Dear Bird Folks:
I just bought a new house and I would like to add some plants and landscaping to my yard that will help attract birds. Do you have any suggestions?
– Carl, Chatham
On your new house. Also, congratulations on wanting to create a better habitat for birds. But before we get into this, you should know one thing, I don’t know anything about plants. You would think that a big sissy vegetarian like me would know everything about plants, but you are wrong. That will teach you to stereotype. Don’t worry though, not knowing about something has never stopped me from writing before. I’ll come up with something. Although, at some point Carl, you will need to visit a garden shop or nursery to get some specific information to add to my forthcoming vague advice. If you have agoraphobia and tend to avoid shopping, a good book that I use is called American Wildlife & Plants published by Dover. This helpful fifty year old book is still in print and probably can be found in most libraries.
Birds have four basic needs: food, water, cover and shelter. Wait, cover and shelter are the same thing. Better change that to three basic needs. Most of what birds need comes from plants. I can’t imagine a plant of any kind that doesn’t benefit a bird in some way or another. When I say plants I’m including trees, shrubs, flowers, grasses or weeds. A plant can be used for nest building, to roost in and to provide berries or seeds for eating. Plants also attract insects that birds love.
When looking for plants for your yard, think native. Seek out plants that are normally found around here or at least grow in similar habitat. If you buy a plant that requires extra watering, fertilizer and pesticides you will do the birds and the environment more harm than good. Keep in mind who the plant is for. If one of your plants is being eaten by bugs, don’t spray it, let the birds eat the bugs. The idea is to attract birds, not to have showy plants.
Every year I talk to people who want to buy a birdhouse for the House Finches who are nesting in their hanging plant. I say, “Ah, hello, get a clue. If they like your hanging plant, let them have it.” A hanging plant is probably cheaper than buying a birdhouse that finches won’t use anyway.
For years most yards around here were basic, low maintenance “naturally” landscaped. Pine needles protected the thin topsoil and bayberry bushes and scrub oak served as borders along property lines. It wasn’t that Cape Codders were lazy, but they had better things to do with their time than unnecessary yard work. Then, when no one was looking, it all changed. In came the Chem lawns, the fancy bushes, the leaf blowers, the fertilizers and the pesticides. Suddenly people stopped enjoying wildlife and started fighting with it. Now I hear screams like “the deer are eating my Queen Victoria rose bushes” or “the skunks are digging up my Scotts perfect lawn, somebody help me”. No one ever complained about skunks digging up pine needles or deer eating scrub oak. Native is better. Remember the idea is to support nature not to fight with it.
Diversity is important also. A greater variety of plants will support a greater variety of birds. Different plants will fruit or go to seed at different times of the year. Having a variety will allow you to have something for the birds in every season.
Finally keep in mind that dead plants are just as important to birds as live ones. Don’t be in hurry to cut down every dead tree in your yard. Dead trees are a magnet for woodpeckers and for birds that use woodpecker holes, including owls. Bugs like dead trees too and birds love bugs. The best thing about a dead rotting tree is that it doesn’t require any watering, fertilizer or pesticides. The only thing you need to do is to take care not to park your new Porsche underneath one on a windy day.