Photo by Janine Schutt: A female rufus hummingbird visits a red-flowering currant.

Photo by Janine Schutt: A female rufus hummingbird visits a red-flowering currant.

It’s for the birds

Now, if you feel gardening is as appealing as reading “Dante’s Inferno,” read no further. But if you’re ok with getting your hands dirty and your knees still work, go for it!

Why not try gardening for the birds rather than competing with your neighbor? Birds aren’t necessarily attracted to a sterile Butchart Gardens landscape. A little mess here and there on less visible lawn areas, like piles of leaf litter and brush, or dead trees and stumps, are very helpful to our feathered friends. Consider this: a whopping third of America’s bird species are in danger of extinction. Globally, the decline in song birds and the insects they feed on, is alarming. Thus the right balance between “neat and natural” is a worthy goal…and you’ll still have lovely colors on parade.

Most important, choose native plants and shrubs that provide both food and shelter for the birds. Do pass up those scary pesticides; they kill more than 67 million birds a year in this country. Poisoned bugs are eaten by birds, which depend on many indigenous insect species for their food. Or, they may sip water off doused leaves. Once poisoned, the birds are doomed. Native plants are already well adapted to our climate without introducing chemicals. If caterpillars munch your leaves, remember that today’s unattractive worm-like creature is tomorrow’s butterfly.

Northwest plants provide nectar for hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees; seeds and irresistible fruits are nourishing too. They’re also a critical part of the food chain; native insects evolved to feed on native plants, and by and large, backyard birds raise their young on insects. Example: (don’t read if you’re squeamish), five babies of one chickadee species will gobble up more than 9,000 caterpillars!

If your yard has any snags (a dead tree or stump), you’re lucky. Over 200 species of birds and small mammals nest in natural cavities, some of the latter created by woodpeckers. If a tree dies, rather than remove it entirely, top it or trim away any branches deemed a hazard. Stumps will slowly rot on their own, but in the meantime, they’re perfect as nature’s condominiums.

An important part of the bird-friendly garden equation is water. You don’t need a multi-tiered waterfall topped by statuettes. A simple bird bath will do, but keep it filled and clean, and close to protective cover. We have a large shallow dish fastened to our deck railing, where we can watch as birds drink and take flamboyant showers. If you have a cat by the way, keep Fluffy indoors, especially in winter, and let her play birdwatcher through the window. Sadly, cats kill between 2 and 5 billion birds every year.

When fall comes, rather than deadheading (removing) the spent flower blossoms, allow them to go to seed; birds welcome the high-energy food as winter approaches. Keep sunflowers on the menu!

So what will birds bring to your garden in return for all this fuss? Yes, some will flee our winters, but others will remain with you steadfastly, as long as the welcome mat is out.

The Kitsap Audubon Society meets monthly on the second Thursday; Janine Schutt presents a “Gardens for the Birds” talk on May 9 at 7 p.m., at the Poulsbo Library’s downstairs Community Room. Non-members are welcome. www.kitsap audubon.org

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