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What's Up Magazine

The Birds, Bees and The Flowers and The Trees

Nov 13, 2018 12:00AM ● By Brian Saucedo

By Janice F. Booth

Okay, I know what you’re thinking, “I know all I need to know about the birds and the bees, thank you.” Well, perhaps not. Anyway, it’s a frosty November day, so why not read on, and see if there might be a few handy tidbits of information here for you. Your spring garden plans may benefit. 

When speaking about the birds and the bees, I’m speaking literally, not figuratively. They’re valuable members of our gardens’ eco-systems, and they’re beautiful and exciting as well. So, while you wait for spring to arrive and breathe life back into your plants, consider how welcoming your garden might be for songbirds and honey bees. 

There are lots of handy lists of plants that entice birds and bees to put your garden on their dining and pollinating rounds. I won’t go into plant lists here. However, you may be able to enhance your garden’s popularity with goldfinches and honey bees in other ways. 

Your garden can become the neighborhood’s five-star garden residence for every songbird and pollinator in the vicinity. Food and shelter, comfort and safety—those are what we all look for in our residences. Wrens, hummingbirds, and chickadees are no exception.

Let’s begin with food; feeding your winged guests will keep them around longer and keep them healthy. Some of our birds and all of our honeybees spend the winter in the same yards and trees where they’ve lived all summer. In fact, right now you may have cardinals perching on barren boughs and honeybees hibernating in your woodpile. A few things you can do now to enhance the conditions for your winter guests include:

An insect house attracts bugs and critters that are helpful to gardens.

Setting up suet and seed feeders and keeping them filled all winter long. Caution: If you begin feeding the birds in early winter, they will come to depend on your feeder throughout the long, cold months ahead. If you stop filling the feeder, these birds will have a difficult time finding alternate food sources.

Providing water that is not frozen. Be careful to keep the water shallow or devise platforms where the birds can perch to drink. There are clever heaters and aerating systems you can install to keep the water moving, or you can simply put out fresh water daily. 

Planting bulbs now—crocuses, tulips, narcissi, and snowdrops will cheer you in early spring and, more importantly, these early bloomers will feed the awakening bees who are becoming active after their winter’s nap. Feed the bees early, and they will help your garden grow and flourish.

Ignoring detritus. Don’t clear out that brush pile from the back corner of your garden. The broken branches, grass clippings, bamboo stalks, and dead leaves provide warmth and protection for all your wildlife friends in the winter garden. You can clear out that pile once spring returns, and birds and bees can more easily relocate.

And, speaking of relocating: a word or two about bird houses and bug hotels. Yup, you read that right. Bug hotels, where bees are also welcome, I might add. 

First, the topic of birdhouses. Here’s another project you can undertake now and institute when spring returns—building or buying well-designed birdhouses for your new arrivals and those hearty souls who’ve wintered in your pines and cedars. 

Wood Magazine’s Carrol Henderson and Dave Algren wrote a comprehensive book about the characteristics of a useful, safe birdhouse. There are seven guidelines (See below θ), and they’re worth keeping in mind when you choose birdhouses for your garden. 

Once you’ve selected your pretty, exotic, or cozy birdhouses and planned where you’ll place them, you can turn your attention to the housing issues of one of the bird kingdom’s favorite food sources, bugs! Yes, you’ll be housing the predator and the prey. Well, you’d be housing the prey anyway, sometimes in places you’d rather they avoided. So, why not have a bit of fun? Build a bug or insect hotel. And, by the way, some varieties of bees will join the ants and beetles, ladybugs, and spiders in a well-planned bug hotel. 

There are lots of examples of these clever structures online, and you may still be able to catch a close-up look at the grand bug hotel at Homestead Gardens. You can purchase one ready-made, or you can make the construction of your own hotel a winter project. The main idea is to fill a sturdy frame with material in which insects like to hide—straw, pine cones, lengths of bamboo, softwood with holes drilled, and any other material that you can think of. Designing a pattern of the various materials and securing them in the frame comes next. Finally, set up your sturdy, welcoming bug hotel in some distant corner of your garden. The crawly critters will be out of your way, and become tasty morsels for your songbirds when spring returns. 

Locate your feeders 10 feet from trees, wires, gutters, and porches, and six feet above the ground. This will make it tough for squirrels to launch themselves through the air and onto your feeders.

Finally, a few guidelines on those bird feeders we spoke of earlier. Feeders and water sources are small ways in which we can redress the loss of habitats faced by our feathered, furry, and prickly garden residents. Water is fairly straightforward, and the various animals will figure out for themselves who drinks where and when. 

But the feeders are a different problem. Bird feeders need protection from squirrels. And squirrels are smart, resilient little rascals. Be prepared now. You may not win this battle. But here are three useful guidelines for bird feeders that might keep the squirrels from chowing down on every seed and all the suet you put out for your birds:

First, and perhaps the toughest, locate your feeders 10 feet from trees, wires, gutters, and porches, and six feet above the ground. This will make it tough for squirrels to launch themselves through the air and onto your feeders. 

Second, buy feeders encased in wire cages or devise a wire cage around your feeder. The small birds will be able to get through, but the squirrels and large bully-birds won’t.

Third, keep the dining areas clean; remove spilled seeds and husks from beneath the feeders. Birds are vulnerable to disease, just as we are, if our food and shelter are unclean.

And, predictably, here are some cautions:

Don’t hunt or poison squirrels. Cats and birds might be unintentional victims. 

Don’t use cats to scare off squirrels. Cats eat birds—and poison too.

Don’t grease the poles to which you’ve attached birdhouses or feeders. The idea sounds good, but the grease can work like the oil spills, coating feathers, and fur, leaving the squirrel or bird injured or dead.

Finally, if all else fails, make peace with those furry rascals. Set up a squirrel feeding-station far away from the bird feeders. Corncobs, nuts, and seeds will be well received and quickly devoured. 

And so, with any luck, I’ve planted a few seeds of ideas that may germinate over the winter, and in the spring, you’ll expand your population of healthy, charming birds and bees in the garden.

1

Consider the size and type of bird(s) you want for neighbors. The size of the box and the diameter of the entrance hole will dictate the size of the birds and their nests. 

2

Wood makes the best building material: pine, cedar, redwood or cypress. But be sure the wood on the inside of the birdhouse has not been chemically treated. The chemicals in treated wood can kill your new residents. Don’t choose metal houses because they’re too hot. 

3

Look to the birdhouses construction. Walls should overlap with the floor, allowing rain to run off and preventing moisture from seeping into the nest. The front of the house should have an overhang but no perch. Perches only aid predatory snakes, birds, and other rascals.

4

Ideally, you’ll want to clean the house twice a year. (I’m lucky if I get that done once a year.) The roof should hinge, or there may be a door at the back of the house, or sometimes the floor pops down, allowing you to clear out old nesting material that collects mites and other critters. Your
wrens and titmice will return to their favorite residences, and if the birdhouse is clean, they’ll stay.

5

Ventilation is important for birds, as for us. Your birdhouses should have some openings along the walls near the roofline as well as drainage holes in the floor. (You can easily add these ventilation features with a power drill, if the cutest birdhouse lacks ventilation.)

6

Check how the birdhouse is designed to be set out in your garden. Some are built to be hung, some to be attached to a vertical surface, like a wall or stockade fence. Others are placed on a pole. Whatever the method, be sure the material that secures the house is sturdy and weather resistant. You don’t want your sweet birdhouses to crash to the ground, destroying the nest and eggs or chicks inside. 

7

Finally, plan where you’ll set-out the birdhouses. There should be some shade during the day. The house should be at least six feet off the ground to deter squirrels and predators.
The entrance hole should not face into the prevailing winds.