Gardening for the Birds

February is National Wild Bird Feeding Month. To help us all celebrate, I offer these tips for turning your yard into a welcoming space for our fine feathered friends.

Link to my YouTube video on Wild Bird Feeding Month.

It’s Been A Tough Year

The birds are hoping you will celebrate this special National month – because last summer was a tough one, and this winter is not an easy one either. While it is nice to add feeders to your garden, it is not the ideal situation. Feeders often attract the non-native birds that crowd out our iconic native Southwest birds.  Instead of actively feeding with costly seed, try this passive approach.


Create A Bird Sanctuary

A passive bird garden involves some planning – but in the end it is easier to maintain. By planting the right plants, you can create a year-round bird sanctuary.    But honesty compels me to admit – it is not quite that easy.

Birds Need Three Things

Just like every living thing, birds need food, water, and a place to live.
You can easily landscape your yard so the birds have ample native food to eat and a nice safe place to live, free from the other animals that wish to eat them. Add a small fountain or bird bath – and your yard will become a haven.

But remember – I said it is not quite that easy.

Male hooded oriole at a water dish in Tucson.

Food for Birds

Food for birds is as varied as the species of birds available to eat it.    It also depends on time of year and parental training.    Birds will eat seeds, plants, insects, nectar, or some or all of the above.    Desert birds are very adaptable.    They will also help themselves to dog or cat food if it is left out.

Technically speaking, birds are either herbivores, carnivores, or omnivores.

Herbivore birds eat seed and some fresh greens.    Think large plump, ground dwellers like Gambel’s quail and doves.  State bird of California is the California quail – so if you live there, perhaps you could add some quail habitat.

Cactus wren with snack.

Carnivores eat meat, and include raptors like the hawks as well as carrion eaters such as the vultures.  There are smaller carnivores too – and this includes all the birds that eat insects.   My favorite small carnivore is the tiny olive green verdin that flits around the stems of shrubs and trees looking for tasty bugs.  New Mexico state bird is a larger carnivore – the roadrunner.

Then there are the omnivores. These are opportunistic feeders and will eat insects, fruit, seeds, and occasional greens. A number of our Southwestern birds are omnivores. Nevada features the mountain bluebird, Texas the mockingbird, and Arizona has selected the largest wren on earth – the cactus wren.

What birds will eat is not hard and fast – because the tiny insect eating verdins often visit the hummingbird feeders, or fresh ripe prickly pear fruit for a sweet snack.

Verdin just emerged from pigging out on Peruvian apple cactus fruit to check for enemies. He dove right back in.

Food Means Habitat

Now we come to the “not so easy” part. Note that many native desert birds are insect eaters.    This generally does not sit well with homeowners, who prefer an insect-free environment.    Just remember that ninety-nine percent of all bugs are “good bugs.”    Leave the insects alone, and they will provide dinner for the birds.

Leave all that “litter” to feed the insects that birds wish to eat. It is also natural fertilizer for the plants. (Save $$!)

But wait – there’s more! You need to have habitat for the insects to live. They need food too, so they can be numerous and attract the birds. You will need to leave leaf litter on the ground so that the insects have something to munch on, and then the birds can munch the insects.    I have said this before.  Mother Nature does not sweep her floors.

Water In the Desert

Water is for drinking of course – but optionally for bathing too.

Provide clean fresh water for birds to drink.  Birds appreciate anything that drips, squirts, sprays, runs, or simply holds some fresh water.    You do not need to change it every day. You do need to keep it free from mosquito larvae – but if you have seen some of the wild watering holes out in the desert, you will realize that you do not need to bleach and scrub.

More about water features in on my YouTube

Birds prefer a watering and bathing site that is no deeper than two inches.    While agile in flight with their two wings, many birds can be clumsy on two feet.    And just like humans – birds can slip while bathing! The bird water dish should be rough on the bottom to avoid slips in the “bathtub.”

Locate this water where there is enough clear area for landing and take off.    Avoid placing the water where there might be predator hiding places.  If there are neighborhood cats, you might have an issue. Some municipalities have passed laws that human pets need to be leashed if they are outdoors – but that’s another tale.


Shelter for Birds

After food and water, shelter is important for wild birds.    They need it for nest sites, for roost and rest (especially at midday in summer).    They also need shelter from predators and from the weather.    Just as you may not appreciate a crowded elevator, birds need their “elbow room.”

Here’s another not so easy task. Keep plants’ natural shapes!   Avoid the topiary pruning. Allow the plants to grow in their normal, open growth. This allows for ease of nesting and resting.   Round or squared balls of shrubbery and trees are not welcoming as shelter to birds.

Nest -possibly an oriole.

Nesting Material

This is a massive topic. But know this – hummingbirds require spider webs to hold their nests together. Yes, you need to leave spiders and webs.

Summer orioles need brown palm fronds left on the plant – so that they can build their nests in this nice shady spot. More in my post on palm care.

Cactus wrens are happiest with a big spiny cholla cactus for their nests, but will use a spiny palo verde in a pinch.

Dead twigs are a necessity for virtually all bird nests. Also dead leaves of ornamental grasses are used by many species to line their nests.    You must learn to tolerate this “clutter” of dead twigs and dead leaves to encourage birds to share your yard.

Western bluebird in non-breeding plumage. The state bird of Nevada.


Celebrate National Wild Bird Feeding Month by starting to garden for the birds. Those in higher elevations can at least plan right now, and start planting once the ground thaws.    If you plant it they come.    The greater the variety of foods offered means the greater variety of beautiful bird species that will visit your yard.

Need Some Garden Help?

May I recommend my book?  The Month By Month Guide offers tips for your landscape (yes even lawns and roses) in every month of the year.  I have a few copies left and am offering them to you – my loyal readers. Price is what you would pay on Amazon – only when you buy from me you get a signed copy!soule-books-buy

From the review:

“A great reference book is key to successful gardening in the region where you live. Arizona, Nevada & New Mexico Month-by-Month Gardening takes the guesswork out of gardening for anyone residing in the Southwest. With this book, you’ll know what to do each month to enjoy a thriving garden all year, from January to December. Chronologically organized, this guide is full of critical gardening when-to and how-to advice, along with illustrated step-by-step instructions.

The book’s author is Jacqueline Soule, a Tucson-based gardening expert. She knows this arid region inside and out, and she’s written several articles and books packed with her gardening advice. Arizona, Nevada & New Mexico Month-by-Month Gardening showcases Soule’s expertise in one easy-to-read guide.”

Profits from the sale of this book go to the Horticulture Therapy non-profit Tierra del Sol Institute.


© Article copyright Jacqueline A. Soule. All rights reserved. You must ask permission to republish an entire blog post or article. Okay to use a short excerpt – but you must give proper credit to Gardening With Soule. You must include a link to the original post on our site. No stealing photos.

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