Birds can contribute wonderful things to the enjoyment of a landscape, such as movement, color, sounds and even pest control. The presence of birds is almost universally welcome among gardeners. Gardeners can even go so far as to design and plant landscapes that are particularly attractive to birds. Some people are motivated to do this because of the increasing of the loss of natural habitat facing many bird species.
So, what can we do to encourage birds to live in our landscapes? The primary features the environment must provide to invite birds into the landscape are shelter, nesting sites, food and water.
Although people often provide food and water for birds, shelter and nesting sites should not be overlooked. Difficulty in finding natural shelter near the food and water sources you supply may tempt birds to look elsewhere for a more promising environment. If you can provide a place for birds to nest, you’ll have the pleasure of seeing them frequently at close range and have the advantage of allies in insect control.
Each species shows a strong preference for the specific elevation at which it feeds and nests. This is apparent in natural forests where some birds sing and feed in the high canopy level but nest in the lower canopy. Others may feed on the ground, nest in shrubs and sing from the highest trees. These bird movements demonstrate that a multilevel planting design is important.
Adding levels to a plant community increases surface area by creating more leaves, stems, nooks and crannies on which birds can nest, feed and sing. The use of various-sized shrubs and small as well as larger trees planted in masses or groups will achieve this in a landscape design.
Shelter for nesting may also be provided with birdhouses or bird boxes. These human-made structures, if properly done to specific dimensions and located in the right spot, can provide nesting sites for birds that would rarely find suitable sites in urban areas. Birds that nest in the cavities of dead trees, for instance, will find few sites available because dead trees are quickly removed from urban landscapes. Bird houses, however, can attract birds such as the purple martin, house finch, woodpeckers, robin and Eastern bluebird.
If birds ignore the houses you’ve installed for them, make sure you have done everything correctly on the dimensions and location of the house, and then be patient. A brand-new house may be viewed at first with suspicion. Once it’s weathered a bit, birds are more likely to accept it. Fall is a good time to put up bird houses because they would have some time to weather before the birds start to use them next spring.
Include plants in your landscape that produce fruit that birds will eat such as hollies, cherry laurel and hawthorns wherever possible. Native fruiting plants are particularly desirable because our native bird species are accustomed to eating the fruit of native plants.
Putting out bird feeders is another option for attracting birds into the landscape. When setting up a feeding station, be sure you are willing to make a commitment to maintain a dependable food supply and to keep the health and safety of the birds in mind. Place feeders high enough so that domestic cats cannot attack the birds while they are feeding. When suitable, place them near windows for maximum viewing pleasure.
Attracting hummingbirds can be as easy as hanging a feeder, but because many hummingbirds are not accustomed to using feeders, it’s not always successful. Many gardeners have found that planting a garden full of hummingbird-attracting plants, in addition to maintaining feeders, is a surefire method for successfully attracting hummers. Feeders are most effective when located within view of flowers that attract hummingbirds.
Water is not food, but it can make a feeding station more attractive. By providing water, which birds use for both drinking and bathing, you may encourage birds to stay in your yard. Many commercial bird baths are available, but you can use almost any shallow container so they can drink or bathe.
If you’d like to learn more about birds and how to invite them into your landscape, I recommend the book “Attracting Birds to Southern Gardens” (Taylor Publishing; $24.95) by Thomas Pope, Neil Odenwald and Charles Fryling. It’s a handbook and identification guide geared specifically to our region, as well as one designed to tell readers how to create their own gardens to attract birds, especially songbirds.