370-Bird-Friendly Gardening, with Jen McGuinness

| Podcast, Prepare

Of the many reasons to garden, the presence of beautiful and interesting birds is among the most delightful. To explain how to make your garden bird-friendly, joining me on the podcast this week is Jen McGuinness, aka Frau Zinnie, the author of “Bird-Friendly Gardening: Guidance and Projects for Supporting Birds in Your Landscape.”

Jen is an organic gardener in Connecticut who has written the Frau Zinnie (Mrs. Zinnia) garden blog for 13 years, where she promotes organic gardening practices and gardening with native plants. In addition to “Bird-Friendly Gardening,” Jen authored “Micro Food Gardening: Project Plans and Plants for Growing Fruits and Veggies in Tiny Spaces.” 


Jen McGuinness

Jen McGuinness, aka Frau Zinnie, is the author of “Bird-Friendly Gardener” and an organic gardener who promotes the use of native plants. (Photo Credit: Rob McGuinness)


I love birding as much, or almost as much, as gardening. And so I’m always interested in learning as much as I can about both. I don’t know how you can separate the joy of gardening from the joy of watching and being among the birds. Any healthy garden seems to attract a nice population of birds, and it’s hard not to stand there in awe of the beauty. Their addition to the garden makes your space so magical. 

Meet Jen McGuinness, aka Frau Zinnie

Jen grew up in Queens, a borough of New York City, and she says gardening has always been part of her life. She says people are surprised to hear that because when they think Queens they think of city blocks and pavement. But her grandfather always had his own garden and grew grapes and sour cherries for wine.

“I was always playing in his garden, and then my parents also had a small garden at our home,” she recalls. “And my dad would go out and do, like, crazy landscaping projects with roses and things like that. And my mom was totally into houseplants, so I was getting gardening from everywhere.”

When she got her own apartment in college, she grew plants on windowsills, and then when she got her first house with her husband, one of the first things she did was to rip up the front lawn and put in garden beds.

“I didn’t have a plan,” she says. “I was just enthusiastic and going to the garden center and falling in love with everything and trying to find a space for it.” 

She put out bird feeders in the winter and could always identify the most common visitors, such as cardinals and sparrows. She took a liking to birds and began reading books about them and observing them more.

“I always found that when I did go and watch birds, it was just so peaceful and it just made me feel better,” she says. She wanted to find a way to bring birds into her garden to be able to keep experiencing that peace while also giving birds a safe space to be.

Jen notes that when you attune yourself to the birds in your garden, you start noticing which plants attract them to the yard. “How can I get them to linger longer and make them feel safe enough that they can nest here?” she wonders.


Blue wood aster and yellow goldenrod

Blue wood aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium) and yellow goldenrod (Solidago spp.) attract insects that birds will eat, in addition to the Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum) seedheads.
(Photo credit: Jen McGuinness)



Spark Birds and Bird Decline

In the birding community, the bird that sparks someone’s interest in bird-watching is known as their “spark bird.” 

Jen’s spark bird is the cardinal. It really stood out in the city and gave her a feeling of connection with nature.

“Pigeons are cool too, but the cardinal’s just got that flashy, beautiful side to it,” she says.

I grew up in Miami, which is on the migratory path of Baltimore orioles, which I’d say are my spark bird, though it’s between cardinals, blue jays, mockingbirds and Baltimore orioles.

“I get really excited about different birds in different seasons, depending on who’s migrating through or who’s just a regular customer,” Jen says. “So yeah, I think it’s totally, totally fair to have more than one.”

The concerning news that we can’t avoid seeing these days is the loss of biodiversity and billions of birds due to pesticide use, habitat loss and more.

As Jen’s book notes, there has been a 29% decrease in the bird population in North America since 1970 — a loss of 3 billion birds. And 70 bird species have lost two-thirds or more of their population in the last 50 years. We’re on track for another 50% loss over the next 50 years.

“I would hate to think that in the future the only way you can see some of the birds that we take for granted today is by going to an aviary or a protected area for them,” Jen says. “So we definitely have to take steps to make our yards, our gardens, our parks more friendly to them to help turn that tide so it doesn’t continue marching along in that way.”


Eastern Bluebird

An eastern bluebird on a sugar maple branch.
(Photo credit: Jen McGuinness)


How to Turn Around Bird Loss

Planting native species in your garden spaces is the most important thing you can do to reverse bird decline, according to Jen.

Native plants support the native insects that the birds, in turn, eat and use to rear their young. But an imported plant from overseas won’t support the insect life here, and no insects means no food for baby birds.

Native seeds and berries also supply food for birds and other wildlife. The more variety of native plants you have, the more dinner options you’re offering, Jen says. 

Many insects are specialists to certain native plants. If you don’t have that correlation and relationship in your garden, you won’t get those insects in your garden. For example, monarch butterfly caterpillars are specialists in milkweed. If your garden doesn’t include milkweed, monarch butterflies will have no place to lay their eggs.

Oak trees provide birds with not just insects to eat but also cover for nesting and hiding from predators. “We need to not just provide the food, but provide an area where those birds can actually be safe from predators and raise their young safely so that way the next generation keeps going,” Jen says. 

Including layers of plants, from the tree canopy to shrubs and groundcover,  provides shelter and nesting habitat to the greatest diversity of birds — and the garden looks better for it.


Wild Bergamot

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) can be grown in a large container. Wild bergamot attracts a number of specialist bees, bumblebees, predatory wasps, hummingbirds, and hawk moths, according to the Xerces society.
Photo credit: Jen McGuinness


The Importance of Including Clean Water Sources for Birds

A source of fresh water also makes a big difference, especially in the winter when most water sources available to birds are frozen over. Jen says when she sees the most uncommon birds in winter, it’s at her heated birdbath. 

Even though water is necessary for any animal to survive, we tend to take for granted that birds have access to fresh water. It’s easy to assume there is water somewhere they can get to, but that’s not necessarily a safe assumption.

In a city with lots of paved areas, water might go down the drains and into sewers. The water that does collect might not be clean — it could be stagnant, with mosquitoes laying eggs in it.

If you put out a birdbath at the beginning of the season, cleaning it is as important as refilling the water. Dirty birdbaths can harbor disease that spreads from bird to bird. Seeds, pollen and more can murk up birdbath water. Jen recommends having a stiff brush on hand to scrub algae off birdbaths. 

Jen recommends cleaning a birdbath with one part bleach to 10 parts water, or one part 5% household vinegar to nine parts water.

Mosquitos may lay eggs in a still birdbath, but it takes a day or two for the eggs to hatch and then at least four days for the larvae to become adults. If you are changing the water in your bird bath every third day, if not every other day, mosquitoes won’t become an issue.

Jen puts a solar bubbler in her birdbath to keep the water moving. It prevents mosquitoes from laying the eggs in the water, and the sound of moving water attracts birds.

She mounts her birdbath high because she learned the hard way that raccoons really like to play with solar fountains.

Besides refreshing the water every other day, giving it a good scrub every three or four days will be necessary to keep the birdbath clean in hot weather, or every fifth day in mild weather. 


American Robin

An American robin on a birdbath. Jen recommends cleaning a birdbath regularly with one part bleach to 10 parts water, or one part 5% household vinegar to nine parts water.
(Photo credit: Jen McGuinness)


Using Bird Feeders

Bird feeders can supplement the plants in your garden and attract a greater diversity of birds. Seed feeders that come in hopper style or tube style attract songbirds and others, and suet feeders draw woodpeckers and cardinals. Hummingbird feeders are filled with sugar water solution. Mealworms in a special type of feeder will attract bluebirds. Orange slices and grape jelly will attract orioles.

Bird feeders must also be kept clean. If the bird food sits and becomes moldy, that becomes dangerous for birds, Jen says. 

Even a seemingly clean feeder can spread disease among birds. For example, finches get the eye diseases conjunctivitis, and if an infected bird visits your feeder, the next finch that comes can pick up the disease.

“At that point you have to pull the feeder down and clean it again because you don’t want that virus to stay on the feeder and then spread to other birds,” Jen says.

If a bird is hanging by a feeder for a prolonged period, it could be a sign that it can’t see well. Anytime a bird is not behaving as it should be, that is a tipoff of a disease, Jen says.

Keeping your feeder in a spot where you can keep an eye on it is important to maintain sanitation. 

Jen participated in the citizen science initiative Project Feederwatch, in which she reported what birds came to her feeder in winter. The form included a field to report spotting birds with an eye disease.  

A bird feeder with an attached camera that takes pictures of visitors automatically is an easy way to track if the birds that are coming by are healthy.

Jen takes her feeder down every two weeks and gives it a good scrubbing, or more often if necessary. It’s part of what you’re taking on when you say that you’re going to feed birds, she says.  


Red-eyed Vireo

Red-eyed vireo singing from a tree branch.
(Photo credit: Jen McGuinness)


Questions Over the Value of Bird Feeders

I love watching my birds. I have my feeders right outside the window of my office where I sit every day. However, there is disagreement about the value of bird feeders and whether they should stay up year-round or at all.

I know that 96% of birds rely on insects as their primary food source. Are we doing birds any favors by putting a buffet out for them? In the winter, when insect populations are at their lowest, putting out a bird feeder makes a lot of sense. At other times …  well, many birders have raised questions.

Jen says there are mixed views. When birds are rearing their young, they collect caterpillars for the chicks to eat. They don’t need or want your birdseed at this stage.

Bird feeders out in summer won’t be detrimental but won’t provide the food that birds are looking for, Jen says, and if you are in bear country, a summer bird feeder can become a bear feeder.


Yellow and warm season grass

Plants such as yarrow and warm-season grasses can be used to create a drought-tolerant garden. This garden was planted into a large, converted stock tank, complete with drainage holes.
(Photo credit: Jen McGuinness)


Ideal Placement for a Bird Feeder

A bird feeder should be sited where birds can easily see predators, including cats and hawks. House cats and feral cats are among the main killers of birds, so put feeders in areas where birds can escape and get to cover quickly.

A bird feeder right in the middle of a lawn will be less frequented than a feeder near bushes where birds can find shelter and wait for their turn at the feeder.

Keep feeders up high enough that cats can’t reach — though sparrows and mourning doves will still eat the seed that falls to the ground, leaving them vulnerable to cats.

If placing a bird feeder near a window, there are two safe options: One, place it within a few inches of the window so a bird departing the feeder doesn’t have enough distance to pick up speed before hitting a window. Or, two, put it far enough away from a window that a bird leaving the feeder won’t mistake your window for open sky.

Birds tend to come in and land in bushes or on tree branches before approaching a bird feeder. They reset their bearings and get a good look around before coming to the feeder. They don’t come from a distance and land directly on the feeder. Keeping this in mind will help you position a feeder where birds won’t hit your window after taking seed, and so birds feel safe using your feeder.

Jen says using reflective anti-collision window decals or bird tape — anything that disrupts a reflection in the window — will prevent bird strikes.

A window screen that covers a whole window, rather than half, like many do, will provide a visual cue to deter birds from flying into windows, and screens will also provide a soft buffer for those birds who still strike a window.


Grey Catbird

A grey catbird in blueberry bush.
(Photo credit: Jen McGuinness)


Lights Out

The Audubon Society Lights Out Program encourages bird-friendly lighting.

Artificial light can disrupt the instinctive activities of birds and other wildlife. Birds migrate mostly at night, using the stars for navigation. If they can’t see the stars because of light pollution, they can’t navigate properly.

Any lights pointed straight up into the air, including security lights that stay on all night, can negatively influence bird traffic.

Choose “dark skies”-friendly lighting fixtures and turn off outdoor lighting overnight.

Nesting Boxes and Birdhouses

Different species of birds use different nesting sites. Likewise, man-made birdhouses and nesting boxes are not interchangeable. Different styles will serve different birds.

The size of the hole to enter the cavity affects what birds will be attracted to nest there. One and a half inches is the size that attracts Carolina wrens and bluebirds. A little smaller attracts titmice and downy woodpeckers. And smaller than that will attract chickadees. 

Robins don’t use nesting boxes at all but prefer Jen’s arbors and trellis. They love honeysuckle vines to nest in. Catbirds will look for a lilac bush or other dense shrubbery.

Jen recommends “The Birdhouse Book,” which provides the plans for various nesting boxes and instructions on where to install them to be a successful landlord.

Install birdhouses by February or March for the best chance of landing tenants. Clean out old birdhouses prior to February because for many species it is rare they will reuse a nest, and yellowjackets or other insects may have moved in.


Bird-Friendly Gardening by Jen McGuinness

Jen’s book “Bird-Friendly Gardening” is a great resource to discover how to attract birds to visit or even reside in your yard.



If you haven’t listened to my conversation with Jen McGuinness on bird-friendly gardening, you can do so now by clicking the Play button on the green bar near the top of this post.

Do you feed the birds and provide habitat? Let us know your experience in the comments below. 

Links & Resources

Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.

Episode 020: Gardening for the Birds with Margaret Roach

Episode 071: Gardening for Wildlife: How-to Create an Inviting Habitat, with NWF’s David Mizijewski

Episode 076: How to Create a Bird-friendly Yard

Episode 227: The Humane Gardener-How to Nurture a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife

joegardenerTV YouTube: How to Provide Water for Backyard Birds in Winter

joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; seed starting and more.

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Organic Vegetable Gardening: My new premium online course. The course is designed to be a comprehensive guide to starting, growing, nurturing and harvesting your favorite vegetables, no matter what you love to eat, no matter where you live, no matter your level of gardening experience.

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Seed Starting: Everything you need to know to start your own plants from seed — indoors and out. 

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Growing Epic Tomatoes: Learn how to grow epic tomatoes with Joe Lamp’l and Craig LeHoullier. 

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Pests, Diseases & Weeds: Learn the proactive steps to take to manage pests, diseases and weeds for a more successful garden with a lot less frustration. Just $47 for lifetime access!

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.

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joegardener Facebook

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joegardener Twitter

joegardenerTV YouTube

Growing a Greener World®  

GGW Episode 526: Backyard Birds

GGW Episode 620: Bringing Nature Home


Frau Zinnie on Facebook

Jen McGuinness on Instagram | @frau_zinnie

Jen McGuinness on X  | @JenMGardens 

Bird-Friendly Gardening: Guidance and Projects for Supporting Birds in Your Landscape” by Jen McGuinness 

Micro Food Gardening: Project Plans and Plants for Growing Fruits and Veggies in Tiny Spaces” by Jen McGuinness

The Birdhouse Book”  by Margaret A. Barker and Elissa Ruth Wolfson 

The Audubon Society Guide to Attracting Birds: Creating Natural Habitats for Properties Large and Small, by Dr. Stephen Kress

National Audubon Society

National Audubon Society Lights Out Program

National Audubon Society’s Birds and Climate Change Report

National Audubon Society Native Plants Database

Merlin bird ID app


Solar birdbath bubbler

Anti-collision reflective window decals 

Anti-collision reflective bird tape

Proven Winners ColorChoice – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of 

Earth’s Ally – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of 

Dramm – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of 

Greenhouse Megastore – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of – Enter code JG10 for 10% off your first order

Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast was based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Greenhouse Megastore, Territorial Seed Company, Earth’s Ally, Proven Winners ColorChoice and Dramm. These companies are either Brand Partners of and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.

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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