In this most isolated of springs, birds have kept me company. I’ve watched their mating games and turf wars, listened to their serenades and tagged along as they shopped for just the right piece of garden real estate (as long as I was very quiet; no kibitzing, Margaret). Some even let me meet their newborns when the big moment came.
All the things I cannot do with my people so much lately, we’ve been doing as usual; the birds remained in my bubble all along. I cannot imagine life without the 70 or so species that visit or reside in the garden each year. As I often say (and write): The birds taught me to garden — or at least to do it smarter.
When I first came as a weekender decades ago from New York City to the rural spot where I now live full time, there were unfamiliar voices and flashes of color in the surrounding shrubs and trees as I hacked through multiflora rose and wild blackberry to make vegetable and flower beds.
I got a field guide and learned their names: scarlet tanager, indigo bunting, American redstart, rose-breasted grosbeak. In the same way that my beginning-gardener self coveted every plant in her first garden catalogs, I imagined attracting every bird in that book.
Like most beginners, I sought the answer in fancy feeders and every manner of well-designed birdhouse — designed from a human aesthetic, that is, although not necessarily meeting bird specifications. Eventually I came to visualize this place as their refuge: shelter and water within a giant, living bird feeder that offers appropriate sustenance for breeding season, to fuel migration’s big energy demands or to survive the coldest months for those who choose to spend them with me.
Studying my growing collection of field guides on the life histories and diets of birds that I’d see — the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds site and its online courses are good resources, as well — I reduced lawn areas to make room for native plants and to support more insects and, in turn, birds. Nearly every organism in the food web eats insects or eats someone who eats them — or benefits from the pollination services that insects provide.
Thinking of plant choices not as just ornament but as ecological workhorses is not where I began. But it’s where I came to — to think in terms of habitat.
Something I heard the ornithologist Pete Dunne say has stuck: “Birds are almost always where they are supposed to be.” Mr. Dunne, a longtime leader in New Jersey Audubon and the author of many books, was offering a tip about bird-watching: The habitat where you spot a bird is an important clue to its identification. But his insight is also key to setting realistic expectations and planning what to do to enhance your site.
Reality check: No matter what I do, waterfowl or grassland birds won’t favor my garden — although both pass time nearby. I am on a steep uphill site, surrounded by second-growth forest. Forest birds, including migrant songbirds looking for breeding ground, plus lots and lots of woodpeckers, think it looks just swell and are among those I need to think about.
In addition to mowing less, I have adopted two particular actions on behalf of the birds — on behalf of habitat — that involve no planting at all.
No. 1: Leave Dying Trees Alone
These days, I never take down a dead or dying tree lower than the level required for safety.
A friend texted a photo recently of a declining, massive old oak in a prominent spot in her suburban backyard. She had consulted an arborist who suggested removal and grinding out the stump, standard practice in residential environments.
“I guess trees have a life, and unfortunately this beauty is at the end,” she wrote.
I begged to differ, and quickly shot back photos of an old birch that had been dropping big pieces of its canopy out back years ago, and a massive maple by the driveway that had been doing likewise recently. My arborist had helped me stabilize and transition them to wildlife trees, or snags — a critical part of habitat that we homeowners too often erase in the name of neatness.
As long as they pose no danger to people, power lines or structures, dead and dying trees have an afterlife as a place for wildlife to nest or den; a lookout perch for a raptor seeking dinner; a food source for insects (who, in turn, feed the masses). Lichen, fungi and mosses grow on them, providing food and shelter.
Removing their tons of biomass deprives the food web of all of that life-giving potential. According to the National Wildlife Federation, the removal of dead material from forests can mean a loss of habitat for up to a fifth of the animals in the ecosystem, and more than 1,000 species of wildlife nationwide use snags. That includes woodpeckers, whose excavating efforts in dead trees help not just their own species.
“More than 40 bird species in North America depend on woodpecker carpentry for their nest and roost cavities,” writes Stephen Shunk in “Peterson Reference Guide to Woodpeckers of North America.” These secondary nesters — among them, tree swallows, bluebirds, titmice, wrens, flycatchers and some owls and ducks — cannot create cavities, but quickly adopt abandoned holes.
“Having a more healthy woodpecker population buys you more than just woodpeckers,” John Marzluff, an ornithologist and urban ecologist at the University of Washington, told me in an interview a few years ago on the publication of “Welcome to Subirdia,” his book about rich habitat opportunities in developed areas. “But they need dead trees.”
Too-tidy landscapes offer no invitation to the woodpeckers, keystone species or facilitators others rely on. Besides nest cavities, some woodpeckers create sap wells where hummingbirds and butterflies, like the red-spotted purple, like to drink. Migrating ruby-throated hummingbirds follow yellow-bellied sapsuckers to ensure an early food source before many plants are providing nectar.
The bigger the snag, the better for wildlife, but safety must be considered. The safe height in my open, rural garden exceeds what works elsewhere, which may be less than 10 feet (where my friend’s oak, rescued from destruction, now registers). Big pieces of the upper carcass of each of my snags lie near where they once stood, mimicking how they would fall and decompose in a forest — which, again, might not work in some yards.
Some twiggy parts could form an out-of-the-way brush pile, though, another wildlife attractor. Even a high stump can support a lot of life, compared to a ground-level cut or ground-out one.
Yes, there can be birdhouses — but not the models I started with. Choose them not for cuteness, but according to the specifications preferred by local cavity nesters. Cornell’s NestWatch site, with its All About Bird Houses section, will guide you to your area’s cavity-nesting species, ranked in order of urgency of need for more nest sites, with downloadable plans for boxes and nesting shelves. Build one or have it built, or use the dimensions to buy the right box.
Be a good landlord, siting the proper unit in the location that the instructions indicate. Secure the birdhouse against predators, by adding a stovepipe baffle on the pole mount, for instance, in the case of bluebird boxes. (More on bluebirds is at Sialis.org.) Clean nest boxes in late winter to offer a fresh start.
No. 2: Provide a Water Supply
Maybe my biggest non-planting contribution of all: I provide water 12 months a year.
For entirely selfish reasons — to create the sound of running water — I dug two in-ground pools lined with thick rubber sheeting early in my weekender days. I had no idea the effect they would have on wildlife, particularly because I keep a hole in the ice all winter with an electric floating de-icer, a contraption adapted from cattle-tank defrosters used so livestock can have drinking water in winter. The smallest versions will keep a birdbath open for business.
I calculated the required device wattage with help from a water-garden specialty supply company, by considering the severity of the winter temperatures where I live, plus the total surface area of each pool, and installed weather-resistant GFCI outlets adjacent to each pool. (An important safety note: De-icers cannot run on extension cords.) The idea is not to heat the water or keep the entire surface open, but merely to keep a drinking hole open in the ice.
The warbler called Louisiana waterthrush is a regular customer, bobbing the back of its body up and down to some unheard dance beat as it forages for insects. One winter, the bigger pool (and the fruit of a group of crab apple trees just above) drew a flock of irruptive pine grosbeaks visiting from Canada, who spent some weeks there.
I can look up from my desk at any time of day, any time of year, and there is hardly a moment when someone — feathered, fur-bearing, amphibian or otherwise, including a diversity of summer dragonflies — is not partaking.
So much so that when people ask me what my favorite “bird plant” is, I often reply, “Water.” (The real answer: One of the many native flowering-then-fruiting winterberry holly shrubs massed around the perimeter, which bring in winter flocks of cedar waxwings and robins. Your most effective bird-supporting native plants can be found in a ZIP code-based search on the Audubon Society website.)
The only other place in the garden that competes with the little pools for such nonstop activity? The older snag, that birch, where even as I write this, a pileated woodpecker is having at it.
Bird Safety: A Few Tips
If you provide bird feeders, as I do in winter, when resident black bear are not active, keep them clean and consistently well stocked.
And mitigate the two most serious dangers to birds in our human environments: cats and window glass.
The American Bird Conservancy urges us to help reduce window strikes, which kill up to a billion birds a year in the United States. Exterior screens, netting and certain decals, and even retrofitting with new patterned glass, are among the recommended options.
To reduce the danger of high-speed impacts, place feeders and birdbaths closer than three feet to a window or farther than 30 feet away.
Domestic and feral cats kill some 2.4 billion birds annually in the United States, according to the American Bird Conservancy — “the largest human-caused mortality to birds.” There is only one solution: Keep pet cats indoors.