Birds in the Garden

We have a simple philosophy: Every plant looks better with a bird or butterfly on it. Therefore, we have made a point of selecting plants that provide nectar, seed, or shelter for birds and the like. We are slow to deadhead or prune, allowing the songbirds to come along later for snacks (the current favorite of the goldfinches are the seeds of our Agastache); likewise, we are slow to rake, giving ground feeding birds such as towhees a chance to come clean up what's left - as well as uncover the occasional tasty bug.

We usually supplement these gardening practices with feeders; we find the noisy ruckus caused by birds at a feeder often attract other birds, convincing them this garden must be a popular restaurant - and that there are other birds helping look out for predators. On the other hand, we've found that hummingbird feeders are ignored in our yard now that we have an abundance of nectar-producing flowers, especially salvia (and we don't mind foregoing the responsibility for cleaning and refilling the hummingbirds feeders!).

You may have heard "you are what you eat"; in the case of birds, you attract what you feed. The cheap bird seed at the local garden center will only attract a few common birds. You can fine-tune what birds you see by changing what seed you offer. For example, nyjer seed (often incorrectly called "thistle") is a magnet for goldfinches, and the resulting racket will convince other birds that your garden must be a good place to hang out. Cages around those feeders will discourage the larger "bully" birds such as scrub jays.

As hinted above, many birds don't eat seed - they eat insects! Indeed, birds can be one of your best forms of pest control, as colorful warblers and flocks of bush tits come through scavenging for dinner. Therefore, it's important that you don't try to poison every insect that enters your garden: At best, you'll be missing out on half the birds that might visit you; at worst, you may be harming them.

The other huge part of the equation is water. All birds need to drink; many love to bathe. A birdbath is a good idea, but many are designed wrong: Their steep rims and slippery surfaces are too treacherous for many birds, who prefer to warily dip their toes before jumping into the deep end. Use gravel to make it more shallow; use rocks or more gravel to create a “beach” that gently slopes in from the rim to the bottom of the bath.

bird bathOur bird bath is shown here. Click on this image for an alternate view showing the top pool; notice how shallow the water is (ankle deep on a house finch!). The recirculating bird bath has three levels/depths, and started as an Avian Aquatics kit (who seem to have been bought out Birds Choice. The shallow top pool is the Finch Favorite (no longer produced but by far the most popular area). The middle pool was lined, and the bottom pool came from the kit (this is where the recirculating pump is placed). All the stonework was additional. The middle pool and waterfall includes a layered flat rock waterfall that even the hummingbirds can't resist bathing in it.

To ensure you'll attract the birds, make sure the water is moving. This can be as elaborate as adding a pump and filter, or as simple as setting up an old water container to slowly drip into the bath during the day.

As a result of these efforts, we've spotted a good variety of birds on the property, including Allen's, Rufous, Black Chin and Anna's hummingbirds, red-tailed and sharp-shinned hawks (on two occasions, we've rescued baby red-tails that fall or are cut out of their nests), Merlin falcons, hooded orioles, Nuttall's woodpeckers, a wide variety of warblers (they can't resist water!) including orange-crowned, yellow, yellow-rumped, Wilson's, Townsend's, and Black-Throated Gray, titmice, bush tits, wren tits, house, winter, and Bewick's wrens, hermit thrushes, ruby-crowned kinglets, dozens (some might say hundreds!) of American and lesser goldfinches, house finches, song, house, chipping, gold-crowned, and white-crowned sparrows, mourning doves, band-tailed pigeons, northern flickers, western tanagers, occasional mobs of cedar waxwings, California and spotted towhees, phainopeplas, scrub jays (despised because they eat the young of others), dark-eyed juncos, black phoebes, black-headed grosbeaks, a rose-breasted grosbeak, mockingbirds, flycatchers, vireo (including a warbling vireo), thrashers, Great Horned owls that serenade us at night, and other birds we've yet to identify. We see something new almost every season of the year, making it always worth our while to peer out the window to check out the latest happenings in the garden.


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