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How to invite birds into your garden

Last week I shared with you my experience of putting up several feeders in my yard and the thrill of watching all the birds come to them. There is something about birds that completes the gardening experience. And there are several things we all can do as gardeners to encourage birds to visit our yards.

Obviously, installing feeders is a good start. But birds need more than just a feeding station to feel secure in the garden. They need places to hide from predators, a place to build a nest, sources of water and other natural food supplies such as bugs, worms, seeds and berries.

Creating a garden that is bird friendly seems simple enough. But unfortunately, it is often at odds with our concept of a northwest garden. The classic "low maintenance" garden with a few coniferous trees, some azaleas or rhododendrons and a swath of lawn is a pretty sterile environment for birds. If you are of the type that likes to keep all the shrubbery neatly trimmed into little green balls that don't touch each other and have an aversion to raking leaves in the fall then your odds of bringing birds into your yard are slim to none.

I am inclined to think that birds appreciate a bit of chaos and disorder in their environment. Having shrubs grow together can be a good thing. Having a large variety of plant material is another. Even a few weeds here and there can be a source of seeds for some birds. Letting the garden remain "messy" through the winter instead of cleaning everything up at the first frost is a good practice for keeping birds around in the winter months. In other words, being bird friendly may require a paradigm shift for some of us.

I am not implying that your whole yard needs to be a mess. Just try to leave some area, perhaps in the back, out of view, where you can let things get a bit wild. If you are fortunate enough to live near a green belt or native growth area then you may not even need to do that. Just remember that the birds need the safety of some thick shrubbery to retreat to when they feel threatened and also to nest in. And remember that bushes that aren't pruned all the time will be more inclined to flower and produce fruit for the birds.

Avoid the use of pesticides whenever possible. Birds eat bugs as well as seeds and if you eliminate all the bugs in your garden then there is nothing to draw the birds in. A garden full of bugs is a garden full of nutritious bird food. Learn to live with a few bugs in your life.

Put up some nest boxes for cavity-nesting birds like wrens and chickadees. I personally haven't got to this stage yet but I can see it coming. I have been fortunate in the past to have Robins nest in some of my shrubs and it was a delight to watch the eggs hatch and the chicks develop. Bird houses are the next obvious step. There are lots of sources on the internet on how to build a perfect bird house so I won't belabor that point.

Keep your cat indoors, especially during nesting season. I know that millions of birds are killed by domestic cats every year. It is an unfortunate consequence of urbanization. As an owner of two very old cats that no longer chase or kill anything, I can't imagine confining them to inside the house their whole life. They were raised as "outside cats". And over the course of their lives they have killed birds, bunnies, squirrels, mice and other creatures I am probably not aware of. I suppose the best solution here is to strike a balance between domestic pets and natural "pets" like the birds and hope it all works out.

Finally, if you make a decision to feed the birds then you need to be committed to do so throughout the winter and into the following spring. Migratory birds will stay at your feeder and decide not to migrate if you continue to feed them. But if you get lazy and stop feeding then those very birds may be doomed to starve to death. Remember to be a responsible bird watcher and always consider what is in the bird's best interest too.

For more information you can go to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Web site and click on the Backyard Wildlife Sanctuary Program. It will give you more information on the varieties of plants, types of feed and styles of birdhouses you can build to bring the birds into your garden.

Steve Smith is owner of

Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville, a retail garden center that is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. You can reach Steve at 425-334-2002 or online at info@sunnysidenursery.net.

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