Birds will enjoy native plants more than a feeder full of seed

In winter kind-hearted gardeners purchase bird seed but plants do the trick and avoid cats and rats.

  • Friday, October 26, 2018 3:30pm
  • Life

The end of October has kind-hearted gardeners worried about the birds.

The good news is that gardeners are saving the world by planting more native flowers and berries that feed the birds and bees. But listen up bird lovers – the birds do not depend on your feeders to survive. Bird feeders provide a fast food fix of high-energy seed that helps birds build up fat that will insulate them during the winter months, but if you don’t fill your feeder the birds will not die from hunger. Birds do not use a single source of food for nutrition. Even those loyal hummingbirds are getting their main source of food from healthier plants and insects and not just your sugar-filled feeder.

The bad news is that bird feeders can spread four different bird diseases. The World Wildlife Federation recommends cleaning your feeder every few weeks with a 10 percent bleach solution, especially those hummingbird feeders filled with sugar water.

Cats! Crows! Rats!

A growing controversy, mostly in big cities like Tacoma and Seattle, flies in the face of kind-hearted bird lovers. The rat population explodes when neighborhoods full of bird lovers disperse seed to feeders all winter. The excess seed and bird droppings fall to the ground, attracting rats and spreading weeds. Some cities have passed laws that allow only rat-proof feeders; the feeder must be at least 3 feet off the ground on top of a smooth pole.

But it is the crows that stick in the craw of some neighbors. When flocks of this intelligent black bird begin to hang out near homes where feeders are kept full, the resulting noise and droppings can disturb neighbors and their pets. Then there are the cats. Feral cats learn to live near feeders and bird lovers complain to neighbors about domestic cats allowed to roam free that feast on birds at feeders.

It doesn’t take a bird brain to figure out that our birds don’t need more feeders to keep them healthy, well fed and protected from predators. Our birds and bees need more plants.

What our birds really want you to do is add more trees, shrubs, berries, grasses and vines.

Fall is a good time to look for plants with berries that will provide winter nourishment for local birds. Cotoneaster, Beautyberry, pyracanthea and many of our natives plants like Mahonia (Oregon Grape), snowberry and huckleberry can be added to the landscape now. Allow for some thick shrubbery in your landscape that will provide shelter for birds during winter storms.

A gentle plea for chaos

The plea above is also the title of a classic gardening book by Mirabel Osler. It describes how gardening took over her life as wildlife returned to the areas where she allowed plants to drift, wood piles to sit and perennials to go to seed. She learned not to feel guilty about a landscape that looked a bit more natural with lots of plants. Even blooming weeds can provide nectar and nourishment to birds and bees. Good citizens in the city need to limit the natural look to backyards and private spaces so as not to lower property values for the entire neighborhood; and remember that really overgrown vegetation, especially the common English ivy and Himalayan blackberry thickets, can become winter homes for rats.

For the love of lawns

Robins, juncos, flickers and other birds love lawns because of the food supply waiting just below the surface. During the dry summer months when you water the lawn, earthworms will rise to the surface providing a natural way to feed the birds. In Western Washington spreading insecticides all over a lawn to kill crane fly or other grubs is rarely necessary and can cause serious damage to the soil by killing off the earthworms as well as the crane fly that our local birds will devour for you. Worms and other living critters in your lawn don’t just feed the birds, they loosen the soil and their tunnels allow air and water to pass, especially during the wet winter months. Even those dang moles provide a service for gardeners, breaking up the subsoil with their burrowing so grass roots can reach deeper to find water on their own. A healthy lawn full of worms is a natural bird feeder – just say no to pesticides on your lawn that could harm the bird food below.

So there you have it. Grow more plants, enjoy a green lawn and help save the world.

• • •

Marianne Binetti has a degree in horticulture from Washington State University and is the author of “Easy Answers for Great Gardens” and several other books. For book requests or answers to gardening questions, write to her at: P.O. Box 872, Enumclaw, 98022. Send a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a personal reply.

For more gardening information, she can be reached at her Web site,

Copyright for this column owned by Marianne Binetti.

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