The Company You Get to Keep: Gardening For the Birds 


by Tom Spencer / Soul of the Garden


It is a cool winter’s day and I have spent the better part of it tending to small chores in the garden. A cold front blew through yesterday, sweeping aside the still, damp air that crept up from the Gulf when an older front expired. The sticky warmth was replaced by blue skies and crystalline Mediterranean light. The bare branches of our lacebark elms are shining in the sunlight, and the garden feels completely open with the leaves off the trees. It has been a peaceful day, almost solitary, though I have enjoyed a good deal of company- as many as fifty American goldfinches have been swarming our feeders and visiting the waterfall of our pond. I am grateful for their presence, and have taken quiet pleasure in their gregarious chatter.


One of the greatest gifts of the garden is the company you get to keep. If you garden well, you are likely to strike up acquaintances with many visitors, from birds to bugs, and maybe even a four-legged critter or two (or three.) Our gardens provide welcome places of refuge for wildlife and some of my fondest garden memories have resulted from encounters with these guests. In particular, I love the birds. For me, the seasons are marked by flowers, foliage, and feathers.


Attracting birds to the garden is a simple matter of providing food, water and shelter. During the winter months, you will find that a well stocked feeder or two will fill your backyard with color and song.


The goldfinches, and their cousins, the purple and house finches, are among my favorite visitors. We lay out the welcome mat for them by providing a lot of their favorite food – thistle seed. But, I think the reason we have been so successful in attracting large numbers has to do with our pond. Water is the key to success if you are really going to try to attract wildlife and, as I have noted in this column before, a pond will attract all sorts of welcome (and a few unwelcome) guests. The goldfinches and white wing doves love to hang out near the “splash-zone” of our little waterfall, drinking from the water and, occasionally bathing themselves in the falls. If you don’t have the space for a pond, don’t worry, bird baths will attract all sorts of attention too.


The goldfinches are seasonal visitors, over wintering in Texas before moving back north to breed. Of the year-round residents, my favorites are the tufted titmice and their close kin, the Carolina chickadees. Even though these are common species here in Central Texas, few people are aware of their presence, unless they have a feeder. These are small, shy birds that prefer to hang out in the tree tops.  A feeder stocked with sunflower seeds will draw them down; though they are usually very cautious during their visits, grabbing one seed at a time and then retreating to a safe branch to consume their snack. I’d recommend one of the “caged” feeders that allow small birds in but frustrate the bigger, more aggressive species and the squirrels. A birdhouse with a small entry hole placed high from the ground in a secluded location may attract a breeding pair of either species in the springtime.


For some reason, I have always lumped the cardinals and blue jays together, even though they are very different species. Perhaps it is their distinctive crests, bright colors, or somewhat aggressive behavior that makes me think of them as related. Blue jays will eat just about anything you put in your feeders and will readily avail them selves of any water source. Cardinals are not picky eaters, but they really love safflower seed. I like to keep at least one feeder stocked with safflower because the squirrels and other birds don’t seem to like it. While I like the raucous attitude of the blue jays, the cardinals win me over with their distinctive silvery song.


And speaking of songs; is there anything more thrilling than a mockingbird in full chorus on a beautiful evening? To hear a mockingbird up high on some tall perch singing its heart out seems the aural embodiment of a Texas spring. I like their cocky attitude too. One of my favorite springtime memories is of a mockingbird which claimed a berry-laden possumhaw holly in my garden as its own. Everyday, it would gorge itself on the bright red berries and then frantically tried to defend the tree from all comers. It was most amusing when a flock of cedar waxwings descended in a cloud to help themselves to the mockingbird’s hoard. There were hundreds of these berry crazy birds everywhere, and in the middle of them all, the mockingbird was rushing around, wings outstretched, desperately shooing them away.


Screech owls calling in the dead of night, hummingbirds darting from flower to flower, a Carolina wren nesting on my back porch – yes, I have spent lots of time enjoying the company of the birds in my garden. One moment outshines them all – it was an otherwise dull spring morning, years ago, and as I stared out into the garden, contemplating all of the things that I had to do, my eye caught a dazzling bit of color – there on the ground, not far from my window, a painted bunting was hopping around. Its head was a brilliant blue, its chest red, and its back a vivid yellow-green. For an instant I forgot about deadlines and meetings and the world stood still. It was as if a bit of a Van Gogh painting had fallen to earth and then taken wing. Who could imagine such a visitor? Such a gift?



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