by Laura Matter, Garden Hotline Program Manager at Seattle Tilth
Many of us enjoy sitting in our gardens during the summer, relaxing in a comfortable chair with a refreshing drink. Why not make your garden more welcoming to birds, increasing your enjoyment – and theirs? Birds use garden plants all season long for feeding, bathing, sleeping and raising their young. By adding plants and garden features you can support our small feathered friends while enjoying four seasons of entertainment right in your own backyard! Birds also are natural pest management allies and are an essential part of a healthy ecosystem.
Washington State hosts 501 species of wild birds. Some of these are old world birds introduced to the area, like the well-known starlings and house sparrows. But most of our birds are native to the Northwest—birds whose ancestors have called this home longer than many of us.
The first rule of wild bird gardening is to avoid using pesticides, which can be harmful to birds and to insects, an important source of food. The second is to add native plants to your garden. Northwest plants are more drought tolerant and have fewer pest and disease issues, allowing us to avoid using pesticides.
Food for Birds Because our native birds have been here so long they have learned to recognize food sources that have also been here for a long time: native plants. As we modified our landscapes and removed the natural plantings, we removed food sources for our birds.
Plants that produce fruit or seed and harbor insects that birds like to eat are key to a bird friendly garden. The list of plants you could choose will depend upon your own aesthetic sense and the space you have in your garden.
It is important to create diverse plantings to attract a variety of wild birds as not all birds eat the same things. In general we are trying to attract grassland and woodland bird species into our yards, but if you live near a body of water you might find yourself host to a mallard duck family or even belted kingfishers! Some of us have been fortunate enough to host bald eagles, osprey families or a great blue heron colony where we have tall trees and enough land to accommodate them.
Shelter Establishing a diverse native landscape not only provides food sources for wild birds but also provides a variety of habitats for roosting and nesting in your garden. Be sure to plant in layers, from the ground to the sky, and to apply natural mulches on the ground once planted. Some birds are primarily ground feeders and need the mulch to forage in. Look for birds like the Swainson’s thrush and spotted towhee kicking around in your garden beds searching for beetles and other insects.
Thicket forming shrubs provide safe havens for birds from predators and nesting sites for our old friend the robin and our tiniest bird friends like Anna’s hummingbirds. Some birds, like wrens, chickadees and woodpeckers, are cavity nesters and need old tree stumps left safely in place in which holes can be created and occupied. If you are very lucky you might play host to owls in your garden if you provide a cavity site for them. Nesting boxes can be installed when large tree snags are not present or should not be left on a property. Consider the habitat need of the birds you would like to attract and work from there.
Water in the Garden All birds need water for drinking and bathing. Titmice and chickadees might bathe five times a day during hot weather to keep cool and to keep their feathers in good shape. If you do not have a natural water feature in your garden, adding even a simple bird bath will increase the amount of time birds spend in your yard, as well as bring in species that might not otherwise visit. Keep the water clean, changing it every couple of days to avoid algal and mosquito growth. Provide a rough surface on the bottom of the feeder to help little bird feet to grip when they are in the bath. Keep the water fairly shallow. In larger gardens you can consider adding a larger feature like a pond and even installing waterfalls or other ways to keep the water in motion. This will help to keep it clean and attract birds at the same time.
Native Plants Luckily for us, our Northwest native plants are great assets to the garden, boasting spring flowers, summer fruit and seeds, fall and winter color, and beautiful evergreen foliage. That can mean year round food and shelter for wild birds.
Choose carefully! Some native plants are thicket forming and you will need to allow space for them to spread. Others are 200 foot conifers that are only appropriate in the largest of gardens where they will not become a storm hazard or overgrow sidewalks or driveways. See our suggestions below for some of the best native plants to consider. They will supply your garden with a variety of sizes and shapes and attract different types of birds to your garden while also adding attractive plants that are easy to maintain.
Your Bird Oasis Providing food, shelter and water for birds will transform your garden into an avian oasis – great for the birds, your garden, the environment and you! Enjoy hours of watching your new bird friends discover and delight in your garden. For one-on-one wild bird gardening advice visit the Garden Hotline online at www.gardenhotline.org or call us at (206) 633-0224.
Great Native Plants for Your Bird-Friendly Garden:
Large Trees • Garry Oak - Quercus garryana - deciduous • Western Red Cedar - Thuja plicata - evergreen conifer
Small Trees • Pacific Wax Myrtle - Myrica californica - evergreen • Serviceberry - Amelanchier alnifolia - deciduous
Tall Shrubs • Pacific Ninebark - Physocarpus opulifolius - deciduous • Red Flowering Currant - Ribes sanguineum - deciduous • Red Osier Dogwood - Cornus sericea - deciduous
Shrubs • Evergreen Huckleberry - Vaccinium ovatum • Salmonberry - Rubus spectabilis - deciduous and thicket forming
Groundcovers • Kinnickinnick - Arctostaphylos uva-ursi - evergreen • Wild Ginger - Asarum caudatum - evergreen
Perennials • False Solomon’s Seal - Smilacina racemosa - herbaceous • Western Columbine - Aquilegia formosa - herbaceous
Credit: Seattle Tilth inspires and educates people to safeguard our natural resources, while building an equitable and sustainable local food source. Classes, Events, Farm Walks, Garden Hotline, Donate, Volunteer.