Gateway: Living

Gardening with birds can enrich properties

Band-tailed Pigeon parents guard their young at the feeder below.
Band-tailed Pigeon parents guard their young at the feeder below. Courtesy

To non-gardeners, landscaping might seem for the birds. But for the majority of us surrounding our residences with beautiful (and often edible) botanical delights is a natural in our mild climate. In broadest terms, our gardens range from professionally-designed and maintained spaces to hands in the dirt, do-it-yourself gardening. Wherever you fall on this spectrum, you are literally gardening with and for the birds.

All land animals including us require 5 basics for survival: Food, Light, Air, Water and Space. As an outdoor educator, I’ve had fun making up fanciful, memory-aid acronyms for these basic needs: FLAWS.

Animals are in a sense, FLAWed, having to eat food rather than making their own like green plants do. Green plants, of course, are also dependent upon nature’s LAWS.

Just by being landscaped, our inhabited spaces are ever so much richer and diverse than the deep shade, nutrient-poor coniferous forest surrounding us. Our properties are wildlife magnets: Insects, frogs, birds and mammals flock in to exploit our oases; wet with irrigation systems, water features and hoses.

Landscaping provides a rich smorgasbord of hiding, nesting and feeding places. Invited or not, wildlife shares our wealth of FLAWS.

Birds: To feed or not to feed?

Fascinating plumage and antics, beautiful songs, and hundreds of species make birding America’s foremost nature hobby.

Binoculars, scopes, feeders and supplies are in big demand. At our house, black oil sunflower seed in a single tube feeder brings birds up close just outside our viewing window all year. As I write this, a family of five native Band-tailed Pigeons — not the common city pigeon — weighs down our feeder tray; our most exciting sighting this year!

Nesting in our trees, these large shy birds are more often heard cooing than seen. Some birders get so excited about their avian friends; they regard them almost as pets needing to be fed year round. Since private and public lands’ habitat with its food source loss is wildlife’s biggest threat, saving and restoring diverse healthy habitats is most important. At home, adding native plants to our landscaping mix is a good start to compensate this loss from human encroachment.

With an abundance of FLAWS, our home sites are a microcosm of larger wild spaces all around us; a wonderful opportunity to “Think Globally — Act Locally.”

We have logged 44 bird species so far on or above our quarter-acre since moving to Gig Harbor in 2012. Likely 95 percent of these would visit or nest here anyway if we didn’t feed, just not quite so viewing-close. Chickadees, nuthatches and warblers glean insects from leaf and twig, and six woodpecker species doctor our tree trunks. Sparrows and finches relish wild seeds and insects, as well as feeder fare. Birds need us far less than we need the joy and free environmental housekeeping services they and all the other critters provide. We also enjoy watching and wondering at their complex ecological interactions. Exclusion netting protects our vegetable garden and deer repellent guides their browsing choices.

Radical changes aren’t necessary to go incrementally greener. Your landscaping should reflect your tastes and lifestyle. Like many of your neighbors, you could let peripheral lawn areas go dormant in summer. Replace the summer brown with lower maintenance, drought-tolerant plants saving mowing and watering costs. For me, the most beautiful gardens on this year’s Gig Harbor Garden Tour had almost no lawn at all with decks or stone patios for social gatherings surrounded by plantings and containers.

Tempted to consider the transition? Remember, it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. How about a small colorful, pesticide-free butterfly, bee and hummingbird garden? Two excellent books cited below can provide many more ideas. Green gardening is such a popular activity that many local agencies and organizations including Audubon, Master Gardeners and WA Native Plant Society provide information and workshops.

Send me an email with subject heading GREEN LIST for a single-page resource list.

Bibliography from Pierce Co. Library System – For Children: “Wildlife Gardening: How to bring Birds and Bugs to Your Backyard,” by Martyn Cox, 80 pages, DK Publishing, NY, 2009. Many activities and projects for elementary children through adults.

For Adults and Families: “Landscaping for Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest,” by Russell Link, 320 pages, WA Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, Univ. of WA Press, Seattle, 1999. Comprehensive classic with 96 color wildlife photos.

Naturalist Ramblings columnist Frank Knight can be reached at