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Birdscaping your urban environment

Tips from the experts

by Bryony Angell

Along a quiet side street in central Seattle is a foliage-obscured stairway leading to a private garden curated specifically for birds. The garden’s resident Hermit thrush lulls us with its froggy call as I stand with owner Keith Geller one wet afternoon on his east facing porch overlooking the lushly arbored property and the Madison Valley beyond. Geller points out the features of the purposefully-designed space (he is a landscape designer by profession) that, astonishingly, is devoid of feeders.

“It’s the ‘hop-skip-jump effect,’” says Geller, referring to his bird-attracting design philosophy. “The birds fly in and perch on the treetops, then they descend down. You want canopy upon canopy: Big, medium, small trees. And a lot of berry plants and plants that attract insects. Flowers are OK too, if they attract insects, as birds like to glean the insects.”

Geller’s yard is every shade of green imaginable at the moment, and will eventually show a few pops of purple and red via and purple beautyberry and evergreen huckleberry below the windows of his house. That’s where the Hermit thrush feeds, visible directly through the window in Geller’s dining room.

Like Geller, Penny Bolton, another gardener in the Madison Valley area, promotes layers of plants and trees in her double lot. “The goal is diversity and to build a structure that provides safety--places to hide and places to perch--and food--seeds, fruit, insects,” she says.

Geller and Bolton both have long-standing involvement with Seattle Audubon’s promotion of bird-friendly urban gardening, and have been instrumental in educating other members and the public. Geller, a lifetime member of Seattle Audubon, graduate of the first Master Birder class in 1988, and former board member, created the bird-friendly garden in front of the Nature Shop at SAS headquarters. Over the years he’s led pruning classes and garden maintenance parties at the site, in collaboration with current Garden Committee Chair, Shannon Bailey.

Bolton, also a Master Birder (and King County Master Gardener of over 26 years) leads the Arboretum Neighborhood Bird Project count every month, and is part of Seattle Audubon’s education outreach about bird-friendly gardening through school science nights, neighborhood fairs, and guest speaking to groups.

Their yards are each an urban laboratory in developing advice and techniques for others wanting to attract birds to their own yards. But more fundamentally, their yards are a stopover on the neighborhood flyway of interconnected public and private green belts that birds rely on. “You want to provide a protected place where people don’t go,” says Geller. He points out a steep slope on his lot thickly covered in Pacific wax myrtle. “That area sees all the migrating birds on their way to the arboretum. The wax myrtle produces a peppercorn that birds love.”

 

Landscaping to attract birds

Plants

Both Geller and Bolton favor native plants, but mix in non-natives that produce berries or seeds or attract insects, and have staggered seasonal maturity, in order to prolong the food sources for birds passing through. Geller calls out the ubiquitous invasive hawthorne as a great source of food for birds. “Its early blooms attract no-see-ums (insects) that coincide with warbler migration,” he says. “Yellow and Wilson’s warblers just go from tree to tree, gleaning.”

“Anything with structure and shrubbiness,” says Bolton. “Plus, many of these are easy to maintain.”

Below are plants that Geller and Bolton recommend and/or have in their own gardens.

  • Pacific wax myrtle
  • Evergreen huckleberry
  • Mahonia (Oregon grape)
  • Flowering currant
  • Cotoneaster
  • Hawthorne
  • Purple beautyberry
  • Clematis
  • Lonicera nitada (box honeysuckle)
  • Osmaronia cerasiformis (Indian plum)

 

Water feature

“It’s nice to have a pond with dripping or moving water,” says Geller. And it should be shallow: “Birds can access the water up to their knees.” Anything deeper and the birds are unlikely to use it, “unless a Great Blue heron flies in!” jokes Bolton.

 

Snags and natural debris for foraging, hiding and nesting

“I tell people to lighten up and make room for birds and bugs in their yards,” says Bolton, meaning, let a little mess in! Start a brush pile in a forgotten corner (wrens and towhees love these); let leaves lie where they fall (insects underneath provide food for birds); and put off cleaning last year’s growth until the following spring. “If you clean up, you don’t have bugs,” says Bolton.

Geller mentions the iconic snag outside the Nature Shop: “The tree was turned into a snag because of damage done by the building and walking ramp to the tree’s root system. But it was turned into a usable snag for birds, that is still tall enough that you don’t really look up, so it works as a trunk. And to further add to its usefulness we made a birdhouse inside the hollowed out trunk.”

 

Feeders if you want them

Geller’s yard is visibly empty of added feeders, though he does put them up singly from time to time. Bolton nowadays has just hummingbird and a few seed feeders on her windows. Both rely primarily on plantings that produce natural food sources for birds. “I tell people to use feeders if they work for the situation,” says Bolton. An apartment window, for instance.

 

Discourage cats outdoors

“I discuss cats and other animals like rats and how they all interact in an urban garden,” says Bolton diplomatically. “Cats just need stimulation and attention, but that can be managed indoors.” If you plan to attract birds purposefully to a yard, it is only fair to remove obvious predators like cats. More advice from Bolton:

  • If you have to let them outside, train them to come when called, and limit outdoor time to 30 minutes.
  • Keep them inside during fledging season.
  • Keep them inside at night for their own safety.
  • Better yet, build a catio like some other gardeners have done.

“Cats bring pleasure to people’s lives,” she says. “I have a cat. I know.”

 

If you are interested in adding bird-friendly features to your own yard, Seattle Audubon’s Nature Shop and website are a starting point for ideas, advice and birdscaping supplies. Seattle Audubon’s Gardening for Life guide is a resource available for free online or in print for $2 at the Nature Shop. 

And on April 1st, Seattle Audubon is hosting a native plant sale in its parking lot with a dozen local vendors. Join us!

For still more reading on this topic, check out this recent post about backyard birdwatching from the blog.

 

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