Gardens attract insects, and fruit and insects attract birds. If you have a garden, you’re going to have birds. While I love watching birds, I wasn’t thrilled about how many of my raspberries, strawberries, and other fruits the birds were getting.
For years, I netted my strawberries and raspberries to keep the birds out of them. Netting was more trouble than it was worth. Netting makes for difficulty in picking, and removing netting at the end of the season damages the plants because the leaves have grown through the grid during the summer. If you live in snow country, like I do, you can’t leave netting up all year round because the weight of the snow will cause the netting to collapse onto your plants. After a few years, I got rid of the netting.
I also tried various measures to scare the birds away: a very realistic-looking Cooper’s hawk that an artist friend carved and painted for me, rubber snakes, old CDs strung on fishing line and hung from the apple tree and the raspberry canes, those spiraling pin wheel toys I used to play with as a kid (a Dollar store find), and fluttering bits of hot-pink plastic caution tape. None of it worked, and the caution tape just made a mess I had to clean up when I discovered the Steller’s jays were pulling it to bits for their nests.
The problem was exacerbated when my husband took up photography in a big way. Dennis loves to photograph birds, so for a couple of years, we hung seed feeders in the spring and kept suet out all year round. He got some good photographs, but far too many birds were attracted to the garden. In particular, we had so many Stellar’s jays, robins, and black-headed grosbeaks, I was getting fewer and fewer strawberries and raspberries. I once spooked up nine robins when I came out to pick strawberries. There were at least two robins’ nests in the vicinity of my garden, maybe more, and each nest had two or three baby birds. I’d see berries which were almost ripe and decide to leave them for just one more day, but when I came out to pick, they’d be gone, or pecked to pieces. And when the strawberries and raspberries were done, the birds starting going after the blackberries and my Sun-gold and grape tomatoes. I couldn’t blame them. They all had babies to feed.
I didn’t want to resent the birds for eating what I’d worked so hard to grow. I decided to double my strawberry and raspberry plantings to provide enough berries for both the birds and the family. And I had to tell my husband that the feeders had to go.
Early last fall, when I knew all the baby birds in the near vicinity should be self-sufficient, I took down all the feeders, including the suet cages. (I didn’t think it was fair to deprive them of nourishment when we’d invited them in and got them dependent on the food we provided.) When all the song birds had migrated out of the area in late fall, I put the suet cages back up for the birds who stay here during the winter—the chickadees, brown creepers, and woodpeckers. But I decided that the seed feeders would stay in the shed, and the suet would come down as soon as it warmed up enough for insects to become active.
We had fewer birds nesting on the property this year, and so far, fewer birds in the garden. Yes, the robins are still harvesting strawberries and raspberries. But there were only four or five of them this year instead of nine, or more. We still have black-headed grosbeaks and a pair of Western tanagers nesting somewhere near the garden. There are Stellar’s jays, of course, and our old friends, the bluebirds who live in the nest box we put up for them. We still see plenty of birds which delight our hearts and our grandchildren. The garden now offers enough food for the birds and for us too.
So there it is, a truth that as gardeners, we need to accept: gardens attract birds. Both gardener and birds will be better off if they learn to live with each other. Birds are beneficial to gardens. They catch insect pests you’ll never see, and in exchange, they’ll eat a little fruit. The seeds from that fruit they’ll scatter wherever they fly next, so they’re actually spreading fruit wherever they go. Over the years, birds have brought many gifts to my garden, among them two wild currant bushes which I transplanted out of the herb bed to an area that was more suitable for them, a Virginia creeper which I dug up and transplanted into my son’s newly fenced yard to brighten his wire fence, and three lavenders to replace the bushes I planted from seed over two decades ago.
This year, I harvested about 7 gallons of strawberries from my beds, and I figure the birds got about a gallon, maybe more because I was away from home for a week at the height of the strawberry season. But that’s a ratio I can live with, and so can the birds.
Next time: Tips for creating a strawberry patch that won’t outgrow itself in a year.
Photos by Dennis French