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What's a garden without birds? Create a habitat so they thrive

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As I write this, I can hear a cardinal trilling in the backyard. I don't have to look out the open window to confirm the source of the sounds that come through it; I've come to recognize the songs and their singers. I know it's the mourning dove whose cooing wakes me in the morning and the sparrow whose repetitive chirps complete the sunrise chorus.

Watching birds perched on a branch or visiting a feeder imparts a certain connection to nature that little else does, and, for me at least, listening to their melodies alleviates stress.

Birds are also the most cost-effective way of reducing the number of pests in your garden. Their young are ravenous consumers of insects, including aphids, whiteflies, cabbage worms, cucumber beetles, grubs, earwigs, stinkbugs and, especially, caterpillars.

According to Doug Tallamy, a University of Delaware professor of entomology and author of "Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants" (Timber Press, 2007), one clutch of chickadees, for instance, requires 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars, delivered by their parents, to sustain them from birth through first flight, which is just over two weeks. That'll clean up the garden, to say the least.

To attain these pest-control benefits, you don't have to be an expert birder. All you need to do is create a bird-friendly habitat.

Bluebird

A bluebird rests on a deck post in this June 15, 2022, photo.

Using native plants in your garden will feed native insects, which, in turn, will attract hungry birds. Select a mix of plants to provide berries, nectar and/or seeds year-round. The Audubon Society's Native Plants Database is an excellent source of bird-friendly plant suggestions for your region. Just plug in your zip code to get started.

Allow flowering perennials to stand over winter, when food is scarce; their seed heads will feed non-migratory birds. As a bonus, your garden will retain vertical interest through the winter.

Push autumn leaves under shrubs and trees instead of placing them at the curb. The insects that buckle down under them during winter will sustain ground-feeding birds. And as the leaves decompose, they'll enrich the soil to give spring plants a nutritional boost.

To supplement the plant buffet, set a bird feeder in the garden. Select one that comes apart for easy cleaning and that is constructed to keep seeds dry.

To avoid spreading diseases that can sicken birds, provide only enough seeds to last a couple of days, and clean feeders at least twice a month with a bottle brush and 1 part bleach diluted in 9 parts water. Rinse well and allow to dry completely before refilling.

Use only high-quality birdseed; as with everything, you get what you pay for. Choose high-energy seeds high in fat and protein, like unsalted peanuts or black-oil sunflower seeds, especially as summer winds down. Migratory birds need to store calories to prepare for their end-of-season journeys.

Avoid seeds that include artificial colors and flavors, and never set out old or rancid food.

Suet, a nutritious cake made from animal fat and often mealworms, seeds or grains, can be hung in a specialized cage feeder designed to keep out other wildlife.

Rotate the location of feeders to avoid the accumulation of discarded seed shells — and bird droppings — on the ground in one area.

Remember to provide fresh water for bathing and hydration, whether in a pond, birdbath or another container. Be sure to clean and disinfect baths and other vessels every week.

Avoid using chemical insecticides, which won't necessarily kill pests immediately. Insects that consume or come in contact with the product could go on to be eaten by birds, which can be poisoned as a result.

Jessica Damiano writes regularly about gardening for The Associated Press. A master gardener and educator, she writes The Weekly Dirt newsletter and creates an annual wall calendar of daily gardening tips. Send her a note at jessica@jessicadamiano.com and find her at jessicadamiano.com and on Instagram @JesDamiano.

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You started seeds in spring and watched as they sprouted. You watered, fertilized and even staked plants as they grew. Visions of summer salads, grilled vegetables and homemade pickles danced in your head. Then one day, black blotches, yellow-spotted leaves and mushy bottoms showed up. Many home gardeners lovingly tend their plants only to find them ravaged by unknown forces before harvest time. AP gardening writer Jessica Damiano says you first must identify which ailment is affecting your plants. Check seed packets for information on pest and disease resistance. In some cases you'll want to change how you water or prepare the soil. In other cases you might apply a fungicide or insecticide or — with slugs — some beer or salt.

Birds in the garden provide lovely song and a unique connection to nature. They also help both plants and people by reducing the number of pests in your yard, from aphids to stinkbugs. You can attract more birds by creating better habitat. That includes planting native plants, which attract native insects. Select a mix of plants to provide birds with berries, nectar and seeds year-round. The Audubon Society has a database that tells you which bird-friendly plants are native to your region. Let the dried stalks stand over winter so the birds can feed on the seed heads. Keep leaf litter under shrubs and trees instead of putting it out on the street. And consider getting a bird feeder and bird bath. Provide water and avoid chemical insecticides.

Do you own anything made of wood that lives its life outdoors? It could be a stunning deck, perhaps a decorative privacy fence, maybe a pergola, or even a teak table and chair set. I’ ve owned all of the above, and more, over the years.

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