My Gardening is for the Birds

By Virginia Stephenson, Master Gardener

Many people who enjoy gardening also enjoy watching birds that come to visit their gardens. These people range from committed birdwatchers with life lists of sightings to people who can only recognize a few birds, but enjoy seeing and hearing them.

I have gardened for 45 years and have fed birds for most of that time. Just as my early gardening was of the uninformed plant and pray variety, my early bird watching was of the uninformed variety in which I saw the birds, but never really looked at them.

After retirement, I had more time for such things. One day I was looking at a group of sparrows under my feeders when I noticed different sizes, colours and patterns. My curiosity aroused, I dug out the birding field guide I had inherited from my father, and set about identifying them. I was excited to discover there were actually four different species of sparrows in the group. I was excited, and have remained so ever since. The more I learned, the more interested I became in having a greater number, and a greater variety of birds visiting my garden.

Harris’s Sparrow

Fortunately for me, after retiring, I also began training to become a master gardener, and my gardening became more informed and focused. It didn’t take long to realize the key to having a greater number and variety of birds was my gardening itself. What I chose to plant and my gardening practices could make my garden more inviting to birds. So I began to garden for the birds.

If you want to invite birds into your garden, consider the three basic needs of birds: food, water and shelter and how you can provide these in your garden.

Putting out feeders is the invitation most people are familiar with, and most likely to undertake. So which species of birds should you be looking for, and how can you attract them? There are three groups of birds that you can attract with your feeders, year round birds, spring and fall migratory birds, and summer birds.

The birds which I often refer to as the usual suspects, are the ones who come year-round to our feeders. These include Black- capped Chickadee, Blue Jays, Red-breasted and White- breasted Nuthatches, and Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers.

Whatever works.

Surprise winter birds at your feeders include Hoary and Common Redpolls; these are finches seen only in the winter. They are not uncommon, but have irregular overwintering patterns, and are therefore a nice surprise in those winters when they do visit. This winter for the first time we had a group of goldfinches who regularly joined the other winter birds at the feeders.

Spring and fall see a variety of sparrows passing through on their migration to and from nesting grounds in the boreal forests and further north. The most recognizable of these, due to their large size and distinct colour patterns are the Harris’s, White-crowned, and Fox Sparrow.

Fox Sparrow camouflaged in fall leaf litter.

Spring also brings the return of large flocks of summer sparrows, as well as finches, grosbeaks and cardinals. These birds are primarily seed eaters. You will have to buy food for these birds as there are few gardens that could produce the type or quantity of seed required.

Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

Bird feeders come in an endless variety of sizes, shapes, types and prices. The main types of feeders are platform, hopper, tube, nectar and suet feeders. The type of feeder you chose may be dictated by the type of food you are offering, and which birds you are hoping to attract, as well as who you may be attempting to keep out. Squirrels can be entertaining to feed and watch but try to keep them off your feeders. They can be aggressive towards the birds and destructive to the feeders.

Male Baltimore Oriole on suet.

Keep your choice of food simple, although you want to offer food that is suitable for as many species as possible. It is generally best not to offer birds food intended for humans such as bread, crackers, cookies, chips, or roasted or salted nuts or seeds. These are not a natural food source for them, and can be unhealthy. Black oil sunflower seeds, or shelled sunflower seeds, are high calorie seeds eaten by most birds. If you are fortunate enough to get spring and fall visits from some of the migratory sparrows, bags of mixed seed, spread on the ground under your feeders or on a low platform feeder may be offered, as these are primarily ground feeding birds. Platforms may be preferable to spreading seed on the ground, as this can attract mice and other rodents. Suet is an excellent source of protein and energy, and will be eaten by most winter birds, and by some surprising spring visitors such as warblers and orioles, if there are few insects available. Winter suet can become rancid in warmer weather; consider offering summer suet or remove the suet altogether.

Purple Finch, White-breasted Nuthatch and American Goldfinch.

Avoid placing large quantities of seed in your feeders. It can become stale or even mouldy, which at best is unappealing to birds and at worst is dangerous and can make them ill. Feed smaller amounts, replenishing your feeders more often. Store seed in tight containers to keep it fresh, and safe from insects, rodents and other animals. It is very important to thoroughly clean feeders on a regular basis to reduce the risk of disease transmission. Clean with soap and hot water, and then disinfect with a 10% bleach solution.
Link to top bird feeding mistakes.

But what does this have to do with gardening? While you will have to buy seed, you can make your garden more appealing to visiting birds by offering natural sources of food.

Remember not all birds are seed eaters. You can put up feeders for nectar eaters like hummingbirds, but they will appreciate natural food sources in the form of flowers. When it comes to fruit and insect eating birds, it is all about what your garden can offer.

What are natural sources of food for birds? Trees and shrubs provide seeds, fruit, nectar, sap and insects. Herbaceous plants provide seeds, nectar and insects, while grasses provide seeds and insects. Leaf litter and brush piles provide insects, and the soil itself provides worms, insects and other tasty bugs.

What else can you offer your seed eaters in addition to your feeders? If you have native trees like Manitoba maple, bur oak, basswood, American elm, eastern white cedar or white spruce, your yard is already supplying natural sources of seed.

You can also plant flowers (native if possible) in the aster family, such as sunflower, coneflower, gaillardia and other daisy like plants that produce those nice rounded seed heads that birds enjoy. Goldenrod provides seeds for fall migratory birds or even overwintering birds. If you have enough sun and space, you could consider planting native grasses such as switch grass, big bluestem, or little bluestem.

Goldfinch eating Gaillardia seeds.

When you are planting, consider a diversity of plant types, to get a variety of seed offerings. But also try to plant more than one of each species and plant them in groups which will accommodate the natural foraging behaviour of pollinators and birds, as they move from one plant to another.

Once you have planted your seed bearing plants, resist the urge to deadhead the spent flowers, as well the urge to clean everything up in the fall. Don’t cut back your plants, and keep the leaf littler and brush piles lying around, as these will provide natural insect and seed sources for birds. Migratory sparrows forage in the leaf litter, and are entertaining to watch as they send the leaves flying, as they hunt for tasty morsels.

The nectar eater that most of us are familiar with is the hummingbird. You could use a hummingbird feeder, but it is my experience that hummingbirds prefer flowers as a source of food, and it is rewarding to see them feeding in the flowers. In my garden they are drawn to bright annuals like pansies, petunias, lantana and phlox. The hummingbirds also like fuchsias and canna lilies, but they will check out just about any tubular flower and others as well, with a preference for red and yellow ones.

Hummingbird feeding in petunias.

Many species of salvia are hummingbird magnets, as is cuphea, also known as cigar plant or firecracker plant. In the English Garden at Assiniboine Park they grow salvia ‘Hot Lips’ every year, and it is always full of hummingbirds. A new variety of trailing salvia has just come out that is called ‘Hummingbird Falls’. As for cuphea, the fact that there is a cultivar called ‘Hummingbird’s Lunch’ to me says it all.

All of the flowers mentioned so far are annuals and have the advantage of blooming continuously over the summer, providing an ongoing source of nectar. But, hummingbirds also collect nectar from perennials. Beebalm, Monarda fistulosa and M. didyma and their cultivars, are perennials favoured by hummingbirds and they also take nectar from bleeding hearts, and from the purple flowers of hostas. The native columbine and golden rod are also nectar sources.

Other sources of food are flowering native shrubs, hardy in our climate, which provide fruit and berries. These shrubs include chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), pin cherry (Prunus pensylvanica), nannyberry (Viburnum lentago), Saskatoon (Amelanchier alnifolia), red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea), highbush cranberry (Viburnum opulus, var. americanum), and wild raspberry (Rubus idaeus).

Yellow warbler and nest in highbush cranberry.

Another berry magnet for birds, especially robins and wax wings, is the mountain ash, of which there are both native (Sorbus decora and Sorbus americana) and non-native (S. aucuparia) varieties. I have a volunteer mountain ash. Although mine is not a native tree, it grows well here, and is very attractive with clusters of tiny scented white flowers that develop into hanging clusters of bright red berries. Robins love these berries, and can and will overwinter here if they have a sufficient supply of them.

Robin on winter cranberry cluster.

We also have an ornamental crab apple tree which produces early spring blossoms for pollinators, followed by small crab apples which are a favourite of the large roaming flocks of Bohemian waxwings. Be aware that some of the new ornamental fruit tree cultivars are sterile and do not produce fruit.

Many birds that eat seeds or fruit also eat insects, and feed their young on insects because of the high protein and nutrition value. Flycatchers, warblers, kinglets and vireos are primarily insect eaters. Insects have a four-stage life cycle of egg, larvae, pupa and adult. Depending on the species of insect, any or all of these stages may be hosted on plants. Some insects are very specific in their plant host requirements and others are generalists. Flowering plants also attract insects as pollinators, which in turn attract birds. When I planted native berry bushes, I was not only hoping to provide berries for fruit eating birds, but a habitat for native insects, a food source for native insect eating birds.

Female Yellow Warbler.

If you hope to attract insect eating birds, you must avoid the use of pesticides. Ingestion of pesticide-treated insects or plants can harm birds. When buying plants be aware that some commercial cultivars are bred to be pest resistant, and some are treated with systemic pesticides, both of which could impact them as a source of food for insect eating birds. By not cleaning everything up in the fall, you will be helping out the insects that you wish to have in your garden.

The second basic need of birds is water. Many species of birds which have no interest in your feeders will be drawn to your water offerings, both for drinking and bathing. Ways in which you can choose to offer water range from elaborate ponds and streams with waterfalls to a simple plant saucer filled with water. Birds and people love running water. The sound of running water can be mesmerizing, and the addition of a fountain will be a plus in your garden, for yourself as well as the birds. At the lake, sitting on a picnic table, we have a large plant saucer, with a rock to hold it down, and a branch for smaller birds to perch on. It has a constant stream of visitors all day. In our home garden we have two electrified fountains, with falling water which the birds use as a shower, and a large plant saucer of still water at which the larger birds like the robins and blue jays line up to bathe. Interestingly, this large saucer is also the place that the bees and other insects choose to drink. You may need to keep refilling the bathing saucer on a daily basis, in bathing season.

Lined up for a drink.
Waiting for a bath in log fountain.

Like the feeders, it is important that the water dishes and fountains are kept clean and filled with fresh water regularly. This again will help to prevent the transmission of disease, and will also keep algae growth under control and keep the mosquitoes from using your water sources as a breeding ground.

If possible consider offering water year round. In winter, we offer a heated bird bath. Birds move back and forth between the feeders and the water, and we get occasional visits from birds such as bohemian waxwings. This winter, for several months, we had daily visits from an overwintering robin coming for water. So consider making water sources a part of your garden.

Bohemian Waxwings on winter fountain.

The third basic need of birds is shelter. Birds need shelter to protect them from the elements, from predators, and for safe nesting sites. You can have lovely feeders and food offerings, but if there is no shelter nearby from which birds can stage their visits to the feeders, or to which they can flee in case of danger, you are unlikely to have many birds frequenting those feeders.

By shelter, I am not talking about bird houses. I am talking about natural shelter, in the form of trees and bushes, vines, and any other plants. Near our feeders are a large Manitoba maple, vines on an arbour and trellises, and a dense stand of lilac shrubs, all of which provide shelter for birds using the feeders. There are several mature oaks, elms and white spruce throughout the yard which also provide shelter.

Tree shrub and vine shelter near feeder.

Now obviously you cannot provide mature trees overnight, but if you are adding trees to your garden consider ones which will provide both food and shelter for birds, particularly native ones, and then place your feeders within easy reach of them.

Evergreens of any type, fir, spruce, pine, cedar or juniper will provide good year-round shelter as they do not become sparse and open in winter. After Christmas we place our Fraser Fir Christmas tree, which is chosen for its density and needle retention, into a snow bank near the feeders to provide additional shelter and security for our feeder birds. We also leave the vines on the arbour and trellises near the feeders, to provide shelter.

Clumps of grasses and dense stands of perennials can provide good year round shelter if allowed to stand over winter. Leaf litter can also provide shelter in the form of camouflage, for birds foraging on the ground.

Not all gardens are large enough to accommodate trees. If you do not, or cannot have trees, then shrubs will do just as well. The multi-stemmed dense growth habits of shrubs, provide good shelter in both summer and winter, and they have the advantage of growing and maturing more quickly than trees. Many shrubs are also good sources of food, and are preferred nesting sites for some of the smaller birds. So look around your garden to see what you have in the way of shelter for birds, and consider how you might add more.

If you would like more information on Gardening for Birds check out this excellent website by Birds Canada.

It will give you gardening tips for specific species of birds, and has an interactive plant selector that will make plant recommendations, based on your location, soil, moisture and light conditions, and the type of plants you are interested in.

Remember, if you want to invite a greater number and variety of birds to your garden, you need to think like a bird, and consider what you would want in the way of food, water and shelter. Act on those thoughts and you may soon discover that like mine, your gardening is for the birds!

Photos by Virginia Stephenson
Published: May 2023