The Plant Man column
for publication the week of 01/04/04 - 01/10/04 (740 words)
The Plant Man
by Steve Jones
Make your garden "bird friendly" this winter
Birds and gardens. They just seem to belong together. A landscape
without birds would be a sad place indeed. In fact, we take the
presence of birds in our lives so much for granted that we hardly even
notice them for the most part. They're just ... there. But we'd
certainly miss them if they weren't!
Several readers of this column have sent me e-mail with comments or
questions about wild birds in the garden, and I thought I'd start by
talking about caring for birds during the cold winter months.
At this time of year, birds have three basic needs: food water and
We can do quite a bit to provide for all three of those needs!
There are a number of good bird feeders available in specialty stores
or from online sources. Some claim to be "squirrel proof" but for the
most part I'd say "squirrel resistant" is a better description as the
little guys seem capable of overcoming even the most ingenious
Think carefully before you position your new bird feeder. If you like
to watch the birds as they munch away, you'll obviously want to place
the feeder where you can easily see it from your window.
Birds prefer to visit a feeder that is fairly close to a dense bush or
This gives them a staging post where they can land before approaching
the feeder. It also provides a nearby refuge in case they have to
escape from a predator such a hawk or your neighbor's prowling cat!
It is a temptation to buy a sack of the cheapest possible bird feed at
the supermarket. Feeds that contain a high proportion of cracked
corn, milo and wheat are generally low cost, but aren't particularly
desirable to a lot of birds. You'll tend to find a lot of spilled and
uneaten beneath your bird feeder, and that can attract rats. Not such
a good idea!
I find it's worth paying a little more and getting a sack of sunflower
seeds which seem very popular with the birds who visit my garden! If
you intend to attract a particular breed, you might want to consult a
specialty store or look online. I found a long and very helpful
article online at http://birdware.com/owbf.htm titled "Overview of
Wild Bird Feeding" by Aelred D. Geis, Ph.D. If you go to my web site,
www.landsteward.org and find this column under "The Plant Man"
heading, you can click on a direct hot link to that article, which I
By the way, Dr. Geis advocates keeping bird feeders stocked year
round, rather than just in winter, even though other sources of food
are more readily available in the warmer months. If you enjoy seeing
birds in your back yard, it sounds like a good idea.
At this time of year, I also hang cakes of suet from tree branches. I
buy them ready-made, but it's fairly simple to make your own if you
prefer. I found a number of recipes at http://www.birding.about.com
and again, there's a direct link to that site from this column at my
In addition to food, it is important that birds have clean, fresh
drinking water available.
The best bird baths have a wide, shallow bowl, no more than three
inches deep at the center. The bird bath can be as plain or as fancy
as you wish:
the birds won't mind either way! A friend of mine set up a "dripper"
in his bird bath and says that birds seems to be particularly
attracted to the sight and sound of the dripping water.
Check your bird bath regularly to make sure the water is clean. Leaves
and other debris that fall into the bird bath quickly turn to slime,
making the water unpalatable. When the temperature falls below
freezing, add warm water to the bath several times a day.
Birds also need shelter, and I'll discuss various types of bird houses
in a future column. Meanwhile, take a moment to check that your bird
feeder is well stocked and the bird bath is clean and fresh!
The Plant Man is here to help. Send you questions about trees, shrubs
and landscaping to email@example.com and for resources and
additional information, including archived Plant Man columns, visit
www.landsteward.org where you can also subscribe to Steve's free