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Garden Journal

Beneficial birds

Fling open the windows, sweep the walks, pull out the lawn chairs and uncoil the hoses – spring has sprung in New Hampshire, and it is glorious.

The sky was such a beautiful shade of blue last week, that I almost fell over from gazing at it. It was just about the same sparkling blue as the spreading Siberian Scilla bulbs that are sprouting in the shade of a great red maple; those are early spring-blooming trees that cast tiny red florets in a sprinkle across lawns and into the streets.

The birds have been arriving steadily. A pair of robins that arrived much earlier than usual looked pretty unhappy hopping around in the snow, but are now making their home under the eaves of our house.

Possibly the best harbingers of all: the chorus of the peepers just before nightfall and the hauntingly beautiful melody of the wood thrush echoing in the treetops in the early morning hours, its sweet notes can be heard for miles.

It was one of the most perfect days for gardening I have seen in a long time, not a cloud or a black fly in the sky, when two birds flew into the house. The first was a white-winged sparrow with bright yellow stripes, and it glided straight in through the open door as if it knew where it was going, took a sharp right turn into the library and landed atop a 10-foot-tall avocado tree affectionately named Albert Junior. I happened to hear the bird’s wings beating frantically against the tall glass windows that Albert Junior likes to lean up against, and my heart fluttered with every wing beat as I gently cupped it in my gloved hands and carried it to freedom.

Birds are friends to the gardener, taking care of a large amount of insect and pest removal without the use of chemicals and toxins. To be sure, some gardeners are plagued with nonstop insects and do not have enough birds to devour them, and some are harassed by too many birds that eat all of their berries and fruit. But you can recognize and encourage bird species that are the beneficial insect-eaters to bring balance and beauty to your yard.

Plant a section of flowers and shrubs that will attract birds in a more natural habitat rather than formal plantings, and be sure to provide a water source. If you have a birdbath, change the water frequently and consider adding a bubbler, which will not only look nice, but is healthier for the birds and they will love it.

Hummingbirds are especially playful when there is flowing water around and will fly under the arc of a hose spray.

Speaking of water, the average rainfall for April is 3.9 inches, and we had only 1.6 inches. Uh-oh. We are in for a dry spell, and that means a whole range of insects could become a problem. Here are a few tips to protect the plant habitat keep your garden humming (or tweeting) with happiness.

Most perennials are tough and can go the distance; phlox panniculata, Rudbeckia, lavender, thyme and many shrubs should be okay without too much fuss. These are the deeply-rooted plants that will be able to find moisture way down in the soil. If the established beds start to droop, you can revive them with a deep soaking and then recover with thick mulch.

An overhead sprinkler is not as good as a soaker hose when it is hot and dry. Many flower and most vegetable plants are susceptible to fungal diseases, so it’s important to keep their leaves dry. Especially vulnerable to leaf disease are the roses, and they would prefer an extra helping of top dressing, a big gulp of water, but not too much, and then some more mulch, please.

Go large. Plants from the nursery come in those despicable disposable plastic pots and the poor things will suffer horribly if you do not get them out of there immediately. Set plants in the shade and submerge them, pot and all, into a bucket of water before putting them in the ground. Alternatively, for annual pots, start out with the largest container you can find and fill it up. Large planters have a lot more volume and so do not heat up as quickly. Put some rocks or empty plastic pots in the bottom for drainage and then add soil. Many potting soils now contain built in water beads that hold moisture in the mix. Also, you can purchase self-watering containers or make your own by setting a water-filled bottle pierced with a few tiny holes under the soil.

Fit a plastic tube inside the bottle and bring the tube up to the rim of the pot . Don’t forget to mulch your containers, use smooth rocks or finely chopped leaves, and the plants will be much more content.

If you put up feeders, add a birdbath or two, plant native shrubs and perennials and this will make the insect-loving birds feel safe and welcome, coming back after year. Here is a list of some birds and their preferred protein diet to feed:

∎ Bluebirds: grasshoppers, crickets, beetles, larvae

∎ Chickadees: aphids, ants, earwigs, caterpillars, scale, many others

∎ Cardinals (includes scarlet tanagers): beetles, grasshoppers, leafhoppers, stinkbugs, snails

∎ Finches: gnats, ants, small spiders, small bugs

∎ Eastern Woods Peewees: flying insects, flies

∎ Grosbeaks: beetles, caterpillars, larvae

∎ Hummingbirds: gnats, black flies, mosquitoes, small spiders, ants

∎ Nuthatches: shrub and tree insects, such as borers, ants and earwigs

∎ Sparrows: ground insects, such as beetles, caterpillars, cutworms

∎ Swallows: beetles, grasshoppers, spiders

∎ Titmice: aphids, leafhoppers, beetles

 Warblers: aphids, caterpillars, whitefly

∎ Woodpeckers: larvae, beetles, weevils, borers

It was an Eastern Woods Peewee, or Phoebee as they are affectionately known,that was the second bird to sail through the open doors of the house.

It flew through the kitchen and across the room, landing on a lamp finial, twitching its tail for balance. The Phoebee is a bird from the forest with a familiar song, one that does not generally come near homes and gardens or feeders, let alone fly into someone’s house. We played a game of chase until the bird was gently convinced that building a nest in my living room was not a good idea. The world stood still for a moment as we eyed each other and I herded the Phoebee back outside. Birds don’t weigh anything at all.

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