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Gardeners, Give Birds A Helping Hand!

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Can you imagine the Mother Lode without our numerous and diverse birds? They light up our gardens and woodlands, help control troublesome insects, and add song to our hearts. But our feathered friends can use our help to thrive in the face of ongoing habitat destruction, predators, disease, and harsh weather.

WATER IS ESSENTIAL. Even at this time of year, bluebirds line up for a fresh drink and dip in our birdbath. During our sizzling summers, birds´ need for water is compelling. A small pond or a shallow birdbath or two will help fill the bill (no pun intended). A simple tray of water will do. Place it in a clearing so birds can spot predators, but with trees or other cover nearby. Scrub and refill your birdbath frequently and melt or remove ice in freezing weather.

PROVIDE FOOD. Grow shrubs and trees like Christmas berry (Toyon), elderberry, grapes, and snowberry to attract fruit-eating birds. Grasses, black-eyed Susans, sunflowers, and coreopsis are great seed sources. The flowers of penstemons, sages (Salvias), hyssop (Agastache), and manzanita are hummingbird nectar basics. Native plants are especially valuable as they have evolved with our wildlife including the insects so crucial for bird protein.

Two to four inches of organic mulch over your yard—compost, leaves, or pine needles—further encourage the insects and related creepy crawlies ground-foraging birds love. Towhees, robins, native sparrows, and even flickers will spend hours “tilling” your mulch in search of bugly tidbits for themselves and their offspring. And you will reduce weeds and your water bill.

During times of stress such as snow and cold, drought, or loss of habitat, feeders can be a lifesaver. Supply seeds of varying kinds and suet, or nectar for hummingbirds and orioles. To promote your birds´ health, keep the food fresh and the feeders clean.

ADD COVER AND NESTING SITES. As undeveloped lands shrink, the avian housing shortage is more and more acute. Ground nesting birds like quail and native sparrows need grasslands and brush in which to hide and to raise young. Allow areas to remain unmowed, and retain a brush pile or two if you can do so without creating a fire hazard. Other birds nest in bushes and mature trees. Preserving wetlands and woodlands helps; our native oaks alone support over 300 bird species.

Cavity dwelling birds including owls, woodpeckers, tree swallows, titmice, flickers, and bluebirds have traditionally raised their families in hollows in old fence posts and trees. Squirrels, and aggressive non-native house sparrows and European starlings force native birds from these now scarce homes. Last year we watched helplessly as starlings evicted acorn woodpeckers from the cavity they fashioned in our nearby telephone pole. Larcenous house sparrows relentlessly compete for bluebird boxes. Nesting boxes (birdhouses) ease the housing shortage, but bluebirds especially need you to check their boxes regularly during the nesting season. Remove nests of sparrows and other interlopers.

Do your homework before going to the expense and work of putting up birdhouses that may never be used, at least by the preferred creatures. Each bird species has different requirements. Gift shop birdhouses may look charming, but they must be constructed according to your birds´ specifications and be easily cleaned.

KICK THE CHEMICAL HABIT. Birds are vulnerable to pesticides and fertilizers, including those that run off into streams and lakes. Pesticides also poison insects and rodents essential for birds´ food. Furthermore, birds concentrate pesticides from their food in their own bodies. Sick or poorly nourished birds become more susceptible to diseases and predators. Stick with non- or minimally-toxic pest solutions and organic fertilizers. Check University of California´s Integrated Pest Management Site, or your local library for nontoxic control techniques.

BE INFORMED. Get to know the birds in your area by participating in the annual Great Backyard Bird Count sponsored by Audubon and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. During the weekend of February 17-20, thousands of birdwatchers will count birds in their own yard or nearby areas. Novice and experienced birders alike are invited to participate for as little as 15 minutes (or as long as you like). Learn details and report your findings at It´s easy; it´s free, and it will help assess the number of birds in our area and their movements from year to year.

A good bird book, specific to our area, is an invaluable aid. The local Audubon Society publishes an informative booklet, “Birds of Tuolumne County.” For more info, visit birdsource and or other helpful sites such as and

Whether you implement one or all of the foregoing techniques, your satisfaction will grow with each new bird you find. See you in the garden.

Vera Strader is a Master Gardener whose Sonora garden is certified as a National Wildlife Federation Backyard Wildlife Habitat.