Bird Watching

The interest in watching birds and attracting them to the garden has grown enormously in recent years. Their beauty, song and active behavior make birds the most conspicuous form of wildlife that lives in close proximity to man. Their exuberant presence can transform the garden from a collection of plants into a lively community of interrelated life forms. They satisfy a human need for close contact with the wild things that share the planet with us. Organic gardeners value birds highly in their role as efficient predators of insects. A varied population of resident birds will help to control insect pests. Bird and insect populations tend to balance each other out, and birds will disappear from gardens that are doused with pesticides and herbicides at every appearance of aphid and dandelion. The slate gray berries of the juniper will satisfy the appetites of some birds which might otherwise turn to the garden for food. Organic gardeners are accustomed to thinking of pests in terms of balanced control rather than overkill, and they have taken an important first step in making their gardens attractive to birds by refusing to use these poisons. The birds will increase its number and variety if a few other requirements are met.

Birds have three basic needs for survival-food, water and cover. A well-stocked feeder can increase the garden’s bird population dramatically in winter, and a birdbath can be a busy center of activity during the heat of summer. These two amenities in combination with plantings attractive to birds as nesting site, shelter and sources of food will help to insure a year-round population of birds in the garden.

Planting for Birds

In the wild, more species of birds will be found in the brushy area where woods and fields meet than will be found in the interior of either the woods or fields themselves. Ecologists call this phenomenon “edge effect,” and when it can be duplicated on the home grounds, a greater variety of birds will be encouraged to take up residence there. One way to accomplish this is by surrounding the lawn with a thick border of fruiting trees and shrubs. The wider and more varied in content the border is, the better, but even a narrow boundary hedge can make a garden more appealing to some birds. A gradation of heights in the planting will make it more aesthetically pleasing and more attractive to more species of birds. Some birds, robins among them, forage on the lawn; others like catbirds and mocking-birds prefer to nest in dense shrubbery; and still others such as orioles spend most of their time in tall trees. The outer edges of the planting might be framed by tall shade trees, grading down to small fruiting trees and tall shrubs faced in turn by lower shrubs around the center of the lawn, which should be kept as open as possible so the birds can be seen. Evergreens should be included in the border because of their value as year-round cover. Mass them where a permanent screen is wanted, or where they can serve as a windbreak for the garden and house. This kind of mass border when lawn planting will provide birds with an abundance of nesting sites, a variety of habitats, ample shelter, and food in the form of insects, seeds and fruit. It can be installed over a period of years as the budget permits, and will amuse its owner with little work once established.

Bird gardens are of necessity low-maintenance gardens because birds prefer things tone as natural as possible. Converting large areas of lawn into islands and borders of shrubbery cuts down on the monotonous chore of grass mowing. The shrubs and trees in the bird garden might be pruned occasionally to induce formation of forks and crotches that can support nests, but they should be allowed to grow together, thicket fashion, to some extent. Close dipping of fruiting shrubs should be avoided because it reduces berry production. Use the pruning as pea stakes in the vegetable garden, or to make a brush pile in some out-of-the-way corner. Brush piles are attractive to ground-dwelling birds as resting and feeding areas. Bramble fruits can be planted around them to form dense thickets which are the preferred nesting sites of several species. Leaves which fall in the shrub borders should not be raked up. Leaf litter harbors many insects and is a rich foraging area for birds, and it will slowly decay into leaf mold, which is the only fertilizer the shrubbery will need. Many common weeds will furnish valuable seeds for birds. The common annuals lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium) and pigweed (Amaranthus) produce highly nutritious seeds favored by many species. The plants can be cut in fall, tied in shocks and placed near feeders or among shrubs so birds have access to the seeds in winter. The purple black berries of pokeweed are eaten by 28 species of birds. This plant can make a showy addition to the shrub border. Gardeners may rebel at allowing such pests as ragweed and poison ivy to get established in the garden, but both are excellent bird food plants. Garden flowers are most closely associated with hummingbirds, but many will provide food for other birds if allowed to ripen their seeds. The colorful small-seeded sunflowers, cosmos, China asters, marigolds, and zinnias are especially good.

Even though a planting devoted to birds should be kept as casual and wild as possible, it should be as carefully planned as any other major landscaping project. There are limits to the amount of actual jungle that can be tolerated, especially on small suburban properties where there are usually finicky neighbors to contend with. Make a scale drawing of the area to be planted, and lay out the planting on paper before anything is put in the ground. While it is true that a great variety of plant material means a great variety of birds, don’t overdo it by planting one each of two dozen different shrubs at random around the garden. Try to group at least three shrubs of each species together, and repeat the groups at various places in the border. This will insure good cross-pollination and fruit set, and will make the border more pleasing to the eye by giving it a pattern. Choose plants that fruit at different times so food is available most of the year. A limited list of proven bird attractors follows.

If there are no natural sources of water in the vicinity, a well-placed birdbath will add treatly to the attractiveness of the garden for birds. Almost any wide, shallow container with rough interior surface, gradually sloping sides, and a maximum depth of three inches will do. Place the birdbath out in the open away from shrubbery which might hide lurking cats. A waterlogged bird is a clumsy flier and makes easy prey. Where cats are a problem, a pedestal-type bath is best. Otherwise, a naturalistic bath can be made by scraping a depression in the ground and lining it with concrete. The gleam and sound of dripping water will attract more birds. A hose can be suspended from overhead tree branches and turned on just enough to provide a slow, steady drip, or a bucket with a pinhole in the bottom can be hung over the bath. Make the hole very small initially; it can always be enlarged if desired. The bucket can be camouflaged with bark, and it should be covered to prevent debris and birds from falling in. During warm weather, a popular bath may need a daily refilling and a weekly scrubbing with a stiff brush to remove algae. It can be interesting to watch the elaborate preening ritual birds go through after bathing. Keep them in view while they do this by placing a few dead branches near the bath for them to perch on.

Attracted by the garden insects, eastern bluebirds will nest in the hollows of nearby trees or in homemade birdhouses nailed to fence posts.

Great migrations of birds to and from their breeding grounds take place in spring and fall. The well-planted bird garden can be a welcome resting and feeding place for tired migrants during these seasons, and the sedentary gardener busy with his own seasonal routines can sense the wonder of this continent-spanning flow of life as he watches them come and go. Many northern birds looking for a good place to spend the winter appear in fall. These winter visitors together with the resident birds can make the garden a lively place all season if food is provided to keep them around. Feeder-watching can be one of the greatest pleasures of dreary winter days, and it is a good way of becoming familiar with birds. The lure of a reliable food source overcomes their instinctive wariness and brings them out in the open where they can be easily seen. The birds may become dependent on the feeder once natural food sources are used up, so if you start feeding, don’t stop until winter is over. Any of the commercial wild bird feed mixes or fine cracked corn and sunflower seed will satisfy the seed eaters. Suet and peanut butter will attract additional species.