John Ruskin (1819 – 1900)
Birds need places to feed, to hide, to rest in shade, and to nest and raise their young.
The expansion of human habitat, often in the form of dense housing with lawns, pavement, and cats, makes it more difficult for birds to find the food, water, shade, and safe cover they need, all of which has been significantly diminished by development and deforestation.
By following a few basic principles, you can turn your backyard garden into an oasis for birds.
Birds need water to drink and also to bathe and keep their feathers in shape, but water is a limiting factor in many backyard habitats.
The easiest way to provide birds with a reliable water supply is with a birdbath. To be effective, the bath must be shallow—only 1-1/2 to 3 inches deep with gently sloping sides. It must also have a rough surface, such as concrete, so birds have secure footing. The bath should be kept clean, with frequent hosing, and even soap, every month to prevent disease. Finally, birdbaths should be located in an open space so that cats can’t stalk and attack birds.
If you’re ambitious, consider creating a small re-circulating pond or wetland in your garden. See sources at the end for more information on this kind of project.
…AND SOME FOOD
As bird habitat has been diminished by development and deforestation—both in North America and also in the wintering habitats of central and South America–the amount of food and cover available for birds has been significantly diminished. Backyard gardeners can help address the food problem in two ways.
Feeders allow you to watch birds closely, and they offer birds needed energy during migration periods and winter.
To feed responsibly, use high quality foods and make sure your feeder has a roof to prevent rain from creating molds that can be toxic to birds. Moldy and damp seeds are the leading cause of feeder-related diseases. Also prevent crowded feeding conditions by offering several feeders spread out across a wide area. You can stock each feeder with a different type of foods to attract different kinds of birds. (For example, chickadees love sunflower seeds, gold finches love thistle seed, and woodpeckers love suet.)
To avoid disease problems, clean your feeders and the wastes around them frequently. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife recommends cleaning feeders each week, or twice a month, with a solution of 10 percent household chlorine bleach and 90 percent water. Be sure to rinse and dry after washing. If you ever notice sick birds, take your feeders down for 3 to 6 weeks.
As with bird baths, be sure to locate feeders about 10 feet away from cover that can harbor cats, yet close enough to trees or hedges that give birds places to escape to if predators, such as hawks, threaten. Also place feeders away from reflective windows to prevent collisions.
Add native and bird-attracting plants to your garden
The second and less costly approach is to plant the flowers, shrubs, and trees that offer food to birds, especially into the winter months.
Native plants are best for birds and wildlife. The National Wildlife Federation has found that native plants support 10 to 15 times more wildlife species than non-native plants. They are also easiest to maintain because they don’t require summer watering after they are established.
Garden perennials and annual flowers can also be beneficial to birds. Pick a variety of different plants to provide nectar and pollen through the summer months. These will attract and benefit not only hummingbirds but bees and butterflies, too. (For more on attracting pollinators, check out this Plants for Native Bees fact sheet)
Also include plants that produce seeds and fruits for in the late summer and fall when young birds are growing and preparing for migration. For example, wild roses (not the hybrid types) that produce brilliant red hips hold their fruits and offer birds a particularly useful food source into late fall. Pacific wax myrtle is a lovely native shrub that produces waxy berries favored by yellow-rumped warblers. Other shrubs that provide berries and fruits for birds include snowberry, evergreen huckleberry, elderberry, native trailing blackberry, and Oregon grape.
Deadheading blossoms typically gives gardeners extra blooms, but in the late summer and fall, consider allowing flowers to develop into seed heads. This will give birds extra high-energy food as the days shorten and cool, and seed heads often provide their own distinctive fall beauty as well.
Let some of your vegetable garden go to seed for birds during the winter. Goldfinches, chickadees, juncos, sparrows, and house finches will eat the seeds of parsley, broccoli, and greens. Sometimes, I hang uprooted plants–seed heads and all–onto my bean trellises and teepees; then I can enjoy watching birds pick off seeds. You can also plant sunflower and millet specifically for their seed heads. Locate them near your windows so you can watch the birds come to feast.
PROVIDE SHELTER AND COVER
Birds need places to feed, to hide, to rest in shade, and to nest and raise their young. The expansion of human habitat, often in the form of dense housing with lawns, pavement, and cats, makes it more difficult for birds to find the cover they need.
Enhance natural habitat
If you live in town, you can help to improve bird habitat by adding structure and cover in your garden. To accommodate the greatest diversity of birds, it is best to have a wide range of different kinds of habitat–from low ground covers, grasses, flowers and vegetables, to shrubs and hedges, and then tiering up to mature trees—both deciduous and coniferous.
In Oregon, city right-of-ways are often vegetated with brambles, shrubs, and trees that provide excellent shelter and cover for birds as they move about town. Loose piles of brush left in an unused corner of the yard can also offer habitat for birds such as chickadees, sparrows, wrens, thrushes, towhees, and quail.
If your home is in a forested area, it is likely that your property already provides valuable habitat for a range of birds—from the flycatchers and pine siskins that find insects and spruces seeds in the upper canopy, to the woodpeckers, sapsuckers, and owls that make use of the middle canopy—from the brown creepers, nuthatches, and chickadees that prefer the lower canopy and shrub layer, to the towhees, thrushes, and winter wrens that favor the ground vegetation and duff. Leave dead snags standing (if they don’t present a hazard) for the benefit of woodpeckers and cavity nesting birds.
Some birds require cavities or holes in trees for nesting, but nowadays, few large old trees with holes remain. Backyard gardeners can help by adding bird houses. Birds that take easily to bird houses in town include violet green swallows and chickadees. In open meadow land, blue birds will also nest in houses. On Garrison Lake, some residents have put up special boxes designed to attract colorful wood ducks. Consult with sources listed at the end to learn which bird-house features attract which birds.
PRINCIPLES TO FOLLOW FOR A BIRD-FRIENDLY GARDEN
Keep part of your yard wild
Rather than aim to landscape a large area in a manicured fashion, leave some parts of your yard wild. Such rustic areas can provide excellent food and shelter for birds. They also make your life as a gardener easier because they require less maintenance.
Keep invasive plants in check
Invasive plants become troublesome when they elbow out the native plants that birds and wildlife depend upon. For example, I’ve seen quail unable to find needed cover when a dog chased after them because there was only a dense thicket of gorse nearby.
Some examples of invasive plants around here are Himalaya blackberry, scotch broom, gorse, English ivy, and purple loosestrife (on Garrison Lake). Butterfly brush and Pampass grass also have the tendency to be invasive. Do what you can to control gorse and scotch broom in your yard and on city right-of-ways, too, so that it doesn’t spread. Also, keep tree- killing ivy under control.
Prune hedges in winter only
Restrict your hedge pruning to winter –after any remaining fruits have been eaten and before birds start nesting.
Use a bird-friendly approach to harmful insects
Your yard may contain as many as 1,000 insect species–fewer than 1 percent are pests, yet many people reach for a spray bottle and indiscriminately kill both harmful and beneficial bugs. A recent National Academy of Sciences study revealed that home and backyard landscapes receive more harmful pesticides than any other type of landscape in America.
It is estimated that pesticides kill 67 million birds each year, both directly and indirectly. Birds may ingest pesticides directly when they eat insects still present on sprayed plants, or when they sip water droplets on plants in a recently sprayed area. Birds may also come into contact with pesticides sprayed on soil surfaces where they walk; the bottoms of many birds’ feet are permeable to pesticides toxins. Poisoned birds may become weakened or lose use of their legs; such birds are seldom seen because they find places to hide and die quietly.
Pesticides harm birds indirectly by reducing the populations of insects that birds eat. About 70 percent of breeding birds in the Pacific Northwest feed on mostly insects. Most young birds are fed insects and spiders, snails, and worms. Even young seed eaters, such as finches, receive this diet from their parents because it contains more protein calcium and other nutrients needed by growing bodies.
For these reasons, it is best to avoid use of pesticides in your garden unless absolutely necessary. Instead, choose plants that are pest resistant. Monitor your plants closely, and then pick off caterpillars by hand or spray water to remove aphids.
Also add plants that attract beneficial insects to your garden (Check out Let Bugs do the Work). Beneficial insects, such as ladybugs, lacewings, and ground beetles, prey upon insects that are damaging to plants, such as aphids. Spiders also eat damaging insects.
Recognize that a small amount of insect damage is tolerable in a bird- friendly garden.
Keep housecats indoors
This may be the single most important principle for creating a bird-friendly garden. I have friends who say: “my kitty doesn’t kill birds,” or “I feed her well so she doesn’t kill birds.” They are in denial. The truth is that cats are hardwired to pounce when they see movement. It is an instinct that cannot be untaught. Every year, tens of thousands of birds and other small wild creatures seriously injured by cats are brought into the Audubon Society wildlife rehab center in Portland alone (they keep count!), and chances of recovery are always exceedingly slim owing to infections associated with cat scratches.
To avoid contributing to this problem, keep your cat indoors. If you feel you must let your cat out, do so only for supervised periods. Another thing you can do is put bells on your cat’s collar to give birds warning, but this does not always work. Do not leave a cat outdoors all the time. Also make sure to spay and neuter your cat, and don’t encourage the growth of feral cat populations by leaving food outdoors. You may feel that you are being kind to cats, but you may not realize that you are actively harming birds.
Named for the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, the Kalmiopsis Audubon Society has been the primary local, conservation advocacy group in Curry County for over 30 years.
SOURCES AND RESOURCES
Material for this section was drawn from Russell Link’s classic book, Landscaping for Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s book, Naturescaping: A Landscaping Partnership with Nature (2001), and conversations with local, bird-loving gardeners. The two books contain more complete listings of plants, shrubs, and trees that can be used to create excellent backyard wildlife habitat, plus ideas and information about building bird houses, ponds, and more. Both are highly recommended