Birds in the garden: boon or bane?
The answer: both.
The presence of birds in a landscape indicates a healthy biodiversity. They eat many garden pests and may even help with pollination. That being said, birds can be a Royal Pain. They destroy seedlings, devastate crops, and can carry disease. Bird management can reduce the problems while increasing the benefits.
Benefits of birds
The image of a red-breasted robin tugging an earthworm from the soil is an icon of spring. Birds also eat crane flies, stinkbugs, armyworms, moths and their caterpillars, millipedes, spiders, slugs and snails, crickets and grasshoppers, inchworms, katydids, grubs, cabbage loopers, cabbageworms, and countless other garden pests. You may be surprised to learn that hummingbirds often eat spiders, gnats. flies, and ants, especially when they are raising young. Some birds eat the mosquitoes responsible for Zika virus, along with several other diseases. Birds facilitate decomposition by eating foods and then leaving nutrient-rich droppings behind. As birds eat the seeds of fruits and other garden crops, they help spread seeds for future crops.
Birds as pests
As birds devour garden pests, they will also eat beneficial earthworms, centipedes, bees, and butterflies. But crop damage is the real problem. Birds love seeds, fruit, and nuts. They will dig up seeds, devour seedlings, peck holes in fruit, and decimate nut crops. They are particularly fond of pea, bean, melon, and squash seeds. Birds can be major pests if you are growing hazelnuts, almonds, figs, pears, peppers, peaches and nectarines, apples, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, grapes, saffron crocus or other bulbs, sorghum, or tomatoes. They can wipe out amaranth and quinoa crops. Birds can also carry diseases, such as San Jose scale. Scrub jays will steal eggs from your chickens and kill young chicks. Birds can also be troublesome when it comes to soil solarization. As they search for grubs and worms, they may lift the fabric, halting and reversing the solarization process. Finally, woodpeckers and sapsuckers can effectively girdle a tree as they feed if the holes are too numerous and go all the way around a tree trunk.
Birds and mixed crops
Some crops, such as sunflowers and currants, can be used to support biodiversity in the garden while still providing a harvest for your family. Fruit from currant bushes, and the seeds and leaves of sunflowers, are popular foods for many indigenous birds, especially goldfinches. You can protect your crops by placing paper bags over flower heads and fruit clusters, or you can simply grow more than you need and provide food for our feathered friends.
Local bird dilemma
Many European birds, such as sparrows and starlings, have made life difficult to nearly impossible for many of our indigenous birds. They take over habitat and food supplies, and are less fearful of humans, so our native birds are suffering. Bluebirds, goldfinches, and several wrens are being pushed into marginal habitats by these interlopers. In addition to habitat loss, they are also facing chemical toxins, cars, windows, plastic garbage, and improperly used netting. Their young are also vulnerable to squirrels, outdoor cats, and other predators. You can help these birds by installing native plants, providing a water source, and constructing bird houses with very small (1” diameter) openings. Anything larger and sparrows will pitch the eggs, kill the young, and take over. Birdhouses need to be placed on poles to be appealing to our native birds. Birdhouses hung from buildings and fences will not be used because they are vulnerable to predation.
To reduce the damage caused by birds in the garden, tree cages can be erected around fruit and nut trees. These structures a much easier to build than they sound, and cost very little. You can also protect newly planted seeds and seedlings with row covers.
Birds are a mixed bag, but it wouldn’t be a healthy landscape without them.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!