Imagine a spring robin hopping around the yard, a tiny hummingbird zipping through the garden or a friendly black-capped chickadee at the feeder. No matter where you live, in an urban or a rural setting, most people enjoy watching and feeding the birds. Often, we welcome them as garden guests.
These days, our feathered friends can use our hospitality. Sadly, some North American wild bird populations are shrinking, especially those of songbirds. Evening grosbeaks, field sparrows, whippoorwills, eastern meadowlarks and boreal chickadees are all in decline. Loss of natural habitat, increasing urban development, collisions with cars and buildings, the use of pesticides and insecticides and even roaming cats all contribute to their diminished numbers.
Consider lending a helping hand by creating a bird-friendly habitat. The key is biodiversity—the greater the variety of plants, such as trees, shrubs, native flowers and grasses, the greater the numbers of birds you will attract. Plants provide shelter, food, and nesting materials for birds; they also attract insects on which birds feed. Even dead trees, provided they pose no danger for humans, and brush piles can be vital for birds, especially woodpeckers. Native plants are preferable, whenever possible.
Here are some tips to attract native birds:
Design a Flower Garden
Sunflowers (Helianthus), Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) and Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum) will go to seed and attract finches, juncos, and sparrows.
Hummingbirds are attracted to bright, bold native plants, especially those with red coloring. These little birds with long tongues prefer bell or trumpet-shaped flowers. Spring flowers to plant for hummers include bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis), blue flag iris (Iris versicolor), Virginia bluebell (Mertensia virginica) and wild geranium (Geranium maculatum), also known as cranesbill.
In the summertime, hummingbirds feed on butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), giant hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), bee balm (Monarda didyma), Canada lily (Lilium canadense), cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) and blue vervain (Verbena hastata).
Some birds love certain vegetable plants, if you’re willing to share, including peas, asparagus seeds, corn and scarlet runner beans. Mixing vegetables with flowers adds visual interest to any garden.
Plant Some Trees
Evergreens provide birds with shelter and add winter interest to the garden. Pines, no matter the variety, are popular with nearly all birds. Their soft needles provide protection from the wind and their cones supply much-needed food for species such as crossbills, chickadees, goldfinches and towhees. Pines are favorable nesting sites for grackles, blue jays and tanagers.
Cedars, junipers, spruces and hemlocks also provide shelter and produce seeds that are useful food sources. Hang a few birdhouses for nesting birds.
Berry-producing trees are always popular with birds. The European mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia) and Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia) are good food sources. These and other deciduous trees also provide materials for nesting. The paper birch (Betula papyrifera) is ideal in a bird-friendly garden; the thin catkins are both ornamental and a source of bird food. The fruit of the red jade crabapple (Malus ‘Red Jade’) can be a good food source for birds, usually after repeated freezing and thawing has softened it. Many cultivars of this tree also provide tasty bird treats.
Put in Shrubs and Vines
Some of the best shrubs for attracting birds include Canada serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis), partridgeberry (Mitchella repens), common elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) common snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) and the highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum). Robins are attracted to rose hips, the fruit of rugosa roses (Rosa Rugosa).
Birds, like humans, love cherries. Many species will be attracted to a cherry patch, including cedar waxwings, blue jays, crows, orioles and grosbeaks. Popular cherry varieties for birds include the chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), pin cherry (P. pensylvanica) and black cherry (P. serotina). Berries of all kinds are delicious for birds, including raspberries and ground berries.
Vines can be grown at ground level, around trees or up walls. Birds enjoy the fruit of American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens), Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus vitacea) and riverbank grape (Vitis riparia).
Set Up a Feeding Station
While the garden provides natural food and shelter for birds, feeders help when your garden is sparse and insects are few. Shop carefully for feeders that are squirrel-proof, sturdy and can be cleaned easily.
Consider hanging several feeders, each containing different seeds to attract a variety of birds. Seed-feeding birds such as cardinals, blue jays, finches and sparrows will enjoy black-oil sunflower seeds. Suet will draw species such as woodpeckers. Niger seeds will attract smaller birds, including songbirds and finches. If you choose to put out a hummingbird feeder, remember it needs to be cleaned every two to three days, and more often in warm weather, to avoid fermented syrup and ants.
Feeders can be decorative as well as functional, adding art to the outdoors. From indoors, they can be a source of endless fascination. Keep feeders away from windows though, as birds may be injured banging into reflective glass.
It's important to fill feeders through the winter, especially during cold spells, since birds come to rely on this food source. Never disinfect feeders using commercial cleansers, as they’re toxic to birds. Instead, use hot water and scrub well. Air dry prior to filling to reduce the risk of mould formation.
Assemble a Bird Bath
Fresh water is important to birds, so add a birdbath to the garden. Take care that the bath is shallow (less than 6 cm deep) with sloping sides so birds can wade into it. Rough surfaces are best. A few rocks may serve as perches. Birdbaths should be cleaned at least twice a week using a stiff-bristled brush. (This keeps the water fresh and also helps minimize mosquito populations.) Again, as with feeders, avoid the use of disinfectants or strong chemicals.
Birds are attracted to the sound of running water, so consider the addition of a fountain or bubbler. (The sound is soothing for human visitors to your garden too.) Robins, especially, enjoy water because they bathe more often than most birds, about twice daily. They have excessive oil production and must rid their feathers of these oils before the feathers clump.
Take care to place the birdbath in a sunny location, away from dense shrubs and trees where stray cats can hide in waiting.
It isn’t difficult to design a bird garden. Chances are, you have some elements already. An added benefit is that birds prefer green space that is a tad messy rather than pristine and well manicured, so it helps to be a little lazy. A garden for the birds can be a great excuse to sit back, relax, grab a cool drink and, well, do a little bird watching.
Julianne Labreche is a freelance writer and garden enthusiast who volunteers as a Master Gardener in Ottawa-Carleton.