24 January 2008

Bird Gardening

Robin at A Bumblebee Garden put up a wonderful post about evening grosbeaks making a comeback, which she read about at Project Feederwatch, through the wonderful Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I really enjoyed her post, and reading about Project Feederwatch too, and I'll be posting about something similar in the native plant department (PlantWatch, which goes throughout Canada; are there similar programs in your country?) in weeks to come. But for now, I have birds on the brain (which probably makes me a birdbrain, yes? The catchildren think so....)

Many of us feed birds as a part of our gardening experience. Carol at May Dreams Garden has just revamped her bird cafe after discussion with other enthusiasts about what to feed when and where. I have always loved birds, but have never claimed to know much about them. Not having studied them the way I’ve immersed myself in plants, I’ve always found find trying to tell one type of bird from another overwhelming to sort out. (Well, yes, okay, I can tell a blue jay from a chickadee, or a robin from a goldfinch. But you get the point).We feed the birds yearround here, and provide a wide variety of treats for the feathered visitors. But we can always learn more. That's where a delightful book by Sally Roth comes in. Roth is well known for her books on gardening and birding, with a focus on using natural, organic methods and a variety of native as well as naturalized plants to create lovely yards that teem with bird populations.

In Bird-by-Bird Gardening, Roth teaches us a little more about birds than many of us probably know. She does it, however, with an encouraging, never intimidating, tone, and this lavishly illustrated volume just teems with user-friendly information.Just as with plants, birds are classified into families sharing similar traits, and this is the first book that I find really explains the habits, traits and behaviours of a wide range of bird families.

Following several chapters on the basics of bird needs and some tips on garden design with birds in mind, Roth dedicates her attention to bird families and how we can attract them to our yards. She focuses on 19 families of birds, ranging from woodpeckers (which include flickers and sapsuckers as well as the familiar woodpeckers) to the swallow family to the large and small finch families to even the gallinaceous birds (grouse, pheasants, quail, and other birds that resemble domestic fowl).

In each of these chapters on "birds of a feather" (yes, she uses that pun too), Roth paints a portrait of the general traits and range of the most common or popular species of the family, along with feeding and nesting preferences. She then provides a fine list of plant selections that are useful for attracting members of the family, and she helpfully cross-references what other birds would be attracted by planting a particular species of perennial, tree or shrub. She provides helpful recipes for feeding birds (such as mixtures of fruit, seeds or suet that attract particular species), and sums up each chapter with a list of "Top to-dos" for the chapter’s family.

Roth is another one of those writers who never intimidates or condescends in her writing. She may know a formidable amount about birds, but she brings it down to a level that you and I can understand and enjoy. Her enthusiasm is boundless and reading through the chapters is like sitting down to have a conversation with an old friend over a cup of tea. I’ve used this comparison before with other writers, but to my mind it’s essential to inspire and excite people to try their hand at gardening, or at least birding, and the only way to do that is to be excited and inspirational, and not sound like you’ve answered the question a thousand times before.

The two chapters on finches are a prime example. Roth starts out the Large Finch Family chapter thusly.
"Ay-yi-yi. The Finch family is a mess, as far as backyard birders are concerned. Even taxonomists can’t seem to stop arguing over who belongs where."
She then confesses in the second chapter (on small finches) that scientifically speaking, this group of birds isn’t a family but a selection of species from three finch families. She then writes,
"But, hey, there’s method to my madness: the birds share a similar shape and almost identical eating habits."
This sort of warm, honest tone is endearing but also gives us plenty of information to chew on.

I give this book two wings up. So do the cat-children, who are constantly fascinated by the range of channels on "bird television."


  1. I've been looking through your lovely blog. Thanks for leaving a message on mine and leading me to yours and all the other gardening blogs you have listed. Peers! Yay!
    What kind of camera do you use. Your photos are fabulous.

  2. Your post makes me want to buy this book. Your kitty looking at the feeder, ready in case a bird decides to fly through the glass into its mouth, is great. Thanks for the recommendation.

  3. My childhood bird world consisted of two kinds; magpies and house sparrows. Was pretty dull even then, so I spent my life being mildly fascinated by birds. Eventhough other interests take prominance I save a spot in my heart for birdwatching, so thanks for the tip!

  4. Over here we feed birds all year round too. The sparrow, once the most common bird here, has been in a steady decline for at least 2 decades now, which is rather worrying. We have had birdwatch days for many years now, where we garden owners are asked to count the birds (and species) that visit our garden during 1 hour on one particular day. The Bliss team and I are always willing participants. ;-)

    My dad has been breeding birds for close to 50 years now and some of his bird knowledge has rubbed off on me. I more or less grew up with birds.

    I agree with what you say about writers, it is important to be both excited yourself about a certain subject, knowledgeable and be enthousiastic too. Didactic is the last thing you want to be.

    Bird-by-Bird Gardening sounds like a great book for all those who love birds!

    BTW How many articles do you write (finish) per week ? Just curious being a budding (I hope) freelance writer myself.

  5. That sounds like a book for my wish list. Except for hummingbirds, I wasn't aware of any wildlife gardening books focused on specific birds.

    I just learned of Project BudBurst here in the US - it sounds similar to PlantWatch in Canada.

  6. Sally Roth lives not far from where I used to live. She also wrote a column for the local paper. I just love her writing about nature.

    My DB and I are birders. We travel to bird keep lists etc. It would be as difficult for me not to bird as it would be not to garden. I would probably shrivel up and die. I think the two, gardening and birding, go hand in hand.

    We do an Indiana Audubon feeder count in winter. We help with Breeding Bird Surveys etc. There is so much to learn even when you think you know a lot you find you are only familar with the tip of the iceberg or rather the edge of the feather.

  7. I enjoy Sally Roth's writing in the local paper (I think I must live near Lisa at Greenbow in southern Indiana). She is very knowlegable and makes it interesting as well. Will look for this book. My 3 kitties love to bird watch all day, also.

  8. Feeding the birds is definitely part of the garden experience in my gardens too. Unfortunately, we had to move the feeder we could easily see from our sun room window - dang squirrels figured out how to jump from the nearby linden and land squarely on the squirrel baffle!

  9. Great post and interesting book to check out. I normally participate in Project Feederwatch, but this year has been awful here for birdwatching. Last year was unusually rich, this year not so much.

  10. Christine, welcome! My camera is a Canon digital Rebel XT; I have a couple of other lenses including a Macro which I'm still really getting to know, and a 70-300 telephoto. It's smarter than I am!

    Frances, it's a great book. It was sent to me to review while it was still in galley (draft) form, and I liked it so much I went out and bought the finished copy.

    Rosengeranium, I'd be glad of the magpies because we don't have them here. I even like crows and ravens, which are VERY smart birds. Eagles too.

    Yolanda, that's weird and worrying about the sparrows. There have been concerns about swallows here in parts of NOrth America, but we've had nests of both barn and tree swallows for years running here. I figure it's because it's a spray-free zone, with lots of options for bird habitat. Your dad breeds birds? What kinds???
    How many articles to I finish per week? Well, it depends. I have eight markets I write for regularly, some every couple of weeks, some montly or bimonthly. Plus I do editing and fact-checking for one client, and write newsletters, and of course do the blog postings, AND I am working on gardening presentations, and a couple of potential books...again, I stress that I'm left handed, right brained and not the type to work on only one thing at a time...or I would get bored in a hurry. This week so far I've fact-checked 4 articles written by others, written one book review, two articles, and am revamping some work for other markets I resell to. And of course there's piles of research in there to do, interviews, emails, etc, because I work hard to get the facts straight before something gets turned in to one of my editors.

    Entangled, Budburst does sound to me like PlantWatch...I will be checking with the local PlantWatch coordinator about that.

    Lisa, I have another couple of books by Sally Roth; she's one of the best nature/gardening writers in North America, I think. You're so right that gardening and birding go hand in hand.

    Mary, lucky you to be able to read Sally Roth regularly in your local paper. Do your cats 'talk' to the birds while they're watching them?

    Dirty Knees, blast those squirrels! Have you tried putting salad oil on the squirrel baffle, to make it slipper but not toxic? I'm told that helps, but not having a squirrel problem, I really don't know what to suggest. Others probably do.

  11. Jodi, I really like the new header at the top! Gosh, you are one busy person!! I have so many ideas for blogging and this topic is one that I have been meaning to address for weeks because we've been feeding birds for so long -- trouble is, another thought comes along and I put the bird feeding aside. I'm going to focus on feeding birds in Canada, even though most of the bloggers are US-based.

    Oh look at me blathering on and on here! I'm not sure if it's because of your new blog design, but I didn't have to wait very long at all for the comments box nor did I have to try 5 or 6 times -- hooray for the new design!! Where DO you get time to work (write), blog, and blog redesign (rhetorical, no need to respond).

    I'm out of here, for now :-)

    Cheers and well done Jodi! Great new look and excellent information all wrapped in one lovely package.

    Sand to Glass
    Diane's Flickr photos

  12. This book sounds like a must-have! My parents would love it as well. I enjoy watching the birds' antics -- and my cat, Toby, plants himself in front of the B.I.R.D. TV as well. :) This was a great review!

  13. This book is now definitely on my must-have list! Slowly but surely, the birds have been making their way to our feeders, and I can't wait to attract even more!

  14. Hi - great post!
    I thought you might like to know that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds does a Garden Birdwatch every year here in the UK. It's this weekend and all you have to do is watch out for and identify the birds visiting your garden for 1 hour. Last year they had over 400,000 participants and valuable data's been accruing on the state of our birds over a couple of decades now. I'll be participating as usual and will be reminding people about it on my blog tomorrow!

  15. Book seems to be interesting.

    You inspired me to think about preparing a bird house this year - maybe somebody would like to come and live here :)

  16. Hi again, Jodi :-)

    I agree - a very interesting post. As you know I too love to see the birds visit my garden and write, show photos and videos of their visits too. For me my garden now would not be the same without them!

    Interestingly here in the UK House Sparrows are on the endangered list along with the Starlings that have invaded Robin's garden!

    Gosh you are a very busy person so perhaps you won't be interested in what I am about to ask you :-D

    Last Friday my post 'Rain brings garden birds' mentions a bird count that we do here in the UK which takes place this weekend - an hour's bird count in the garden. I thought it would be quite interesting to read what birds visit other gardens outside the UK then too. So... I wondered if you would be interested in showing/telling the UK what birds visit your garden for an hour sometime over this weekend? Drop me a comment if you do and I'll add your link to my post :-D

    No probs if you are too busy :-)

    BTW how have you managed to increase the width of your comments box? What great difference this makes to read and write comments in :-D

  17. Thanks for the heads up on Robin's post. I really must do better with the birds. I do have a few feeders but they do need a bit of a face lift. It is so rewarding to watch the birds as evidenced by your 'cat-child's' intensity! LOL

  18. Jodi-
    In case you haven't seen it, Annie Lamott's book Bird by Bird is a great writing book. This one sounds wonderful too, since this spring I have my landlord's permission to do some small gardening and my feeder is already attracting a huge variety from the nearby woods. Who'd a thunk, here in the city?

  19. Sounds like a great book.-I'm always looking to add more plants in my yard that will attract birds.


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