Gardening for the Birds

By Ellen Azotea

Providing for the needs of our feathered friends while improving our gardens is a wonderful way to combine two favorite hobbies: gardening and bird watching. A garden, ideally, should provide food, water, shelter (cover) and a place to raise young, but adding even just one of these elements will attract more birds to your yard.

A female house finch in the author’s garden

A female house finch in the author’s garden

Food:  Minimize pesticide use and let the bugs be a rich bird food source instead. Most backyard birds eat a combination of seeds, berries and insects. But in late spring and early summer, birds are busy filling the mouths of their hatchlings, and baby birds like nothing better than freshly caught bugs.  Many annual and perennial flowering plants provide seeds that attract a variety of songbirds. Leave the following list of plants standing in the fall garden after they finish blooming:  Asters, Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia, annual and perennial varieties) Note:  Our native Cutleaf Coneflower, Rudbeckia laciniata is a great choice for the back of the garden–small birds that cling to seed heads, such as the American Goldfinch, chickadees, and house finches, all adore this tall plant.  Blazing Star (Liatris), Coneflowers (Echinacea), Cosmos, Evening primroses, Goldenrods, Marigolds, Sunflowers, Zinnias

Purple coneflower (echinacea purpurea) and black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia)

Purple coneflower (echinacea purpurea) and black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia)

American Goldfinch feasting on coneflower seeds

American Goldfinch feasting on coneflower seeds

Some flowering shrubs and trees that also provide food through the autumn and winter seasons are Holly, Hawthorn, Serviceberry, Winterberry, Viburnum, Sumac, and conifers. The cone-bearing evergreens provide dense cover and good nesting sites as well.

Cover:  Plants that provide good cover make good nesting sites, and help protect birds from predators, especially fledglings just leaving the nest. Here are some examples:

Crabapple*    Holly*    Washington Hawthorn*     Dense evergreens       Densely branched shrubs Deciduous trees   Native blackberry

*(also provides fruit from autumn well into the winter months)

Robin in a densely branched crabapple tree

Robin in a densely branched crabapple tree

Nesting Materials:  Grasses, soil, dried foliage, and fallen twigs left around the garden (or at the edge of your property for a neater look) provide some of the building materials birds need to make nests. Providing birdhouses of various sizes can attract cavity nesters like woodpeckers, chickadees and house wrens.

A house wren examines a potential nesting site

A house wren examines a potential nesting site

An inexpensive plastic birdbath placed near favorite perennials

An inexpensive plastic birdbath placed near favorite perennials

Water Source:  Even the humblest birdbath, pie plate or planter saucer on the ground will attract birds to your garden. The birds aren’t fussy—if it is filled with water, they will come! Just be sure to change the water several times a week to keep it clean and deter mosquitoes from laying and hatching their eggs.

Reduce Open Areas:  Open lawns have the least food and virtually no shelter, making them poor resources for birds as well as being vulnerable to predators. Widen flower beds, plant trees, and add shrubbery instead of grass. Not only will you be rewarded with a yard rich in birds, but you will find less need to mow and trim the grass.

(All photographs taken by the author in her Medina, Ohio garden)

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