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According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, enjoying birds ranks second only to gardening as America's favorite pastime. Chances are that the garden you've planted for your aesthetic enjoyment has many elements that are attractive to bird life as well.
For starters, simply by creating densely concentrated plantings you are providing an oasis for birds—the contrast between your garden and the surrounding landscape is undoubtedly striking.
Enjoying birds ranks second only to gardening as America's favorite pastime.
The work you put into making your garden healthy (soil amendments, regular watering and fertilizer) raises the health of your plants and, by extension, the quality of life for a variety of bird species.
In sparsely vegetated parts of the country, even a garden of few plants looks like a good place for a bird to call home. And birds aren't picky about garden styles the way we humans are—whether your personal aesthetic espouses wildflower chaos, regimented perennial borders or something in between, chances are good that the birds will come flocking to your garden.
That said, there are some things to be aware of if you want to attract a lot of birds to your garden. When birds come to check out your garden real estate they are looking for three things: food, water and shelter. After you've finished this article, you should be able to look at your garden and see what's already perfect and what needs improvement from the birds' perspective.
Winter is a good time to supplement bird diets because the shortened days cut down on the time birds have to find enough food to get them safely through the long winter nights. The general suggestion is to use all-black sunflower seed and millet or thistle, which takes care of pretty much all birds who are either permanent residents or who might migrate to your area in the winter time.
One of the best ways to augment that seed is to plant trees, shrubs, and perennials that provide a variety of winter meals—either through fruit or seed.
Persistent fruit is a term used to describe fruit that holds on to stems long after it matures. While sometimes initially unpalatable to birds, through winter's freezes and thaws this fruit becomes an accessible food. Crabapples, Barberries, Sumacs, Hollies, Mahonias and Viburnams all provide an abundance of berries for birds.
When planting a garden for birds, think about choosing trees and shrubs whose fruit comes into maturity at different times of the year:
Birds also enjoy the seeds produced by a variety of perennials in the garden. For good seed-producing perennials, look to flowering plants, such as Aster, Gaillardia, Echinacea, Helianthus maximiliana, Rudbeckia, California Poppy, Solidago, Marigolds, Phlox, Salvia, and Zinnia varieties. Ornamental grasses, such as Andropogon, Festuca, and Miscanthus varieties, will also attract birds. Dandelions and thistles also produce good seed for birds. Remember that if you are a vigilant fall pruner you're removing seedheads that would be an asset in attracting birds to your winter garden.
Different birds like to feed at different heights, and the best way to determine proper feeder location for your yard is through trial and error. Remember, however, that birds don't like frequent dramatic changes in feeder position.
One suggestion is to put feeders in two (or more) separate locations. That way you can take advantage of environmental variations in your garden (clearings, low shrubs or dense trees) and it will mitigate the unruly behavior that is often seen at bird feeders—it will not be possible for one enterprising (greedy) individual to commandeer all the food supplies.
Many people focus on feeding and forget that, especially in dry western climates, water attracts birds more readily than anything else.
Another factor to consider when placing bird feeders is weather. In harsher weather conditions, birds prefer more sheltered locations. Wind can be unpleasant for both the birds and you (as you'll spend a lot of time sweeping up seed cast by buffeted feeders).
A word of caution: once you start providing seed for birds, you'll need to continue throughout the cold season. It will be difficult to convince birds to return to your feeders if they often run dry, and there's always the chance that some birds will stop looking to natural food sources if they get used to feeder life.
Many people focus on feeding and forget that, especially in dry western climates, water attracts birds more readily than anything else. Even those birds that don't prefer the birdseed you supply can be coaxed into enjoying a quick dip. Birds need water for drinking and bathing, but water also provides a good source of food, as flying insects will become trapped by water's surface tension.
There are many ways to introduce water elements into your garden that are both practical and aesthetically pleasing. Birdbaths are available in every shape and size, from ceramic saucers to naturally eroded river rocks to elaborate concrete pedestals. In the wintertime, an immersion heater is essential to prevent constant freezing—the primary goal of your artificial water supply is reliability when all other sources are frozen. For the more adventurous, make an attractive water garden with fish, plants and a recirculating pump all working together to keep the water clean. Whatever water supply you decide on, the key is fresh, clean water.
Lastly, most birds actually prefer a trickling water source. It's easy to set up a moving water element—take a hose with a drip attachment (or even a bucket with a hole punched in the side towards the bottom) and hang it in a tree over your birdbath. The sound of moving water is incredibly appealing to birds—they'll be lining up with soft cotton towels over their wings, waiting for a turn in the shower.
Birds need shelter for a variety of different reasons, and if you put thought into meeting all their sheltering needs they will return again and again—maybe even to set up a nest. In the summertime, birds need shelter from the sun. In the wintertime and early spring, they need protection from the wind, rain and cold. Year round, the kinds of birds that will frequent your garden might need protection from raptors. Low, dense shrubs planted near your bird feeders provide good protection from the occasional hawk overhead. Shrubs for shelter should have dense branching and lots of leaves.
Birds love vines on the sides of houses for the same reason. Planting Virginia Creeper and Boston Ivy help you take advantage of the vertical space in your garden and provide camouflage for small songbirds.
There's one more predator that might be stalking your garden—the neighbor's cat. Woody plants with thorns like barberries and roses are a good refuge from feline prowlers. If you do have a cat problem, you'll need to concentrate any bird feeders far enough away from sturdy tree branches that might support and conceal a predatory cat. Few cats are able to catch birds out in the open.
Remember that deciduous trees might be great protection in the summertime, but evergreens offer year round protection from sun, elements, and predators. Stout needled conifers like the numerous Picea (spruce) series (including Colorado Blue Spruce), Austrian Pine and Bosnian Pine offer excellent refuge from cats or raptors.
The last reason to provide adequate shelter in your garden is the most pleasant—nesting. Trees and shrubs for nesting should have branches that can support a nest, a condition created by a dense branching structure. You can also encourage nesting by contributing to a bird's supply of nesting materials—supply straw, pieces of string, horse or dog hair, twigs, and cotton by filling a net bag (like those used for produce) and hanging it from a tree.
The best thing about gardening for the birds is that you can fill two desires with one feature—finding plants and water sources that appeal both to you and the larger bird population. There is nothing like looking out the window in the dark of winter and seeing signs of life.
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