When you have water in your garden, you have extended an invitation for birds to linger. And why not? Color, sound, and movement — birds are the aerial element in your horticultural endeavors. By definition, it can’t be a garden without these fascinating fliers.
However, don’t invite birds for a drink without providing for their other needs — sources of food, shelter, and safety from predators. That’d be like asking your friends to come live visit you on the edge of a barren lake without furnishing meals, a roof over their heads, and cellphone service — not hospitable.
So now, when your yard is in winter mode, get out your gardening wish list and add bird-friendly plants. You wouldn’t plan a big party without a list, so why not start next spring’s garden extravaganza now, when you’ve got some time?
For maximum appeal, think native.
Birds that live in your area have evolved alongside the indigenous plant species. Consider hunting down reputable sources (never dig up in the wild) for the same plants you commonly see in surrounding meadows and woods. As well as supporting local bird populations, natives have those other positive gardening advantages — simple care requirements and low maintenance.
But just because a plant is labeled “native” doesn’t mean it will work for you. Native plants, and the birds they attract, vary widely around the United States.
For instance, Audubon recommends that if you live in the Northeastern part of the country, you should plant trees like Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) which attract bluebirds, purple finches, and evening grosbeaks.
In the Southeast, they suggest Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) to bring Eastern kingbirds, red-bellied woodpeckers, and Northern flickers.
In the central prairies, they tout gray dogwood shrub (Cornus racemosa) [PDF] for Northern cardinals and downy wrens.
If you live in the Western mountains or deserts, try Rocky Mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum), which appeals to cedar waxwings and Northern mockingbirds.
Along the Pacific coast, California live oak (Quercus agrifolia) attracts a wide variety of species, including oak titmouse, western scrub jays, and black-backed chickadees.
When you are planning your list, add a column for ideas about where you could put in natives. Here are a few principles:
– If you site bird-friendly vegetation within 10 to 15 feet of your water source, birds can go into the open for water and then dart again to cover. The open space is important so birds can check for predators.
– If you have a large water feature, messy (but bird-friendly) trees like mulberries or nut trees should be kept well back from the shore line.
– Consider creating a bird hedge along your fence or use as a wall for a garden room. Include in the layers, a variety of plants with thorns or prickly leaves. Hawthorns, barberries — newer varieties are said to be sterile and thus won't spread — or species roses will discourage predators such as cats and raccoons and keep them from invading the birds’ safe areas. For the same reason, I also placed thorny plants under my hanging bird feeder and I have not had a cat-kill there since.
– When planning for birds, be prepared to give up a certain garden neatness in winter. Dead seedheads and standing foliage, such as grasses and flowers, provide much-needed protection. By the following spring, you can tidy your garden knowing that a bit of mess has meant both food and shelter for the overwintering birds that have accepted the invitation you extended when you placed water in your garden.
In my next posts, I’ll talk about adding non-native, but bird-friendly trees, shrubs, and flowers to your winter wish list.
Mary-Kate Mackey, co-author of “Sunset’s Secret Gardens — 153 Design Tips from the Pros” and contributor to the “Sunset Western Garden Book,” writes a monthly column for the Hartley Greenhouse webpage and numerous articles for Fine Gardening, Sunset, and other magazines. She teaches at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism & Communication. She writes about water in the garden for Diggin’ It.
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