Thanks to Our Feathered Friends

By: Pria Graves

Pria Graves is a botanical artist who frequently depicts the heirloom fruits and flowers growing in her Palo Alto garden….

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Seed and wool hung on the squirrel-proof pole; behind is the valley oak (Quercus lobata). Author’s photographs - See more at: http://www.pacifichorticulture.org/articles/thanks-to-our-feathered-friends/#sthash.1v55F2xa.dpuf

Seed and wool hung on the squirrel-proof pole; behind is the valley oak (Quercus lobata). Author’s photographs

On spring mornings, while I wait for my coffee to brew, I stand at the kitchen sink and gaze out our window. Time seems to slip past as I watch the antics of our avian visitors: the goldfinches jockeying for a position on the thistle feeder, each wanting an inch or so of “personal space” between them and their neighbors; the house finches lined up on nearby plants or even attempting to hover as they wait for a spot at the feeder full of sunflower seeds; the hummingbirds performing their aerial acrobatics; and the foolish crowd of morning doves, oblivious to a neighborhood cat as they stuff themselves on the patio. I’ve fed birds in my back garden for years, and the entertainment they provide is a tremendous reward.

A few years ago, however, I started offering foods to attract a different range of birds. Birds eat many different things. Most of the birds I’ve mentioned—finches, sparrows, and doves—eat only seeds. When people think of feeding birds in their gardens, it is these seed-eaters that typically come to mind. But there is another significant group of birds, important to a garden’s health: the insect-eaters!

Our back garden is dominated by a beautiful valley oak (Quercus lobata) that we share with our neighbors. It started out on their side of the property line but now straddles the line, its canopy extending past the middle of our fifty-foot-wide lot. Estimated to be 130 years old, it becomes bigger and more wonderful with each passing year. Recently, when the tree received its routine trimming, the arborist commented on how little insect damage there was. Typically, when inspecting a tree of that size, he sees evidence of various types of bugs. There are usually chewed leaves, galls of various descriptions, and other signs of their presence. But our tree is nearly pest free. Since my neighbors and I have never sprayed the tree in our two decades of caring for it, the answer obviously lies elsewhere. I believe we owe thanks to our insect-eating birds.

A simple birdbath

A simple birdbath

The Insect-Eaters

Many kinds of beautiful birds are insect-eaters: chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, sapsuckers, woodpeckers, wrens, and the tiny bushtits. Some of these birds also enjoy the seeds we offer; chickadees and titmice seem particularly partial to black oil sunflower seeds and peanuts. But seeds aren’t enough to keep them around in large numbers. Offering food specifically designed to attract these insect-eaters helps to increase their numbers, and this is where the benefit to our trees comes in. During the breeding season, one can watch the wrens zooming back to their nest every minute or so with a small moth or other tasty treat to feed their young. The chickadees seem to specialize in caterpillars for filling hungry young mouths. Back and forth they fly, cleaning moth larvae off our trees to keep their babies full.

We have found a couple of commercially available foods that we can put out to attract bug-eaters. One option is mealworms: live, freeze dried, or “toasted.” We have found the greatest success, however, with a suet-based block that has freeze-dried insects imbedded in it. Birds just love it! There are several varieties of these suet treats. You may need to try more than one to determine what appeals to your local birds. I use C & S “Insect Delight” cakes. You may also need to be patient; birds take a while to discover new food sources.

Having a guaranteed source of nourishment year-round encourages birds to stay in the area in greater numbers through the winter, and access to this supplemental food source during the breeding season seems to help them to be more successful. If the parent is unable to find an insect quickly enough, it may grab a mouthful off the block to take back to the nest. And a quick bite or two of the block also allows the parent to maintain its energy level while keeping the offspring fed. It might seem that the birds would just eat the block to the exclusion of natural food sources, but my experience says not: apparently the birds have a desire for variety. I’ve often seen chickadees take a bite or two of the insect block, a peck or two at a peanut, and then grab a sunflower seed before flying off.

Assorted food hung on a squirrel-proof pole; in the background is a flowering maple (Abutilon) that provides nectar for hummingbirds through much of the year - See more at: http://www.pacifichorticulture.org/articles/thanks-to-our-feathered-friends/#sthash.1v55F2xa.dpuf

Assorted food hung on a squirrel-proof pole; in the background is a flowering maple (Abutilon) that provides nectar for hummingbirds through much of the year

Welcoming Birds to the Garden

Offering a variety of foods is important, but is not sufficient by itself to encourage a large bird population. There are other things birds need as well. The first is water. Particularly in the dry California summers, giving our feathered friends a reliable source of clean, fresh water is vital. It may take them time to become comfortable with a new birdbath but just keep it filled with clean water and in time they will discover it and use it. Watching a bird bathing is a delight. Some of them linger timidly on the edge and just take a quick dip before flying off; others wade right in and flap and flutter in the water for several minutes, with a great splashing and obvious enjoyment. Then they retreat to a nearby branch to shake off and straighten their feathers. If you can manage it, a water feature or bath with mist or dripping water will be even more popular.

The next big need for birds is shelter and safety. Birdhouses are one important type of shelter—preferably nest boxes with suitably sized holes to exclude the larger predatory birds. I have several. In some years, all get used; in other years, the birds compete for them and then everyone gives up, leaving the boxes empty.

Even more necessary are shrubs and trees to provide places for birds to retreat from weather and predators. They seem to feel much safer in a somewhat overgrown landscape than in one that is manicured and blown each week. In our garden, small birds even have the option of retreating through our fences into the adjoining gardens; the fences are constructed of slats with openings between instead of a solid wall. The little birds flit back and forth through the bushes while predators are prohibited from following.

Birds also like to have “launching pads” near feeders and birdbaths—branches where they can sit safely and see any approaching threats while waiting their turn. Instead of having our oak trimmed up, we allow it to grow down nearly to the ground near the feeder. We often see dozens of birds lined up on the hanging branches waiting for a turn.

An insect block, protected against squirrels and the larger birds - See more at: http://www.pacifichorticulture.org/articles/thanks-to-our-feathered-friends/#sthash.1v55F2xa.dpuf

An insect block, protected against squirrels and the larger birds

Just Say No to Pesticides

Finally, if you wish to encourage birds to linger, it is vital to avoid the use of pesticides. Chemical pesticides do not make the insects simply vanish into thin air; there is a great risk that birds may eat the poisoned bugs, consuming and consolidating the toxins. I’m fortunate in having several neighbors who also avoid toxic poisons, so our combined gardens give our bird population a larger area in which to seek insects that are safe to eat. And they return the favor by keeping our insect populations under control.

Before leaving the topic of pest control, I want to add a note of caution about the use of sticky traps. Many books on organic solutions and Integrated Pest Management recommend traps with sticky material to catch flying insects such as codling moths and whiteflies. Although they are non-toxic, these traps are not a good alternative if you are encouraging birds. Tiny wrens see all those moths stuck in the goo and view it as a buffet of snacks. Unfortunately , the sticky material is strong enough to trap the wrens as well, as I have discovered to my great dismay.

Naturally, I continue to put out food daily for the seed-eaters. They give me hours of pleasure as I watch them compete for space at the feeders, find mates, nest, and raise their young. But I make sure that my helpful friends, the insect-eaters, have plenty to eat as well.