Plant the right stuff and harvest a garden of birds

March 06, 2007|by ANNETTE IPSAN

Winter is a wonderful time to enjoy bird watching.

Many of you can probably see your bird feeders right now as you enjoy a cup of coffee and the newspaper. Crimson cardinals, chatty chickadees and goldfinches in their olive drab winter coats wing by.

Wouldn't it be nice to enjoy these birds year-round?

You can with a bird garden.

Bird gardening provides for all your favorite birds' needs: food, water, shelter and safe places to nest. Think of it as creating a backyard oasis for birds.

Start with a few bird feeders.

There are many types of seeds and feeders, each designed to satisfy the appetites and feeding habits of particular birds. So, find out what your favorite birds like, using books and the Internet. You'll learn that woodpeckers prefer suet, while cardinals favor sunflower seeds.


Small birds, like chickadees, can perch on tube feeders, while bigger birds need a hopper or platform feeder.

Place your feeders where you can see and enjoy them. Mount them 5 or 6 feet off the ground to deter predators.

Favor warm, protected southern locations and spots with nearby shrubs or trees for cover, should a hawk swoop by. Make sure that your feeders are at least 10 feet away from convenient jumping-off places like trees or roofs to discourage squirrels. Squirrel baffles are helpful, too.

Now, let's put the gardening in bird gardening.

Start by adding a few plants that feed the birds naturally. Dot your landscape with berry-producing shrubs like viburnum and beautyberry. Add perennials like coneflowers and black-eyed Susan that produce seeds birds love.

Use fruiting trees like crabapples and serviceberry and conifers like Colorado spruce and pines with cones chock full of nutritious seeds.

Next, add some trees for cover and nesting. Evergreens like hemlocks and our own native Eastern red cedar are ideal. Deciduous trees such as sugar maples offer handy crooks for nests.

Mixed hedges of many different shrubs and thickets of thorny plants like roses and raspberries give birds vital cover, nesting sites and food.

Simulating natural landscapes helps to attract birds. Garden in layers, using everything from low groundcovers to tall trees. Tuck shrubs under trees. Add a berry-producing groundcover like bearberry.

Echo nature's layers and you'll attract birds that like to feed, nest and take cover at different heights.

Further mimic nature by letting leaves gather in a corner of the yard to create a feeding area for ground-foraging birds like robins and thrashers. Add a brush pile for vital cover for small birds. Leave some fallen logs or tree snags to offer feeding and nesting areas for woodpeckers.

All bird gardens need birdhouses.

What do the birds you like prefer?

Purple martins favor high-rise apartments, while bluebirds seek individual boxes. Woodpeckers nest in tree cavities and owls like open-ended boxes.

Again, do your research to match the birdhouse to the bird.

Of course, some birds like Carolina wrens will nest anywhere, including a fishing creel in your Dad's garage. I know.

Water is important to birds year-round, so add a birdbath or two. Place a pedestal birdbath where you can enjoy the birds' sipping and splashing. Add a ground birdbath in a more secluded spot for shy bathers like wood thrush and warblers.

A birdbath heater lets the birds sip in the winter and a dripper or mister draws birds like hummingbirds that prefer a shower to a bath. If you have the space, consider a pond or water feature, a true wildlife haven.

People who love birds love hummingbirds, so let's talk about some ways to garden for them.

Hummingbirds have a powerhouse metabolism, so they need nectar-rich flowers from April to October. They prefer tubular blooms in red or orange, but are happy with any flower heavy with nectar. Some of their favorites are honeysuckle, trumpet flower, salvia, butterfly bush and phlox.

Adding a hummingbird feeder is a great way to get up-close-and personal and give your hummers a high-octane sugar boost.

There are many great books on bird gardening, but my personal favorite is the National Audubon Society's book, The Bird Garden, by Stephen Kress. It gives tips on landscaping, nest boxes, food, feeders and water sources, plus an extensive regional guide to plants and birds with growing guides and photos.

If you'd like to receive a free list of bird garden plants, e-mail me at or call me at 301-791-1604.

Birds of a feather do flock together . . . when you draw them to your yard with the right feeders, birdbaths and plants.

I hope these tips help you better enjoy both your garden and your birds.

Annette Ipsan is the Extension educator for horticulture and the Master Gardener program in Washington County for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension. She can be reached weekdays by telephone at 301-791-1604, or by e-mail at

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