Gardening for the Birds

Parks at Home, Nature Notes

A few days ago, I took a trip to the grocery store and when I got there, all the food was free! Awesome! Having hit the jackpot, I busily began collecting food and nibbling on some snacks. Out of nowhere, a hairy creature about 50 times my size with huge front teeth and a bushy tail landed on top of the shelf where I was browsing. Dropping all my groceries, I fled for the nearest shelter and hid.

After the monster left, I emerged from hiding along with a few fellow shoppers. On high alert now, I watched my surroundings carefully. While one fellow shopper kept scratching his neck a lot, nobody bothered me. However, when I got to the baby aisle, I realized I had an even bigger problem: Tons of food for adults but no baby formula! As I searched, the hairy monster revisited twice more, causing me to flee repeatedly.

Exhausted, I kept looking for something for my baby to eat and scratching my now rather-itchy neck that was fine before I visited this awful store. Suddenly, a dark shadow passed overhead and I began to flee again. But, exhausted from my earlier runs and distracted by my itchy neck, I was a tad slower this time. In a rush of air and beating wings, the dark shadow scooped me up. Gulp! I become lunch.


While first, I will assure our readers that this is a completely fabricated tale (I am not writing from beyond the grave and no one needs to call the health department!), it does illustrate some of the problems a small bird such as a chickadee might encounter at a bird feeder. In this story, I was a chickadee, had to compete with a squirrel for my food, caught some mites or lice from another songbird, could not find food for my hatchlings and ultimately, was too exhausted to fly the long distance to safety, so I was eaten by a hawk.

A Carolina Chickadee sits on a tree branch in front of a bright red barn.
A Carolina Chickadee sits on a tree branch at Farbach-Werner Nature Preserve. Photo: Paul Seevers

Bird feeders are a good source of food for birds and can bring a lot of enjoyment to bird watchers. Many of the problems mentioned above occur in feeders that are placed in the middle of a grassy lawn with no other plants nearby. Using plants, especially Ohio natives, around the bird feeder and throughout the yard will create a more holistic and safer habitat for the birds.

Wild Blue Phlox
Incorporating native plants like wild blue phlox into a garden will help local wildlife. Photo: Paul Seevers
Space!

Planting other food sources in the yard will encourage birds and wildlife to spread out. This keeps larger animals such as (squirrels, red-bellied woodpeckers^, deer, etc.) from monopolizing the food source and reduces close, prolonged contact between birds that can spread diseases quickly. For berry-loving birds, plant serviceberry, dogwoods, viburnum, spicebush and eastern red cedar*. For seed- and nut-loving birds, plant coneflowers, aster, sunflowers, ironweed, oak, hickory and birch*.

Shelter!

Birds need a place close to the feeder where they are safe from predators. Locate trees and bushes close to the feeder so birds have less distance to travel back and forth. Placing shelter nearby reduces the risk of predation and saves precious energy spent traveling from the feeder to the shelter. This can be especially important for birds who are raising young, overwintering or preparing to migrate.

A blue jay fledgling sits in the grass.
Don’t get hangry, eat some insects! Photo: Bill Kennedy
Baby Food!

Almost all songbirds in Ohio use insects larva not seeds to feed their young. Planting oaks, willows, cherries, plums and birches can attract insects to lay caterpillars and other larva in the trees, which in turn provides food for birds to successfully raise their young. Please do not run away screaming just because I suggested inviting insects to the yard. Most of these insects will not even be noticed and definitely will not live long! Parent chickadees collect 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars* to raise a clutch of eggs to fledgling, and chickadees are one of the smaller bird species. With just a couple of nests in the yard, parent birds will keep the insect populations under control.

Check out some of these sources below for more information on how to create bird habitats through gardening and for places to purchase Ohio native plants.

A bee lands on the pink flower of common milkweed.
Native plants help more than just birds – plants like common milkweed help bees and other local pollinators. Photo: Lisa Salehpour

References

Native Plant Sources & More Information


Ellen Meehan
Nature Interpreter, Parky’s Farm

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