Keeping helpful birds around your garden is the best organic pest control

Story and Photos by Kristi Cook

Patience is a virtue, especially in the gardening world. I learned this lesson in a profound way one season while on a morning walk through the garden. As I scouted for disease and pests and checked the ripeness of various fruits and vegetables, I discovered my lush and heavily laden tomato plants nearly covered in aphids. Or so it seemed. Never in all my years had I been the victim of such a harsh attack by these horrid creatures. I’m sad to say that my initial response, despite being an organic grower, was to think I needed some chemical to treat the infestation. Fortunately for my garden, my more rational side suggested I wait patiently to see which of my garden helpers would come to the rescue. And as always, I was not disappointed.

Feeders offering a variety of seeds and nuts are a must for attracting a variety of birds. Goldfinches, for example, while certainly attracted to thistle feeders, also readily consume black oil sunflower seeds, as do cardinals and titmice.

By midday I discovered several hungry ladybugs busily attempting to correct the situation. However, the sheer number of aphids warranted a much hungrier attack than what my ladybug friends could offer. Apparently my garden allies knew this, too. The next morning, as I peered out my kitchen window through the just breaking light, I was greeted by four golden orbs flitting in and out of the tomatoes. The energy with which these goldfinches moved suggested that they, like the ladybugs, were on a mission, so I decided to forego my morning walk among the plants so as not to disturb them while they worked. They did not disappoint. By the afternoon, the aphid population was noticeably smaller, though still heavy. And so, I began to have a greater sense of hope that all things right would return to my garden.

One element that is often overlooked when attempting to attract birds is sufficient cover. Don’t place too close, however, or predators will take advantage of the cover as a hiding place from which to attack your birds.

The following day, however, the goldfinches left the tomato plants, returning instead to their favored thistle feeders. This time the indigo buntings took over. Tiny blue tufts of feathers perched on the wire cages, heads bobbing up and down as they meticulously plucked multitudes of aphids from the branches before flying off for a few brief moments, only to return to their tomato-laden perches once again. Throughout much of the day the buntings labored, undoubtedly feeding their young these tasty treats. By evening, close inspection of each tomato plant revealed a remarkable discovery – virtually no aphids remained on any of the nearly 30 tomato plants gracing my garden.

A reliable water source is mandatory for keeping birds nearby. Provide cool, fresh water as needed, and clean water sources every few days to avoid sickening the birds.

Patience indeed proved vital to saving my tomatoes and is a lesson I have never forgotten. While insecticides, both conventional and organic, could have easily remedied the problem, allowing a healthy ecosystem to come to the rescue – while a bit slower – proved to be just as effective. Now, anytime I am tempted to grab an insecticide, I am reminded of the impressive work of my feathered friends and instead allow Nature to run its course.



Send Out Invites! 

Attracting helpful birds such as indigo buntings, goldfinches, cardinals, titmice, and chickadees is both a fun and economical way to bring organic pest control to your garden. All you need is to provide a few necessities and these hungry beneficials will happily hang around.

Year-round food – While many birds love insects, many prefer seeds, berries, and nuts at least part of the year. Feeders, native flowers, sunflowers (Helianthus spp.), nut-bearing trees – especially oaks (Quercus spp.) – and native seed-bearing grasses offer good supplemental food sources for many species.

Clean water source – Birdbaths and moving water invite birds to take a dip while refreshing themselves. Reliable water sources also help prevent thirsty birds from pecking fruits and veggies in search of moisture during dry spells.

Cover – Birds don’t like to be far from protective shelter. Provide shrubs, trees, and even tall plantings within several feet of any feeder or water source for birds to fly to when threatened. However, don’t place food and water sources too close to cover that may also hide predators.

Nesting boxes – Many species of birds readily use nesting boxes. Place several throughout your garden to attract a variety of birds. Research the types of boxes your preferred feathered friends enjoy and place at the recommended height. 

Avoid the use of insecticides – Because insects make up a large portion of many bird species’ diets, insecticides not only make birds sick when ingesting contaminated insects but also reduce the insect populations that birds need to survive.

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