By Mary Benton and Michael Faisal Green
In collaboration with Pelican Harbor Seabird Station
Greetings, South Floridians! Imagine turning your garden into a nursery for baby birds, a place of beauty that attracts creatures great and small; aerial and terrestrial; colorful, silent or singing, shy or gregarious. You can create a playground and dining hall for generations of birds who will delight you with their beauty and birdsong. You can make new friends without leaving your garden!
Unlike humans, these creatures have specific breeding seasons and for birds, it is spring and early summer in South Florida (December to June). Birds pick this time to reproduce as the combination of moderate heat and dryness means the height of food availability. Mild temperatures reduce heat-induced fatigue and stress; trees are blooming, attracting insects and producing fruits and seeds; and the dry season means their primary source of food – insects – are less likely to be grounded by rain. Plus, their breeding season aligns perfectly with the time of year when we want to be outside in the garden due to the lovely weather, so we have a wonderful opportunity to observe these beautiful and vulnerable creatures. How cool is that? Read on to see the easy steps we can take to attract, nurture, and enjoy the company of our feathered friends in our very own gardens.
The single most important thing you can do to when creating a nursery is to stop using toxic chemicals. We can’t stress enough how important this is. If you use toxic chemicals in your garden to kill mosquitoes or rats, or to control weeds, you will be killing the insects that birds — especially baby birds — rely on for protein, and poisoning the berries and seeds the adult birds eat (and don’t forget that humans need insects — particularly pollinators — to survive). You wouldn’t think of using toxic chemicals around a human baby, and baby birds are even more vulnerable. There are many organic practices and products that you can use in place of toxic chemicals so no excuses, right?
The second most important thing you can do is to plant native plants. Why natives? Native plants attract more insects. Who needs insects? That’s right: birds need insects, especially the babies who need protein to grow into healthy adults. Need help deciding which to plant? You can check out this cool tool of a Native Plant Finder, enter your zip code, and get a list of native flowers, grasses, trees and shrubs that attract the most insects in your area. It is a work in progress, but there are lots of great suggestions and it is continuously being improved. The Florida Native Plant Society‘s website, along with the Institute for Regional Conservation’s Natives for your Neighborhood are full of helpful information on what native plants will work best in your garden. You can start small, but you’ll soon become addicted, especially if a number of those plants also attract butterflies. Beautiful plants attracting butterflies and birds: what’s not to love?
You can supplement the bird food supply by setting up bird feeders close to tree or shrub cover, using white millet or black sunflower seeds. Bird feeders can take many forms. They also allow you to get a better view of your feathered friends, so set them up and sit back and enjoy!
Leave a supply of bird nest building materials.
Install a water feature. You get extra points for having running water that the birds can hear.
Although this can be a touchy subject given the fact that feral cats, many of which have been neutered, abound in our community, cats and birds don’t mix. Cats are the single biggest killer of birds and their babies. Please keep domestic cats indoors, particularly during baby bird season.
Refrain from trimming shrubs, trees, or hedges until the rainy season commences in June. Trimming reduces cover, stresses the birds and can damage or destroy nests and kill the babies. And try to find an arborist who is sensitive to such issues.
The northern mockingbird is part of the thrush family – all of which are proficient in mimicking the songs of dozens of other species and common sounds. They do this using phrases and mockingbirds, as a general rule, repeat these phrases three or more times. So often they will mimic a blue jay by repeating their calls a minimum of three times and then immediately succeed that with imitating another bird/sound three or more times. Mockingbirds have an astounding musical repertoire, and seldom will you find them singing the same song, so whilst every song can be varied, it is easily recognisable by the number of repetitions. If you’re not sure what they sound like, you can check out their song here.
We hope this post helps you understand how you can work with nature to create a safe space full of tasty food for baby birds and their parents right in your very own garden. Knowing that you are playing a role in ensuring that the babies reach adulthood and take to the skies is a wonderful feeling!