by Terry Kramer
It is a dim January afternoon when the sun rides low across a cold southern sky and my garden becomes deep with shadows and noise, a chiaroscuro crawling alive with birds. Most of them peck from two cylindrical feeders dangling from an old grey apple tree. When the birds are full of seed, they scatter like windblown leaves to other parts of the garden, foraging for weed seeds, sprouts and insects.
Having a garden for the birds is a beautiful and natural way to control pests. Did you know that three-fourths of the western meadowlark's diet is primarily insects? The diminutive little house wren eats caterpillars, grasshoppers, spiders and anything else crawling about. Even the much-scorned starling eats harmful garden pests, including snails. So do red-winged blackbirds.
North Coast naturalist and bird enthusiast Ron LeValley is a member of the local Audubon Society who likes to attract a variety of birds to his garden throughout the year. Many of the seed-eating birds consume garden insects, as well as seeds, he says.
"Seed-eaters like the sparrows shift to a diet of insects during the breeding season, and they feed their young insects, even though they eat seeds during most of the winter.
"If you are providing habitat for seed-eating birds, you will attract other birds. Chickadee flocks will eat sunflower seeds from your feeder, but with the chickadee flock will be kinglets and warblers. They feed strictly on insects." LeValley says that robins, the varied thrush and the shy Swainson's thrush "will definitely eat snails."
Attracting birds to your garden involves more than just setting out a bird feeder. Birds want water, LeValley says.
"The single most effective way to get birds into the garden is water, like a little bird bath, or a little pond, a little puddle, or something like that. Even better is some sort of dripping so they (the birds) hear it and get attracted.
"You can do it as crudely as having a hole in the bottom of a bucket with a piece of cloth stuck in the hole so that it drips a little," he suggests.
"Or, you can trickle a garden hose, or you can have a little fountain with a circulating pump."
Using water to attract birds to the garden is natural and can satisfy those who believe that feeding them is artificial.
"The sound of water will attract birds and that is something you can do without environmental consequences. Some people think that if you are feeding birds, you may be changing the local habitat, that you might be artificially changing the local populations. But water is something you can do without any environmental consequences," he says.
Birds need protection from cats and hawks, so providing shelter is vital, LeValley cautions.
"You need some sort of cover because the birds are not going to come to a wide-open area. Some will, but you will get a lot more if there is some cover where the birds can kind of sneak in and out so they feel safe when they approach and depart from the water," he explains.
LeValley says cats, both feral and domestic, are responsible for killing four million songbirds a year in North America. A good way to create a safe haven for birds is to plant a few native plants for shelter and food. Although birds like many landscape ornamentals, native plants are best.
Among the many native shrubs and trees that you can plant in your garden to attract birds are currant, gooseberry, elderberry, salmonberry, huckleberry, Oregon grape, salal, western service berry, toyon and manzanita. They are shrubby plants that birds love. If you have the room for native trees, try vine and big leaf maple, alder, oak, madrone, pine, myrtle, hemlock, spruce and fir.
And you do not need to re-landscape your yard with natives, LeValley points out. "If you are in an area where there is a lot of ornamental planting around, you can make a little island of native shrubbery and then you have a chance to attract more of the native species of birds," he suggests.
Adding a few native plants to your yard encourages bird populations to flourish, says LeValley. "If you do have native plants in the yard, then you can be making a positive impact on bird populations because we have taken a lot of the native habitat away. So the more native habitat we can have anywhere, the better off our local wildlife populations are."
LeValley suggests using a variety of seed and types of feeders if you want to attract several species.
"There are a lot of different kinds of birds out there are they all do not eat the same king of seed. The wild bird seed in 50-pound sacks has a variety of seed," he says.
If you want to attract chickadees, siskins, gold finches, house finches and grosbeaks, use black oil sunflower seed in feeders. Suet feeders will attract woodpeckers and many insect eating birds, LeValley says.
And don't use just one kind of feeder in one location, LeValley advises. "Put the seed in a variety of places. For example, at our house we have a couple of bird tables, pieces of wood we throw seed on. Sparrows like bird tables. Chickadees and finches like hanging feeders."
Birds offer color, life and vitality to a garden. Your landscape can host the orange black-headed grosbeaks, satin and seductive cedar waxwings, melodious western meadowlarks. Flocks of the impish ruby-crowned kinglets and black-capped chickadees will sweep through your yard, gleaning aphids from shrubs and trees.
To learn how to identify the birds in your area, call the Audubon Society's bird newsline at 826-7031.
Terry Kramer is a Bayside free-lance writer who specializes in gardening and horticulture.
The North Coast Journal Table of Contents