This Book Helps You Build It So They Will Come

Gardening For The Birds

How to Create a Bird-Friendly Backyard

By George Adams

Timber Press 2013

A growing unease about our relationship to the natural world and our impact on planetary processes has led to increased interest in gardening with native plants. Gardening may seem like a less-than-effective tool to turn the tide of environmental disaster but in fact gardeners and farmers can create better habitat where it has disappeared, and that is not a small thing.

Here’s why: our network of yards and gardens, cultivated fields, and tree farms forms a matrix that animals must negotiate as they migrate and forage in the landscape. This settled matrix is often the dominant feature of the landscape. The margins of fields, roadsides, and gardens are increasingly being cleared (often with chemicals) of native plants and weeds – hedgerows of a sort – that heretofore fed and housed a number of wild things such as monarch butterflies, native bees, beneficial insects, and many birds.

In the aggregate, our farms, suburbs, and cities CAN offer wildlife sustenance and places to rest and live, if they are planted with appropriate native species. If we coordinate our efforts and connect these patches, their effective size actually increases synergistically. Bears and bison excepted, creatures with small territories, migratory insects, birds, mammals, amphibians, and a diversity of others that live with us or in spite of us, are well served by connected patches of habitat. Gardening and farming for wildlife mitigates the effects of our occupancy on the planet.

Gardening for the Birds is a new resource that builds on a conversation that was started in the 1980’s and 1990’s with books like Noah’s Garden. Authored in 1993 by the late Sara Stein, Noah’s Garden was an eloquent and entertaining appeal for the use of native plants to provide for wildlife where we live.

The value-in-natives thesis is also well documented by Douglas Tallamy, a biologist working on the east coast. In his book for popular audiences, Bringing Nature Home (2007), Tallamy discussed his research demonstrating that native plants are essential for native animals throughout the food web. His work shows that insects are only really healthy when feeding on the native plants they evolved with. Because birds eat insects, they too are better off in landscapes with native plants. Other studies continue to confirm this.

For those of us in the Pacific Northwest, Noah’s Garden and Bringing Nature Home were more inspirational than prescriptive, because many of the plants mentioned were in the authors’ home range on the east coast. Although there were plant lists for each region of the country, they were somewhat limited compared to the information available locally. Gardening For the Birds offers more information on garden design and regional plant choice, and extensive bird-centered information as well as beautiful photos.

The introduction starts off swimmingly with these important ways of seeing your garden from a bird’s perspective (following Tallamy’s mantra: food, shelter, nesting and resting)

Are there places for birds to hide?

Are there places for birds to nest?

Are there sheltered areas where birds can protect themselves from the elements?

Is there food and water?

This helps organize your thinking when doing a planting plan. Specific advice on planting is welcome, and correct:

“Familiarize yourself with what grows well in your region…(within a 100 mile radius)”

Plant a “variety”…

Plant in “layers”…

“If you only have a small area for planting, be sure to learn the size plants reach at maturity.”

“Plan lawn… with informal (or formal) borders and break it up with gardens, shrubs, trees and ground covers”.

Thus, fairly good definitions of what is native, biodiversity, ecological niches, and good garden sense all introduced by page 19. Wow. Further illustrations follow (both visual and written) of food niches, the concept of canopy layers, and a great page on different bird bills and how they are adapted to food types. Very helpful and concise.

A discussion of bird boxes, and a wonderful large chart with exact dimensions for nest boxes for a number of different species is well presented. The level of detail and the graphics here make accurate information easily accessible, with enough depth to be really useful. Later, ideas and principles for plant combinations to provide food over a long period without artificial feeding stations are really welcome.

The author is a photographer as well as a birder and landscape designer, and the combination of talents takes this book beyond similar garden guides. Seeing the birds you want to attract (or ones like them) is very compelling and helps a beginner understand how garden and wildlife go together. Plus it is just fun to look at the beautiful photographs.

In the middle sections though, things get problematic. On the topic of appropriate plants (addressed with great promise early on), the author divides the country into “five …environmental regions” then tries to cover specific plants and animals in each.

The first problem is that there are way too many ecoregions within these arbitrary five to discuss plant choices in a way that will have enough depth and meaning for any particular ecoregion in the space available. Secondly, the use of localized/common names is always bound to confuse, and surprisingly (for a garden expert) Adams uses them without indicating to which plants they refer, i.e. genus and species. For example, in the regional guide, Adams mentions “red cedar” (Juniperus) as a good wildlife plant in California, but what we know as red cedar in the PNW is western red cedar (Thuja plicata). In other parts of the country, some Juniperus species are called cedars, but he doesn’t explain this regionalism, and it is confusing.

Adams falls back on his apparent experience with the eastern and southeastern US flora for many of his plant recommendations to illustrate garden design principles. That is fine if you tell people where these plants are native, but that’s not the case here. There is a disconnect between the advice in the introductory chapters to choose plants that are native, and mentioning plants that are native to only a certain geographic area as recommended. So we are back to the problem with previous books that discuss (mostly) a narrow regional flora not relevant to a wider geographic area. It seems there are two books here, one with advice for gardeners in general, and one for people in a particular region of the country. When the two were merged, some few plants from each region were included in some parts of the book, but this is not comprehensive, nor  could it be without writing a book for each region.

The issue of plant names is not inconsequential, because regionalisms can be misleading and incorrect. An example is the author’s advocacy of holly in the landscape. Native hollies in the east/southeast/south are great plants. But up here in the Northwest, we have only invasive English holly, which is a scourge. It is often mistaken for a native or innocuous non-native by homeowners. No mention of this fact, and I wonder if the author is even aware of our issue with invasives.

Holly is mentioned again under plants to have in your hedgerow, along with dubious advice to start a hedgerow by stringing a wire up for birds to perch on so they disperse seeds in their droppings (seen elsewhere and oft-repeated). This is terrible advice, as anyone will testify who has ever spent a day weeding out invasive bird-dispersed Armenian blackberry, English holly, English ivy, Cotoneaster, spurge laurel, and any number of other plants. Mostly what you get from birds, at least in a disturbed, urban or suburban area, is invasives. Better for us on the west side of the Cascades to establish a dense ground-covering hedge of natives, planted at the best time of year – during fall rains.

The plant and bird directories that follow the previous design chapters are beautifully presented, with excellent photos, useful diagrams, icons, and information all in one place. Here I found more than the 2 caterpillar food plants for my region that were listed in the Butterflies chapter, and the western red cedar (Thuja plicata) right where it belonged and properly named. Other cool stuff, like how certain plants are actually used by birds, and a nice discussion of feeders is valuable and interesting. If the Plant directory had range maps for plants, as it does for birds, plus more plants, it would be just about perfect. Even though you have to page back and forth between the Bird and Plant directories to get the whole picture, it works, and is so much better than the charts for the Butterfly and Hummingbird chapters where very little local detailed information was included, in favor of covering every one of his five regions of the country.

Resources sections of books are often less helpful than one would like. Since it’s impossible to cover every ecoregion in depth in a book this size, besides expanding the information in the Directories, more space and thought could have been devoted to a better list of resources for local information. It is hard to offer something that will not go out of date with time, and to also include hyper-local businesses of the kind we need when it comes to purchasing plants or seeds. Gardening for the Birds does a pretty good job of sending people in the right direction for further information but, surprisingly, does not include two of the most-used guides among botanizers and birders west of the Cascades in the Pacific Northwest: the Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, and Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast by Pojar and MacKinnon (known as “Pojar” and “Sibley”). Googling butterfly plants for the PNW, I instantly arrived at one of the best, most concise and immediately useful local resources at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife website. Aside from hiring your local gardener who specializes in natives, this website is a great source for information.

Although it has some issues, this book provides lots of good information. The author’s experience with birds, garden design, and photography offer something more interesting and more complete than many bird gardening books. It is great to have so many high quality photographs, and the garden design principles are excellent. In the Directories, you will find a good amount of information on your particular region, and if you supplement that with some web browsing and keep an eye out for local wildlife and native plant classes, you’ll be on your way to a better habitat for wildlife in your own garden.

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