Helen Grundmann Garden Design

Life Lessons I Learned from the Bird Feeder

Like many people, I’ve established a bird feeding station outside my kitchen window. It is a source of joy and inspiration and I do what I can to invite a variety of birds into my winter landscape. I understand the gritty challenges of day to day survival they face and I admire them for it. It’s a win-win situation. I provide food water and shelter and they teach me about life…..

Nine Birds and the Art of Living

Lesson One: Prospect and refuge create a sense of security in an environment.

Layered landscapes provide a wide range of habitat, food & shelter

This is as true at the bird feeder as it is for landscape design. Within a well situated garden, seating areas are established with the vista in mind, something with good prospect. We can look out and enjoy the garden but we can also see what’s coming our way. This is an especially good thing if you are a bird. The type of planting you do around a seating area also allows you to feel settled in, comfortable and safe. Your back is protected. It is a refuge. At the feeding station you want to provide a layered landscape. An upper story of trees for perching and prospect and a shrub layer for refuge. A mix of deciduous and evergreen plants is a good combination.

Lesson Two: Accept the things you cannot change and change the things you can.

Robins will adapt to eating berries in winter.

I’ve adopted the philosophy that the more things you like, or are interested in, the more opportunities you have to be happy. Sometimes this means changing the way you look at things. And sometimes you just have to accept the things you cannot change. Life is impermanent. Don’t get hung up. When it comes to food preferences, birds certainly have theirs. Insects, spiders and snails are very popular among Bluebirds. Robins are renowned consumers of earthworms. Did you know that it takes 6,000-9,000 caterpillars to raise one clutch of Chickadees? Just think of the benefits to be gained by a healthy and diverse bird population gleaning caterpillars from your landscape! In fact 96% of birds in our area rely on caterpillars as a food source. But when food is scarce, birds must adapt either by migrating or changing their diet. Seeds, nuts and berries become staples for those that stick it out but water is harder to come by. A life sustaining feeding station includes a preferred selection of seeds based on your bird population and a source of fresh water. If running water is not available, provide a bird bath with a heater. Waterers for chickens hold larger volumes of water and come with heaters. These require less filling which is mutually beneficial in my book.

Lesson Three: Preparation is everything.

Red-bellied woodpeckers love peanuts

Red-bellied woodpeckers love peanuts

I find that when I am most prepared I can focus on the task at hand and success follows. I am in the moment and everything clicks. Out of necessity comes ingenuity. In preparation for winter, Red-bellied Woodpeckers begin storing acorns and seeds in cracks and crevices. This not only increases their available food supply but also gives them an early breeding advantage. But what is even more amazing is that it’s been proven that birds actually remember where the food has been cached. Titmice often store food in many different places during periods of abundance. Studies have shown that their searching is not random but they have shown excellent powers of recall.

Lesson Four: Life is full of sweet surprises.

Winter Berry Holly

Winter Berry Holly

Sometimes I find when I expect less I get more. I love surprises, especially the ones I’m not expecting at all. As fall becomes winter there are many changes, seen and unseen, that signal the transition. As the sun arcs lower in the sky, metabolic changes occur in birds. Their nutritional needs shift. In summer their diet may consist largely of protein from insects. As fall approaches, birds supplement their diet with berries. What’s truly marvelous is that our native plants have co-evolved with the needs of our native birds. Berries produced in the summer are higher in sugar, which the birds need at that time. In the fall, berries have a higher fat content which helps birds prepare for the the colder, leaner months of winter. Some berries, such as Winter Berry Holly, don’t ripen until after a freeze/thaw cycle and then provide a fresh food source and needed sugar. By planting a diverse population of regional native trees, shrubs, grasses and perennials, you provide the perfect source of seeds, nuts and berries.

Lesson Five: Life is better when you share, cultivate diversity and get along with others.

chickadee titmouse and downy woodpecker at feeder

I come from a big family and I love it. While growing up, sharing was expected, getting along was appreciated, and for all our similarities, we are a diverse bunch. While birds of a feather flock together, birds in winter like to mix it up. This is on full display at the feeder. Chickadees take turns with Downy Woodpeckers and Nuthatches. Cardinals swoop down to glean seeds alongside White Throated Sparrows. By sticking together there is the mutual benefit of greater protection from predators. More eyes equals less chance of a predator sneaking up. If you watch Canada Geese in a field you can always pick out the lookouts.

There is also a benefit to diversifying the guest list. While one type of forager stirs up the leaf litter, the attending bird cleans up the leftovers. Birds at the feeder drop seeds that the ground feeders can relish. Other birds are also going to know where the good food is. And then there is the benefit of sticking together for warmth. Many birds, including Bluebirds, Chickadees, Nuthatches and some Downy Woodpeckers will roost with their own in tree cavities and roosting boxes, sometimes 12 at a time. Sharing warmth especially benefits woodpeckers that, unlike songbirds, cannot fluff up to trap heat around them as they lack down feathers. This is another good reason to clean out your bird houses at the end of the season but to also put up roosting boxes.

Once spring blossoms and leaves start to unfurl, begin to remove and clean your feeders for storage. This will encourage the birds to start foraging for caterpillars, aphids and other emerging insects. If you’re not seeing the abundance of feathered friends that you’d like in your landscape, I would love to help you.  You can bring biodiversity to your landscape and restore the ecological function by creating a diversified and layered garden.

I would love to be a part of that. Let me know how I can help.



  1. Great Post

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