Cover Story Plant Life On Fitness Northwest Living Taste Now & Then

Make a Little Mess and They Will Come
Forget feeders; plant a riot of things to draw the birds of winter

Thickly woven tapestries of plants, such as this cotoneaster and winter-blooming heather, provide food and shelter for birds as well as color for the winter landscape.
There is only one scene I've ever liked in a Jim Carrey movie. Do you remember when Ace Ventura, Pet Detective, finally gets rid of the suspicious landlord and whistles to let all his creatures know the coast is clear? Instantly his apartment comes alive with dozens of paws, noses, feathers and whiskers as rodents, mammals, reptiles and birds burst from every possible hiding place.

I'm reminded of this scene's frenetic humor every time I look out my back window and see chickadees swinging from seed heads, hummingbirds hovering and wrens bustling about. Birds bring color and life to the garden when most everything else outside is dull and drear.

Is it a middle-age thing to thrill at the sight of a Steller's jay preening and hopping about? Even a fat robin all ruffled up and sitting on a bare branch brings me intense pleasure, and I can sit still and watch a flock of finches out my window for long and pleasant minutes. (This window is above my desk, so I can procrastinate on my writing at the same time.) Winter is an ideal time for bird watching as songbirds gather in mixed flocks, birds cover more territory in search of food, and all are easier to see when the leaves are off the trees.

Now In Bloom
Winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) lacks the fragrance of its relatives, but makes up for it by opening bright yellow flowers dependably every January. It is an arching, slender shrub with dark green leaves in summer. The small, cheerful flowers are best shown off, and its stiff habit accommodated, when trained along a fence, cascading down a slope or espaliered against a wall.
Whenever I hear a murder of cawing crows, I rush out, thinking they're probably up to their trick of heckling an eagle or heron. One recent morning the crows were jeering from the roof as a heron stood in our little backyard pond, bending his elegant neck to gracefully gobble up goldfish. When I shooed him away, the shadow of his wingspan darkened the entire back garden.

What I most enjoy about sharing space with all these birds is that I don't need to clean or refill bird feeders. The feeder for overwintering Anna's hummingbirds is the only one. I've planted the entire garden as a banquet for the birds, for they and I enjoy the same plants. It isn't just the plants themselves, but also how they're arranged and cared for that make a garden attractive for birds. I never understand my neighbors who are constantly out refilling feeders, and nearly as often spraying their garden with herbicides and pesticides.

I like to think of a "safe zone," a network of thickly planted and slightly unkempt gardens running through the cities and suburbs to provide food, shelter and water for birds. If you create a healthy and hospitable environment by gardening organically with a wide variety of plants, the birds will come. Frogs are used as a barometer of health for wetland environments, and it seems to me that the presence of wingbeat and birdsong is the mark of a healthy garden.

Messy gardens attract birds, so use that excuse any time you wish. If you leave old perennials standing and seed heads on grasses through the winter, the birds will make good use of them. Birds love the seeds of asters, coneflowers, rudbeckia and globe thistles. For a various and lively mix of birds, be sure to plant roses with hips, and berried plants like elderberry, skimmia and cotoneaster. Hummingbirds need nectar plants like Oregon grape and red-flowering currant. And there is nothing all kinds of birds enjoy more than a thicket of densely planted shrubbery, where they can hide, perch and feed well-protected. Just a small water basin or pond (especially popular if you provide muddy margins) will do for drinking and bathing.

Birds are resourceful creatures, adept at making do with what they find. Bare tree branches reveal vacated nests, and it is fascinating to see the diversity of materials they've gathered and woven together — mosses, the fluff of clematis seed pods, lichen, mud, pine needles, grass and strips of bark — I've even found nests woven from wads of my terriers' fur, bird feathers and twigs, bound together with strands of spider web.

To learn more, pick up a copy of "Landscaping for Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest," by Russell Link (University of Washington Press, 1999), which includes lists of bird-attracting plants, or call the Seattle Audubon Society at 206-523-4483 for information on their programs and publications.

Valerie Easton is a horticultural librarian who writes about plants and gardens for Pacific Northwest magazine. She is co-author of "Artists in Their Gardens" (Sasquatch Books). Her e-mail address is

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