Gardening for the Birds

November 5, 2020
Robin and Berries

It’s time to think about our feathered friends, especially feeding birds over winter and taking care of them so they don’t freeze. Here are five tips for making your backyard more bird-friendly. It takes more than just hanging a feeder or two. Small birds eat constantly during the day and they need to be able to find food 365 days a year. 

Why Help Our Birds?

First, just being outside in the garden surrounded by birdsong is a wonderful way to spend the day. Listening to the chirping chickadees and loud laughing call of the pileated woodpecker while watching the goldfinches swoop from plant to plant gives me a restful break from the craziness of the world and reinforces an important connection to nature.

Birds offer us some tangible help as well. A single swallow can eat hundreds of bugs in an afternoon. Many bird species are important predators of crop pests, while birds of prey will deal with any rodents. By inviting insect-eating birds to our yards we can help reduce the pests that attack our gardens and us!

However, our feathered pest control squad can’t work if your garden doesn’t provie the habitat they need.

What Birds Need in the Garden

Take a look at your garden from a bird’s point of view. Here are five tips:

  1. Along with natural foods such as seeds, fruits, berries, and nectar, your garden offers an abundance of tasty insects, caterpillars, worms, and spiders. The more diverse your plantings the more kinds of birds you will attract.
  2. In addition to a ready supply of food and clean water, birds need places to hide and nest. Pines and densely needled conifers block the wind, supply cover in bad weather, and offer protection from predators. They become ideal nesting places in the spring. 
  3. In terms of bird-friendly trees: Natives like oak, cedar, birch, maple, choke cherry, and serviceberry provide insects, seeds, and fruit along with shelter and nest sites. Berry-producing plants are essential food sources for many birds. Red fruits seem to be a favourite. Plantings of ornamental crabapples and cherries, mulberry, holly, and mountain ash will draw flocks of birds to their flowers and berries. Just make sure you net your raspberries, or they may be taken too!
  4. Native shrubs are especially attractive, offering food suited to the birds in your area and adding another layer of cover under taller trees. Small birds especially love dense shrubs and hedges where they can hide from predators. Thorny brambles, prickly roses, and hawthorn provide a safe haven for them to escape into, while ivy and other dense evergreens make great secluded nesting spots. See our list of best shrubs and trees for birds.
  5. There are many perennial and annual flowers that are ideal for birdscaping. The way a plant presents its seeds is a good indicator of how easy it will be for birds to swoop in for a quick snack. Plants that have open-faced flowers or bloom on an upright stalk have seeds that are readliy accessible.
  6. In the late fall and wintertime, consider supplementing with bird food.  Peanuts, sunflower seeds and mixed seed will all be appreciated by small birds in winter, but our go-to choice is fat balls or suet cakes. They’re high in saturated fat, which gives birds the energy they need to survive freezing winter temperatures. Avoid using fat balls that are sold in nylon mesh bags, as birds’ delicate feet and legs can become trapped. You can often buy fat balls loose in tubs or boxes of 50 or more, which works out much cheaper than buying half a dozen at a time.

You may have to delay pruning in the spring if a family of robins decides to nest in your forsythia.

Instead of diligently deadheading every fading flower, allow seed heads to stand for the birds to eat. Let your yard grow a little wild to provide areas of shelter. Wait until late winter to clear away dead flowerheads and stems, or to prune berrying shrubs. This will ensure that birds have a variety of natural food sources to turn to. There’s simply no good reason to cut many perennials down before late winter.

As long as they pose no danger to people or property let dead trees stand. They give cavity-nesting birds a place to call home and provide insects and grubs for other birds to eat.

Birds will reward your efforts by helping to control insects, garden pests, and mosquitoes. By planting a variety of food sources for each season, you will create a year-round haven for our feathered friends and prove that gardening is really for the birds!

About This Blog

Get inspired by Robin Sweetser’s backyard gardening tips and tricks. Robin has been a contributor to The Old Farmer’s Almanac and the All-Seasons Garden Guide for many years. She and her partner Tom have a small greenhouse business and also sell plants, cut flowers, and vegetables at their local Farmer’s Market.

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