Plant It and They Will Come: The EcoBeneficial Bird Garden

Kim Eierman

Kim Eierman

Founder of EcoBeneficial!

Available for virtual and in-person landscape consulting, talks and classes.

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Flickr_Cedar Wax_Juniperus

Plant It and They Will Come: The EcoBeneficial Bird Garden

Approximately two-thirds of the bird species found in the U.S. are migrating birds. Some migrants travel great distances while others don’t go far at all. The farthest travelers are the neo-tropical migrants which breed in the U.S. in the warmer seasons and then travel to Mexico, Canada , South America, or the Caribbean to overwinter. When they return in the Spring they are hungry, tired, and preparing to breed. You can provide them with much needed resources by planting a bird-friendly EcoBeneficial Garden.

A bird-friendly garden must provide the “Big 4:” Food, Cover, Nesting Sites, and Water.

Natural food sources from plants will be the most nutritious food for birds, providing them with the balanced diet they need. Different species of birds have different food needs. The basic categories by bird diet are: Gramnivores (seed-eaters), Frugivores (fruit-eaters), Carnivores (flesh-eaters), Nectavores (nectar-eaters) Insectavores (insect-eaters) and Omnivores (those which have a mixed diet).

Here are some examples of birds and native plants which they love.  Goldfinches are seed-eaters and they adore the seeds of Coneflowers (Echinacea species).  Cedar Waxwings are fruit-eaters and love the purply-red berries of Juneberries (Amelanchier species). Hummingbirds are nectar-eaters and enjoy our native Honeysuckle (Lonicera species). Red-Tailed Hawks are carnivores and eat (you know what) little birdies, small mammals, etc. You can support hawks by providing large canopy trees.  Don’t get upset when you see a hawk eating a song-bird – remember that nature is a food web and everyone needs to eat.

Because 96% of our terrestrial (non-water) birds feed insects to their young, it is critically important that you plant native trees, shrubs and perennials which support insects (the food web again!).  Most of our native trees and shrubs do a good job of supporting insects, our native oaks being some of the most beneficial.

Cover and nesting sites can be different for different types of birds.  With regard to nests, there are birds which are ground nesters, some which prefer to nest in shrubs, others which nest in tree cavities, some birds which nest in understory (smaller) trees and other birds which will only nest in very tall canopy trees.

Take your cue from the nature which you see in your region to figure out what layers exist in nature and then emulate them in your garden.  In theNorthEast, forest layers are appropriate in most situations, in much of the SouthWest, layers seen in the desert would be appropriate.  Keep in mind that evergreen trees and shrubs can be highly valuable as cover for birds trying to escape predators, especially in the winter.

Water is the one resource which birds have the hardest time finding for themselves, and the one resource which most gardeners often forget to provide.  When you select a bird bath
(I suggest that you get several), choose one which has a sloping edge, not a deep edge, so that smaller birds have easy access to the water without falling in.  If you can only find a deep bird bath, place some medium-sized stones in the middle of it to give the little birds a safe way to access the water.  And, of course, keep the bird bath clean – swoosh the water out daily and replace with fresh water.  Clean the bird bath thoroughly when algae builds up or the bath looks grungy, so birds don’t get sick.

Just as the “Big 4” are critical to include in a bird-friendly landscape, there is something equally important to exclude, and that is pesticides (which includes pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides).  Pesticides can be particularly deadly when those 96% of terrestrial bird species feed affected insects to their young.

By making appropriate ecological design choices, selecting regionally native plants, and avoiding pesticides, you can create a welcoming, bird-supportive landscape which also improves your overall ecosystem.

For more information about the birds that live in your region, what they eat, where they nest, etc. take a look at the Cornell Ornithology Lab website, which has terrific, comprehensive information: www.birds.cornell.edu

Happy Bird Gardening from Kim Eierman at EcoBeneficial!

Photo: Cedar Waxwing With a Juniper Berry (Juniperus californica)

Photo credit: Flickr/Ingrid Taylar

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