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Cats, small spaces, and noisy birds: An interview George Adams of Gardening for the Birds

by Timber Press on August 19, 2013

in Gardening, Natural History

Adams_1619_MaryAdams-WEBGardeners and homeowners who would like to create more wildlife-friendly spaces often face challenges in doing so. Pets are a consideration when inviting other animals (and insects) closer to home. People living in urban areas need to maximize their limited space. And how will wildlife find these spaces, anyway?

George Adams, author of Gardening for the Birds: How to Create a Bird-Friendly Backyard, has spent a good deal of time considering these challenges and was kind enough to answer here some of the common questions people have about gardening for the birds.

I have cats. Can I still have a bird-friendly yard?


Bird boxes can provide shelter and safety. Image: Michael J. Pazzani

Yes you can, if you take some simple precautions. Plant some dense native trees and prickly shrubs that offer secure shelter and camouflage to native birds. Limit the use of artificial feeding stations as they can attract crowds of noisy squabbling birds that may attract stray cats, instead plant a succession of flowering and fruiting shrubs. Use a raised birdbath and place it near protective shrubbery but not so close that cats can hide and pounce.

Training your cats to stay indoors and encouraging your neighbors to do the same is a win-win solution. This will prevent your cats from killing wildlife, protect your family’s health by keeping your cats safe from contracting fatal diseases, such as rabies and toxoplasmosis, feline distemper, or feline immunodeficiency virus from free-roaming and feral cats. If your cat is stubborn about going outdoors covered cat enclosures can be constructed or purchased that cats can access through a pet door or window, or you can train your cat to go outdoors on a harness and leash.

For more information about protecting wild birds from cats, visit abcbirds.org/cats.

I live in a big city with a small space for gardening. Can I still do something to provide habitat for birds?

Any small urban garden space can be transformed into valuable habitat, attracting birds including swallows, house finches, American robins, and hummingbirds in summer in the east, or year-round in the west. During the migration season, many unusual visitors, including warblers and wrens, may drop in.

According to the National Wildlife Federation, the cities of the United States containing 82% of the population are where two thirds of the wildlife species live and most are in desperate need of help due to habitat loss. There are many small native trees and shrubs suitable for small gardens or containers. (Refer to the list of suitable plants on page 184-186.) Even an apartment balcony can be utilized to provide valuable habitat for native birds and butterflies. Native fruit-bearing plants can be espaliered to suit a small space.

If you need privacy, you can use evergreens, such as red cedars (Juniperus spp.) to create a clipped hedge and provide shelter. Birds will also feast on the berries. Try using vines in a creative way. Trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans) and crossvine (Bignonia capreolata) planted together will provide nectar from early spring through summer and act as a magnet for hummingbirds and butterflies. Container trees can be densely planted with smaller plants or wildflowers to provide an understory, and you can grow wildflowers cascading from hanging baskets. Consider adding a water feature or birdbath into the mix for birds to drink and bathe.

Blazing stars (Liatris spp.) are an appropriate wildflower for small spaces, good for zones 3-10. Image: Copenhagen Botanical Garden

Blazing stars (Liatris spp.), an appropriate wildflower for small spaces, good for zones 3-10. Image: Copenhagen Botanical Garden

I’m concerned about the noise created by birds. Any suggestions?

The only unpleasant noises created by native birds that I can think of is the sound of bossy birds claiming ownership of a permanent feeder station and excluding other species. For example, when crows, jays, ravens, blackbirds, northern mockingbirds, or introduced species such as starlings take over a feeder station they fight for domination and chase other bird species away by raucously calling or by dive-bombing. A noisy chorus of squabbling birds at a permanent feeder station can also be a lure for neighborhood stray cats. House sparrows and European starlings attracted to feeders will also bully native cavity-nesting birds as they compete for limited tree hollows and nest boxes noisily evicting the native species from the garden.

European starlings are not native to North America and will bully or kill local birds. Using plants native to your region will help native species survive and cut down on noise caused by squabbling predators like these.

European starlings are not native to North America and will bully or kill local birds. Using plants native to your region will help native species survive and cut down on noise caused by squabbling predators. Image: Mgiganteus

“Gardening for the birds” is an organic way of attracting native birds to your garden by creating a balanced ecosystem in your backyard, allowing different species of birds to coexist in their own natural food niche, and filling your garden with melodic birdsong.

I’m just one person with a yard, can I really make a difference?

Each individual can make a difference towards the long-term survival of North America’s most loved backyard birds by re-establishing suitable habitat across the urban sprawl. Many of our backyard birds are in serious trouble!

According to the National Audubon Society and the U.S. Department of the Interior, since 1967 there has been a 70% decline (on average) in populations of common backyard birds. The decline in bird populations is largely due to habitat loss. You can make a vital difference by transforming your garden into a beautiful sanctuary with native trees and shrubs allowing birds to share your garden with you and in return help control insect pests, add color and entertainment and fill your garden with birdsong.

How will birds find my plants?

I sometimes ask myself the same question. Sometimes it seems like magic, you plant the right plants and the birds invariably turn up. Native birds have a symbiotic relationship with native plants and will seek them out for food or shelter. During migration in particular birds are seeking shelter to rest and food to build up their energy reserves as they continue their journey and will regularly drop in if you provide the habitat.


Ground-nesting birds often seek the protection of brambles. Planting common blackberry can provide the needed protection for birds like the Kentucky warbler, seen here feeding its chicks. Image: Steve Maslowski

I’m a garden designer who wants to educate clients about bird-friendly landscaping. What aspects should I focus on first?

Any one of these points would be a good place to start:

1) There are sound economic reasons to plant a bird-friendly garden using native plants: A traditional exotic garden with large lawn areas and foreign plants requires vast amounts of water, fertilizer, pesticides and maintenance to survive. Native plants will increase biodiversity, which in turn will help keep plants healthy and reduce maintenance: An exotic garden is one-dimensional and mostly biologically dead.

2) By “gardening for the birds” and “creating a bird-friendly yard” you can create a three dimensional, ecologically balanced, garden that appeals to all the senses. A garden of color, beauty, fragrance, movement, discovery, biodiversity and music. It will need minimal water, no fertilizer, and less maintenance.

3) Several plant and animal species need our help to survive: planting a native garden, particularly using local plants as the key species will make a valuable contribution towards the preservation of North America’s unique biodiversity. Every citizen with a garden or a potted plant can make a contribution and together strengthen and increase the amount of habitat available to wildlife.

4) A native garden is where you can relax and spend time with friends and family, instead of spending time mowing, weeding and fertilizing lawns: A native garden will be an adventure playground for children, helping them connect with and learn about the natural world. That boggy garden patch will not only attract frogs, but kids will love to have some good old-fashioned fun in the mud. Or they may like to sit in the garden on that nice warm rock while they watch the butterfly flitting overhead waiting to take a turn on that warm rock to re-energize. The garden can captivate all through the year. Using the planting tables in Gardening for the Birds, the gardener can have sequence of berries, fruits, and seeds that will attract birds year-round, and add some plants for nesting, shelter, and roosting.


George Adams is an avid birdwatcher, a landscape designer, a wildlife artist, and a photographer. Please say hello to George on his Facebook Page.


Click image to see inside this book:


“If you own only one book about attracting birds — Gardening for the Birds has all the useful information you will need to create your own bird sanctuary in your own garden.” —Noelle Johnson, Birds & Blooms Blog

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