Originally Published: September 4, 2009 10 p.m.
Every gardener is familiar with the damage that grasshoppers, caterpillars, aphids and other insects can inflict on plants. But many well-meaning gardeners don't realize that strong pesticides aren't the only way to ward off these pests.Avoiding pesticides reduces the risk of contamination to our local lakes, streams and wells. It also contributes to healthier wildlife and to our personal health. Additionally, the insects beneficial to our landscape are protected and saved.Birds are natural predators that we can entice into our yards and gardens to eat a variety of harmful insects. Besides fewer insect pests, our reward is a gradual build-up of a rich community of birds and encouragement of the species involved to become healthier and flourish.Omnivore and insectivore birds will help reduce the numbers of harmful insects and control the population naturally. They rarely eliminate all pests, but insect damage is significantly reduced and they eliminate the use of harsh insecticidal chemicals around our homes. The few remaining bugs can be controlled with all-natural sprays like soap and water, or neem oils.So how do we attract more birds into our landscapes in sufficient numbers to reduce bug damage and the need for pesticides? Luckily, birds need only three things to make them happy: food, water and shelter.Hummingbirds are attracted to nectar sources, but they also enjoy the taste of small spiders, thrips and other tiny insects hiding within most flowers. Many common garden birds, seeking fat- and protein-rich food, will eat insects after being drawn to human-dispersed bread, kitchen scraps and seeds.Many insectivorous birds will eat fat-based bird cakes that can be purchased or made at home. They are attractive to insectivorous birds, but will also be enjoyed by less fussy feeders. Mealworms can also be purchased, even bred at home, and the most finicky of insect eaters will go for these tasty morsels. Place them where birds are active and in a shallow container so they don't crawl away. In addition to eating these foods the birds will have a look around the rest of the yard in search of wild insects, including our unwanted garden pests.Many small birds will eat seeds that can be bought inexpensively in bulk. Omnivorous birds will eat the seed of course, but they also will forage in the vicinity for useful protein supplements to this diet. In doing so they will consume many insect pests.If using bird feeders, remember that they need to protect the seed or cake from the elements, and allow easy access for the birds. They can either be purchased ready-made, or constructed from the simplest of materials.I have many, many birds in my backyard and rarely need to use pesticides on my plants. I don't feed my birds, but I provide something even more precious to my feathered friends ... water. Birds need a consistent water source not only to drink from, but for bathing in as well. Certain varieties of birds take their daily baths in delightfully comical routines.I so enjoy the sound of running water in a landscape that I built a pond with the birds in mind. Water flows through our yard in the form of a stream that is highly attractive to birds. The most fun comes from a flagstone slab strategically placed at a slight angle so birds can wade into the pond for their daily baths. This is very healthy for my birds, and great fun for our entire family to watch.At the very least a birdbath or shallow pan of water is needed in a bird friendly landscape. Without a water source your bird count will be noticeably less than necessary for effective pest control.Because we generally overlook providing shelter for our garden birds, I think we have the birding thing backwards. We start with a bird feeder, add a birdbath and finally get around to planting some shrubs and trees birds might like. I think this is the wrong priority of what our feathered friends really want and need. First they need shelter, protection from cats, hawks and other predators; then they need water, and finally food. Birds will be wary of a yard that lacks the right variety of plants.Start with any type of plant that puts on a berry. In my backyard I've added a new blackberry bush, service berry and jujube specifically for the birds. In the front yard I have blueberries, pyracantha and cotoneaster that not only put on berries the birds love, but provide much needed protective shelter, nesting sites, and defense from predators.If you want to know about plants that attract birds ask for my "Gardening for the Birds" tip sheet. It goes into detail about exactly which plants attract the most birds. Fall is an ideal time to plant for the birds. Plant selection is high at garden centers, plants are much larger than you usually find during the spring season, and for the next few weeks plant sales are in full swing. Fall plant sales help our growers liquidate oversized plants at their farms and to secure bargains for our local clients. It's truly a win-win situation during the ideal time to plant your garden's bird magnets.Until next week, I'll see you in the landscape.Throughout the week Ken Lain is at Watters Garden Center, 1815 W. Iron Springs Road, Prescott, and can be contacted through his web site at www.wattersonline.com. Ken says, "My personal mission is to help local homeowners garden better in our mountain landscapes."