If you're looking for great garden design ideas, perhaps a little bird can give you some pointers.
Wild birds have a terrific sense for landscaping, and if you let their ideas of what is right, proper and needful inspire your garden's design, you'll have a wonderful garden -- lively, pretty and full of color, life and song.
One of the very best things you can do to make your garden more attractive to birds is to plant a songbird flower bed, says Steve Kress, a bird conservation expert and vice president of the National Audubon Society.
Kress recommends a mixed bed of trees and shrubs and perennial flowers, perhaps along the edge of your property. Combine evergreens and deciduous plants, and include shrubs with thorny stems and plants with berries.
"This really works for the birds," he says. "It is very appealing."
Evergreens offer shelter from the wind and from birds of prey. Thorny shrubs are safe spots for nesting, and berries provide food as well as a bright touch in the winter garden.
Give birds a tall tree, too.
"That's the singing perch," Kress says. "They need a tall tree to sing from."
A mixed border along the property line can provide lunch for birds if it is full of dogwoods, serviceberries, viburnums and other berry-producing plants that birds love. These trees and shrubs also have pretty flowers in spring or summer, and some have colorful fall foliage. A well-layered bed also serves to separate one area of the garden from another, or as a living fence between your property and your neighbor's.
Every garden should have a water feature, too. In Kress' garden in Maine, a lily pond, with water circulating around natural rocks, is the centerpiece of the landscape.
"It attracts a huge number of birds," Kress says, "and I plant hummingbird plants around it."
If you don't have the space for a pond, a simple, nicely placed birdbath gives a garden a subtle focal point and will bring many birds to your garden. Kress recommends shallow birdbaths, no more than a couple of inches deep, with gentle sloping sides.
If the birdbath is a little too deep, put a flat rock or two in the bottom for the birds to hop around on. Keep it clean: Scrub the bottom and sides with a stiff brush to remove algae, and change the water frequently to keep mosquitoes from breeding in it.
A diverse landscape that includes native plants will provide seeds and berries, and a natural habitat will supply insects for the birds to eat, but bird feeders help birds through the winter and "provide great entertainment for people," Kress says.
"One thing is for sure, they help you learn the birds," Kress says. Instead of placing bird feeders in an open area far from the house, pick a spot close up, he says, within three feet of the windows or even closer. The more aware birds are of figures behind the glass, the less likely they are to fly into a window if something startles them, Kress says.
Birdhouses are among the most charming and appropriate of garden decorations, and birds just love them.
"Just like in the real-estate business, the key is location, location, location," Kress says. "You can really affect your success by thinking about where you put the house."
Whimsical birdhouses that look like Swiss chalets or French cathedrals may look terrific to you, but birds can be rather particular, and if you want to attract a family of bluebirds or wrens, it's important to mount it at just the right height, facing the proper direction.
A birdhouse also has to have the right-sized hole. It's worth the trouble to do a little research on the preferences and requirements of various birds. (There are guidelines available on the Internet at www.birds.cornell.edu/birdhouse.) Right now is the time to take down your birdhouses and clean them out, Kress says.
Birds are not sticklers for tidiness. In fact, they like unmowed areas where the grass can go to seed. Birds like to look for insects in leafy mulch in flowerbeds and under shrubs, and they appreciate a brush pile.
"A really tidy yard is a bad bird yard," Kress says. You may not be able to let any of your grass get tall enough to go to seed, but you can probably find a place for a brush pile. Instead of running branches through a deafening chipper, you can heap the brush in a corner, pour yourself a tall lemonade, and sit back and listen to the birds sing.
How to attract birds
Steve Kress is the author of The Audubon Society Guide to Attracting Birds (Cornell University Press, 2006, $24.95). Among his suggestions for attracting a variety of birds to your garden are:
Plant native plants. They provide appropriate habitat, seeds and berries, and they harbor insects that birds depend on.
Don't rake autumn leaves out from under shrubs. Let them compost naturally in place. Insects love such a habitat, and birds love the bugs.
Brush piles provide shelter and are another haven for insects. Pile fallen limbs in a corner of your yard and watch birds flock to it. Leave deadwood in trees (where it does not endanger people or property); woodpeckers and creepers will thank you.
Reduce the size of your lawn in favor of flowerbeds and mixed borders. Lawns are not bird-friendly environments, Kress says. With less lawn, you cut down on mowing time and use less gas, and you'll have more birds and more time to enjoy your garden.
Keep cats indoors, especially in springtime. It is normal for baby birds to spend a lot of time on the ground when they're still learning to fly. Cats are natural hunters, and keeping them inside when baby birds are about is a good idea.
Add a birdbath as a focal point. Choose a shallow birdbath with gently sloping sides. A garbage-can lid or a terra-cotta plant saucer, with a couple of flat rocks in the bottom, both make good birdbaths.
Install a dripper on your birdbath. Moving water is even more attractive to birds than still water, Kress says.
Another source of information: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Web site (birds.cornell.edu) is full of great ideas to help you attract more birds to your garden. For information about building birdhouses or where and how to place them in your garden, go to www.birds.cornell.edu/birdhouse.