I recently read my 11-year-old son’s persuasive essay explaining why spring is the best season. His three arguments were based on sports, weather, and birds. It caused me to wonder, why do birds returning to our area each spring bring joy and hope to people of all ages? Maybe it is the hustle and bustle of activity as the weather warms, or maybe it is the beauty and apparent fragility of these tiny creatures. My own personal theory is that they sing.Henry David Thoreau wrote of the wood thrush, “Whenever a man hears it, he is young, and Nature is in her spring; whenever he hears it, it is a new world and a free country, and the gates of heaven are not shut against him.” I believe the wood thrush, and all of our songbirds are worth providing for and protecting.
Unfortunately, many of our bird populations are declining. For example, according to Audubon Pennsylvania, the Wood Thrush population has declined 62% since 1967, due largely to loss of healthy woodland habitat.
So what can we do to reverse this trend? The answer is not a difficult one. All living things need three elements to survive; shelter, food, and water, and we can provide all of these with a well landscaped property.
First, let’s discuss shelter. For most birds in our area, a mix of evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs is all you need to provide shelter, and the more the better. Large expanses of lawn, with a few other plants on the property, will not provide nearly as much habitat as properties with deep borders or wooded property lines. Many different birds will visit your property given richly planted areas.
In contrast to the Wood Thrush which requires wooded areas, there are also a few bird species, such as the Eastern Meadowlark, that nest in tall grassy areas on the ground. If you are lucky enough to have a large property, a meadow could be the answer for you. Just remember, if you plan to have a meadow, it is important that your annual mowing takes place when these birds are not nesting.
Food is the next element that a well landscaped property provides for birds, and when it comes to providing food for birds, nothing beats native plants. Some of our feathered friends may eat seeds and berries, but nearly all of them raise their young on insects. So believe it or not, if you want birds on your property, you want a healthy insect population. Studies have shown that insects and native plants go hand in hand. The mighty oak hosts up to 517 different kinds of caterpillars for our birds to eat, and most people do not even notice that the insects are there (Tallamy, page 126). All you are likely to see are the many different bird species flitting among the branches looking for meals.
Although some native plants can host many different insect species, sometimes insects depend on a single plant species for survival. For example, Monarch Butterfly caterpillars eat only our native milkweed (Asclepias species), even though milkweed leaves are poisonous to most other insects. So if you like Monarch butterflies, you would be wise to plant one of our milkweeds. All of this shows that there are many relationships among plants, insects, birds, and other animals. We call this the food web, and a complex food web correlates with a healthy environment. A diverse landscape of native plants is the first step in achieving a complex and healthy environment in your yard.
Along with shelter and food, birds need water. A simple bird bath, placed near some shrubs will attract birds to your yard, and provide a great spot for you to watch these invited guests. Better yet, a water feature with a small fountain can be a focal point in your garden, as it also attracts birds with the trickling sound of water. You will enjoy hours of watching birds splash in the fountain.
You may already have some birds on your property this spring, but by providing abundant shelter, food for adults and their young, and a constant source of water, you will be surprised at the number of different birds that continue to arrive in your yard. All that’s left to do now is get a good pair of binoculars!