Sunday, June 5, 2011

Books for the bird garden

Work on "birdscaping" my back yard will take quite some time to achieve. In fact so far all I've done is thinned out the overgrown mess a bit (Why would anyone want to plant bamboo in Illinois? Why, why?) and started growing a few herbs in pots. And the herbs are for the kitchen, not the birds.

I have read advice in gardening books that, before jumping right in to a project, it's better to sit and watch for a few seasons and get a feel for the land. Where does the shade fall? What areas become boggy after a day of rain? What's already been planted? This is good advice, especially since it's a bit late in the season to start changing everything around, and also my budget won't allow for the most pressing projects quite yet.

So in the meantime, I am observing my yard, whacking back weeds and snipping all the new shoots of bamboo that sprout up in the lawn every few days (Let me repeat my question about bamboo: why, why, why? Also there appears to be quite a bit of English ivy in the yard. Clearly the prior owners never met an invasive they didn't like. What's next? Buckthorn? Loosestrife? Egads!)... and consulting some of the books on my shelf for ideas and inspiration.

I will discuss my three current favorites in order of accessibility, from "immediate gratification" to "the long haul."

The first book, For the Birds: A Month-by-Month Guide to Attracting Birds to Your Backyard by Anne Schmauss, Mary Schmauss and Geni Krolick, is cool because it talks about things that anyone can do right away. A trip to Wild Birds Unlimited or some other store with quality backyard birding supplies, put up a few feeders and/or bird baths, and voila. You have begun.

As promised in the title, the book is divided up into monthly chapters, each discussing what sort of birds you might expect to see, the best types of food to provide for them, also advice on providing water and nesting materials. Each chapter has some tips from the three authors (who are sisters that live in different parts of the United States, so different climates/areas are represented, although only for the USA), a suggested kids' project, and some basic discussion of habitat needs for different birds.

For example, if I turn to the chapter about June, I can find the list of common birds I might expect in my region (although personal experience tells me that some on the list -- e.g., scarlet tanager, Baltimore oriole -- would be unlikely to show up in MY yard), a discussion of nesting season and good foods to provide in your feeders, including seed, suet (I wouldn't provide that in this heat), mealworms, nectar and fruit.

The pros of this book: very informative about bird feeders and other products you might buy. In fact, I highly doubt I will ever need another source on this topic, at least for the birds that I might attract to my mid-western yard. (I can't judge the completeness for other regions). The cons: despite a nod to other advice (like plant native species), this really is primarily a bird-feeder book.

My inspiration: this month I will buy a bird bath. I can't wait to go to Wild Birds Unlimited to see if they have any with moving water...or even just to get a plain old pedestal bird bath. In this heat, I'm bound to have some takers, and even if it's just my "yard birds" -- robins, grackles, cardinals, mourning doves and house sparrows -- seeing birds bathe is always fun. I also plan to set up some bird feeders, but not until the fall.

My next source, Bird-by-Bird Gardening: The Ultimate Guide to Bringing in Your Favorite Birds--Year After Year by Sally Roth, is the next step up in challenging myself. After the introductory chapters, this book is broken up into chapters about different types of birds (woodpeckers, flycatchers, warblers, nuthatches, hummingbirds, etc.) and describes different things you can do to your yard to attract them--e.g., what sort of habitat they like, what kinds of plants attract them, etc. There are descriptions of what each family of birds likes to eat, how they nest, their preferred habitats.

What I like best about this book: the charts of plants for each species, and even some suggested garden plans! I find that this book has a very informative, hands-on, practical approach. The author states that rather than a huge over-haul of one's yard, she wanted to give small garden ideas that someone could implement without too much trouble, and so work at their yard from one area to another in manageable projects.

The cons of this book: really, the only one is that she recommends some potentially invasive plants. I respect her position that a bird-friendly gardener does not need to a adopt a "native plants only" approach -- in fact, I personally would have no problems planting a few well-behaved non-natives amongst the mix if I thought they were especially attractive -- and one of the stories she mentions to support her position, about a rail's nest that was destroyed (not by her) in order to remove some nightshade -- is a point well taken. But I do feel that I will have to research all of her recommendations carefully before following any advice (not a bad idea in general); for example, she recommends privet hedges, and from what I've read privet is not a good choice for Illinois. Also, there are some very invasive privets. recommended, with that caveat in mind.

My immediate inspiration: I'm not planting anything in the ground this year (since as soon as I save the money for a privacy fence, there's going to be a lot of digging and disturbance in the yard as I remove all the bamboo and the chain-link fence now in existence), but I do hope to find some hummingbird-attracting flowers from her list that would grow well in containers. (When things are in transition, gotta love container gardening!)

Finally we have the most challenging (for novice-gardener me, anyway) book, Birdscaping in the Midwest: A Guide to Gardening with Native Plants to Attract Birds by Mariette Nowak. This is a great book with tons of information, mostly divided into chapters by habitat (prairie, savanna, woodland, wetland, shrubland) with extra chapters for hummingbirds, winter birds and migrants, and specific plants to attract birds.

There is a chapter devoted to "case studies" of people who have "birdscaped" their yards, and another about "getting started" that discusses some important items to provide, such as leaf litter, multiple layers, evergreens, thorny shrubs, not using herbicides, etc. (Sally Roth's book also mentions a lot of this.)

The pros: this is an exhaustive resource, and I am sure I will be turning to this book time and again over the years. Actually, I suspect it is one of those books that, the further along you get, the more helpful it becomes. The cons: this book is an exhaustive resource! As a brand-new gardener with limited resources and an unholy mess of a yard on my hands, if this book were the only resource I had, I confess I would feel a bit overwhelmed. Also, as the title states, it is for the Midwest of the United States, so if you live elsewhere I doubt it would be that helpful.

My immediate inspiration: well, to be honest, with this inspiration is to not give up! In a few years my yard could become a real Avian Haven, if I just keep at it...bit by bit.

Are there any other good books you can recommend for a bird-friendly yard? Or any tips for the new bird gardener? If so, please don't be shy!

1 comment:

  1. I own and like all 3 of these books! Sally Roth is my favorite author; she brings such excitement to her books. "For the Birds" is, as you say, great for figuring out what to offer, when, when it comes time to purchase seed mixes (and your yard birds will adore you for it). I love the 3rd book, "Birdscaping in the Midwest" above all for the tables where it rates trees, shrubs, plants from Very High to Fair for their bird value. So much gets recommended, it's hard to sort it all out. Don't be discouraged. Your feeders and bath will start bringing in grateful little friends almost immediately! Mom PS Wild Birds has a "Wriggler" to put in any birdbath to move the water around.