Birds in the Garden

What is a garden without birds? A garden is supposed to be filled with bird songs and the whir of wings. This is what lifts the heart and is a major reason that a garden is a place of spiritual rest and joy. They are also your gardening friends because of their voracious appetite for destructive insects. Of course you don't want birds eating your fruit and berries, but hey, that is why they come, of course. They want food, nesting places, water, and refuge from their enemies. So, if you want birds in your garden hopping about looking for bugs, and the sound of songs in the sea of air above us all, then you have got to provide some of the things that birds need and desire, too. Number one is food and water. Everybody knows that birds will come if there is food, but have you thought about what a bird must do to get a drink of clean water? The best place to put a birdbath is under a large tree. They like cool water near a tree where they can easily fly when wet to dry off and preen. They also like good footing, and not too deep. Think chickens, not ducks, so a couple of inches deep of water is fine with rocks or gravel in the bottom. If a few rocks stick up above water level in the middle that is even better so the butterflies can pause and get a drink on the edge, also. My most exciting bird viewings have come at my birdbath outside my kitchen window. Last year I had two pair of bluebirds coming to the birdbath at the same time, not once but numerous times. I saw my first pair of Painted Buntings, a Thrush, and a whole flock of Yellow Bellied Blackbirds, not counting all the Song Sparrows, Purple Martins, finches, Mockingbirds, and my little loud bubbling annual visitor, the Carolina Wren.

During nesting time, keep a spot of mud, and you will attract all sorts of swallows and Martins that use it to stick together the bottom of their nests. Some birds are not desirable, especially in the spring, because they nest in colonies, make a horrible mess, and chase away all your shyer song birds.

Boat tailed Grackles are one of the worst. They are aggressive, noisy, and will sometimes even eat the babies of other birds. Scare away the scouts that come in the spring and they will not nest in your yard. A rat snake is a wonderful friend in the garden, but they can also climb trees and poles, and won't hesitate to eat baby birds and eggs. To keep them out of your Purple Martin house tie soft fabric netting, such as made for bridal veils, around the pole. Tie it on the top, and leave it loose around the bottom. The netting is available anywhere fabric is sold. Your hungry rat snake friend will get tangled up in the netting without hurting it, and you can release him to go under the house and catch rats instead. (By the way, keeping friendly snakes around the house will help keep poisonous snakes away, as they will keep the populations of mice and rats down around your home and out-buildings.)

Hummingbirds are magical in the garden and fascinate young and old alike. Any tubular flowers will attract them, especially red and pink flowers, but they also will go after many other flowers like zinnias, but roses do not have what they need, and hummingbirds won't feed at them. Plant Cherry Sage, Turks Cap, Red Yucca, Aloe Vera, Cuphea, Pride of Barbados, Penstemon, Pink Skullcap, Purple Coneflower, Shrimp Plant, Texas Betony, Agastache, and Tropical Sage for starters, and just watch them come! Most people do not know that hummingbirds also eat lots of flying insects. I recently read of a great idea in a "Birds n Blooms" magazine. A reader wrote that each spring she spread a cheap red plastic table cloth on her yard, pinned down the corners, and in the middle she planted a shepherd's crook with a hummingbird feeder hanging on it. Any hummingbird flying over could easily see it and stop in for a drink. She soon had lots of hummingbirds visiting her feeders. They come back annually to the same good places they found in the past to nest and feed, so over a few years you will have multitudes of hummers flying about if you encourage them. Hummingbirds also love water. They are tropical birds after all. I have seen them feeding in a pouring rain no different than if the sun was bright and shining. They will play in water sprinklers, and love to fly through misters. They visit my birdbath and love to bathe and also take long drinks of water. It seems hummingbirds are thirsty creatures.

To feed caterpillar eaters like Cardinals plant a row of cilantro, dill, or parsley in your garden. Soon you'll have lots of black and white striped swallowtail butterfly larvae eating on it, and just as soon as they get big and fat, the mockingbirds, robins, and cardinals will have a feast. I once had a mockingbird follow me around the garden as I planted things because I would throw out grubs for it to eat. An easier way is to put out mealworms in a dish. You can buy these at pet stores. You'll have fun watching many song birds come to your picnic. To attract fruit eaters like Orioles put out dishes of grape or orange marmalade. Birds also need nesting sites. Not all birds make the same nests, nor nest in the same trees. Some are tall tree nesters, but many song birds only nest in shrubs. I have a little woodland area near my house facing a wildflower meadow that I maintain just for them, and it has rewarded me with many of the shyer, more rare songbirds.

Birds each have their own nest zone height, and the same species will need space between themselves, but not mind nesting near another species. For instance you can make Wood Duck boxes with a smaller Prothonotary Warbler box on the backside, but you can't place your Wood Duck/warbler condos too near another Wood Duck/warber condo. This brings us to making birdhouses. Birds are picky about their birdhouses. The house has to be placed at the right height, have the correct sized and shaped hole, and the correct depth and width inside, and the correct perch or none at all! You can get the specs online for all different birdhouses for many tree-hole songbirds. This is a great nature project to do with the kids and see how many birds you can get to fill your birdhouses.

Purple Martins are a special case, and the apartments are more complicated to make yourself. Lightweight aluminum ones with good ventilation that you can raise and lower to maintain (which means throwing out house sparrow nests) work very well. The best is supposed to be white plastic gourds that you can dangle from poles out in the open. They make them to spec with big bowls inside so the martins have lots of room and ventilation. The biggest mistake people make is to place the apartments too close to trees and buildings. The birds will not nest in them if there is an obstruction to their flight pattern as they swoop into the houses without slowing down. Give at least 40 feet in all directions and you'll soon have the cheery birds calling out Zertzee! greeting you as they fly and swoop around your head. Like I said before, birds are magic. What is a garden without birds?