A Bird-Friendly Garden at the MARS Visitor Centre

​A Bird-Friendly Garden at the MARS Visitor Centre

gilakas’la čɛčɛ haθɛč. We respectfully acknowledge that the land on which we garden is the Unceded Traditional Territory of the K’ómox First Nation, the traditional keepers of the land. 

Birds are among the most entrancing wildlife visitors to our gardens. From first light when their songs swell, our gardens awaken. While we potter about our gardens and birds carry on with the business of survival, their twitters and chirrups are like old friends; the ever-present backdrop to our own labours. Even in the dead of winter, an otherwise tired and quiet garden can be reanimated when a thrush arrives to feast on berries. Many of us who enjoy seeing birds visiting the garden hang feeders and build houses to make birds feel a bit more at home in the backyard. However, a bird-friendly garden has more than seeds and suet!

We hear a lot about how gardeners can choose plants for butterflies, or for bees, but we can also plant for birds. A bird garden helps meet all the seasonal needs of our flying friends: water, nesting sites, insects, worms, and spiders that birds can eat and feed their young, seeds and berries for when insects are scarce in the winter, as well as cover from harsh weather and predators. These are the ingredients that sustain life of resident and migratory birds across generations.

A White-Crowned Sparrow perches on a log in one of the MARS Visitor Centre’s meadow gardens.

While feeders augment food for birds in the winter, many birds are insectivores, meaning that they need insects to live. Even hummingbirds, who we often view as nectar-sipping flowers lovers, feed their young with insects. Gardeners can have a significant impact on the diversity of insects available to birds by choosing native plants.

A skipper visits entire-leaved gumweed.

A spider on a native flowering currant.

MARS Wildlife Rescue Centre, our beloved local wildlife hospital, hosted a May 2023 workshop called “Healthy Habitats at Home” in which presenters Karen Cummins (MARS volunteer and Comox Valley Nature board member) and Jan Smith (MARS wildlife stewardship volunteer) explained the web of interactions among our local flora and fauna. The native plant species of our ecoregion have co-evolved with the birds, insects, and other species that are increasingly starved of habitat as human development encroaches on natural spaces. But Cummins and Smith call for a shift in attitude from “nature is out there” to “nature can be in my backyard”, and encourage gardening with that spirit. The four tenets of the presentation were to shrink the lawn, plant a diversity of native species, feed pollinators and insects, and replace invasive species.

Annual sea blush is sown in drifts with native grasses and field chickweed (not to be confused with the introduced weed that shares the name ‘chickweed’)

MARS does not only rescue wildlife, but also supports wildlife habitat at their visitor centre. Starting in 2020 the organization broke ground on their new garden (with grant support from our very own CVHS!) with the aim of reestablishing native plants on their site. Three years later, the garden is a marvel of diverse planting. Parts are laid out like a meadow, while others are “layered physically, like a forest”, and all together are “layered through time” to provide birds and beneficial insect species with what they need across the whole year.

The garden features native trees and shrubs like Garry oak, willow, elderberry, Saskatoon berry, and flowering currant; native grasses and sedges; spring ephemerals like common camas; perennials like pearly everlasting, Douglas’ aster, goldenrod, barestem desert parsley, fireweed, and entire-leaved gumweed; and annuals like the adorable pink sea blush. Many plants are so-called “key stones”, which are ecosystem-supporting powerhouses. The planting is augmented by logs, brush piles, and rock piles to provide habitat for vertebrates and invertebrates alike.

Rock piles offer additional habitat.

Such species are essential in any Comox Valley bird garden, as they play host for native caterpillar species – the proverbial ‘mother’s milk’ of birds for their young. If we only hang feeders, birds will only ever be visitors to the backyard, not residents. A bird will not nest in a backyard where there aren’t enough insects to raise young. Like humans, birds have to conserve time and resources, and they like to live close to the larder. But nestlings can’t eat seeds yet. The mother and father may make over a hundred trips to and from the nest each day to find food for their clutch, so bird parents are on the lookout for the most juicy and nutritious of insects, like caterpillars.

The key to a caterpillar-rich garden is to plant species native to our ecoregion. While a shrub like a Camelia, native to Asia, doesn’t support any local caterpillars, up to 90 different species of butterflies and moths would use a native shrub species like Saskatoon (serviceberry) as a host plant for caterpillars. Not to mention that birds like cedar waxwings will enjoy the berries! Asking for caterpillars to join the garden and munch on leaves can require a bit of a mental stretch for many gardeners. Cummins and Smith encourage gardeners to think about the function of plants in their yards and advise, “Don’t freak out about holes!” Plants can tolerate being munched and remain healthy. So if you see holes in your leaves, you know that insects are there and feeding your backyard birds.

A skipper visits a Douglas Aster

Gardens that function for nature can function for people too. The gardens at MARS demonstrate that planting for birds and other wildlife can also offer beauty year round, provide shade to the gardener, engender a profound sense of place, and function as an act of decolonization. A bird garden can be many things at once: a native plant garden, a butterfly garden (for where there are caterpillars, there are butterflies, moths, and skippers!), a meadow, a shady woodland garden, and a peaceful slice of nature in your backyard. Most of all, a bird garden is alive.

Late August goldenrod and Douglas aster en masse can make the heart sing.

A diversity of bird species is a key ecological indicator of a healthy ecosystem, whether in the wild or in the garden. To welcome more birds (and importantly, more species of birds) into your yard:

A Garry oak is underplanted with perennials where caterpillars have a safe place to complete their lifecycle.

  • Provide clean water: consider installing a bubbler so that migrating birds can hear the sound of running water and find your water source
  • Choose plants that support insects, especially caterpillars: start with plants native to our ecoregion. Birds need insects to feed their young. Without insects, there is no next generation of birds to enjoy the nuts and seeds you provide at your feeder.
  • Plant trees and shrubs for nesting and cover. Go big, and make it an oak: our native Garry oak supports a huge number of insect species. Lay down the loppers from time to time and leave some dead wood or snags for bird habitat.
  • Let these plants be nibbled. No pesticides needed!
  • Think about winter browsers: plant native grass and perennials for seeds, shrubs with berries, and fruiting trees. Leave fallen leaves be, and watch birds flip them over in the winter to find hiding insects.
  • Protect the birds you invite to your garden: prevent window strikes (check out this resource from the Cornell Lab) and keep cats inside or outfit them with cat collars or cat bibs

The MARS habitat stewardship team has curated this list of further reading: Native Plant Resources – MARS Wildlife Rescue

Resources used to write this story:

  • “Health Habitats at Home”, a presentation from MARS 13 May 2023
  • 100 Plants that Feed the Birds: Turn Your Home Garden into a Healthy Bird Habitat by Laura Erickson 2022
  • Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, Updated and Expanded by Douglas W Tallamy 2009
  • Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard by Douglas W. Tallamy 2020
  • National Wildlife Federation (NFW.org)

Acknowledgements: Thank you to Jan, Karen, and James from MARS for your contributions to this story.

Posted: 21 October 2023