Lee Valley & Veritas

Gardening Newsletter
  Volume 11, Issue 2 - February 2016  
Inviting a Free Pest Control Team
to Your Garden
Add a birdhouse to your garden
Add a birdhouse to your garden to invite pest-eating birds.
If you grow fruits, berries and vegetables in your garden, it can sometimes feel like you're battling nature in order to enjoy the bounty. Insect pests such as aphids, apple maggots and Japanese beetles are so frustrating! They chew on the leaves of our plants. They burrow into the bark on our trees or they lay their eggs under the skin of growing fruit.

Some of us take things into our own hands. We rush to the garden center to buy sprays and potions that promise to kill the bad bugs and keep them away. But why work so hard when you can ask nature to do the work for you? There are certain types of birds – such as tree swallows and Eastern bluebirds – that can nip the problem in the bud by feeding voraciously on flying insect pests.

Birdhouses in Organic Orchards
Working hand-in-beak with birds to protect plants and trees isn't a new idea. Organic orchardists have been doing it for years. I discovered this in 2010 during an orchard tour at Ignatius Farm in Guelph, Ontario, where dozens of sturdy wooden birdhouses have been installed randomly among the fruit trees.

Lorne Jamison, former orchard manager at the farm, installed them as part of an integrated pest-management plan. Jamison's father had been a conventional orchardist and suffered serious health problems as a result of the use of chemical fungicides and pesticides in his orchard. Lorne didn't want to follow suit, so he chose to explore organic growing. Birdhouses were a key part of that plan.

Gaye Trombley, owner of Avalon Orchards in Innisfil, Ontario, is also a firm believer in the value of attracting birds to her orchard. She has more than 10,000 fruit trees at her farm. So far she has installed 200 birdhouses and she adds more every year. For her, harnessing bird power to control bugs is an opportunity that should not be missed. "I love the birds!" she says. "You can literally see them pluck the insects out of the air. They consume an enormous amount of flying insects like moths and help us control populations of harmful ones like codling moth."

But before you rush off and buy a birdhouse, you need to ask yourself what types of bug-eating birds thrive in your region and what type of habitat they need. A chat with a member of your local birding society will help you narrow down your choices. If tree swallows and Eastern bluebirds do not thrive in your region, you may instead want to attract other pest-eating birds such as chickadees, purple martins, chipping sparrows, yellow warblers, downy woodpeckers and house wrens.
Easy-to-open birdhouse
Your birdhouse should be easy to open for an annual spring cleaning.
What Kind of Birdhouse Is Best?
So, you're ready to go to your local gift shop to pick up a pretty little birdhouse? Wait! Often those birdhouses are for decoration only. In order for birds to be able to build their nest in a birdhouse, they have certain needs to be fulfilled. In the case of tree swallows and Eastern bluebirds, here are some of them:
A well-ventilated birdhouse that is watertight with some drainage holes.
A house that is easy to open and clean. Often they have a side flap that can be unscrewed for annual spring cleaning in which you remove the old nest and make room for a new one in the mating season to come.
A hole that is the correct size to attract the birds you want. For tree swallows and eastern bluebirds, the ideal size is 1-1/2”.
If you are handy, there are lots of free plans online to build a suitable birdhouse. The best bet is to find a plan that's recommended by a birding society near you.

Is It Really That Easy?
Is conscripting a free pest-control team as easy as it sounds? Over the past three years, I have been selling reclaimed orchard birdhouses to my clients to help them protect their fruit trees and plants. Most were thrilled to have families of tree swallows, chickadees and Eastern bluebirds in their yards. They brought life and activity to the garden. But there were many lessons learned:
These birds feel safest if their nests are in open clearings. Do not place your birdhouse under tree branches or in a heavily forested area, as squirrels and other wildlife could easily pounce from nearby branches.
Do not place your birdhouse too close to your vegetable garden or anywhere you spend a lot of time. Birds can be territorial when their nestlings are young. You may find them dive-bombing you if you garden too close to their nests.
Do not put your birdhouse in a busy part of your garden where people walk by a lot or even near a busy street. Your birds are looking for a quiet space to raise their young.
If you have a large garden, do install more than one birdhouse but keep them at least 10' apart so that the birds do not compete with each other for territory.
Position of your birdhouse
The positioning of your birdhouse is key to ensure the birds are comfortable and safe.
Working With Nature
In short, if you can provide an appropriate home in your yard for birds, they'll return the favor by feasting on insect pests. And instead of just providing a basic bird B & B, you can give them an upgrade by providing:
Water – a little birdbath nearby will do if you top it up with fresh water every day.
Some native plants – in my region (zone 6) birds enjoy bee balm, purple coneflower and other great-looking native plants.
With a perfect birdhouse, water, native plants and flying insects to eat, the birds will love your garden. And you will love having them there, too. It's fascinating to see the life that a family of birds can bring to your garden. And it's gratifying to know that instead of using toxic sprays, these small and beautiful creatures are working with you to make your garden a healthier place.

Text and photos by Susan Poizner

Susan Poizner is the author of the award-winning fruit tree care book
Growing Urban Orchards. She is also the creator of the fruit tree training eLearning site www.orchardpeople.com.
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