Spring has arrived and although it was snowing yesterday, the birds are getting ready to nest. We have several birdboxes in our yard and every year I wait with anticipation to see if anyone will do us the honour of nesting in them. In previous years we have had house sparrows, tree swallows, black-capped chickadees and house wrens. It seems to be a different crowd every year so I can never count on the same birds twice. The last couple of days I have been super excited to watch a pair of black-capped chickadees guarding and going in and out of a birdbox we have in our limber pine. They nested successfully in it two years ago and last year a house wren did the same. I don't want to jinx it but I think they might stay! Having a place for them to nest is all well and good but it takes more than just a house to raise a family. They need shelter from predators, nesting materials, water and of course food.
Shelter is fairly easy to come by. Any trees or shrubs can act as a safe haven from predators. Leaving plant clean up until later in the spring can also give birds an opportunity to use last year's grass, stems, spiderwebs and fluff from seeds for nesting materials. When it comes to water, a birdbath or pond will do the trick. Even a dish of water that is constantly replenished will work. Keeping water fresh is important to prevent the spread of disease and allow for clean drinking water. If you have had a robin in the bath, you probably have to refill it multiple times a day anyways!
Then there's the food. Anyone with kids knows it takes a lot of food to raise a family and birds are no different. One study looking at Carolina chickadees found that they need somewhere between 5000-9000 insects to raise of brood of chicks to fledging! That's just the two to three weeks they are in the nest that they need a minimum of 350 insects a day! The parents continue to feed them after this and they will continue to need the protein that comes from insects for the rest of their lives. Even birds that will go on to eat mostly seed or fruit as adults need insects for their young. If there are no bugs, there are no birds. So how do we make sure there are enough bugs around? You guessed it, native plants!
Several studies have shown that native insects need native plants to thrive. It makes sense really if you consider that plants are constantly evolving to deter their predators and their predators are constantly evolving to eat them. The evolutionary arms race keeps both alive. When you bring in a non-native plant that has co-evolved with different insects you not only run the risk of bringing those insects into our environment where they can become invasive and destroy native plants that have not evolved defenses to them but you also bring in a plant that our insects have not evolved to eat. They have not developed the same mechanisms to overcome the plants defenses as they have with our natives and so for a vast majority of insects, non-native plants are inedible. When there is no food, there are no insects and that also means there are no birds. Planting native trees, shrubs, perennials and grasses gives insects the food they need and in turn, birds the food they need.
Equally as important is keeping your yard pesticide free so those bugs can survive. That may mean making some sacrifices in terms of aesthetics but it will mean more biodiversity. Last year I was pretty amazed at how well my Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) was growing despite being heavily infested with aphids. It may not have looked perfect but it managed to flower beautifully! The goldenrod and the aphids have co-evolved and found a way to both get what they need to survive without killing the other. Planting shrubs that provide berries such as saskatoons or chokecherries are also important for attracting many birds but if you want to successfully help birds nest, ensuring they have insects is the best way to do it.
Over the next couple of weeks I will be sitting and watching in anticipation to see if our chickadees stay and if we can entice any others as well. Birds are coming back, swarms of flies for those birds and bats are already around, perennials are starting to come up and buds are getting ready to explode on the trees. Spring is here, enjoy!
Our black-capped chickadee friends. Fingers crossed they stay!
Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) with aphids. Despite all the aphids, the plant still flowered and continued to look beautiful!