Category Archives: beneficial insects

Let the Birds Control your Insect Pests

Looks like trick-or-treating for Halloween is as popular with my garden visitors as it is with kids.  No, I’m not talking about those four-legged twins with doe-eyes that look longingly through my deer fencing at my hydrangeas.  I’m referring to the many birds that flock to my garden to eat aphids, mealybugs, mites and spiders, keeping the insect population under control without me lifting a finger.   What could be more convenient and beautiful to watch?

Throughout the year there are many resident birds that help me in the garden as they go about their business of  nesting and raising their young.  Ladybugs and other beneficial insects also do their part but it’s the songbirds I depend on to really get in there and do a clean sweep.  As if that’s not enough I get to hear them sing and call to each other and enjoy their bright plumage as they flit through the trees.

My garden is not very big.  I have a small birdbath to provide water for drinking and bathing. Several hummingbird feeders supplement the food supply when they are feeding their young and to help them through the winter.  The plants I grow provide foliage, nectar, pollen, berries, seeds and nuts for all wildlife ( except those deer, sorry ) that visit my garden.  Shrubs provide hiding places and shelter for birds and other wildlife to raise their young, avoid predators and get out of inclement weather.   In return, they keep my garden healthy.  I’m getting a good deal, if you ask me.

Just this morning I was happy to welcome my resident flock of Chestnut-backed chickadees who proceeded to scour every perennial, shrub and tree like acrobats looking for insects and seeds.  They are quite tame and friendly and easily attracted to feeding stations.   At the same time, a group of brilliant yellow and black Townsend’s warblers arrived to survey the scene.  The prefer our cool fir and redwood forests in the fall and spring and also find food in oaks, madrones and bay trees.  These little birds are so bright you can see them from quite a distance.

Hopping about and scratching the ground to expose beetles and worms, a couple of American robins were doing their share of insect control. They also love the leftover blackberries still hanging on the vine.   Back up in the trees, the acorn woodpeckers were working on beetles and grubs hiding under the bark.  These are just some of the feathered help I have visiting my garden.

What can you do to encourage this free labor?  In addition to oaks and madrones, plant trees like crabapple, hawthorn, loquat, dogwood  and fruit trees for colorful fruits and berries.  Native shrubs like oregon grape, toyon, coffeeberry,  California wax myrtle, snowberry, coyote brush, manzanita and elderberry all have berries that attract birds. Ceanothus are among the most valued shrubs as a food source attracting bushtits, finches, grosbeaks, hummingbirds, mockingbirds, quail, thrashers, thrushes, towhees, warblers, white-crowned sparrows and wrentits.  Other shrubs to include are Japanese barberry, roses and junipers.

 Hummingbirds do their share of spider control when they have young and need extra protein.  Native plants like salvia, sagebrush, buckwheat, flowering currant as well as garden favorites like flowering maple, fuchsia, coral bells all provide nectar for them and butterflies, too.


 *  Avoid using chemical insecticides.   Most birds eat insects and spiders.  If you spray your plants with chemicals, you’ll create a sterile wasteland for protein-eating birds. You’ll also kill butterflies or their larvae.  Spray organic pesticides only if you absolutely have to and then direct the spray carefully. 

  *  Be unfastidious.  The best wildlife habitats are not overly manicured.  The less often you rake under bushes, the better it is for the birds.  Accumulated duff gives a place for insects and other creatures to breed and live.  When possible, leave small brush piles in out-of-the-way places.

If you’d like to identify the birds that you’ve attracted, you can get a free check list of the birds of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park from their gift shop.  Many of those birds will be in your garden, too.  They also sell a beautiful laminated color chart of local birds of Monterey Bay area.  Fun to have by your kitchen window for a quick reference when you see a splash of yellow fly by. 


Echinacea Need more late summer perennials to extend your season?  Purple coneflowers will continue to bloom until frost then go dormant for the winter.  Showy 4" rosy purple daisies are lightly fragrant and make good cut flowers for bouquets.  The clumps spread slowly and can be carefully divided after 3 or 4 years.  There is also a beautiful white variety called White Swan.  If faded flowers are left in place, the bristly seed heads provide food for finches in winter.  

The herb echinacea is derived from varieties of this flower.  E. angustifolia is used nowadays as a fortifier of the immune system, mainly to prevent flu and minor respiratory diseases by increasing the body’s production of interferon.  The roots are the part of this plant used for medicinal purposes.   Echinacea was used by Native Americans more than any other plant in the plains states.  It’s antiseptic properties were used to treat snake and insect bites, to bathe burns and to help cure the “sweats.”  They chewed the plants roots to ease the pain of toothache.  It was also used by the Native Americans for purification.  The leaves and the flowers can be used in teas as well.