The fundamentals of wildlife gardening:
We have a modestly sized suburban garden with a bird list of some 120 species and so are regularly asked “what’s the secret”. We have an illustrated talk we have taken on the road to many wildlife and gardening groups but a specific recent request for information has finally persuaded us to put down some concise basics to help you get wildlife visiting your garden. Get this right for birds and other creatures will be along also.
Here are some fundamental principles you want to pay attention to:
1. Think like a bird and a butterfly. By that I mean consider what they are looking for in their ideal habitat and try to provide it. Their needs are not that different from ours – shelter, food, an opportunity to breed. That’s all.
2. Make the internet your friend – there is a lot of very useful information out there. Just remember that a plant list from Florida probably isn’t going to be a lot of use if, like us, you live a long way north of there.
3. Always (always, always) use native plants. Why? because they are the species that evolved in your area alongside the pollinator insects, the bees and butterflies and also the birds. Native plants simply support more native birds and bees. Simple as that. Be careful about horticultural varieties of native plants – for example, Viburnum shrubs* (eg: high bush cranberry etc) bear crops of juicy red fruits and have gorgeous flowers. Most of the fruits look the same regardless of which of 150 varieties of the group you plant but some will be gorged upon by birds while others are left alone for the squirrels. We can’t tell the difference but birds can. Native varieties also support more species of insects and their larvae which, in turn, are food for birds trying to raise their young – even otherwise obligate seed eating birds turn to insects for food when there are young in the nest. If in doubt, plant dogwoods. (*By the way, high bush cranberry is one of the Viburnum varieties of choice hereabouts.)
4. Joins a Facebook group devoted to wildlife gardening such as the one that was set up a couple of years ago by some gardeners on the Ottawa area. It has members from all over but a majority seem to be gardening in a climate similar to ours. Plenty of resources there and the members seem very willing to answer questions … https://www.facebook.com/groups/wildlifefriendlyyardsandgardensontario/
5. Some reading and plant lists …
But what to plant?
- Three layers – trees, shrubs, lower height plants such as flowers and grasses. Different birds look for different micro-habitats
- Provide shelter from weather and predators … so some dense plantings
- Put in plenty of plants that produce good seed crops (Rudbeckia, cone flowers, thistles, “Indian Grass” etc) and let then stand through fall and into winter – do not be too tidy at the end of summer, let them stand for the birds to exploit and do your main tidying in the spring
- Fruit bearing trees and shrubs – https://www.thespruce.com/fruit-trees-for-birds-386401
- Somewhere to nest … that doesn’t necessarily mean put up nesting boxes, and anyway those are only useful to cavity nesting birds. Dense shrubs, a corner with a pile of old rotting branches, all those are what birds are looking for.
- Well-filled feeders with a variety of seeds and suet for different types of birds. Supportive in summer, essential in winter. There are many birds that are adapted to finding food on the ground – if the ground is two feet under snow they have nowhere to go but your feeders. Don’t put the feeders too far out in the open – most birds like to approach from a safe shrub from which the can look for threats before moving in for a snack – about 8 to 12 feet from a shrub/bush such as dogwood or juniper is ideal, too far for squirrels to jump.
- If in doubt, plant dogwoods 😉 and elderberries and rudbeckia/cone-flowers
Where to get native plants?
Sadly, not many nurseries specialist in natives so you will have to search around … one supplier I have come across is based in southern Ontario and even if they won’t ship to you (you will need to ask) their website has plenty of good ideas and photographs.
** Ontario Native Plants
Reduce the area of closely grown lawn. Few birds can do anything with it and it just exposes them to predators. What lawn you do have you should have your mower set to cut as high as possible and do not mow too frequently.
Have water in the garden.Ideally a small pond with a waterfall will really bring in birds but even a dripping tap or a regularly replenished saucer will attract birds.
Do as many of the above things as you can over a series of successive seasons and sit back until the birds and insects find you. No need to do it all in your first season – start small and gradually expand to transform your entire garden.
Oh yes – no insecticides please. If you want birds what’s the point of killing the insects they are possibly feeding on.