Designing a Bird-Friendly Garden: Connecting Science and Stewardship at Home

Gardening for the Birds: Connecting Science and Stewardship at Home

Creating a garden for birds at home is a way to introduce children to science concepts and the practice of stewardship. Today's children are growing to meet a world of unbalanced natural systems, from climate change to broken food chains. Instilling a sense of stewardship, that is, responsibility for and care of nature, will help them repair the damage that has already been done. An understanding of the land they live on creates a foundation for making informed choices as they become adults. Observing and caring for backyard birds nurtures curiosity and fosters the ability to carry out scientific skills like forming hypotheses and experimentation.

Benefits of Gardening for Birds

There are many emotional and physical benefits gained by gardening, such as boosted mood, increased memory, and lessened anxiety. For younger children, working in the garden builds physical strength and hones fine motor control. The work also translates into academic learning through hands-on math and science experiences.

Creating a garden for birds with children introduces them to the food chain and how humans impact land. Bird populations are suffering from loss of habitat, decreased food supplies, poisons from weed killers and pesticides, outdoor cats, and collisions with glass windows. Many of these problems can be addressed at home. For instance, families can stop using weed killers and pesticides on lawns to stop the chemicals from entering the food chain. The chemicals poison insects which birds eat. In turn, birds are either poisoned or suffer from developmental problems. This is a clear illustration for children to see how the food chain works and how human action impacts it. A sense of stewardship can be instilled in children by planting native trees, shrubs, and flowers. Families can read how Native Americans approached gardening in the book, Native American Gardening: Stories, Projects, and Recipes for Families. In addition, families can learn which indigenous peoples lived on the land through the Native Land Digital interactive map.

Native plants provide seed and berry-eating birds a safe place to eat. For younger children, pasting decals or stringing ribbons across windows result in fewer bird collisions, called window-strikes. This is another lesson in stewardship and human impact. Lastly, families can keep cats indoors. Cats kill up to 4 billion birds per year in the U.S. If your neighborhood has a feral cat population, consider becoming involved in a local cat rescue or trap-neuter-return (TNR) program. It is more difficult to implement all the bird saving measures suggested when living in an apartment or condominium. A complex’s landscaping crew might not be convinced to stop spraying weed killer. But bird-friendly activities like attaching decals to windows are simple.

Four Steps to Garden for Birds

As a family, take inventory of your yard, veranda, and neighborhood to note what supports bird populations. If there is a large outdoor cat population it will affect your garden design. For instance, ground feeders and baths will make birds sitting targets for cat predators. Consider purchasing a hanging bird bath and feeder that does not encourage birds to eat or drink on the ground. For families that live in a city or do not have a backyard, potted containers of seed-producing flowers are a great way to support songbirds and potted evergreen shrubs give shelter throughout the year. Regardless of whether your bird garden is a backyard or a patio, follow the list below to include all the necessities to create a well-rounded bird habitat.

1. Offer Nesting Areas

Plant native trees, shrubs, and vines to offer plenty of leaf cover for nesting birds. Birds are territorial, especially within their own species, so having a few different trees and shrubs all around the yard will help them not feel threatened by their nesting neighbors. Some birds will occupy bird houses, while others do not use nesting boxes sold in stores. To learn more about nesting boxes and the types of birds they attract go to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website.

2. Supply a Water Source

Birds need water all year even in the cold months when most water sources are frozen. Solar-heated bird baths work well in winter. Never add chemicals to your bird bath. Glycerin, anti-freeze, or salt will harm or kill birds when added to bird baths to keep water from freezing. Instead, pour hot water over frozen water to melt it. Circulating bird baths work well in summer, because mosquitoes do not lay eggs in moving water. For free-standing bird baths, change the water every day.

3. Plant for Shelter

Look to your local Audubon or Native Plant Society chapter for plant suggestions native to your area. A mix of vines, deciduous trees, and evergreens can offer year-round cover for birds. Even dead trees have a lot to offer birds in the way of cover (think of birds like woodpeckers, who build their nests in tree trunk cavities). Dead trees left as short as six feet tall provide birds with shelter. They also house insects that many insect-eating birds will need to support hungry fledglings come spring.

4. Feed the Birds

There are conflicting views on whether to feed birds only in the cold months or hot months, too. Many people who live where bears are abundant, choose to take down feeders for the summer so as not to attract the large animals. People who live in the suburbs or cities often choose to leave feeders up all year. Feeding birds from feeders is an exciting way to connect children to backyard birds. It gets birds up close so children can observe their characteristics. Children will enjoy filling feeders, food stations, and creating their own homemade bird seed balls. Understanding which birds eat seed, fruit, or insects will help you and your child develop a yard inviting to those birds. For instance, the American robin is an omnivore that eats invertebrates (worms and insects), fruit, and seeds while the Baltimore oriole eats fruit, nectar, and insects, but no seeds.

  • To attract berry-eating birds, try planting American holly if it is native to your area. It offers fruit for winter birds and shelter from the snow.
  • To attract seed-eating birds, plant native coneflowers or annual flowers like zinnia that produce seeds enjoyed by goldfinches and other small songbirds. Invest in quality bird seed when filling bird feeders and clean feeders, especially if the summer is hot and humid. Most organizations suggest cleaning every two to four weeks to keep mold and bacteria in check.
  • To attract insect-eating birds, allow fallen leaves to stay under trees and shrubs. Insects, including butterfly and moth larvae, hide under fallen leaves in winter. In spring, you will see insect-eating birds, like catbirds, tossing aside leaves looking for insects to eat. Chickadees are part of the 96% of birds that rear their young on insects. A chickadee parent will need over 5,000 insects to raise her nest of babies.

Activities to Connect Children to Your Backyard Birds

  • Take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count.
  • Join a citizen science program, such as Journey North, to submit the data you gather.
  • Start a field diary (young children can draw simple pictures in crayon, while older children can create more detailed diagrams).
  • Organize a birding club.
  • Build or decorate nesting boxes.
  • Join the local nature center or another birding organization for field trips.
  • Create a garden geared towards hummingbirds (great for the Southwest and West Coast).

Adding features to support backyard bird populations is a fun family activity that helps connect children to the natural world. It can prompt discussions about the food chain, crop production, and climate change. It also can give children a sense of agency, showing them that they can participate in the choices being made in the world and for their future.

About the Author

V.Kulikow Montessori Life Blog Author

V. Kulikow is a former Montessori teacher and youth services librarian. She currently works as a UX designer and enjoys content creation both with words and images. On weekends you can find her gardening, taking nature photos, and working on her garden design certification through the Native Plant Trust.

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The opinions expressed in Montessori Life are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of AMS.

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