In Greg's Garden: Gardening is for the Birds

By Greg Grant

I’ve been in love with birds for as long as I’ve been in love with plants.

It’s pretty clear that I was born in love with the natural world. Like all beginners, I knew very little about birds when I got started. I do remember being fascinated with the “jungle” call of a pileated woodpecker in the woods as a child, even though I was clueless as to what produced the sound.

My Pappaw was the first to teach me country names for the birds: Indian hen, bee martin, water turkey, rain crow. He was the first person I knew with a martin house, too. Unfortunately, he was a woodsman and a hunter, and I had to endure him shooting bluebirds off his martin house. He didn’t want any @#&$! bluebirds in his martin house!

Although my Grandmother Emanis and I used to toss some old bread out for the birds, it wasn’t until I met Longview’s Autry and Marie Daly that I knew anyone who actually put out birdseed and a birdbath for the birds. I was hooked. In addition to bluebird nest boxes, Mrs. Daly also had three hummingbird feeders that she had to refill each and every day. She would also go from feeder to feeder on a stepstool with a pair of scissors snipping the wasps in half that were robbing the nectar from her dear hummingbirds. I sure miss the Daly's. I still use the iron pipe pole Mr. Daly made me for hanging my bird feeders.

Bird watching wisdom

Though it’s nice to own a pair of good binoculars and a bird identification book, they certainly aren’t essential for the pastime. Absolutely anyone can sit on a porch and enjoy the sight and sound of the birds. Heck, I can barely write this article for all the birds singing outside. Today, the internet often takes the place of a bird ID book, while some folks use phone apps instead. I’m old school and still collect classic bird books.

It’s nice to know the correct names of the birds around us, but once again, not essential for enjoying their endless activities. I’ve always put flowers, butterflies and birds in the same category in my mind, the last two just flying versions of the first.

Thankfully, there are birds in both urban and rural areas for fans to follow. But all birds need the same three things: food, water and shelter.

Shelter can be many different things, as different species of birds need different environments. Basically, it all boils down to plants and cover. The more trees and shrubs you have, the more birds you will have. An ideal landscape would include an open grassy area, some dense shrubbery or a thicket, and some tall trees. Multiple layers of greenery will attract a wide variety of birds and provide both feeding and nesting areas. However, I also have birds nesting in everything from barns to buckets to outhouses. And Carolina wrens can’t stay out of a brush pile.

Food is critical. Some types of birds eat seeds, while other types of birds eat insects and berries. Therefore, having berry-producing plants (such as native hollies) is wise. If you have a large lot or property in the country, you’ll want to allow plants like hackberry and greenbriar to persist. The reason these plants are such a nuisance is because birds eat their berries and spread them around as nature intended. Every native plant serves a purpose in nature.

If you want birds, you’ll also want to limit your use of pesticides in the garden. Always remember that adult birds feed their babies caterpillars, spiders and other small soft insects. The plants produce fruit, seed and insects for the birds, while the birds spread the seed to make more plants. It has worked for thousands of years, so don’t mess with Mother Nature.

When it comes to birdfeeders, I have a love-hate relationship, as they can be messy and sometimes tacky in the landscape. Plus, my good friend Cliff Shackelford, the state non-game ornithologist for Texas Parks and Wildlife, isn’t a fan of keeping feeders up during summer. He always promotes “home cooking” by allowing native birds to dine on the same native plants and insects with which they evolved. But I know for a fact how entertaining and comforting a birdfeeder can be, as it attracts and concentrates birds in an area where we can watch them. They also make us feel good as if we are helping out Mother Nature. I certainly enjoyed bird watching after each of my spine and joint surgeries.

Just the facts

First of all, black-oil sunflower seed is the birdseed of choice for feeding and viewing the best range of birds. Cheaper birdseed has lots of other seed added that attracts less-desirable birds. With black-oil sunflower seed in feeders during winter, you can expect cardinals, blue jays, titmice, chickadees, nuthatches, finches, occasional woodpeckers and special guests such as rose-breasted grosbeaks. When it comes to suet cakes, I use the nomelt peanut type with meal worms added. In my area these cakes attract a steady stream of pine warblers, Carolina wrens, brownheaded nuthatches and chipping sparrows. Some birders have no luck with suet cakes, while I have to keep four out at a time to satisfy my customers. To each his own.

To be quite honest, a birdbath in Texas during summer is much more important than a birdfeeder. Just make sure to keep it clean and full, as the birds will enjoy both drinking and bathing in it.

As with flowers and butterflies, we all have our favorite birds and can adapt our landscapes to attract those we like best. My personal favorites are woodpeckers, bluebirds and brown-headed nuthatches. All are cavity dwellers that depend on dying and dead trees in nature along with berries and insects.

Woodpeckers are primary cavity dwellers that produce both nesting and roosting cavities in dead trees. Bluebirds, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and a host of others are secondary cavity dwellers that rely on woodpeckers (or nest boxes) to make cavities for them in dead trees. Can you see the connection here? Without dead trees there would be no woodpeckers. Without woodpeckers there would be no bluebirds. Without seeds, berries and insects there would be no birds at all. Commit this to memory. Dead trees and dying trees in nature are just as important as the living ones, and if you have a chance to safely leave them on your property, do so. I certainly do.

As much as I’ve loved creating gardens in my life, I’ve loved creating ecosystems even more. Thanks to help from U.S. Fish and Wildlife together with the NRCS, I’ve created a pocket prairie, a tall-grass prairie, and I’m working on a longleaf-pine savanna. All of these are for the birds and other native wildlife.

My favorite project of all is right in my own “backyard,” where I planted eight acres of loblolly pine trees between my house and the creek. To promote my favorite birds, I thin and burn each year to keep an open understory, and leave every dead tree (snag) standing.

What was once a hay meadow is now home to pine warblers, brown-headed nuthatches, bluebirds, woodpeckers and a plethora of other birds and wildlife. I even carved a trail through it where the dogs and I walk for our “nature healing.” I’ve named it the Rebel Eloy Emanis Pine Savanna and Bird Sanctuary after my Pappaw, who lived, farmed and hunted on the same property. As they are for many others, the sight and sounds of the birds are a daily comfort and will be until I die.


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