure to secure the bottom of the netting so they can’t get under it. After your seeds have sprouted, you can reuse the plastic berry containers to make mini tents over the seedlings. Scare tactics, whirligigs, foil strips flapping in the wind, scarecrows, rubber snakes or plastic owls have some level of deterrence if they are moved around. Some gardeners pitch netting around their plants and leave one uncovered for the birds — so there’s an abundance of food for everyone.

    You can encourage birds by putting up feeders. It’s prudent to research the type of seed the bird you are trying to attract eats. Watch for rodents — the falling seed could create a new food chain in your yard that includes mice and rats. The same goes for nesting boxes — research this by species. If you love how the nuthatches search for insects in the bark of your oak trees, you could encourage them to overwinter with a nesting box. If you enjoy the acrobatics of swallows, a patch of mud in the yard gives them the plaster they need for their nests.

    As usual, the answers to sustainable gardening questions are rarely yes or no or friend or foe. Working with nature and taking advantage of the checks and balances in your mini-ecosystem, brings results that help your garden thrive. In this case, leveraging the pest control offered by birds while minimizing damage to your garden and home is the prize.