Spring is an important season for birds. In early and mid-spring, migrating species return to their northern summer homes, a journey that may be hundreds or thousands of exhausting miles. Meanwhile, the birds that stuck around through the long, cold winter try to replace the weight lost during the last hungry weeks before spring. Later, it’s nesting time, and adult birds must spend nearly all their waking hours attending to the needs of their voracious offspring.
Gardeners can give their feathered friends a helping hand by carefully choosing plants that provide birds with lots of food and shelter throughout the spring months.
Diversity Breeds Diversity
In springtime, even many birds that ordinarily prefer fruit or seeds switch to an insect diet. For birds, insects are a nearly unmatched high-energy treat the provide many important nutrients both to adults recovering from the winter and to their growing offspring. In the United States, 96% of terrestrial birds feed their nestlings primarily on insects, regardless of their dietary preferences as adults.
To attract birds in springtime, therefore, it’s good idea to take the plunge and go organic. Insecticides kill both harmful and beneficial insects, and they dramatically decrease the amount and variety of food available for birds. In some cases, they can also poison birds. Although you might initially see an increase in the amount of insect damage to your plants after switching from conventional to organic gardening, birds and other predators should take over the job you’ve been doing with chemicals fairly quickly.
If you would like to attract birds, it is also a good idea to become a little bit lazier a gardener. Let fallen leaves stay under trees and bushes, where they will create a lovely leaf mulch that will hide colonies of roly-polies, earthworms, and other creepy crawlies that will be eagerly picked through by birds. Instead of setting out fallen branches as yard waste, start a brush pile. In addition to providing shelter for birds, the dead wood will host a virtual buffet of wood-dwelling insects.
Overcome that arachnophobia. Although spiders compete with birds for insect foods, they are also a popular food source for many species. If possible, catch and release spiders you find in the house, instead of killing them, and leave outside webs alone.
Plant a diverse selection of trees, shrubs, grasses, and flowers that are native to your region. Some birds do show strong preferences for native plant species, but most are also capable of utilizing foreign exotics, and are generally quite happy to do so, if they produce nutritious or palatable fruit or seeds. In fact, some invasive exotics have become huge problems in the United States because they became such popular foods for birds that birds spread their seeds far and wide in their droppings.
Herbivorous insects are rarely so flexible. Thanks to the toxins that plants use to protect themselves against predation, many plant-eating insect species can only eat one family, or even a single species, of plant. Naturally, they are best adapted to plants they evolved with, so most native insect species are completely or almost completely reliant on native plants. More native plants equals more insect herbivores equals more food for birds, so it is very important to plant a diverse array of native plants if you are attempting to attract birds in spring.
Douglas Tallamy, an entomologist and author of Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife With Native Plants, has studied the connection between native plants, insect diversity, and bird diversity for many years, and recommends the following species of trees and shrubs as being particularly beneficial for gardeners wishing to attract birds:
- Oaks (Quercus)
- Cherries and Plums (Prunus)
- Willows (Salix)
- Birches (Betula)
- Poplars (Populus)
- Crabapples (Malus)
- Blueberries (Vacinnium)
- Maples (Acer)
- Elms (Ulmus)
- Pines (Pinus)
Top performing perennial flowers include:
- Blackberries and Raspberries (Rubus)
- Goldenrod (Solidago)
- Asters (Aster)
- Sunflowers (Helianthus)
- Joe Pye weed, Boneset (Eupatorium)
- Morning Glory (Ipomoea)
- Sedges (Carex)
- Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens)
- Violets (Viola)
- Native Geraniums (Geranium)
For a more complete list of plants, please visit Dr. Tallamy’s website, or purchase his book:
Helping Birds at Nesting Time
Building a nest is hard work. For some species, it may take thousands of individual trips to gather materials before the nest is complete. You can make the job easier by providing birds with suitable nesting habitats and materials.
The best way to provide nesting habitat for birds is to have a variety of plantings to accommodate preferences the preferences of different species, including a mix of evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs of various heights and densities, relatively sheltered from wind and unpredictable spring weather. Providing man-made nesting boxes can also be a big help for birds that like to nest in hollow trees or posts in areas where natural cavities are limited.
Once you’ve designed a mix of nesting habitats to attract birds, you can help them by providing nesting materials nearby. One of the easiest ways to do this is simply to allow fallen leaves and twigs to lie where they fall, or collect them into a brush pile or into smaller stashes around your garden that birds can pick through, looking for the materials they need.
Other good materials include:
- dry grass
- animal or human hair
- yarn or string, cut into 4-8 inch pieces
- pine needles
- bark strips
- shredded paper
You can place these materials in piles in the ground, push them into tree crevices, hang them in suet feeders or plastic strawberry baskets, and more.
Many birds use mud as a component of their nests, so if you have a drippy faucet, consider waiting until summer to fix it. Alternately, hang a milk carton with a small puncture over a patch of bare dirt, use irrigation hoses in your vegetable garden, or build a water feature or garden pond.
Spring is a critical time for bird species, but gardeners wishing to attract birds during this period must be willing to go against their instinct to protect plants from damage by insect pests and allow the birds to do the work for them. For gardeners willing to take this leap of faith, the reward is a garden full of flashing wings, bright plumage, and birdsong. A pretty good trade, if you ask me.
For pictures of some of the plants mentioned in this article, check out my Bird Gardening board on Pinterest.