Some of our most popular and lively garden visitors are native birds. You can create a home landscape that is inviting to birds, butterflies and other wildlife that inhabit our local forests and meadows. Attracting various kinds of wildlife can be fun and educational for the gardener, and restores valuable habitat that is often lost in residential neighborhoods.
Native birds are adapted to their home ecosystems. For most, only native plants are sources of cover, nesting sites and food. Besides providing fruit and seeds, these plants are hosts to the insects that all birds need, especially when feeding young. Diverse species of trees and shrubs growing in multi-layered plant communities create the places where birds nest, feed and sleep. By adding native vegetation of many different heights, you greatly increase the variety of birds that will visit your yard. See lists in the attached Easy Native Plants for Wildlife Gardens.
DESIGN FOR PEOPLE AND WILDLIFE
As you plan to devote some of your property to native plants for wildlife, first look at how you yourself want to use your yard. You don’t have to replace the non-native ornamental plants you already enjoy, but mixing them with native plants and filling empty patches with natives will reap the most benefits for wildlife. Places you use a lot for sitting, playing or vegetable gardening are in the “people zone.” Areas where you seldom visit, such as back corners, or shady side yards, can be “wild zones” and planted densely with native plants. You can attract birds close to the people zone with well-placed native vegetation, feeders and water. Don’t forget to leave paths so that you can access all parts of the yard for easy maintenance and enjoyment. Paths in the “wild” areas can be very narrow and mulched with wood chips to build up the soil and prevent weeds.
HOW TO START
Place a bird feeder where you can see it from a window. Fill it with black oil sunflower seeds; most native songbirds relish them, and they do not attract non-native pest species such as English sparrows or starlings. If these aggressive birds are not a problem in your area, you can add mixed seed for ground-feeding birds: white millet, milo and cracked corn are readily eaten. Clean and disinfect feeders regularly to prevent moldy seeds, and remove feeders if you see any birds that look sick. Add a branchy native deciduous shrub, small tree or a teepee of sticks nearby as a staging site for chickadees waiting in line to fly away with a seed.
Protect ground-feeding birds from cat ambushes by leaving an open clearing at ground level 6 ft. in radius from the feeder, or by placing a low hoop of 2”X4” fencing (2 ft. tall) around the area where seed falls. Your whole fenced yard can be a bird haven if it is secured against roaming cats with small-mesh wire at ground level. Cats can be discouraged with a squirt gun.
Connect your feeding area to other patches of shelter with “islands” of cover or a continuous corridor of mixed native shrubs. Towhees, juncoes and song sparrows will not fly far without shelter, and they prefer to run among shrub stems. A brush pile of cut branches with lots of spaces inside will also shelter birds from cats and hawks. Place several loose piles wherever you have room, especially while new plants are still small, and enjoy the action.
Add a simple bird bath, which can be a large plant-pot saucer on the ground in the open space near a feeder, on a slope so the water has shallow and deep areas, only 1-2” deep. Keep it clean and filled year-round.
INVITE BUTTERFLIES AND HUMMINGBIRDS
In a sunny flower bed, plant native flowers that offer nectar for butterflies and hummingbirds. Add host plants that caterpillars need to eat. Some of these plants also have seeds for birds, if you let them mature and stand over the winter. See lists and photos of butterfly nectar and food plants at www.naba.org/Chapters/Nabaws/. Feeders for hummingbirds can be used year-round, filled with a solution of 1 part sugar to 4 parts water (no red coloring). Keep feeder clean (scrub with vinegar to prevent molds) and nectar fresh. In hot weather, you may need to replace nectar every 2 days. Use a small feeder to prevent waste of sugar-water.
REMOVE INVASIVE PLANTS
Invasive plant species crowd out native habitats and the wildlife that depend on them for survival, and the damage they do to ecosystems ranks just behind outright habitat destruction. Many invasive plants like English ivy, holly and Scotch broom have escaped from home gardens and now infest thousands of acres of natural areas across Washington. Their seeds travel in bird guts and tire treads far from their domestic sources. Many aggressive weeds are listed by the Kitsap County Noxious Weed Board at http://county.wsu.edu/kitsap/nrs/noxious/Pages/Weeds.aspx . Please avoid planting any of the species on the list in your yard, and work to remove any you already have, replacing them with local native plants.
SHRINK THE LAWN
Birds will be quick to use your “wild” corners and bird feeders. If you want to enjoy even more wildlife, you can convert some areas of lawn under your trees. Lawns don’t grow well in deep shade under trees anyway, and they use up a lot of water, fertilizer and time. Changing to native plants under trees has many benefits: the trees’ roots will stay cooler and moister; leaves can remain where they fall; and tree trunks are buffered from mowers and weed whips.
To remove lawn grass, spread several layers of newspaper or a single layer of cardboard (remove the tape) as a light barrier on top of the grass out to the edge of the tree’s canopy. Cover with a layer of mulch – 6” of leaves or 3” of chipped branches. The lack of light will kill the grass, worms will till the moist soil, the paper will break down over the winter, and the mulch will remain to prevent weeds.
During the rainy season, plant native shrubs and ground covers in these areas. Pull back the woody mulch (do not mix wood chips with the soil - it stays on top), plant into the soil (fitting plants in between tree roots), and then restore the mulch around the new plants. If the grass isn’t dead yet, do not include any grass roots in the planting hole. Keep mulch 2” away from stems to prevent rot.
Wherever you need a clear sight-line, use plants and ground covers that will remain low. Otherwise, use plants that grow to different heights in order to offer many layers of cover for wildlife.
SOME NATIVE PLANTS NEED LITTLE WATER
One of the advantages of native plants in your garden is that they do not require irrigation after establishment. All are adapted to our long dry summers. Match native plants to your garden’s moisture conditions. Pacific madrones especially need dry soil in summer, and irrigation will cause root damage and eventual death.
Use native, dry habitat plants under madrones and other large trees to keep them healthy and give your yard a special, natural look. All new plants need to be mulched, and will need to be watered for their first summer, but afterward will thrive without irrigation.
For really wet places (with standing water in winter) where lawn and regular garden plants would suffer, you can substitute many wonderful wetland shrubs, sedges and rushes, to create a thriving plant community.
LOCAL SOURCES FOR NATIVE PLANTS
To sustain locally-adapted ecosystems, it is best to use plants and seeds from sources as close as possible to your site. Please purchase native plants from reputable nurseries who can provide information about where they obtained their plant material. A list of local and regional native plant nurseries is available at https://green/kingcounty.gov/GoNative/.
SOURCES FOR MULCH
Chipped up branches and fallen leaves make ideal, nutritious mulch for native plantings and paths. If you have any trees removed or trimmed, be sure to have the chips left at your property in a pile, where they remain useful for years. If you don’t have tree work done, some tree-service professionals will drop off loads of chips if you ask. The PSE utility forester can put you on a waiting list for chips produced by right-of-way tree trimming, at 360-265-3170.
WILDLIFE IN YOUR GARDEN
Besides the desirable native songbirds and butterflies, your improved native habitat may attract other kinds of creatures, some welcome, some not.
Deer will enjoy many native plants, but if you don’t want deer to eat them all, temporary hoops of 2”X4” wire 5 feet tall will let the plant grow large enough to sustain browsing or rise over the heads of the deer. Inexpensive plastic deer mesh 7-8 feet high can be used to fence off larger areas. Solid fencing 6’ high may prevent deer from seeing (and jumping) into your yard, but wire fencing needs to be 8’ tall where there is room for deer to leap and land. Smaller enclosures don’t need to be tall, especially if they have some added branches arrayed to fill any landing sites. Deer leave alone such plants as salal, snowberries, evergreen huckleberry and sword ferns, so these can provide a fine beginning for habitat improvement. Many plants on various lists of “deer-proof” species will be eaten by hungry young deer who evidently don’t read.
Squirrels, both our native Douglas squirrel and introduced Eastern gray, will enjoy your bird feeders. Careful placement can prevent squirrels from leaping onto feeders, as does attaching a baffle on the feeder post (such as an upside down plastic plant pot). Many folks don’t mind squirrels and chipmunks feeding on the ground, and these lively rodents will also benefit from the cat protections placed for the birds.
Night visitors such as raccoons, skunks, and opossums may dig worms from your mulched planted areas (just replace the mulch) or raid the fish from your garden pond. Covering water features and compost piles with wire mesh keeps them out.
Moles will enjoy the worms under your mulched areas, and their work loosens the soil without damaging the plants. If they wander into your remaining lawn, you can rake out the earth hills or shovel the soil up and use it elsewhere in your garden.
If you are lucky, garter snakes, lizards, salamanders and toads will help keep slugs in check. Enjoy their free pest-control services and leave them alone. Old logs on the ground, piles of rock, and brush piles offer good shelter.
TO LEARN MORE
The Pacific Northwest is home to a wonderful variety of beautiful native plants that make handsome gardens and valuable habitat. The following books teach us more about our regional species and how to design a wildlife garden:
Link, Russell. 1999. Landscaping for Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest. U. of Washington Press, Seattle. Great information on planning a wilder yard, including plant profiles, planting designs, and specs for bird boxes (with proper hole sizes to discourage “weed” birds).
Kruckeberg, Arthur. 1982. Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest. U. of Washington Press, Seattle. A classic guide, with details on growing and propagating native plants, and plant lists in the back for various soil and sun conditions.
Pettinger, April. 2002. Native Plants in the Coastal Garden. Timber Press, Portland OR. A very thorough book, covering beginning steps and advanced planting schemes. Especially good for creating shoreline plantings and wildflower meadows like those found around Garry oaks in Victoria, BC.
King County offers information about using native plants at https://green.kingcounty.gov/gonative/. Their Native Plant Guide will help you match plants to your garden’s conditions, and its how-to articles and landscaping plans can give you lots of good ideas.
Washington Dept. of Fish & Wildlife - Backyard Wildlife Sanctuary Program: http://wdfw.wa.gov/living/backyard/. Great regional information.
National Wildlife Federation – www.nwf.org/gardenforwildlife/ - Many tips; also: Backyard Habitat Certification application, with yard sign available.
Kitsap County Conservation District: www.kitsapcd.org. Orders taken in January for March pickup. Also, help with planning and funding native plant rain gardens for filtering storm water.
Jefferson County Conservation District: www.jeffersoncd.org. 2014 orders start Jan. 2, pickup Feb. 22.
Sally Manifold (B.S. Zoology, M.S. Environmental Science) has worked as an environmental educator, planner, and restoration ecologist. For 12 years, she built and ran the Greenway Volunteer Program for Bellingham (WA) Parks, which replaced invasive plants with native plant habitat along urban trails and natural areas. She and her husband have lived outside Poulsbo since January, 2013.___________________________________________