Habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation due to human activity is the leading cause of bird population declines. Birdscaping your garden will create an oasis in a desert of development.
My favorite author, Doug Tallamy (Bringing Nature Home) puts the importance of your birdscaped garden this way:
Now, for the first time in its history, gardening has taken on a role that transcends the needs of the gardener. Like it or not, gardeners have become important players in the management of our nation’s wildlife. It is now within the power of individual gardeners to do something that we all dream of doing: to “make a difference.”
If You Build It They Will Come
Birdscaping is one of the very few activities that truly follows the motto “If you build it, they will come,” and grants immediate gratification.
I’ve seen proof of this over and over in my work designing and installing wildlife gardens. One day I was installing a long waterfall into a pond because my client wanted to provide a water source for the birds. I was just smoothing the liner into the trench when suddenly there was a Black-throated Green Warbler hopping along the waterfall, even though there was no water yet.
Believe me, I got that liner installed, inserted the rocks to create the waterfall and got the water running in record time! And you will experience this as well when you choose to birdscape your garden.
What is Birdscaping?
Birdscaping is arranging your landscape to create welcoming habitats for birds, including rest stops for migrating birds, safe places for breeding birds to raise their young, and food and shelter for winter residents. It is providing for the basic needs of birds through your landscape choices. Birdscaping is much more than putting up a few birdfeeders.
It means planting your garden with a variety of plants that will provide for these needs:
Steps to Creating Your Birdscape
Step One: Take Inventory
Walk around your garden and make a map. Draw in the plants you already have, the trees, shrubs, and perennials. Draw in your lawn, seating areas, barbeque, compost pile, etc. Add driveways, paved areas, garden sheds, and patios.
Don’t worry, this is not an art contest, just a simple sketch will do. An easy way to do this is to take a series of photos of your garden through the seasons. Use a Sharpie to identify the plants in each picture. Mark the shady areas and the sunny spots. Where does the water collect when it rains?
Step Two: Remove Invasive Plants
Before we talk about best plants for Birdscaping it is very important to know what NOT to plant. Invasive plants are destroying habitat across the country. Drive through Cape May, NJ and see the Porcelain Berry covering the trees and shrubs. In the Mid-Atlantic States we’ve got Paulownia, Bradford pear, and Norway Maples outcompeting native plants in woodland ecosystems. In the south kudzu is spreading like a plague. In the Southwest Tamarisk is literally sucking all of the water out of riparian streams.
Multiflora rose, Japanese Honeysuckle, Oriental Bittersweet, Purple Loosestrife, and many more are wreaking havoc across the country. The cost of trying to control these invasives is staggering. Every year we taxpayers pay 138 billion dollars in a seemingly futile attempt to keep these species from destroying more habitat, only to have to pay it again the following year.
Do not purchase or plant anything that is invasive in your area. Do a search on the phrase “invasive plants + your state” and print that list out. Carry it with you every time you shop for your garden. Do not purchase anything on that list.
If you have any of these invasive plants in your garden, remove them now. You’ll gain valuable space to add more native plants, and you will be rewarded by no longer spending so much time and energy keeping these invasives under control.
Step Three: Make a Plan
Putting plants in the right place will save you money and time. From your map you can see what conditions are present in each area of your garden. You’ve already identified the sunny and shady spots. You know where the wet spots are and the dry spots, and now you’re going to choose plants that are right for these conditions. A little homework now will save you much frustration later.
It’s so easy to go to the nursery and be seduced by a pretty plant, which we spontaneously buy without thinking about how big it will get or how much sun it needs. Too often we act impulsively, only to find out that we’ve put that plant in the wrong place.
Where can you reduce your lawn? Lawns provide very little in the way of habitat for birds. Mowing and blowing use enormous amounts of fossil fuels and create air pollution (not to mention noise pollution). They require the use of toxic chemicals and excess amounts of water. You can reduce the negative impacts of this by making your lawn smaller, or even eliminating it entirely.
Take some time now to sketch out your new bird-friendly garden. Remember you do not have to implement this plan all at once. Pick one area and start with that. Next year do a little more, and so on. The important thing is to start somewhere now.
You want to mimic the structure of the native ecosystems near you. If you live near wooded areas you want a tall tree layer, and understory tree layer, a shrub layer, a flowering plant layer, and a ground cover layer. If you live in the prairie region you will mimic the structure of a natural prairie.
Step Four: Plant Locally Native Plants
Native plants are the best choice in your habitat garden for birds. Why? Because native plants and insects have co-evolved together over thousands of years, and most birds, no matter what they eat as adults need insects to feed their young.
Birds have adapted to eat the fruits, berries, seeds, and nuts of locally native plants. While some exotic plants do have tempting fruits for the birds, often they are too large for birds to swallow. And some invasive plants are spreading out of control because the birds do eat the berries and then deposit those seeds far and wide as they fly around.
Your best bet for creating habitats that support the largest number of birds is to plant a wide variety of native plants that are appropriate to your region. The more natives you’ve got in your garden, the more birds you will see. It really is that simple.
To begin choosing the best plants for your bird-friendly habitat garden you’re going to need to use your search engine again. Search for “PlantNative.org” click the “plants” tab, and enter your state. You will see a list that includes trees, shrubs, sun perennials, and shade perennials.
This list is just the starting point, however. You can also click from this list to find a native plant nursery as well as community resources in your area. These native plant nurseries and organizations are a wonderful resource for finding the best plants to attract birds to your garden. Spend an afternoon chatting with them and you’ll have all the information you need to choose the most appropriate plants for your bird garden.
You are looking for a group of trees and shrubs that have fruits, berries, or nuts through the seasons: some trees provide food in early spring, others late spring, summer, autumn, and winter. The same goes for nectar and seed bearing perennials, you want to provide plants that feed birds through each season.
Step Five: Add Water
There are many ways to provide clean water for birds in your garden, from birdbaths, an overturned trash can lid, a rain garden, or a wildlife pond. You’ll find that several different sources will attract a wider variety of birds. Some will venture to the pond where I’ve place several tree branches and created shallow areas for the birds to use. Others will splash happily in the bird bath, while the hummingbirds fly through the mister, and the Chickadees drink from the “cup” of my Cup Plant (and also the ant well in my hummingbird feeders).
Access to water is particularly important in winter when natural sources may have frozen. There are several ways of doing this, from heated birdbaths, solar sippers, putting out a fresh pan of warm water every few hours, and more. I use a heated dog bowl in which I place a brick so that the water is very shallow, and the Robins, Mockingbirds, and Sparrows line up all winter long to use it.
It’s essential to clean your bird baths every few days, using a scrub brush and adding fresh water, especially during mosquito breeding season. You don’t want to allow these pests the chance to hatch more eggs. Also the birds can really foul the water, so you want to make sure it’s clean.
Step Six: Stop Spraying
Toxic chemicals like pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers are dangerous to birds and also contaminate our streams and waterways. Pesticides can build up in bird’s organs and tissues with every contaminated bug that they eat. When certain levels are reached, these chemicals can interfere with bird reproduction and even cause death.
The best gift you can give to birds and the other wildlife in your garden is to discontinue use of these chemicals. When your garden is full of a wide variety of native plants, you really should not need to use these dangerous substances. If you really must, please find organic, non-toxic alternatives.
Step Seven: Other Features
Build a brush pile by stacking up fallen branches, sticks, and twigs that accumulate in your garden. Brush piles provide great hiding places and shelter for birds.
Every spring I watch the Carolina Wrens, Nuthatches, and Warblers pick through the brush pile in search of insects. And when the House Wrens return and nest in my garden, it is a constant stream of traffic back and forth from the brush pile with insects to feed their hungry offspring.
Plant a living fence to provide food, nesting places, and shelter. This could include small trees and shrubs such as Elderberry, Serviceberry, Holly, Cherry, Dogwood, Blackberry, and more.
Leave some snags or dead trees. Woodpeckers will excavate a new cavity each spring. Other birds will use the old cavities. Insects will move in, providing a feeding bonanza for birds.
My neighbor’s yard has several dead trees. We’ve observed Flickers, Red-Bellied, Downy, and Hairy Woodpeckers making nest holes every year. The trunk is a constant swirl of motion as White-breasted Nuthatches, Brown Creepers, and many Warblers glean for bugs.
Following these 7 steps to birdscaping your wildlife garden will put you well on your way to creating a haven of welcoming habitat for the birds of your area. You will have so much life in your garden, and we’d love to see what you’ve created.
What are your favorite tips for birdscaping your garden?
Carole Sevilla Brown lives in Philadelphia, PA, and she travels the country speaking about Ecosystem Gardening for Wildlife. Check out her new free online course Ecosystem Gardening Essentials, 15 free lessons delivered to your inbox every week.
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