Gardening: Make birds welcome in your yard

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A female red-winged blackbird perches Wednesday on a cattail in a pond on Qualchan Golf Course in Spokane. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

It is a joy to step outdoors and hear the racket of returning spring birds. Robins, nuthatches, red-winged blackbirds and soon the grosbeaks. The males usually arrive first to stake out territories with the females coming a few weeks later.

Encouraging birds to take up summer residence in your yard not only provides entertainment, it provides you with an ever vigilant flock of bug catchers. They will be on the prowl for all kinds of bugs that might be attacking your plants every day of the season.

Birds need three simple things to make your yard their home for the summer: food, water and shelter for nesting, breeding and protection. Here are a few suggestions you can do before spring gets too far along.

Don’t get too ambitious with your spring pruning. Many birds nest in shrubby thickets where they are protected from predators. Leave shrubby growth on the edges of your garden or in a back corner where no one goes, anyway. Different species of birds nest at different heights; some as low as 6 feet off the ground while others might be 20 feet in the air. To help out with nesting, set out materials the birds can use to build: Dryer lint, dog and cat fur (after all, they are shedding right now), bits of string, hairbrush cleanings, bits of grass left from trimming ornamental grasses. I am finally going to put out some wads of hair I lost in a bout of cancer a couple of years ago.

Now is a good time to hang up your bird feeders. There are many different types on the market but those that provide easy access for the birds and deter the marauding squirrels are best. We use several different sizes of tube feeders. Place your feeders high enough to prevent cats and other predators from jumping up to them. Place them close to shrubs or small trees so the birds can quickly fly into them to avoid danger. Ours flit between a large pine tree and an Amur maple. Stock the feeders with black oil sunflower seeds.

Be ready for the return of the hummingbirds around the last two weeks of April by making a syrup of one part white sugar to four parts water. The males will come in first followed by the females a few days later. In between sips at the feeder the pairs will conduct a wild courtship dance that has one bird flying high before zooming down to almost ground level.

Even though we seem to be getting a steady supply of rain right now, the birds are going to need a consistent source of water for drinking and bathing. While a formal birdbath is nice, you can also make an acceptable spot using a shallow plant pot saucer, a water feature with small pools and a little waterfall or even a garbage can lid set in the soil. Be sure they are refilled regularly and are away from bushes where cats can hide.

Pat Munts is the co-author of “Northwest Gardener’s Handbook” with Susan Mulvihill. Munts can be reached at [email protected] nwgardening.com.

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