Gardening for the Birds

To attract birds to your garden, provide them with a good home, plenty of food and lots of fresh water.

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Many gardeners have a love/hate relationship with birds. On one hand, a number of birds eat the bugs that prey on plants, while on the other hand, there are birds that prey on the prized fruits on plants. Master gardener Paul James takes a step-by-step approach to help gardeners strike a balance and benefit from making bird-friendly landscapes.

Go natural

The most important step you can take toward making your landscape a haven for birds is to stop using synthetic chemicals and switch to all-natural products. This will reduce birds' risk of exposure to harmful chemicals and also increase the population of bugs they eat. "When you let the birds control the bug populations in your landscape, you may find – as I did many years ago – that you don't need any chemical controls, whether organic or synthetic," says James.

Provide shelter

The next step is to provide good nesting sites. This includes trees and shrubs in the landscape or a variety of birdhouses. While traditional wooden birdhouses are popular, there are a number of interesting and whimsical alternatives on the market. Here are some options:

  • This birdhouse that looks like a gardener's hat is made out of a resinous material that will last for decades. It mounts easily on a post, fence or tree.

  • Another birdhouse is modeled after the famously warm and infamously unfashionable New England hat.

  • A fisherman could perhaps best appreciate this unique birdhouse.

  • Modeled after those used since colonial times, this glazed ceramic birdhouse mounts easily. To complete the installation, simply add a twig to serve as a perch.

  • Gourds also make great birdhouses. If you grow your own, they're practically free.

  • Food for feathered friends

    Now that your birds have a home, you need to provide food for them. Natural food sources like plants that bear berries are great, especially during the winter months when bugs and grains aren't as plentiful. But if you're serious about attracting a variety of birds, in particular non-migratory birds – or those that stick around in winter – you'll need to offer them more than berries.

    Traditional birdseed mixes – those that contain a mix of seeds and grains – are great for the vast majority of birds. Black-oil sunflower seed is also a good choice. Thistle seed is ideal for songbirds, especially finches, and it offers a bonus: Squirrels don't care for thistle.

    Much like birdhouses, bird feeders come in a seemingly endless array of styles and sizes. For the most part, any style of feeder will do. In fact, many birds will eat seed that has been tossed on the ground. Given that birdseed can be pricy, you might want to consider a squirrel-proof feeder. Here are some options:

    • This feeder allows most birds to slip through the outer cage while keeping squirrels out.

  • This platform feeder has a special inner cage that prevents greedy squirrels from getting their paws on the seed.

  • The hinged perch of this feeder supports the weight of birds and allows them to feed but closes shut under the weight of a squirrel.

    Keep in mind that a number of birds need more protein and fat in their diets than seeds alone provide. Some mixes include beetle larvae in combination with a variety of seeds. There are also mixes available with live or roasted mealworms or freeze-dried flies.

  • Another great source of fat is suet, which is essentially fat. Suet is available in several different shapes and sizes. The most familiar are suet cakes, which are a snap to install in feeders designed specifically for holding them. There are also suet plugs, which you can stuff into the holes of manufactured or homemade feeders; suet slices, which fit between two pieces of wood – either purchased or homemade – to form a suet sandwich; and suet balls, several of which can be placed in a feeder.


    Lastly, provide birds with a source of water. The best way to do that is to install a water feature in your landscape. It would ideally be one that has running water, which not only prevents freezing in the winter but also serves to attract birds.

    Traditional birdbaths are the next best bet, but you'll attract more birds if there's some movement to the water. To shake up standing water, this battery-powered device does the trick.

    When placed in a birdbath, it causes the water to wiggle and promises to attract more birds. Another way to give your birds a drink is with this water dispenser that fills up four small trays as birds drink.

    By following these four steps, creating a bird-friendly landscape is easy to do. The birds you attract to your garden will thank you.

    Birdie in a Hat birdhouses -
    Colonial bird bottle (#35-470) - Gardener's Supply Co.
    Natural Martin gourd (#2009) - Duncraft
    Roosting pocket (#BA242) -
    Squirrel blocker selective (#1462) - Duncraft
    Champion squirrel blocker (#1744) - Duncraft
    Birder's choice feeder (#7511) - Duncraft
    Beetle mania mix (#590720) -
    Audubon professional wood hanging feeder with suet -
    Original water wiggler (#1785) - Duncraft
    Bird water cooler (#1919) - Duncraft

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