Work with nature to attract beneficial garden birds.

We gardeners have a mixed relationship with birds. On the one hand, we welcome birds that eat pests and pollinate our plants; on the other, we curse those that peck at our berries and dig up our seeds. Can we encourage birds in the garden without the drawbacks?

The role of birds in the garden

Birds are a key part of the natural cycle that supports gardens all year long. In the springtime, they reduce the sprouting of weeds in garden beds, hunt insects, and control rodents with a voracious appetite driven by the need to feed their young. As the year goes on, they pollinate plants and disperse seeds. They do all this while bringing cheerful songs to the garden and ensuring balance in our ecosystem.

Consider the following bird benefits:

  • Pest control: Songbirds help control the spread of aphids, codling moth, whitefly, scale, ants, caterpillars, and earwigs, along with many other insects. Raptors hunt and kill mice and rats. While less popular, starlings and blackbirds snack on slugs.
  • Weed control: Many birds pluck weed seeds from plants or the soil, dispersing far away and preventing concentrated germination.
  • Pollination: Birds spread pollen when sipping nectar from their favored red, orange and yellow flowers. Tubular-shaped blossoms are a favorite of hummingbirds.

songbird in tree blossoms

Which birds 'work' in the garden?

Many birds are responsible for the above benefits. Here are some common types that tackle problems when we provide habitat nearby.

  • Chickadees: Cheerful and fast, these small, energetic birds feed on insects, caterpillars, and beetles. They are especially helpful in controlling caterpillar populations.
  • Bluebirds: Bluebirds prey on a variety of insects including beetles, caterpillars, and grasshoppers. Installing a bluebird nesting box can attract them to your garden.
  • Swallows: Swallows are aerial hunters that eat flying insects like mosquitoes, flies and moths. They are attracted to open spaces like eco-lawns and meadows.
  • Robins: While known for their earthworm diet, robins also eat the insects and larvae found in lawns and gardens.
  • Nuthatches: These agile birds forage for insects on tree trunks and branches, feeding on beetles, ants, and caterpillars. Attract them with suet feeders hung in trees or areas near other coverage.
  • Wrens: Wrens are insect-eaters and are particularly fond of spiders, caterpillars, and other small insects. Dense shrubbery provides good cover for these active birds.
  • Titmice: Titmice eat a wide range of pests, including aphids, caterpillars, and scale insects. They are attracted to gardens with a variety of trees and shrubs.
  • Sparrows: Sparrows feed on insects, including aphids and caterpillars. While some sparrows can cause damage to garden crops, many are beneficial insect foragers whose benefits outweigh the risks in the home garden.

Which birds might cause issues in the garden?

Despite their overall benefits, some bird species can damage crops by pecking at ripening crops and digging up seeds before they’ve germinated. Pigeons can be problematic due to their large populations and big appetites. They may feed on crops, fruits, and seeds, causing damage to plants. European starlings can form large flocks known to consume fruits, vegetables, and seeds. And the highly intelligent crows and magpies may dig up newly planted seeds, damage crops, and disturb nesting songbirds. Thankfully, there are controls that can help protect your crops without harming birds.

Physical barriers

While we don’t advocate using bird netting in the home garden due to the danger it poses to songbirds and other wildlife, gardeners can use cold frames, cloches, and insect mesh to protect crops on a small scale. Greenhouse growing is also an option, depending on the desired crop and geographical location. We’ve found success discouraging bird diggers by laying down a roll of ¼ inch mesh hardware cloth over freshly planted pea seeds. We prop this about 4 inches above the soil with boards that also seal around its perimeter, preventing entry. Later, when the plants have sprouted and grown 2 to 3 inches, we remove the mesh.

Visual distraction

Investing in scare devices, such as reflective tape or bird balloons, can help deter these birds through visual disturbances. (Noise makers typically don’t deter birds for long, and aren’t usually worth the expense.) Additionally, strategically placing decoys of natural predators may instill a sense of danger.

Redirection and Cleanliness

Installing bird feeders away from the garden area can redirect the attention of competitor birds, providing the alternative food source is to their liking. Regularly harvesting ripe fruits and promptly removing fallen ones can also minimize the lure for these birds.

Creating helper habitat

Attracting songbirds and other species to your garden doesn’t have to mean attracting bird competitors. That’s because songbirds generally prefer different habitats than the competitor birds described above. Taking care with the habitat you create can help you target the birds that are beneficial to your garden.

Consider the following:

  • Adding hedgerows, treelines, and riparian areas can actually increase the number of beneficial birds while reducing the number of competitor birds that congregate around crops and meadows.
  • Installing perches where owls, hawks and other raptors can spot and hunt rodents will help minimize these troublesome pests.
  • Strategically placing shallow water sources in spring to encourage nesting songbirds.
  • Adding species-specific bird houses can attract garden-friendly birds while keeping starlings and other competitors out. Just be sure the nesting hole is the right diameter (e.g. 1.5 inches for bluebirds).

For a comprehensive list of bird-friendly habitat tips, read 15 Ways to Make Your Yard More Bird-Friendly.

Practicing co-existence

Not every step you take to attract beneficial birds will deter the birds you may consider pests. Sometimes, birds that reduce pests in one part of the season become crop foragers in another. Remember that most birds are beneficial. You can improve the balance in your garden by creating desired habitat, keeping your garden clean and harvested, and using controls where necessary.

What kind of birds do you welcome to your garden?

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