What’s a garden without birds? | Home and outdoor

As I write this, I hear a cardinal trill in the garden. I don’t need to look out the open window to confirm the source of the sounds passing through it; I came to recognize the songs and their singers. I know it’s the mourning dove whose cooing wakes me up in the morning and the sparrow whose repetitive chirps complete the chorus of the sunrise.

Watching birds perched on a branch or visiting a bird feeder gives a certain connection to nature that few others do, and, for me at least, listening to their melodies alleviates stress.

Birds are also the most cost effective way to reduce the number of pests in your garden. Their young are voracious consumers of insects, including aphids, whiteflies, cabbage worms, cucumber beetles, grubs, earwigs, plant bugs, and especially caterpillars.

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According to Doug Tallamy, professor of entomology at the University of Delaware and author of “Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants” (Timber Press, 2007), a brood of chickadees, for example, requires 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars, delivered by their parents, to support them from birth to first flight, which lasts just over two weeks. It will clean up the garden, to say the least.

To get these pest control benefits, you don’t have to be an expert birder. All you have to do is create a bird-friendly habitat.

Using native plants in your garden will feed native insects, which in turn will attract hungry birds. Select a mix of plants to provide berries, nectar and/or seeds all year round. The Audubon Society’s Native Plant Database is an excellent source of bird-friendly plant suggestions for your area. Just enter your postcode to get started. (https://www.audubon.org/native-plants)

Let flowering perennials stand tall through the winter when food is scarce; their seed heads will feed non-migratory birds. As a bonus, your garden will retain vertical interest all winter long.

Push fall leaves under shrubs and trees instead of placing them at the curb. Insects that fold under them during the winter will support ground-feeding birds. And as the leaves decay, they enrich the soil to give spring plants a nutritional boost.

To complete the vegetable buffet, install a bird feeder in the garden. Choose one that comes apart for easy cleaning and is designed to keep the seeds dry.

To avoid spreading diseases that can make birds sick, provide only enough seed to last a few days and clean feeders at least twice a month with a bottle brush and 1 part bleach diluted to 9 parts water. Rinse well and let dry completely before filling.

Use only high quality bird seed; as with everything, you get what you pay for. Choose energy seeds high in fat and protein, such as unsalted peanuts or black oil sunflower seeds, especially in late summer. Migratory birds need to store calories to prepare for their late season journeys.

Avoid seeds with artificial colors and flavors and never prepare old or rancid foods.

Suet, a nutritious cake made from animal fat and often mealworms, seeds or grains, can be hung in a specialized feeding cage designed to keep other wildlife away.

Rotate the location of feeders to avoid the accumulation of discarded seed shells – and bird droppings – on the ground in one area.

Remember to provide fresh water for bathing and hydration, whether in a pond, birdbath or other container. Be sure to clean and disinfect baths and other containers weekly.

Avoid using chemical insecticides, which won’t necessarily kill the pests immediately. Insects that consume or come into contact with the product could then be eaten by birds, which can then be poisoned.

Jessica Damiano writes regularly about gardening for The Associated Press. A master gardener and educator, she writes The Weekly Dirt newsletter and creates an annual wall calendar of daily gardening tips. Send her a note at [email protected] and find her at jessicadamiano.com and on Instagram @JesDamiano.