Birds can be either a bother or a boon to our gardens, depending on who you ask. Some gardeners happily invite the feathered folk to their gardens, looking forward to the benefits they can bring. Others go to great lengths to keep them at bay. Maybe the latter have recurring Hitchcockian nightmares, or maybe they are simply afraid the birds will eat or poop on their tomatoes. We at the Kinky Hose Garden Project love birds in our yards, but there are a few caveats regarding their attraction. What follows herein is a list of the benefits of birds and some tips for attracting them to your garden. Near the end, we go one step further and offer a different perspective on birds and garden planning in general.
Benefits of Birds
Perhaps the first benefit of birds in the garden that comes to mind is pest control. Certain birds eat insects, aphids, caterpillars, tomato horn worms, grubs, and slugs, just to name a few. Birds are adept predators who offer a natural way to rid our gardens of these pests. Some finches and sparrows even consume weed seeds, controlling unwanted plants. Birds are, in fact, master pest exterminators and have been doing their work long before we, or our gardens, were here.
Below is a list of common backyard birds and some of the insect pests they like to eat. (Source: http://www.gardeners.com/how-to/attracting-bug-eating-birds/8103.html)
- Bluebirds: grasshoppers, crickets, beetles, larvae, moths
- Cardinals: beetles, grasshoppers, leafhoppers, stinkbugs, snails
- Chickadees: aphids, whitefly, scale, caterpillars, ants, earwigs
- Grosbeaks: larvae, caterpillars, beetles
- Nuthatches: tree and shrub insects such as borers, caterpillars, ants and earwigs
- Oriole: caterpillars, larvae, beetles, grasshoppers
- Sparrows: beetles, caterpillars, cutworms
- Swallows: moths, beetles, grasshoppers
- Titmice: aphids, leafhoppers, caterpillars, beetles
- Warblers: caterpillars, aphids, whitefly
- Woodpeckers: larvae, beetles, weevils, borers
Pollination is nature’s ecosystem delivery service and can significantly increase the yield of certain crops. It is an irreplaceable step in the reproduction of seed plants, both in and out of our gardens. Some small birds help pollinate crops; hummingbirds are especially adept at this and are welcome guests in most back yards across North America. Adding a simple hummingbird feeder can easily attract hummingbirds to your yard, but another, more aesthetic, way to attract these fun birds is to plant natural attractants.
Some plants, trees, and flowers that attract and feed nectar-feeding birds like hummingbirds (For more, refer to our source for this information at: www.humingbirds.net):
- Azaleas (Bush, Hardiness Zones 5–8)
- Mimosa (Tree, Hardiness Zones 6–9)
- Morning Glory (Vine, Hardiness Zones 3–9)
- Chrysanthemum (Annual, Hardiness Zones 5–8)
- Impatiens (Annual, Hardiness Zones 8–10)
- Petunias (Annual, Hardiness Zones 9–11)
- Agastache/Hummingbird Mint (Perennial, Hardiness Zones 5–9)
- Bee Balm (Perennial, Hardiness Zones 4–9)
- Hosta (Perennial, Hardiness Zones 3–9)
- Russian Sage (Perennial, Hardiness Zones 4–9)
Part of Nature
We want our gardens to work with nature, not against it. By attracting a diverse array of birds as part of an ecological mindset, we create an ecosystem, a community of living things (yes, even insects) interacting with each other and the environment as one system. If we transform our back yards into an environment beyond the typical back yard, we invite a new sort of culture into our lives. I’m talking, here, about permaculture. It takes more than just a bird feeder to attempt this, however, and we touch on this idea a little later on.
Although not a direct benefit to our garden, conserving wildlife is a great benefit to our earth. We are all becoming increasingly aware that many natural habitats are diminishing (some native bird populations are diminishing as well). Creating a bird-friendly, or perhaps wildlife-friendly, habitat creates more space for these creatures and a happier space in which to garden.
Tips for Attracting Birds to the Garden
Perhaps the easiest and least expensive method is to introduce birdfeeders to your yard. These are inexpensive and easy to maintain. When doing so, place them near cover and wait until late spring (or early summer) before installing or filling these types of attractors. At this point in the season, your young seedlings should already be on their way as established plants in your garden and not under any threat from hungry birds, who can dig up un-established seeds or young sprouts.
Experiment with the position of feeders to areas that prevent squirrels from jumping onto them from a nearby bush, fence, or the ground. Squirrels will go to remarkable lengths to outwit you. They will gladly eat the seeds you place for your birds, and may eventually go after your tomatoes. Consider squirrel baffles to prevent them from climbing up poles.
Consider the difference between attracting birds to your yard and attracting birds to your garden. Bird attractors need not be in the middle of the garden. The birds will come. If you design it right, they will want to stay. Placing bird attractors too close to your garden (especially feeders) can be problematic, as birds tend to poop in copious amounts and scatter seeds, which can create weed problems. When we at the Kinky Hose Garden Project first attempted to attract birds, we started with a simple bird feeder. Unfortunately, we placed it a little too close to the garden. The result was a lot of bird droppings in the garden and weeds from “seed litter.” Therefore, our experience compels us to suggest placing these types of attractants a short distance from the garden.
Experiment with the type of feed you supply. Different types of seed attracts different types of birds.
Consider a more natural way to attract birds. Create a bird-friendly habitat by planting native flowers and plants of all sizes and diversities. Not only will this help attract birds, it is a wonderful way to beautify your landscape. It might also attract insects away from your garden.
Also plant native bird-attractive trees and shrubs. These provide areas for nesting and shelter. Also consider ornamental trees that might even provide food for birds, such as dogwood, juniper, shadebush, etc. The key word here is native. Not only will native plants and trees thrive in their natural environment, birds are used to them. Exotic plants will only confuse the native birds and may even serve as a detractor.
Add a water feature. This can be as simple as a bird bath, but consider a water feature with running water and of different depths. This could be as elaborate as a pond. If installing a bird bath, consider something that keeps water moving, as moving water seems to attract birds of all types. Stagnant water is also breeding ground for mosquitoes. If installing a water feature, do so in a place near cover, so the birds have places upon which to perch and hide when necessary.
Provide a few birdhouses. Not only do these provide shelter for birds and a place to nest, they can also add a certain amount of charm to your yard. Consider placement of these houses or boxes carefully. Place these at quieter areas of your yard and away from feeders, as these places may get rather busy. Nesting birds like to be somewhat away from commotion. Also, keep the houses out of direct sunlight and space them out appropriately, so not to crowd an area.
Purchase a good Bird Guide to birds in your area. Understand which birds are beneficial, and which birds are not. Learn their habits, their diet, and their markings. If photography is your thing, consider using a digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera and different lenses to capture the birds in pictures. The point is to enjoy the birds you attract.
Permaculture: For the Birds
Adding birdfeeders, houses, and baths are all well and good. For many gardeners, these additions can create a nice space while attracting beneficial wildlife. But consider this: There may be a more lasting and beneficial way to design our gardens, as some of the tips above suggest.
We have heard some gardeners lament over the nuisance of birds. True, some birds (even the beneficial ones) can turn on our gardens if we are not careful. Some may even opt for the fleshy tops of vegetables from time to time. We suggest that this may be true in an environment that fails to deliver a complete and sustaining ecosystem. Lacking that, birds have to make do with what they can find, which could mean looking to your garden vegetables for food. What if instead, your yard was inclusive and diverse? What if your yard was a mixture native plants of different varieties and textures and at different heights within the landscape? What if your yard was a microclimate complete with a variety of diverse shrubs, trees, flowers, and ground cover that not only attract wildlife, but engender an ecological permaculture? What if that bird bath was, instead, an established pond with fish, lilies, and even frogs? What if your yard was much more than a fence, a garden, a bird feeder, and a lot of grass? If your back yard was a diverse ecological habitat, would the birds and wildlife zero in on your garden as their best source of food, or would that wildlife simply be a part of a rich, self-reliant permaculture?
Permaculturalist Toby Hemenway argues that in a well-designed, balanced landscape, birds do far more good than harm (http://www.patternliteracy.com/books/gaias-garden/the-gardeners-feathered-friends), and we agree. This approach does, however, require a few important things like planning, knowledge, and resources. We may talk a big game, but is our yard a permacultueralist’s dream? Well, no. To be frank, we aren’t even close. It is a dream not yet fully realized in our backyard, but it is precisely what the Kinky Hose Garden Project aspires to create. We promise to keep you updated and share these sorts of tips we learn along the way.
That all being said, whether you desire to create such an ecological landscape or simply wish to attract birds to your yard for the benefit of your garden and well being, we support your decision and offer you our wishes of good luck. Not only are birds enjoyable guests to our yards, they offer stress relief and help create a relaxing, happy place. They bring joy and life to any landscape.