Bring in the Birds

As songbird populations are declining dramatically, organic gardeners can help them survive by creating a habitat in their backyards.

By Kris Wetherbee

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Watering Essentials
For birds, finding fresh water can often be more elusive than food. Well-planned bird gardens supply water year-round for drinking and bathing. Providing water can be as easy as putting out a few birdbaths, or you can take on a more challenging project by installing a pond complete with a waterfall.

The sound of running water attracts birds. If your water source is small, they may not be able to see it from a distance, but they often hear the sound. Waterfalls, gurgling fountains, or the gentle trickle from a birdbath drip system will bring in birds and make your water feature less hospitable to mosquitoes looking for a place to lay eggs.

Water sources don't need to be manmade or store-bought. Hostas, dogwoods, and other plants with concave surfaces collect pools of water that make the perfect-sized bath for hummingbirds, warblers, and other smaller birds. Even a natural depression in a rock or plastic-lined hollow in the soil can serve as a simple water source. "Any kind of depression that receives rainfall or gets wetted by a sprinkler system holds water for a day or two," Lederer says.

Planning Your Plantings
A good landscaping plan helps combat habitat loss and increases bird populations and the number of species you see. Offering creature comforts as a four-season, multilayered package of groundcovers, vines, plants, trees, and shrubs—both deciduous and evergreen—is essential to attracting birds. But the key to designing a garden that is a popular bird destination spot, not just a fleeting stopover, is to grow a diverse range of plants and plan the habitat using three basic landscaping principles: unity, variety, and transition.

Unity. From a bird's-eye view, a solitary plant doesn't hold much impact. Birds are much more likely to flock to a large grouping of plants. Large drifts or plant clusters also appeal to people, because they appear more spontaneous and natural and make a landscape look cohesive.

Variety. A mix of plant sizes, colors, textures, and season of bloom brings in a variety of birds by offering different foraging opportunities and maximum year-round habitat. For example, flowering trees, shrubs, and vines that offer fruit during different seasons provide four-season sustenance for birds along with year-round interest for you and your family.

Transition. Different species of birds exist at different levels of the vertical space between the tree canopy and the soil. Juncos, for example, are ground-feeding and ground-nesting birds, whereas nuthatches nest and typically feed in trees. In a bird-friendly garden, the plants transition naturally from groundcovers to perennials and shrubs to trees—creating a multilayered habitat that appeals to a wide range of species.

Planning your garden, whatever its size, with birds in mind makes a critical difference in their survival rates—especially for birds that migrate. "It's like stopping at a gas station on a long, cross-country drive—they get enough food and rest to keep them going, at least until the next stop," says ornithologist Andy Forbes, director of bird conservation at Audubon Missouri. "A garden can be a lifesaver for a bird that has been knocked down or thrown off course by inclement weather. Of course, planting a bird garden impacts the gardener as well," notes Lederer. "Birds are ecological indicators—their changes in population reflect what is happening to the larger environment," he says. "Everything we do to replace what we have paved over will make life more pleasant for us as well as the birds."

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