Bird-Friendly Gardens

You can grow plants for the birds—or just fill feeders—but either way, they'll love you for it. Birds aren't really hard to figure out—they're like people at a nice resort. Give them a decent buffet, a pool or hot tub to splash around in, and a safe place for the kids, and they'll come back again and again.

Some 60 million people in the United States enjoy watching and feeding birds, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Gardeners in particular play an important role in creating year-round backyard bird habitat by planting trees, shrubs, vines and flowers to provide birds with sources of food and shelter. In return, the birds reward us by gobbling up mosquitoes, grubs, insects, and weed seeds.

If you don't already garden to accommodate birds, now is a terrific time to start. For example, as you prepare your garden for winter, forgo some of your fall cleanup efforts. Instead of deadheading or cutting down seed-bearing plants such as marigolds, asters, and sedums, let them go to seed. House finches love the seeds of coneflowers (Echinacea spp.) and sedums—even dandelions if you're brave enough to let them go to seed! Indigo and painted buntings like goldenrod, thistle, aster, and dandelion seeds. Juncos will eat the seeds of zinnias and cosmos, and lots of birds, including cardinals and red-winged blackbirds, will eat the seeds of sunflowers left standing in the garden.

But as fall turns to winter, natural food sources start to become scarce. When that happens, birds are glad to accept a a friendly food handout from people. By placing bird feeders in our yards, we can supplement birds' wild diets and also experience their cheery looks and songs close up. In addition, backyard bird feeding has helped extend the range of many songbirds, including cardinals and bluebirds.

Below is a brief over-view of what you can do to make your garden a more attractive place for birds, not just in the fall and winter but all year.

Just add water
The single most important thing you can do for birds is to provide water throughout the year with a pond or birdbath.

Birds like ground-level water, but if predators are around, place the bath at least two or three feet above ground. Place the bath near protection such as shrubs or trees so birds can escape when predators threaten, but at the same time, don't locate it in areas where cats can lurk and leap unseen. Provide footing in the birdbath with sand, stones, or branches. Birdbaths in shady areas stay full longer because the water evaporates more slowly.

Birds especially love dripping, splashing, or misting water. You can invest in commercially available drippers or sprayers to provide this surface motion, or you can adopt this low-tech strategy: Punch a small hole in a plastic bucket or tub. Fill the container with water and secure it above your bird bath. Ideally, the container should provide 20 to 30 drips per minute. (You'll need to refill this at least once a day to keep it effective.)

In cold-weather areas, you'll need to break up ice in your birdbath daily in winter or you can buy an immersion heater, plug it into a ground-fault interrupted circuit, and then put the heater in the birdbath. (Don't use glycerin to prevent ice in bird baths. It can mat feathers or even be toxic to birds.)

Finally, be sure to clean your birdbath thoroughly every few days. Don't let algae form or bird droppings build up. Sterilize with a bleach solution of 9 parts water to 1 part liquid chlorine bleach.

Feeder lore
Besides growing bird-friendly plants in your garden, and providing water, setting out bird feeders is the next best way to extend your birding experience. Don't worry about disrupting migration with your feeding. Birds' migratory instincts are too strong for that, says Colorado naturalist Kevin Cook.

Cook is in favor of birdfeeding—provided people observe a few very important tips that will make the experience better for you, and better for the birds.

First, Cook recommends that gardeners use plants to provide birds with sources of food and shelter, and that we use feeders as supplemental food sources only.

That's in part because the denser bird populations around feeders are more susceptible to salmonellosis and other deadly diseases such as avian pox. That's also why it's so important to keep your feeders clean. Once or twice a month, scrub feeders with soapy water, and use a toothbrush to remove all built-up food particles. Then immerse your feeders in a solution of 9 parts water to 1 part liquid chlorine bleach. Rinse and dry completely. (Hummingbird "nectar" feeders should be cleaned the same way every week.) Clean scoops and seed containers, too, and be sure to wash your hands thoroughly after handling feeders and seed. Never use wet or moldy feed and keep seed bins tightly covered to keep out insects and mice.

To minimize competition and contact among birds, each feeder should hold a single type of bird food; blends attract multiple kinds of birds to feeders and increase stress. Place your feeders at different heights to help eliminate overcrowding. (Some birds, such as sparrows, prefer to feed on the ground, while others, such as finches, prefer to perch to select their food.) Put out only enough seed for one day's feeding, preferably between daylight and dusk, says Cook. Fill your feeders at the same time each day.

Locate feeders near sheltered areas such as trees, shrubs, and outbuildings but keep them away from the neighborhood cat's favorite hiding place, or from areas where hawks or snakes may hunt. Also, it's okay to discontinue feeding while on vacation or during the spring and summer. The birds will adapt, says Cook, and they'll come back when you resume feeding.

Pest-proofing your feeders
Anyone who feeds birds eventually encounters aggressive house sparrows or ravenous squirrels. Coping with either means a little innovation.

Allison Wells, a spokesperson for the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, says the key to dealing with sparrows is to select the right kind of birdseed and give them a separate feeding area. Sparrows feed on the ground, so pick a spot away from your main feeder and scatter white millet on the ground. Don't use mixed seed in your feeders because the favored birds will fling the millet and other less-desirable seed on the ground, which just invites the sparrows back to crash the party.

That other birdfeeder nemesis, the squirrel, can—and will—leap across 10 feet to reach a feeder. The search for a squirrel-proof feeder has been long and inventive. Most backyard feeders sport some type of squirrel-proofing, such as baffles; feeders suspended on wires with old circular saw blades or phonograph records strung on either side, or simply cayenne pepper sprinkled liberally through the seed. Other people just give up and feed corn to the squirrels far from their main feeders in the hope that they'll leave the birdseed alone. One trick some people swear by is feeding safflower seed. It's a little more expensive, but many report that squirrels don't like it but birds such as cardinals, finches, wrens, chickadees, and titmice do.

Join Project FeederWatch
You can become a "citizen scientist" and help your feathered friends through a fun and easy bird monitoring project—Project Feeder Watch—a winter-long nationwide survey of North American birds conducted by bird watchers. You just count the birds at your backyard feeders from November through March, report your results, and help collect reliable data for research, conservation, and education efforts. You'll learn more about the birds in your area, too.

Image: Getty Images