Several years ago, I 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 their 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. This is due largely to a loss of healthy woodland habitat.
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. 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 will not provide as much habitat for birds as properties with deep borders or wooded property lines. And many different bird species 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, it is important that your annual meadow mowing takes place when these birds are not nesting.
Food for Birds
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 and some eat berries, but nearly all of them raise their young on insects. So believe it or not, if you want birds on your property a healthy insect population is critical.
So, how do you attract insects to your property? Studies show that insects and native plants go hand in hand. For example, the mighty oak hosts up to 517 different kinds of caterpillars for our birds to eat (Tallamy, Douglas, Brining Nature Home, page 126). In contrast, non-native ornamental plants support minimal insect species. And curiously, most people do not even notice that insects are there. All you are likely to see are the many different bird species flitting among the branches looking for meals.
In addition to supporting insect populations, native plants provide nutritious seeds and berries for birds at appropriate times of year. Birds are familiar with our native plants and look for them, especially during migration.
We call these relationships 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 will attract birds to your yard and provide a great spot for you to watch these invited guests. Better yet, a small fountain can be a focal point in your garden and 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 bird species that arrive in your yard. All that’s left to do now is get a good pair of binoculars!