I have fed the birds as long as I can remember. You see, I grew up in a place where winters are hard. Snow starts falling in October, so parents often buy Halloween costumes a size too big so they’ll fit over a snowsuit if necessary. Temperatures fall below zero regularly, sometimes reaching -50F with Jack Frost’s vicious windchill, and it is not unusual for one last snow storm to blanket them on Mother’s Day. Winters are hard. How do they endure? People take care of one another and they extend that care to the surrounding wildlife, because they too have to survive those hard winters. It is therefore quite common to see bird feeders sprinkled across the landscape. I remember going out, as a child, with a bag of bird seed and sitting under the feeder with my hands full, patiently waiting for brave Chickadees to land delicately on my fingertips and snatch a seed before flitting off. It wasn’t until much later in life that I realized just how precious those little birds are and how indebted we are to their tenacity.
They are beautiful, sure, and they do sing pretty songs BUT in the garden they are also our purest form of pest control and gracious pollinators. This is nothing compared to their role in the environment beyond our gardens; seed distribution for the rebirth of forests, insect consumption for population regulation and keeping pests that transmit disease in check, and feeding the next level of predators that also have a crucial role in maintaining the overall health of our planet. Make no mistake, the benefits they reap of our feeders pale in comparison to the rewards bestowed upon us by their presence in our yards and gardens.
Unfortunately, those beautiful bug eating, pollen distributing musicians are in trouble. According to an article in Science magazine, wild bird populations in the USA and Canada have plummeted by ~30% since 1970.* There are ways that we can help them rebound and I’ll give you a hint — it starts with a “G” and ends with “arden”. Yes, your gardening hobby helps the birds. Not only does it provide them with food in the form of insects and seeds (those sunflowers that you didn’t get around to pulling are food, leave them!) but it provides them with shelter, a safe space to hide from predators while visiting your feeders, and materials for building their nests. Beyond the vegetable garden, the incorporation of native plant species into your landscaping can help them tremendously. Birds & Blooms magazine offers several articles describing some of the most beneficial blossoming plants as well as trees that bear nuts and berries for foraging bird species. ** If you don’t know what plants are native to your area, Audubon actually has a native plants database to help you identify plants (flowers, vines, shrubs and trees) that would benefit birds in your region.***
I guess what I’m trying to say is, you can have a beautifully landscaped yard that the neighbors rave about AND help wildlife that is desperately in need of our attention. I challenge you to create a thriving ecosystem right in your own back yard!
Lastly, I want to introduce you to Project FeederWatch.**** This is a program, offered by Cornell University, in which you record the birds that visit your feeder(s) and report it via their online database. This information is used to track different species throughout Canada and the United States. They are able to see if a species is struggling, if others are rebounding, how their migration patterns and breeding grounds are influenced by human activity (i.e. industrialization and habitat loss) and so much more. It is an activity that could easily be used to teach your children about how their actions affect the world around them and to get them involved in environmental sustainability at a young age. The upcoming FeederWatch season starts November 9th but you can sign up at any time throughout the year. I hope you will consider participating!
When you look at your garden, I hope you see more than vegetables. I hope you see more than pretty flowers or a chic patio. Each of those environments is so much more. It is home to thousands of creatures, all milling about just trying to survive. Some you may wish to keep and some that you undoubtedly wish had called another garden home, but that little ecosystem is yours nonetheless and it is your responsibility to protect it. I’m confident that you will rise to the occasion and even more certain that you will not regret it. Cheers, friends!