Until my son was born, I didn’t care much about birds.
I grew up in New Rochelle, N.Y., where forests fell in favor of track housing for World War II veterans and their young families.
Our postage stamp lot featured a privacy hedge of young pine trees; a weeping willow I’d play under in summer; and a tulip magnolia that put on a glorious show each April, then dropped its magenta petals into a rotting heap.
Not exactly a wildlife paradise. And the few winged creatures that perched on our roof we identified merely as “birds,” as in, “Those damned birds pooped on my car.”
My state of bird ignorance changed when our son was born, and we moved onto a half-acre in Northern Virginia blessed with old-growth trees.
When Ben was about 18 months and just beginning to talk, I hung a bird feeder outside our kitchen window. It wasn’t easy finding things to talk about with a toddler, so I figured a bird parade would be a great conversation-starter.
“Ben, look at the blue bird. See the two birds eating? Now there’s a third bird.”
It wasn’t Hamlet’s soliloquy, but it was more interesting (for me) than reading “Runaway Bunny” for the gazillionth time.
I bought field guides that beefed up my chatter. “There’s a Cardinal. A Chickadee. A Titmouse. A Goldfinch.”
I learned to identify birds from their color, size, and shape of their beaks. Pretty soon I could tell a Chipping Sparrow from a House Sparrow; a Grackle from a Crow.
I knew I was hooked one June morning when a glorious bird I had never seen landed next to me in my flower garden. I froze, memorizing its beautiful features– black head, pale beak, a slash of scarlet down its white breast.
It was a Rose-breasted Grosbeak. And the joy I felt seeing it, identifying it, and telling Ben all about it, confirmed that I had become a certified bird lover.
I soon discovered, that birds were more than just topics of conversation: They were friends to my garden.
A Garden’s Feathered Friend
Birds play many roles in a garden.
- Pollinators: Nectar-sipping birds, like hummingbirds, help pollinate flowers and vegetables.
- Seed Spreaders: Birds eat my birdseed, then poop it onto the garden, where volunteer sunflowers suddenly spout.
- Pest controllers: Birds eat many garden pests, including mosquitoes and aphids, eliminating the need for chemical pesticides.
- Weed Whackers: Finches and sparrows gobble huge quantities of weed seeds.
How You Can Attract Birds
Feed Them A Meal
Who doesn’t want a free lunch? But know which birds you want to attract before buying a feeder and feed.
Cardinals like sunflower seeds, while goldfinches like to eat smaller, thistle seed. Some birds like to perch on feeders, while others like to grab onto a cage with their feet.
Whatever you chose, keep the feeder clean and stocked with fresh food. And be patient. It sometimes takes birds a few weeks to find your feeder and become loyal patrons.
Give Them a Bath and Drink
Birds need fresh water to drink year-round. And when it’s hot, they love to splash around in a cool bath.
I used to buy expensive, cement birdbaths, which lasted a few seasons then ultimately cracked because it was too much trouble to lug them inside in winter.
Then I got smart and bought some big, cheap, flowerpot saucers. I fill the saucers with water, and the birds — especially robins – love to splash around in them.
For added fun and safety, I buy solar fountain inserts that I submerge in the saucers. The inserts create beautiful sound and movement in my garden, and they agitate the water to prevent mosquitoes from breeding.
Build Them a Home
The best way to keep birds in your backyard is to give them a permanent home. You can buy birdhouses of infinite sizes, shapes and colors. Make sure you place them high enough so predators can’t eat your nesting friends.
Sometimes, I grow birdhouse gourds in my garden. I harvest them in fall, drill a 1-inch hole in their bellies, spray with a high-gloss polyurethane, then hang ‘em high.
Each year, a new Mama Sparrow moves into the gourd I’ve hung over the porch light outside my kitchen window. All spring I watch her feather her nest and feed her hatchlings.
I wonder if she talks to them about the humans feeding outside her home.