Gardening to Benefit of Birds

Dave Grainger    Ribes sanguineum berries are delicious treats for local avians.
Dave Grainger

Gardening to Benefit of Birds

Part One
Linda Carloni

The birds of North America are disappearing. A 2019 study led by Cornell Lab of Ornithology found that since 1970, we’ve lost 2.9 billion breeding adult birds throughout North America, spread from coast to coast and in every kind of habitat. Common, everyday birds like dark-eyed junco, red-winged blackbird and western meadowlark have taken significant hits.
The good news is that anyone can help stem this loss. Experts believe that habitat loss is a primary cause, so Alamedans with a front or backyard, or any garden space, can replace a bit of that lost habitat. Lawns and pavement don’t offer enough food or shelter for birds, but native plants provide plenty of both (and as a side benefit, use less water and fertilizer).

Food

The bird-friendly garden needs to be a bug-friendly garden. Research has shown that native plants support many more insects than exotics (non-natives). For example, Douglas Tallamy’s work indicates that native oaks support more than 550 different species of butterflies and moths, while the non-native ginkgo tree supports just 5. The caterpillars produced by those butterflies and moths are a critical food source for both migrant and resident birds, especially in the breeding season.
Insects contain lots of protein — 96% of North American land birds feed their young with them. Unlike native plants, which co-evolved with native bugs, many non-natives carried by nurseries have been selected because they are not palatable to our native insects and caterpillars. Unfortunately, fewer bugs means fewer birds.
In addition to attracting the insects that birds need, native plants provide nuts, seeds, berries and nectars for the birds that have co-evolved with them. Rufus and Allen’s hummingbirds, for example, time their migration to the bloom periods of native monkeyflower as they head north and the California fuchsia as they head south.

Water

All living things need water, and birds will appreciate having a water source. Choose a vessel no deeper than 2 to 3 inches with a gentle, sloping incline and a textured surface or stones in the bath. If free-roaming cats may be present, choose a bath with a 3-foot pedestal and place it in an open area at least 15 feet from shrubs. If possible, put the bath near (but not right under) overhanging branches. Birds love running or dripping water — a fountain, drip attachment, or even a plastic gallon bottle with a tiny hole hanging over the bath will attract birds.
Keep birdbaths clean! Clean the birdbath two or three times a week; rinse and scrub it with 9 parts water, one part vinegar. Refill it every other day to keep it from getting too buggy. This winter, we’ve experienced a horrible Salmonella epidemic in our songbirds, and birdbaths can spread that and other avian diseases. So plan now, but don’t put a birdbath out until May, when the most affected birds will have migrated away.
The plants will need water too. Natives generally require less water than non-natives, but some natives require more water than one might think, and virtually all natives require some water to get established.
This story provided by Alameda Backyard Growers. Part two next week. See www.alamedabackyardgrowers.org to learn more.