One of the key reasons people love to garden is the principle that living things infuse an area with energy.
With that in mind, adding birds to the mix can take the entire atmosphere to the proverbial next level, giving gardeners and those who choose simply to enjoy the efforts associated with gardening a new source of joy and satisfaction.
The good news is that creating a garden atmosphere where birds are welcome is a relatively simply task. Start by thinking about what they need food, cover and water and you'll begin to get the picture.
The bad news is that for most back yards, there is work to do, the typical suburban landscape, with its close-cropped lawns tightly pruned shrubs and such looking more like an unfriendly desert to birds. In short, no nesting places, no food to eat and very few places to hide.
A first start might be to deal with the food issue.
Putting in an assortment of plant species that provide seeds, berries, nuts or other food throughout the year is important, the added benefit being the provision of shady, leafy nesting sites in the spring and summer. Flower gardens can also offer a place for birds to eat and stay hidden.
When choosing those most likely to provide the most food for birds, think deciduous plants that lose their leaves in winter. Besides bearing the most fruit, nuts and seeds, they are more likely to offer year-round shelter, places for breeding in addition to the natural shelter.
But before you start planting, think about what's already there. Make a rough map of your property with notations on it as to what's already there (a reference book for identification may be helpful at this point) and additional notes as to sun exposure and shade patterns. Once the inventory is done, you'll be in a good position to know what plants are good providers of food and what's missing.
If more are needed, native fruit trees, shrubs and vines are options to consider, especially considering that wide expanses of turf grass serve to attract so-called "generalist" species such as feral pigeons, starlings, cowbirds and grackles' which compete with more desirable songbirds.
If this sounds like it might be a time-consuming process, you're right. Trying to make the transformation overnight can be frustrating, so think gradual, even planning to take several planting seasons to do what needs to be done. Using the notes you've made as a guide, think about the one or two areas that would make a big difference the first year, such as adding berry-producing shrubs and ground covers around an existing tree.
Also on the issue of food, consider organic gardening as a basis for attracting birds. The fact is that insects are more likely to be around organic gardens and you'll be going a long way to maintaining a natural and environmentally healthy ecosystem by taking stock of what nature is already doing.
Birds will do their part to control garden pests, giving the organic gardener an economic as well as environmental edge (the savings coming in part from not having to buy expensive chemicals).
When insects abound (which they will when you don't kill them with chemicals), birds will typically follow, especially if you plant brightly colored flowers and fruit-bearing vegetation. Hummingbirds are especially fond of red and orange flowers and migrating birds will also find the red appealing enough to stop along the way.
Timing is important as well. Plants native to the area will have their fruit and berries ripen on a schedule that coincides with natural nesting practices and migration or during winter months. They're also typically 'right sized' for birds to eat.
When designing a garden layout for birds, consider the spacing between trees and shrubs as well as the preferred combination of open areas and thick cover. You'll want to factor in the degree of seclusion and protection from wind as well, offering protection from street noise, another way to appeal to birds.
Birds also like layers in the landscape, made possible by putting in clusters of shade-loving small trees and other vegetation under taller trees. Take a walk in any area woodlands for an idea of what nature has already done.
The tidy gardener may not like the thought, but birds will appreciate a little messiness, in the form of a brush pile in an out of the way location. You'll also want to consider preserving dead trees, the large dead branches and stumps being excellent bird attractors, thanks to the insects and larvae that accompany them, and the natural nesting sites they offer.
On the issue of water - one of those basic needs besides food and shelter - planning for birds means understanding what's appealing (and what's not).
Birds generally are wary of water that is more than two to three inches deep, meaning a shallow, rough-bottomed pool of still water is a good choice, with a few stones emerging from the water for smaller birds and butterflies to land.
Textured materials for birdbaths, streams and pools could be sand, stone, pebbles and concrete.
As most songbirds can't swim, shallow water with sure footing, ideally in a spot in a clearing, is their first choice, especially since they can keep an eye out for predators and have time to fly for cover.
Choices for water abound, but there some things to consider, either from a practicality standpoint (near a faucet for refilling a bird bath) or from the perspective of the birds (a dripping hose or waterfall creates the sound of gently moving water birds enjoy).
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