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How to Welcome Migrating Birds to the Spring Garden

When birds start their southbound migration in late summer, they are moving through our gardens at an opportune time. Many of the plants are at their peak in terms of seeds, berries and fruit. These abundant food sources help prepare the birds for winter or for the next leg of their migration.

A least flycatcher uses a dead branch as a lookout for insect prey.

A least flycatcher uses a dead branch as a lookout for insect prey.

But the landscape has a much different look in the spring as the birds are returning north. It can be quite barren of resources. But there are actions we gardeners can take to make our properties more supportive of birds from earliest spring onward.

Resident and migratory birds, like all creatures, have three basic needs: water, food and shelter or cover. Focusing on these three basic needs will help us make our yards friendlier for the birds at any time of year.

Tolerate Insects in the Garden

Food can be quite a challenge for birds migrating north. Many of these migrants are insectivores, so the timing of their migration is synchronized with the growing abundance of arthropod food sources. If you’ve ever watched warblers or vireos in the trees and shrubs, they are busy gleaning insects off the bark and foliage of the plants.

Many species of plants support large populations of foliage-eating insects. As gardeners we often shy away from these plants, but many kinds of insects—and subsequently the birds that eat those bugs—depend on them. The National Audubon Society’s Native Plants Database is an online tool that helps you develop planting lists appropriate for your region; using its “types of plants” and “plant resources” filters, you can narrow the results to woody plants that attract caterpillars.

A golden-crowned sparrow has seized a caterpillar to eat or feed to its young.

A golden-crowned sparrow has seized a caterpillar to eat or feed to its young.

It’s important that we are cautious with pesticide applications. These not only reduce the insects available to birds, but they may also expose the birds to direct risk. As gardeners we often walk a fine line with our pesticide use. We always need to ask ourselves, “Is this treatment important to the health of the plant, or will it just make me feel better about how the plant looks?”

Flycatchers, as their name suggests, are adept at capturing flying insects. Many of these species find a perch on the end of a branch that allows them good visibility of their feeding zone. From this spot the bird can spot a meal and sally out to snatch it. Often a flycatcher selects a small dead branch in a tree or shrub for such a perch—so if you see a bird using a dead branch, resist the urge to remove it. A clue that a branch is regularly used is an accumulation of “whitewash” on the ground directly beneath it.

Consider having a good mix of early-season annuals and perennials in your garden. They may host insects that the birds can feed on. Early-blooming plants, either in flower beds or in pots, can also support hummingbirds as they move north to their nesting grounds. While hummingbirds are highly attracted to the color red, quality and quantity of nectar is their prime consideration. Tubular flowers tend to draw them, because hummingbirds’ long bills provide an advantage over other pollinators in accessing the nectar deep within.

Spring Seed Sources

While many of the birds migrating north from the tropics feast on insects, we shouldn’t forget the seed eaters, or granivores. Many of these will feed insects to their young in the nesting season, but they still depend on seeds into late spring. Often, gardeners take down their bird feeders at the start of spring, but many bird species won’t find natural seed sources for several more weeks, if not months. Go ahead and leave these feeders up into early summer or even year-round, unless you live in an area where they may invite bears. Be sure to clean the feeders and the ground below them regularly to prevent the spread of disease.

Another option is to grow your own sunflowers and store the intact heads in an insect-proof container through the winter, to be hung up in your yard or garden come spring. These sunflowers don’t have to be the large oilseed or confectionary cultivars. Finches, as well as other seed eaters, are adept at getting the small seeds out of any sunflower cultivar. Other flowers, like zinnias, can also be harvested and stored in the fall to be hung outside in the spring.

The Watering Hole

A bird bath is a great addition to any yard or garden. Birds are highly attracted to the sight and sound of moving water. Water features that include bubblers, misters, sprayers or even waterfalls will help birds resting in migration find water for drinking and bathing. Placing these near a bench or seat will allow you to sit quietly and watch the birds at the water. If you are quiet and still they will become accustomed to your presence. Just be sure to keep the water source cleaned and filled.

Give Them Shelter

Shelter for birds has several meanings. It can be a safe roosting place at night or cover that they can quickly retreat to when threatened by a predator. It can also be a safe place to nest and raise their young.

As gardeners we often take the “clean sweep” approach in the spring, trying to remove every last bit of old vegetation. This is a good sanitation method to reduce disease risk in many plants, but we don’t have to throw all this debris into the compost pile or trash. Find an out-of-the-way corner to pile the material, making sort of a miniature brush pile. To stop the wind from undoing your work, weigh down light materials with some larger branches. Birds will poke around in these mini brush piles for food and even take shelter there.

Such a pile offers an additional potential benefit. Birds use many different natural materials to build their nests. We think of small sticks as the main ingredients for nest construction, but other plant fibers are used as well. Birds will pull fibers from old plant stems to weave into their nests. The old flower stalks you just put into that mini brush pile are an excellent source for these fibers. Many species will also include hair in the nest, often as a lining. Placing pet hair in a coarse mesh bag hung in a tree can provide that extra nesting material.

Image credits

Flycatcher on perch by Andrew Weitzel/CC BY-SA 2.0

Sparrow with caterpillar by Jacob W. Frank/National Park Service/Public Domain