In summer and fall, birds in the garden are viewed as a double-edged sword, offering organic pest-control while pecking fruit trees, berry bushes and sunflowers bare. But come winter, a generous gardener can mean the difference between an easy meal and slim pickings for our feathered friends. Mike Alexander describes his experience with local birds.
This time of year, when many gardens lie dormant, we garden writers start to become a little desperate for subject matter. It is now, that many garden magazines offer up advice such as “Don’t forget to clean out bird houses” or “Remember to break the ice on the bird bath if it freezes.” I happen to be a very fond of birds in the garden and my first job every morning is to hop from feeder to feeder carrying a large bucket of sunflower seed. I have taken to using sunflower seed because birds are such messy eaters that I know I am in for hours of weeding if I give them any other type. In truth, they are just as careless with the sunflower seeds that I give them, but at least it is easy to locate and uproot any resulting seedlings.
The birds are so accustomed to my arrival with the food bucket that they sit in the leafless trees waiting for me. As soon as I get out of the car there is a cacophony of impatient bird noise from the fat, lazy little flock reminding me just what job comes first in the garden.
I would like to report that the birds were as fond of me as I am of them but, in fact, the opposite seems to be true. In addition to providing me with a never ending weed source they are also quite fond of sitting in the tree above my car and using it for target practice. There appears to be some sort of competition as to who can paint my car white in the least amount of time.
In the summer, when food supplies are more plentiful, you would think that they would consume less seed. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, the birds still shout for their regular seed allowance,e but having spread it about the various garden beds and pathways they then all waddle over to the orchard where they decide just what fruit they fancy. Of course, they never take more than a beakful or two from any single piece of fruit before deciding that another looks more tempting. As a result, if I want to produce fruit that has not been pre-pecked, I am forced to pick if before early and let it ripen indoors.
We have several varieties of birds on the property, many of which are quite unusual. Gut bucketed finches, lesser spotted pot bellies and wobbling warblers are all pretty uncommon, so I go above and beyond not to harm them in any way. As a deterrent, I have tried the trick of hanging shiny old CDs in the trees but with no positive effect whatsoever. In fact, obesity seems to be an attribute to be celebrated amongst these birds, who seem more than happy to admire their fat little reflections while munching carelessly on a piece of cherry.
I have to be careful when writing about this subject. Some years ago after writing a similar article for a French magazine, one of my elderly clients became so incensed that she sent a letter to the editor suggesting that “the author” be reprimanded for using terminology offensive to birds. Since I write under a pen name in France, she never realized I was the author of these insults and, somehow, I never found the courage to enlighten her.
Mike Alexander, GV’s European correspondent, lives in Southern France where he manages a large estate garden. A horticulturist for more than 20 years who has professionally gardened in the UK, France and Africa, he writes regularly on gardening, food and environmental issues for magazines and Web sites in the U.S., France, South Africa and New Zealand.
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