IPM: Pest-eating Vertebrates, Part 2

Mountain Bluebird_Johnson'sCorner-CO_LAH_2843Last month I explained how amphibians, such as frogs and toads, and reptiles, such as snakes and lizards, are beneficial to our gardens. This time I’ll focus on birds and mammals. Inviting these wild animals into ours gardens is yet one more way that we can control the pests that dine on our flowers and veggies.

As an avid birder, I have up to a dozen feeders scattered around our yard. It may seem as if I’m doing the birds a favor, but it’s really the other way around! While most birds attracted to feeders eat seeds, many of those same species switch to bugs, with their higher protein content, during the breeding season.

Western Kingbirds_Barr Lake SP-CO_LAH_5240-1Some birds (such as the Mountain Bluebird, shown above) are famous for their bug control abilities. Swallows, flycatchers (left) and other birds eat thousands of insects every summer.

Attracting insect-eating birds is easy. They may ignore birdseed, but every bird needs water. A simple birdbath is all you need. Make sure you place it in a safe place, away from bushes that might hide the neighborhood cat. Change the water regularly so you aren’t making the birds sick—or contributing to the mosquito population.

Another way to bring birds to your yard is to provide some sheltering shrubs and trees. Thick foliage, thorns, and evergreen leaves hide your garden helpers from hawks and other predators, and offer a protected place to nest. Consider adding some nest boxes as a bonus.

Swainson's Hawk_MercedNWR-CA_LAH_0048If your garden is plagued by larger pests—pocket gophers, voles, rabbits, etc.—be thankful that there are larger predators. Swainson’s Hawks (right) eat thousands of grasshoppers, in addition to small rodents and other prey. Our yard is regularly patrolled by a Red-tailed Hawk that  loves to sit atop of a tall pine tree, scanning for prey. Now that our chicken coop is well protected, she’s very welcome to hang around, and I wish her lots of luck with our squirrels and gophers.

Raptors aren’t the only predators who eat rodents and rabbits. We frequently are visited by foxes and coyotes. I’ve cheered as a gorgeous red-coated fox grabbed a squirrel from under my feeder (we have lots of seed-stealing squirrels). One year my entire lettuce crop was stolen by a horde of hungry rabbits—until the coyote showed up. I assume he ate a couple of cute little bunnies, but what really helped was his habit of marking the edges of the garden. The smell was ghastly, but the rabbit family headed for safer digs.

There’s a balance between welcoming wildlife and staying safe. The same prey that attracts birds, foxes, and coyotes also attracts bears, bobcats, and mountain lions. We’ve never had a big cat in our yard (they prefer to stay on the other side of the interstate, up against the mountains), but we have had bears. Common sense dictates that we eliminate our feeders if something dangerous shows up.

Another point to remember is that a predator is not going to distinguish between that annoying pocket gopher and Fluffy. Keep cats and small dogs indoors! Pets outside not only kill birds, but are in danger of being eaten themselves.

This is the last post in my series on Integrated Pest Management (IPM). If you missed the earlier ones, simply enter IPM into the search box to the right. There are many ways to win the battle of the bugs without just grabbing the spray bottle.

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