Ask A Master Gardener – Benefits of Backyard Birds

One positive consequence of the recent pandemic induced lockdown was a spike in bird watching.  Businesses that cater to bird aficionados reported a 50% uptick in sales of supplies.  There is no question that our feathered friends bring joy with their antics and lilting songs, but gardeners reap benefits as well and should make an effort to attract beneficial birds to their landscape.

Bluebird populations plummeted in the 1980s, but have made a significant rebound.  They are every gardener’s friend because their spring diet is insects, insects, and more insects.  They consume grasshoppers, beetles, weevils, crickets, and caterpillars, by the pound.  Most of them migrate south for the winter and they do require a nesting box mounted on a post within 50 feet of a tree or fence and away from any busy fencerow.  However, with a small investment, the return in pest control is well worth it.

Chickadees are pest control champions.  Black-capped chickadees overwinter in Wisconsin and will be frequent cheerful visitors at a feeder.  However, once spring hits, upwards of 90 percent of their diet consists of insects, including moths, caterpillars, plant scale, beetles, flies, tree and leaf hoppers and more.

Swallows are the acrobatic wonders of the bird world.  They swoop and twirl through the air as they snatch winged insects (think: mosquitoes) to eat. Flying insects make up 99 percent of their spring diet, helping keep landscapes clear of beetles, grasshoppers, and moths.  These summer Wisconsin residents can easily be attracted with nesting boxes or nesting shelves, depending on the species.

Nuthatches are known as the “upside-down birds” because of their tendency to hop down the side of a tree as easily as they go up.  They stay in Wisconsin all winter and will enjoy sunflower seeds and nuts at a feeder.  Once summer hits, that upside down behavior serves them well as they search for ants, scale, moth eggs, caterpillars, and cocoons in the crevices of trees.  In the summer months they become one-hundred percent insectivores, making them another of the gardener’s best friend.

Many finches stay in Wisconsin during the winter including goldfinches.  However, goldfinches lose their brilliant yellow color and fade to a tan, or olive-yellow color.  While these birds are not insectivores, they do perform an important function for gardeners as they gobble up seeds in the fall, particularly thistle seeds, keeping them from falling into gardens and sprouting.

Now that we have established that these birds are a boon to gardeners, what is the next step?  Provide them with their life requirements: food, water, and shelter.  While most are insectivores, planting native plants will provide the habitat necessary for the insect buffet they need to survive.  Install a variety of plants at varying heights to suit the needs of all species.

Don’t neglect supplemental food in the winter. Use different types of feeders and have them at different heights.  Be sure to periodically clean the feeders to prevent disease spread. Provide a shallow (one inch deep) source of clean water all year for drinking and bathing.

Provide nesting boxes as you are able for those birds who would utilize them.  Make sure the box is tailored to the species you are attracting.  Cornell University has excellent information to guide you: https://www.birds.cornell.edu/home/ .

Carol Shirk

Certified Master Gardener

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