By Janine Anderson, CPH
Professional Member, APLD
As human population increases and industry expands, our natural world shrinks, and with it the variety of life that makes our planet sustainable, habitable, and meaningful. Wild bird populations in North America have declined by almost 30% since 1970, representing a reduction of almost three billion birds over the past 50 years. Habitat loss plays a key role in this decline, and although bird-friendly gardens will not save the planet, they can help support remaining avian populations.
Why do we care about birds? It seems like a silly question given the delight many of us find in observing and listening to them, but birds also play a vital ecological role. Swallows help manage insect pests, such as mosquitos; raptors reduce rodent populations; and hummingbirds are among our many avian pollinators. Without pollinators, the human race and all of earth’s terrestrial ecosystems could not survive. Over 80 percent of the world’s flowering plants require a pollinator to reproduce, and birds, including hummingbirds, assist plants in their reproduction.
Barn swallows are among the many insectivores that help maintain an ecological balance, with flying insects making up 99% of their diet. Photo courtesy of Janine Anderson
Some might feel that a garden that encourages birds is inherently messy and unattractive. Not so! A wildlife-friendly landscape is more striking and enticing than a sterile swatch of lawn. Here are a few tips for creating a landscape that will be enjoyed by both you and your feathered friends.
What Do Birds Need?
Birds need many of the same things we do, including food, water, and shelter. They need homes to raise their young and they need places to feel safe. Many people have bird feeders, but adding plants that provide birds some of their basic needs is a more natural and healthier way to sustain them and also support their habitat.
Food. Your landscape designer can help you determine the best plants for your site that will also attract and feed birds. Among the many plants favored by birds are those that provide fruit, such as crabapple (Malus), serviceberry (Amelanchier), and mountain ash (Sorbus). Wax myrtle (Morella californica) is an attractive shrub for screening. The small black fruits that persist on the shrub from late summer into winter are devoured by varied thrush and Townsend’s warblers. Avoid overly invasive plants that can colonize natural areas after their seeds are deposited by birds. Among these are English holly, Cotoneaster, and butterfly bush.
The May-flowering crabapple, Malus transitoria ‘Golden Raindrops’, is visited by birds year round, but is especially popular with robins, who devour its golden berries from fall into spring. The rosemary in the foreground (Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Prostratus’) feeds Anna’s hummingbirds throughout winter and spring, and the leaf litter blanketing the ground below the understory plants provides cover and food for ground-foraging birds such as towhees and sparrows. Design by Janine Anderson; photo ©Doreen L. Wynja
Hummingbirds need to consume more than half their body weight in food every day. They get instant energy from flower nectar, but also find essential nutrients from eating pollen and insects such as aphids and spiders. Anna’s hummingbirds are the only year-round hummingbirds in the Seattle area, so a garden with nectar-producing plants in every season, including the coldest days of winter, is critical to their survival.
Arguably, the most stunning and reliable hummingbird attractants in winter are the hybrid mahonias, such as Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’. Native mahonias, including Mahonia nervosa, an evergreen groundcover, are effective as well. Other hummingbird favorites include hardy fuchsias, Camellia sasanqua, Arbutus unedo,Grevillea victoriae, and the numerous varieties of Abelia x grandiflora. Some of these plants also flower intermittently throughout the year. Among the more exotic as well as effective hummingbird magnets is the Chilean Fire Bush ( Embothrium coccineum), which bears brilliant orange red flowers in late spring.
Anna’s hummingbirds are nuts about Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’, which flowers in winter. Photo ©Richie Steffen/Great Plant Picks
Fuchsia magellanica ‘Windcliff Flurry’ is a summer magnet for Rufous and Anna’s hummingbirds. Photo courtesy of Janine Anderson
Many long-blooming perennials and annuals, especially those with bright red or orange tubular flowers, are attractive to hummingbirds as well. Eight-foot-tall Lobelia tupa and the summer-hardy Mexican Cigar Plant (Cuphea ignea) are two fine examples.
Rufous hummingbird gets nectar from flowers of Agapanthus ‘Blue Leap’. Photo ©Doreen L. Wynja
Water. Birds need water to drink, but they also love to bathe. Birds are drawn to moving water, so a shallow, recirculating bubbler fountain with gently sloping sides is ideal for meeting both needs. Hummingbirds are attracted to the moving water, but they also need to drink up to eight times their body weight in water every day!
Because birds are such enthusiastic bathers, the area surrounding a fountain becomes saturated, so any nearby plants should be tolerant of wet conditions. Many irises and related plants such as the grasslikeLibertia ixioides ‘Goldfinger’ perform well, as do rushes such as Juncus inflexus ‘Blue Arrows’. Avoid dense shrubbery adjacent to the fountain to make it harder for predators, such as cats, to skulk around unnoticed.
Recirculating fountains filter the water as it cycles through, but they still need cleaning and refreshing on a regular basis, especially if they are popular with a wide variety of birds.
Cedar Waxwings enjoy bath in shallow bubbling fountain. Photo courtesy of Janine Anderson
Other needs. Birds need homes. Watching as a pair of chickadees, for example, turn the house you have provided for them into a home for their young is endlessly fascinating, as are the round-the-clock feeding demands once the young emerge and the thrill (and fear) as the fledglings leave the nest. Be sure to provide the right box for the bird you want to house. For example, the entrance hole for a black-capped chickadee should be 1 to 1⅛ inches in diameter, whereas that for a red-breasted nuthatch should be 1-1/4 inches. Refer to the Resources listed at the end this article to learn more about how to create homes for birds.
Birds need to feel safe. Include in your landscape trees and shrubs that have perches from which birds can assess their surroundings. Keep cats indoors. Avoid chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and instead employ natural practices to improve the health and appearance of your garden.
Washington State Bird, the American goldfinch, perches on a branch of Southern Beech (Nothofagus antarctica) to survey the area for danger before bathing; afterward, the finch will return to the tree to preen. Photo courtesy of Janine Anderson
Russell Link’s 1999 book, Landscaping for Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest, is an indispensable guide that goes far beyond the scope of this article in showing you how to create an environment where birds and other wildlife, including bees and butterflies, can thrive. A new book by Douglas Tallamy, Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard, argues for eliminating lawn and creating a connected network of naturalistic gardens to help prevent the collapse of our ecosystems. The Great Plant Picks website lists plants for pollinators, including birds, that are appropriate for the Seattle area. The Washington Native Plant Society provides links to other resources for attracting and supporting birds and other wildlife.
Finally, if you want both a beautiful garden as well as birds, contact a landscape designer for assistance. Landscapes designers know how to design a garden that pleases birds and people alike!