Your backyard and garden can be a habitat, an oasis for birds. If you offer water, food in all four seasons, and shelter, you will see a broad range of birds. In the “wilds” of the pacific Northwest there are over 500 species of birds.
Birds need water to drink and also to bathe and keep their feathers in shape. The easiest way to provide birds with a reliable water supply is with a birdbath. It should not be more than 1-1/2 to 3 inches deep with gently sloping sides. It should have a rough surface, so birds have secure footing. The bath should be kept clean, with frequent hosing, and even soap, every month to prevent disease. Locate the birdbath in an open space so that cats can’t stalk and attack birds. There should be secure shelter close by such as trees and shrubs.
Bird habitat has been relentlessly reduced by development and deforestation throughout North America and also in the wintering habitats of central and South America. The amount of food and cover available for birds has had an impact on bird populations. Backyard gardeners can help address the food problem in two ways.
Add Native and Bird-Attracting Plants to Your Garden
The less costly approach is to plant 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 the 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. Include plants that produce seeds and fruits far 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. 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 a source of 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. You can also plant sunflower and millet specifically for their seed heads.
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 spread your feeders out across a wide area to reduce overcrowding. You can stock each feeder with a different type of food to attract different kinds of birds. (For example, chickadees love sunflower seeds, gold finches love thistle seed, and woodpeckers love suet.). Clean feeders and the wastes around them frequently. I recommend cleaning feeders each week, or twice a month. 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 from predators.
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. 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. Trees should include both deciduous and coniferous types. 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 spruce seeds in the upper canopy, to the woodpeckers, 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. Use your imagination in planning your landscape to increase diversity of habitat, and bird populations.
Most scented flowers attract insects, and this means that your yard will attract birds that eat insects. You can have a fragrant yard, as well as one that is really great habitat. Among your choices for insect-attracting flowers, choose some that bloom during the spring migrations. Then you will be sure to get birds on their way through town, headed north.
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. 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.
When making plant decisions for your yard you should add plants that attract beneficial insects to your garden. 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. To cope with slugs you can sprinkle the non-toxic, and very effective, “Sluggo,” which is made from iron phosphate that damages slugs’, but is not harmful to birds and wildlife, or to pets.
- Pacific NW Birder (Blog)
- Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (feeder suggestions)
- Seattle Audubon Society (native plant list to attract PNW birds)
- CornellLab of Ornithology Project FeederWatch (Id PNW Birds)
- The Bird Guide
- Birds of the Pacific Northwest
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