020-Gardening for the Birds with Margaret Roach

| Care, Podcast

Acclaimed gardener and passionate bird enthusiast Margaret Roach will often say that the birds taught her how to garden.

Accordingly, she found herself gardening for the birds. Over time, Margaret created a 365 day-a-year bird-friendly garden that also provided year-round beauty. Today, countless birds and over 1000 people a year visit her stunning 2-acre wildlife friendly garden in upstate New York.

In those early years nearly three decades ago, as Margaret was trying to redeem precious garden space gone wild, she found herself in awe of all the bird activity around her.

In typical Margaret fashion, she began making observations to identify what bird species were attracted to her surroundings, what they were eating, and when those food sources were in season throughout the year.


Winterberry holly in fruit

Winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) is a favorite food source for birds in fall. If you want berries to persist on plants as long as possible, Margaret suggests choosing orange or gold varieties such as ‘Winter Gold’ pictured here. Birds tend to prefer the red berried varieties. (photo credit: Margaret Roach)


In the Process, Birds Taught Margaret …

  • Bird’s meal preferences change through the year. Their needs are seasonal.
  • Birds have different appetites at different times of the year.
  • Conifers and evergreen trees and shrubs are highly utilized to provide shelter in winter.
  • A long sequence of bloom provides a continuous food source and the bonus of being aesthetically pleasing.
  • Habitat gardens created for birds are also attractive to pollinators, butterflies, and other wildlife. Pollinators make seeds and fruit happen, so they help perpetuate the food source for birds.
  • No matter how many birdhouses and feeders you buy, if you don’t have good habitat or a specific bird-friendly zone, birds won’t come or stay. You must have the proper environment for them.
  • Birds are almost always where they’re supposed to be. Look at the context you’re in and the surrounding landscape. You’re not going to get what doesn’t want to be there.
  • Large flocks of birds come through at the peak time when the fruit is plentiful, e.g., Ilex verticillata (winterberry holly) in fall.
  • Not all fruit is created equal. But some seeds and fruit are higher in lipids and oil that provide different needs to different birds at different times.
  • Heavy up on the native plants. A long season of bloom results in continuous seed and fruit. They provide the most appropriate food sources at the best time.
  • Get to know the birds in your area so you can best serve them. Forgot the ones who are not likely to be in your environment.
  • Consider the surrounding environment beyond just your immediate property.


a juvenile rose-breasted grosbeak

A juvenile rose-breasted grosbeak in a big-leaved perennial in the backyard this summer. Providing appropriate plants for food and shelter are key to attracting birds. (Photo credit: Margaret Roach)


Essentials to Attracting Birds and a Bird-Friendly Habitat

  • Grow bugs – encourage insects to your property.
  • Mow less.
  • Never use chemicals.
  • Let flowers and edibles go to seed and fruit.
  • Keep the buffet open for the longest time possible.
  • Always have water sources.
  • Do your homework.
  • Really watch. When you watch, ask why. At every action, birds are taking ask why. They give lots of clues as to why they are there and why they like you. Learn what they’re doing and why they’re doing it to sharpen your game.


juvenile Cooper's hawk

Raptors, such as this juvenile Cooper’s hawk eats a wide variety of wildlife. They will even pick off birds at feeders. (photo credit: Margaret Roach)


Bird Feeder Tips

  • Keep feeders closer than 3 ft. or farther than 30 ft. from windows to avoid collisions with glass.
  • Place feeders near hiding places to provide a sense of safety.
  • Providing resting places such as nearby tree branches is important as birds wait their turn at the feeder.
  • Keep cats indoors.


Goldfinch dining on purple coneflower

In Susan Mulvihill’s Spokane Washington garden, this goldfinch is feasting on purple coneflower seeds. It’s one of the main reasons not to rush the cleanup process. Leaving spent flowers is one of the best things gardeners can do to feed the birds naturally. (Photo credit: Susan Mulvihill)


Margaret’s Favorite Bird Food

  • Sunflower hearts or chips (without shells). Shells are allelopathic and messy. Margaret’s tip: by large bags and store securely for the best price and continuous supply.
  • Birds love beef suet in winter. Margaret gets her suet from the butcher rather than commercial blocks commonly sold in garden centers and box stores.


Pine grosbean feasting on crabapple fruit

A good example of this Pine grosbeak taking advantage of juicy crabapple fruit. (photo credit: Susan Mulvihill)


Links & Resources

Television episode with Margaret Roach on Gardening for the Birds – Episode 526 from Growing a Greener World. A must watch companion for wonderful visuals to complement this podcast

Podcast episode 015 with Margaret Roach: Life Lessons on Gardening and Design

Margaret’s upcoming webinar on Gardening for the Birds – Register now. Starts November 6th

Television episode with Susan Mulvihill – Episode 809 from Growing a Greener World features avid birder and Master Gardener Susan Mulvihill with great tips on watching and photographing birds

Susan’s in the Garden website – the website and blog of Susan Mulvihill featured in episode 809

eBird Checklist, etc. A free resource from Cornell University. Record your data online for future reference and to share. Browse or sort for birds by your area. A citizen scientist project with checklists for likely birds in your area.

Habitat Network –  An online resource of mapping your property to share your data so Cornell can learn more about bird activity in your space. They also provide a lot of resource information

Margaret’s podcast interview with Nathan Pieplow re. earbirding:

Nathan Pieplow’s earbirding blog … where he has developed a way of identifying birdsong through a series of simple questions. The process is similar to keying out plants.

…which leads to the Cornell-hosted audio 

Milorganite: Our episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joe gardener®

About Joe Lamp'l

Joe Lamp’l is the creator and “joe” behind joe gardener®. His lifetime passion and devotion to all things horticulture has led him to a long-time career as one of the country’s most recognized and trusted personalities in organic gardening and sustainability. That is most evident in his role as host and creator of Emmy Award-winning Growing a Greener World®, a national green-living lifestyle series on PBS currently broadcasting in its tenth season. When he’s not working in his large, raised bed vegetable garden, he’s likely planting or digging something up, or spending time with his family on their organic farm just north of Atlanta, GA.

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