In the symphony that is a living garden, our favourite section is the singing birds.
A breeze through tall grass, the crunch of gravel underfoot and a frog croaking all play their part in this soundtrack.
But nothing can stop us in our tracks like birdsong.
Our friends at Bird Studies Canada (BSC) remind us that birds are an important indicator of the health of our environment. Healthy planet, healthy birds.
Our favourite way to promote and enjoy birds is by bringing them right into the backyard by providing food and habitat. Here’s how:
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PLANTS. They’re a one-stop-shop for food and shelter. Birds prefer fruits and seeds right off the plant, and most birds either build their nests in a tree, shrub or stand of grass, or make their nests from pieces of it.
Flowers such as asters, black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia), Echinacea (purple coneflower) and Coreopsis add colour to your yard and also attract a range of song birds from cardinals to colourful finches. Perennials left standing through the winter have been foraged by the birds and are ready to be cut down now that it’s spring.
Native ornamental grasses attract sparrows, finches and other small birds that eat seeds. Robins and sparrows pick up coarse blades to construct the main walls of their nest, then revisit for finer-textured blades to pad the soft lining of the interior. We recommend planting big bluestem, little bluestem, northern sea oats or side oats. Leave these grasses standing through the winter to provide habitat for overwintering species, such as dark-eyed juncos.
Shrubs host the nests of robins, waxwings and cardinals and are also the stage for their eating and singing, like old friends at a kitchen ceilidh. Mulberries and serviceberries are two medium-sized, summer-fruiting shrubs that are especially popular with this crowd. Flowering dogwood bears fruit in the fall to keep them coming, as does crab apple, which holds its fruit into the winter
Trees are the bird equivalent of a residential highrise, bustling with life. White oaks provide nesting opportunities to woodpeckers, jays and even wood ducks, and unlike other oaks, white oaks produce acorns every year. Native tree species are found to support more bird life and we recommend red maple or black, red and white spruce, grey, white and yellow birch or black willow, if you have lots of space.
Once you have created a bountiful bird food-garden, supplement with the right bird feed. Our guidelines:
Birds will forgive you for letting the feeders go empty. While a feeder helps bring birds to your yard, it will only ever be one of many food sources they depend on — so don’t race home from the cottage to fill your bird feeders.
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Buy seed based on the birds you wish to attract. The following seed recommendations are from the BSC:
Black oil sunflower seed will attract cardinals, black-capped chickadees, mourning doves, dark-eyed juncos, song sparrows and common grackles.
Suet and bird peanuts attract blue jays, red-breasted nuthatchs, downy woodpeckers, white-breasted nuthatchs and hairy woodpeckers. Avoid “human peanuts” — the salt is harmful to birds.
Nyjer/black oil sunflower will attract the smaller house finch, American goldfinch, purple finch, common redpoll and pine siskin.
Don’t forget about water. This is extremely important as birds, like humans, need to drink and bathe.
As you enjoy the birds around you, consider joining a “citizen science” initiative through BSC, such as Project FeederWatch. Simply count the kinds and numbers of birds at your feeder and report it back for BSC to add to their comprehensive database.
Information about the health of our bird population helps us understand the health of the broader environment. Go to birdscanada.org.
Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author, broadcaster, tree advocate and holds the Order of Canada. His son Ben is a fourth-generation urban gardener and graduate of University of Guelph and Dalhousie University in Halifax. Follow them at markcullen.com, @markcullengardening, on Facebook and bi-weekly on Global TV’s Morning Show.