February is National Bird Feeding Month. The birds are really hoping you will celebrate because the freezes we have experienced this winter have ravaged their food sources. While it is nice to add feeders to your garden, it seems like cheating somehow. Plus you may attract the non-native birds that crowd out our desert adapted birds.
Instead of actively feeding with costly seed, be passive. By planting the right plants, you can create a year-round bird sanctuary. It’s easy.
Like every living thing, birds need food, water and a place to live. Landscape the yard so the birds have food to eat and an appropriate place to live, and they will come. The greater the variety of foods offered means the greater variety of species that will visit your yard.
Birds are either herbivores, carnivores or omnivores. Herbivore birds eat seed and some fresh greens. Think large plump, ground dwellers like Gambel’s quail and doves. Carnivores eat meat, and include raptors like the hawks as well as carrion eaters such as the vultures. Since these birds are a tad large for most Tucson area yards, let’s look at the smaller carnivores, the ones that eat insects. My favorite small carnivore is the tiny olive green verdin that flits around the stems of flowers looking for tasty bugs. Finally there are the omnivores like our State Bird, the cactus wren. Primarily an insect eater, the cactus wren will also eat fruit, seeds and occasional greens.
• Water. Water is for drinking in the desert, and optionally for bathing too. Provide clean fresh water for birds to drink. Birds appreciate anything that drips, squirts, sprays, runs or simply holds some fresh water. Water should be located where there is enough clear area for landing and take off. Avoid placing the water where there are predator hiding places.
Birds prefer a watering site that is no deeper than two inches. While agile in flight with their two wings, many birds can be clumsy on two feet. The bird water dish should be rough on the bottom to avoid slips in the “bathtub.”
• Food. Food for birds is as varied as the species of birds available to eat it. It also depends on the time of year and parental training. Birds will eat seeds, plants, insects, nectar, or some or all of the above. Desert birds are very adaptable. They will also help themselves to dog or cat food if it is left out.
Many native desert birds are insect eaters. This generally does not sit well with homeowners, who prefer an insect-free environment. Ninety-nine percent of all bugs are good bugs. Leave the insects alone, and they will provide dinner for the birds (and lizards).
• Shelter. After food and water, shelter is very important for birds. They need it for nest sites, for roost and rest (especially at midday in summer). They also need shelter from predators and from the weather. Just as you may not appreciate a crowded elevator, birds need their “elbow room.” Keep plants’ natural shapes. Normal, open growth allows for ease of nesting and resting. Branches low to the ground offer quick getaways from predators.
• Nesting material. Hummingbirds require spider webs to hold together their nests. Summer orioles need brown palm fronds left on the tree to build their nests under.
Cactus wrens are happiest with a big spiny cholla cactus for their nests. Ornamental grasses are used by many species to line their nests. You must learn to tolerate a little “clutter” to encourage birds to share your yard.
Celebrate National Bird Feeding Month by at least planning a garden for the birds. You can start planting it next month.
If you would like to learn more about gardening for wildlife, or landscaping in general, sign up for one of Jacqueline’s classes, offered through OASIS on River Road and Campbell. You can sign up online at OASISnet.org.