In North Central Washington, more than 300 species of birds have been seen in various habits: riparian, sage/steppe, mountain, agriculture, urban backyards. I can’t promise that you will attract all these birds to your backyard, but you can create an environment that lures dozens of types of birds.
The three most important considerations are water, food and a safe environment.
In our dry climate, water will attract birds, especially running or dripping water. Birdbaths need to be shallow, about 2 inches, or have rocks in the bottom of a larger birdbath for the little birds to stand on to drink and bathe. Birdbath water gets dirty fast because of fecal material and algae. Birds tend to defecate in the water as they finish their bath. They do this to lighten the load; the wet feathers are extra weight and can endanger the bird’s ability to get airborne. Clean the water every day.
The birdbath also needs to be near a large shrub or hanging branches of a tree. Birds need a place to shake off the extra bath water and also a place to flee if a predator swoops into the area. I especially like to grow a plant with large leaves that grows at least 4 feet to 5 feet off the ground, such as a tree peony, a climbing rose or a hydrangea. After my irrigation water finishes its cycle, often little black capped chickadees, ruby crowned kinglets or hummingbirds will take a “sponge” bath by rolling on the wet leaves.
Normally, birdfeeders are used in late fall after a heavy frost, during the winter and in the very early spring. The rest of the year, your garden can provide the feast for the birds. Gentle or no use of pesticides allows for a bird buffet. Remember, 95% of insects are beneficials; Most insects cause only cosmetic damage and do not kill plants. The Master Gardeners can share with you lots of ways to eliminate unwanted insect pests without resorting to pesticides.
Your arachnophobia does not give you a free pass to kill spiders. Spiders are generally beneficials and provide a juicy protein picker-upper for a parent bird-feeding famished chick! I wipe off excess aphids, but their sweet, juicy bodies are relished by everything from hummingbirds to song sparrows.
Besides insects, growing plants that provide fruit and seeds throughout the season create nearly all the food birds need. Plants with berries — such as currant, sumac, elderberry or mountain ash — provide sugars and proteins. Birds will eat some of your raspberries and strawberries, but I feel that is payment for the insects they are prying out from under the leaves. Seeds and nuts provide fats and proteins.
I grow Zinnas — lots of Zinnas. At least 10 species of birds lap up any insects on the flowers. Pollinators love these plants, and hummingbirds drink the meager amounts of nectar. But the best part is that I leave the seed heads for Zinnas, Cosmos, Sunflowers and Coneflowers uncut in late summer. All winter long, goldfinches, chickadees, red-breasted nuthatches and juncos balance carefully on the seed head to extract the large, black seeds.
A safe environment means that Fluffy must be an indoor cat, and you must resolve to clean the cat box. It does not make sense to create a bird environment and then set up a lethal feline trap.
During the winter, you will see small hawks pick up birds from your feeders; that can be lessened if you put your feeders in protected areas such as branches of a tree or near a bushy shrub such as Oceanspray or Cotoneaster rather than having the feeder out in the open. Feeding birds on the ground is unsanitary and makes the birds an open target for hawks and cats.
Enjoy creating a “birdy” habitat.
A WSU Master Gardeners of Chelan County column appears weekly in The Wenatchee World. Bonnie Orr is one of four columnists featured. To learn more, visit wwrld.us/cdmg or call 667-6540.