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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

In the Garden: When caring for birds, think shelter first

In addition to having lovely warbling songs, house wrens eat their share of insects. (Susan Mulvihill / The Spokesman-Review)

Every time I head out to the garden, I’m greeted by birdsong: chirps from bluebirds, chattering from house wrens, the catbird’s mimicking calls, high-pitched squeaks of goldfinches and cheerful robin tunes. It is a joy to observe them.

When my husband and I first bought our property 27 years ago, it was completely bare except for one tiny pine seedling. How did we transform it into a mecca for wild birds? We first had to learn about their needs for food, water, shelter and nesting – some of which came from guide books but mostly from observation.

You might think food would be the most important requirement but providing shelter was a much higher priority. Birds need to feel safe and be able to hide from a predator at a moment’s notice. An open piece of land does little for their confidence.

We planted deciduous trees and conifers, including pines, firs and spruce. The next additions were native shrubs such as ninebark, oceanspray, red-twig dogwood, mock orange, serviceberry and snowberry. Many of our plantings are in thickets which allow birds to safely move through them or hide from the occasional hungry hawk.

As our landscape began filling in, we turned our attention to food and placed tube feeders in various locations. Some birds, such as chickadees and finches, are crazy about black-oil sunflower seeds. Goldfinches also eat them but their absolute favorite is Nyjer thistle seed.

I’ve learned to be less tidy during my fall clean-up each year by leaving the seedheads of coneflowers, globe thistles, black-eyed Susans and bee balm for the seed-eaters to enjoy during the winter. Those seeds are an important source of nutrition.

Suet is a favorite of northern flickers, chickadees, grosbeaks and woodpeckers. It is made from fat and a variety of seeds, berries or nuts. Suet provides a high-energy snack for these birds during the winter months, though they’re more than happy to eat it year-round.

Hummingbirds, which are so delightful to watch, thrive on small insects and nectar. Flowers that will attract them include penstemon, bee balm, phlox, salvia, cardinal flower and lantana.

Many birds are insectivores. I’m very happy to welcome them since they keep my garden healthy. Examples include chickadees, warblers, bluebirds, wrens, woodpeckers and nuthatches.

Several native shrubs produce berries which robins and waxwings enjoy nibbling. We’ve found that no matter what we’re serving, birds of all kinds are attracted to other bird activity and will fly in to investigate. They’ll often take up residence and raise a family.

With all that eating going on, birds are going to need some water to wash things down, right? Birdbaths and water features will provide a drink in addition to giving them a place to bathe. Remember to clean your birdbaths and feeders on a regular basis.

To really put out the welcome mat for the birds that stay in our garden during the spring and summer months, we’ve had fun constructing and hanging birdhouses of different sizes and types on trees, fence posts and the sides of outbuildings. To learn how to build birdhouses for specific birds, including the size entrance hole they’ll need, refer to a book or website.

Take time to enjoy the amazing world of birds in your garden.

Susan Mulvihill is co-author, with Pat Munts, of “Northwest Gardener’s Handbook.” Contact her at and follow Susan on Facebook at