EVERY YEAR, I vow to learn more about the birds that visit my garden. I’m pretty well-versed on the shore birds that populate our neighborhood on the lost island of West Seattle: the resident blue heron with its pterodactyl screech, a bald eagle — sometimes two — that perches in a towering cottonwood down the block. And, of course, seagulls and terns galore. They are an independent lot relying on a diet of fish, shellfish and the occasional French fry.
Sadly, I have a blind spot when it comes to songbirds.
I want to know the chickadees, bushtits, warblers and finches, barn swallows, wrens and the tiny ruby-crowned kinglet. To me, they’re all just LBBs (little brown birds). Clearly, I am not a birder.
Out in my garden, nectar-rich blossoms and tender new growth inevitably attract insects. This veritable bird buffet of sugars and protein, which sounds so much nicer than aphids on the roses, is exactly what birds need when nesting and raising their young. In fact, Josh Morris, urban conservation manager with Seattle Audubon, told me that 96% of all terrestrial birds raise their young on insects. “No bugs, no baby birds,” he said.
“Audubon at Home in Seattle: Gardening for Life,” a free publication from Seattle Audubon, recommends that gardeners looking to create a wildlife-friendly garden “practice peace in the garden.” In other words, stop killing things. And please, keep cats indoors.
Another way to support a healthy insect population (read: homegrown bird food) is by including native plants in your landscape. Garden-friendly Washington natives, like serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) and bunchberry (Cornus canadensis), furnish a layered landscape, from canopy to understory, with beautiful blossoms and fruit, another valuable food source for birds as the season progresses. Native fruiting shrubs like chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) and evergreen huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum) might even prove a delicious distraction from cultivated fruits and berries. Chokeberries for the birds, blueberries for me.
At this time of the year, seed-bearing grasses and perennials serve up heartier bird fare that’s rich in fats, valuable provisions in the face of the coming cold months. Don’t be so quick to clean up. Or, as the Seattle Audubon publication puts it, “In the garden, death is the raw material of life.” Consider this a bird-friendly permission slip to let seed heads and faded plants stand well into the winter.
Like all living creatures, in addition to food and water, birds require shelter. Mature conifers and large trees are often the first casualties of development, and the resulting loss of wildlife habitat can’t easily be replaced. If your garden is home to large trees, steward those giants like the living treasures they are. But even small fragments of nature provided by home gardens and greenspaces, patio containers and windowsill plantings invite and support wildlife. It all connects.
Last spring, a pair of house finches fostered their brood in the arborvitae hedge between our house and the neighbors’. Or maybe they were purple finches; I find birds so much more difficult to identify than a stationary perennial. My husband and I spent hours on our small deck taking in fluttering wings and impressive trilling as the avian courtship played out in the branches of the witch hazel, our wildlife companions in quarantine. A few weeks later, we heard chirping when the nestlings hatched. I’ve never been so grateful for aphids.
(Download a copy of “Audubon at Home in Seattle: Gardening for Life” at seattleaudubon.org.)