Planting Scrumptious Gardens for Backyard Birds
Sep 12, 2019
Vineyards and berry producers spend tens of thousands of dollars each harvest season chasing birds away from their crops. They've tried air cannons, drones, balloons with eyes painted on them, and specially-licensed falconers. But if you don't mind losing the occasional blueberry, and your idea of homemade wine is a store-bought bottle that requires an actual corkscrew, a few extra backyard birds might be welcome.
In fact, they should be. In a diverse garden environment, songbirds play an essential role in pest control, and they're pretty to look at. As long as they keep their yaps shut before noon on a Sunday, their charming little songs are a joy to hear. At least, songbirds are one hell of a lot nicer to listen to than the daycare center for hyperactive kids that just opened up next door.
Are you ready to add some feathered friends to your garden?
Which plants and trees attract the most birds?
Any tree, shrub, vine, or cane that develops a sweet fruit, provides nourishment and habitat for adult and larval insects, and offering a place to nest and perch will make your property a hit. These are a few of our favorites, recommended by our customers and backed up by leading birdwatching experts.
Bachelor's buttons (Cornflower)
These annuals, closely related to the dandelion, produce energy-rich seeds for buntings, finches, and sparrows according to Birds and Blooms. Learn more about cornflower's ornamental value, growing preferences, and cultural history on our blog!
Gaillardia aristata is one of many native wildflowers that bring in the birds. They'll bloom throughout the summer, producing jaw-dropping red and yellow daisy-shaped blooms.
Lobelia cardinalis is a larger, scarlet version of the pretty little blue-flowered lobelia we carry in our seed catalog. Hummingbirds and butterflies use their long tongues to extract nectar from the thin trumpet-shaped blooms.
Goldfinches and other small songbirds love coneflower seeds, so don't be too quick to deadhead spent flowers. Besides, the bare cones look almost as lovely once the petals have fallen!
Make your own gin and invite your local avian friends over for a party! There are several cultivated elderberry varieties with striking foliage and shades of green and purple, and their flowers are outstandingly frothy hues of pink or white. Birds also appreciate the cover elderberry provides. Grosbeaks and orioles are this multipurpose shrub's biggest fans.
These southern climbers are a big hit with hummingbirds, who love their nectar-bearing flowers. Audubon says hermit thrushes and purple finches will pick the vines clean of the fall-ripening oblong red berries.
These plants produce striking, cascading spikes of bold red seeds, and they're closely related to millet. Love-lies-bleeding is easy to harvest for bird feeders, or you can let the seeds dry in situ for the birds to pick clean. Amaranth is closely-related to millet, a.k.a. "birdy crack."
Monarch butterflies depend on milkweed plants for their nectar and as a nursery for their young, but did you know that some birds, orioles, in particular, use milkweed plants for their own babies? They'll shred fiber from milkweed stems and pick the dandelion-like fluff from the seed pods, building and lining their nests.
Caterpillars love mulberry leaves, and birds devour the elongated, blackberry-like fruit. Watch out, though, because mulberries can be messy, and so can the birds that eat them. Plant them away from patios or driveways. Mulberry bushes are generally better suited for the margins of large yards.
Oak trees are host to myriad (look at us using fancy words!) caterpillars and other juicy bugs, attracting almost any bird with a hankering for a hunk of gooey goodness. While you'd have to wait a long time to grow your own oaks, you might want to weigh your options when it comes time to spray existing trees if the tree is otherwise healthy.
No major shock here! Grow sunflowers bred for their high seed yields, and your garden will soon resemble Tippi Hedren's hairdo. Let the seeds ripen on the stalk, or cut and hang them upside-down where the birds and squirrels can harvest them. Keep an eye out for siskins and goldfinches!
Attract hummingbirds as well as any pollinating insect within a zillion-mile radius with any shade of yarrow. Deer, on the other hand, won't touch it. It's one of the easiest ornamentals to grow, and it will readily self-sow.
What is suet?
In winter, birds need to find a suitable source of fats (lipids) to replace the dearth of juicy plump bugs that make up a huge portion of their diet. Suet, a mix of rendered animal fat or vegetable shortening, berries, nuts, and seeds, help fill that void and keep birds energized through the cold season.
You can make your own traditional or vegetarian-friendly suet at home following Audubon's easy instructions. Note: Be sure to use lard (pig fat) or tallow (beef fat) that hasn't been collected from cured or seasoned meat. If you're lazy, you can buy blocks or peel-trays at almost any grocery, garden, or hardware store, as well as the coated wire cages to contain them.
Select the right bird feeders
Bird Watching HQ, a blog by a birder named Scott, has a must-bookmark comprehensive guide to choosing bird feeders and understanding why certain features are essential to inviting birds to your back porch.
Scott's favorite bird happens to be penguins. He's obsessed with them. But no amount of herring will attract these antarctic waddlers to his Ohio backyard, so he's making do with the flight-enabled species. By all means, check out his articles and videos! He also has helpful tips for keeping squirrels out of feeders and some great backyard wildlife cams.
DIY hummingbird nectar
Don't waste your money on store-bought hummingbird nectar. The Hummingbird Society recommends you dissolve one cup of white cane sugar to three or four cups of spring water.
Why cane? Because molasses found in unrefined or brown sugar is too iron-rich for birds. Beet sugar, now the main source of white sugar, may have too many pesticides mixed in. High fructose corn syrup? Pretty much bad for everyone. Household-treated water may be too high in salt and chorine, so spring water is best for your wee birds. DO NOT use red food coloring! It's harmful to hummers and unnecessary to attract them.
Hummingbird feeders may also attract finches, woodpeckers, warblers, orioles, chickadees, and even bats!
Choosing the right birdhouses
Not all birdhouses are equal in the eyes of the species you want to attract. Birds are picky about interior space, height placement, and entry hole size. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology — the grand poobahs of bird science — has the most comprehensive guide to matching backyard birds with their appropriate nest boxes. Check out their NestWatch.org page for birdhouse plans.
A note on cleaning bird feeders, baths, and houses
If you don't regularly clean and disinfect your bird feeders and birdbaths, you could be doing more harm than good. Mold, viruses, and diseases such as salmonella thrive in dirty bird stations, especially those made from wood.
Cornell recommends cleaning them out every two weeks, and more frequently in wet or humid weather. Scrape and scrub off any poop or accumulated seed or suet before choosing one of the following methods for sanitizing your backyard bird equipment:
- Soak in a 1:9 bleach-to-water solution for 10-20 minutes, and rinse thoroughly.
- Place in a pot of boiling water for one to five minutes.
- Run glass feeders through the dishwasher on the sanitary cycle, or wash with hot, soapy water.
- Scrub concrete birdbaths with the bleach solution described above, using a stiff brush and hose on the removes-flesh-from-bone setting.
Dry damp wood in a warm oven or an airy, sunny spot outdoors. Never refill a damp feeder, and always rinse every trace of soap and bleach, as birds are especially sensitive to both. Don't forget to clean up any seed and droppings below and around your feeder.
Each fall, bring in and clean empty birdhouses, discarding any soiled bedding, unviable eggs, or dead chicks in the garbage. Don't toss them in the yard or add them to your compost pile.
Don't feed the bears!
If you live in bear country, bring in your bird feeders — especially your suet cages, even if they're empty — at the end of summer when bears are loading up for hibernation. Winter bird feeding and watching aren't worth risking the well-being of your ursine neighbors. Bears that become habituated to feeders, garbage cans, and greasy barbecues may become nuisance bears, and relocation by game wardens is often an indirect death sentence as bears now have to compete for territory in unfamiliar areas.
Where bears truly hibernate for the winter, you can refill and set out feeders by the end of November. If you live in a marginal area where bears will come out of their dens from time to time, don't risk it. If you're not certain when to bear-proof your garden, contact your local fish and wildlife department. They know about the local bears' habits, and they may even have volunteers available to help identify other potential bear-magnets on your property.
Birds have seed needs, too!
We know. You're still wondering, "What the &@*& is an air cannon, and where can I get one?" Check out the M8 Multi Bang Propane Cannon. We have no idea how well it works, but the name alone is worth the price tag, and as your gardening experts, we strongly advise you purchase one and report back right away. (Particularly on its effectiveness in making noisy, outdoor kids become quiet, hiding-under-the-bed kids).
In the meantime, we'll be here, hand-packaging your high-quality, fresh-as-a-daisy garden seeds, and smashing our keyboards to keep our blog stocked with sage gardening advice!