Birds are an integral part of any garden. Those that overwinter bring us color and companionship during the drabbest and coldest months of the year. Their arrival in spring heralds the growing season. They are important allies in the garden with their voracious appetites for insect pests. A house wren, in a single afternoon, can eat 500 beetles, grubs and insect eggs. Sixty percent of a chickadees winter diet consists of aphid eggs. A single swallow will eat more than 1000 leafhoppers in a day. Provide food, water, cover and nesting sites to attract an abundance of birds to your garden.
Bird feeders provide crucial sources of food during winter, droughts, and under other conditions when natural sources of food are low. Provide food at a variety of locations, near cover such as a tree or shrub. For ground feeders such as juncos and mourning doves, place a tray feeder near the ground, while for others that prefer their food higher up, such as finches and chickadees, place hanging feeders or seed tubes in trees or on poles.
Bird seed is widely available from big box home improvement centers, local lawn and garden suppliers, to even grocery stores. All common seed-eating birds will be attracted by either white proso millet, which is preferred by grounder feeders, or black sunflower seeds. For a wider variety of birds, your menu should include niger thistle for finches and peanut kernels for white tufted titmice and chickadees.
Provide suet during the winter months as it fat content helps birds maintain their body heat, especially if you want to attract woodpeckers. Hang suet in a specially designed wire trap or a mesh bag, or dip pine cones in rendered beef fat and then hang from branches. Cut fruit in half and place on tree branches to attract robins, tanagers and orioles. Consider growing a row of sunflowers, sorghum or millet as a food source just for birds.
Hummingbirds are a delight to behold. They require special feeders that dispense sugar water. While this syrupy solution provides a quick boost, hummingbirds require a natural source of nectar, such as bee balm, honeysuckle, trumpet vine, or fuchsias. To fill your hummingbird feeders, mix 4 parts boiled water to 1 part sugar. Do not use artificial sweeteners, as they are either harmful or lack nutrients, and don’t use honey, as it can foster fungal growth. Prevent mold from developing in your hummingbird feeders by cleaning them with very hot water, and refill them every 3-4 days.
In a healthy environment, birds get all the water they need from their food, dew or rain, but a reliable source of water will attract them to your yard, and is vital during drought and the winter months or in arid regions. Provide water in a shallow pan or birdbath, in the open, at least 3 feet off the ground and no deeper than 3 inches, with cover nearby such as shrubs or overhanging branches. Birds are drawn to the sound of moving water, so hang a dripping hose or a can or jug with a hole in it over the birdbath, or purchase a fountain. Winter is a particularly difficult time for birds to find fresh drinking water, so include an immersion water heater in your birdbath to keep it from freezing. They are readily available online or from stores that cater to bird watchers.
Birds need shelter from predators and weather extremes and for nesting. Each species has its own requirements. Mourning doves prefer evergreens, while other species prefer dense and twiggy shrubs. Attract birds by adding nest sites to your garden with the addition of bird houses. Different species have different nesting needs, but a variety of bird houses are readily available for purchase or to construct yourself. Buy or build a bird house that is weather-resistant, with a pitched roof to shed rain, and with holes in the bottom for drainage and in the walls for ventilation. Place bird houses with their entrances facing away from prevailing winds and clean them out after each nesting season.
All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening: The Indispensable Resource for Every Gardner, Fern Marshall Bradley and Barbara W Ellis, Editors