Ponding for the Birds and Butterflies

web_1_butterfly_and_hibiscusIn the 1980’s, researchers found that viewing fish swimming in an aquarium could lower a person’s blood pressure. I remember witnessing the increase of aquarium installations in commercial spaces and doctors’ offices. It was the beginning of the use of water in the relaxation movement. It seems that no shopping mall or public space is complete without some sort of water feature. It is evident that water has now taken a stronghold as a medium for art and recreation.

I’ve designed ponds for plant lovers and fish lovers as a source of relaxation, and to emphasize the sound and movement of the element. Now one of the more popular trends is water gardening for the birds. It may be an intentional goal or occur as a result of the gardener’s additional love for nature and animal life. Either way, it is now a fact that the frequency of water gardens being designed to attract birds is growing. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (www.fws.gov) estimates that 65 million Americans have given backyard bird feeding a try. It is stated by their census to be the fastest growing hobby in the country, second only to gardening. When you attend a wild bird conference or read a book on backyard feeding, there is always a paragraph or chapter devoted to the requirement and care of water for your birds.

To successfully bring birds to your pond you need to consider many factors. What kind of birds do you want to attract? What do these birds need to be happy visiting your pond instead of your neighbors? How was your pond constructed and what will you need to do to make it “bird friendly?” Will the introduction of birds increase the stress on your fish or pond system? Where to place the bird pond and other bird feeders and homes in your yard? What kind of plants and landscape to include in the design?

The answer to the first question is that all birds are drawn to clean moving water. Water is used for drinking, bathing and recreation. So the main reason you want to select specific birds is so that you can accommodate their physical size needs for shallow or deeper water. We will use small songbirds for our example. If your pond is too deep or does not have adequate surfaces for the small birds to perch and hold on, they may be swept away and drown in the pond. You want to have rough, irregular rock or wood surfaces that slope and project into the water one or two inches below the water surface. Small birds prefer splash pools to deep water. These rock ledges should also be in an area of fairly still water; next to vegetation that the small bird can seek shelter in if a predator approaches.

To make your pond the “Bird Mecca of the Neighborhood,” you need to provide WATER, FOOD, SHELTER and SAFETY.

WATER should be kept clean and filtered. Finding algae in a water garden is fine as long as your ecosystem is balanced and the water is not stale or stagnant. If you use a vessel such as a bowl or birdbath next to your pond, it should be sanitized and replenished with fresh water on a regular basis. There are new soy-based cleansers that work wonderfully and are eco-friendly. West Nile Virus has been a concern in recent years. Mosquito transmission of this disease has brought about the development of several repellants that are now safe and effective in water and will not harm pets or wild animals. Read the label carefully before use. The use of these repellants does not replace or remove the need to keep the vessel clean and water fresh.

FOOD is brought to the garden in the form of feeders and vegetation. Many plants provide the nectar or seeds needed by birds and butterflies. Check the feeding requirements for the type of birds you want to see. Books, wild bird stores, websites and garden centers can be a source of information when purchasing bird-attracting plants.

SHELTER and SAFETY go hand and hand. This can be provided by purchasing or handcrafting birdhouses. Recycled items such as plastic soda and milk bottles or garden leftovers like dried gourds make great houses and feeders. Remember our elementary school projects? All successful bird watchers will tell you to place your feeder near evergreen vegetation. Planting a large pine tree next to your pond may not work with your landscape plan. So look carefully at your use of evergreen or non-shedding deciduous plants next to the pond. Tall ornamental grasses work well, so do small flowering shrubs. Annuals and perennials may not be around in the winter, when your birds need shelter the most. Make sure that while you are providing protection for the birds you are not also providing hiding or stalking places for their predators. So the trick is to have the water in quick access areas for a small bird to fly or flutter up to, out of the predator’s reach.

Any new experience has the potential to bring stress to your pond fish. The best way to introduce any new item is with slow deliberate acclimation. So don’t introduce five new bird feeders to your garden at one time. Don’t make six bird pools or perches in one construction project. Don’t add double the amount of fish to an existing population at one time. If your pond is well established and healthy, then add these bird features slowly over a course of several weeks or months. If you are building a new pond, build in all of the bird items first and add the fish slowly. Some of my avid bird ponders keep less fish and use fish parasitic treatments more frequently to prevent an outbreak of disease. There are no actual studies that I could find (in my brief search of the web) that showed any statistics on the use of parasitic treatments in ponds frequented by birds. I will note a personal observation: in our own display ponds, we use treatments routinely because we are always changing water in the ponds to showcase what plants are in bloom. Those particular fish are under a lot of stress. The display ponds seem to attract a lot of birds (due to the number of rock water features). Some of our ponds are set up more like your home garden pond. The fish in those ponds do not get treated and we get just as many birds visiting them. We see no difference in parasite infections between the two different ponds systems. I hear similar accounts from my customers. The customers who have the most trouble with parasites and illness seem to be the ponds that are overstocked and have poor water quality. Be sure to choose any parasite remedies carefully. Some remedies, such as high concentrations of salt, may irritate the birds and will negatively harm many aquatic plants.

When placing bird feeders near ponds, use common sense. Do not place seed or suet feeders directly over your pond. It will cause a large amount of debris to enter the pond. The small seed shells and husks can quickly cause a pump or filter to clog. The extra bio-load of the discarded feed and feces from the feeding perched birds will create a problem with your water chemistry. Remember that birdseed will sprout when given the right conditions, so you may develop an unwanted garden under the feeder. It is important to keep the ground below your feeder neat and tidy too.

Special considerations for bird-ponds in cold weather climates:

Keeping your pond aerated and de-iced is just as important to the birds as it is to your fish and plants. Electrically operated de-icers will float on the water surface and maintain a clear unfrozen area of pond water. In bird ponds, you want this area to be near one or more of your rock perches. Having a hole in the center of the ice will encourage the birds to sit on the ice (BBRRR…) and if the ice is not solid, the bird could fall through and drown. It also leaves them open to predator attack, especially aerial assaults from other birds. Waterfalls are usually the area frequented by small birds, so keep your waterfall running. Ice damming in a waterfall can occur if the ice freezes above the level of the lining on the waterfall. Be sure to check your pond water level in the winter, and use water conditioners to de-chlorinate and change the pH to suit the pond’s existing water. Aerating with an air bubbler will help to keep the pond surface from freezing in climates that do not stay below freezing all winter. Heating your entire pond water to temperatures above freezing is an option in warmer climates. Be sure the water temp is below 48 or above 79° F. Conditions such as SVC (spring viremia of carp) or KHV (Koi herpes virus) and other infectious and parasitic diseases are more prevalent in water temperatures between 50-79° F. That’s one reason we see more mortality of fish in the spring and fall. The KoiVet, Dr. Eric Johnson, has done a lot of research in these areas and also sites published studies by other reputable institutions.
List of Bird and Butterfly attracting aquatic and bog plants:
Acorus calamus ‘Variegatus’var. sweetflag
Bletilla striata chinese hardy orchid
Caltha palustris marsh marigold
Canna assorted varieties
Carex nigra black flowering sedge (other sedges)
Cyperus alternifolius ‘Nanus’ dward umbrella papyrus & other papyrus)
Dichromena colorata (syn. Rhynchospora colorata) star grass
Hibiscus coccineus water hibiscus
Hibiscus moschuetos swamp hibiscus
Hymenocallis crassifolia bog lily
Hymenocallis liriosome spider lily
Iris Louisiana assorted varieties
Lobelia cardinalis red cardinal flower (blue also works)
Mentha aquatica water mint
Mimulus ringens lavender musk
Myosotis scorpioides forget-me-not
Nasturtium officinale watercress
Nelumbo assorted water lotus
Neptunia aqautica water sensitive plant
Nymphaea assorted winter hardy and tropical water lilies
Nymphoides geminata (syn. N. peltata) water fringe, floating heart
Oenanthe javanica ‘Flamingo’ var. water celery
Pontederia cordata pickerel, all colors
Ruellia brittoniana blue bell, all colors
Sagittaria latifolia arrow head
Saururus cernuus lizard’s tail
Thalia dealbata hardy thalia
Typha latifolia all cattails
Zizania latifolia wild rice

Butterflies will also drink water in shallow water areas where submerged vegetation has grown close to the surface. Submerged plants, also called oxygenators, will grow towards the light and form rafts of plants just below the water surface. These rafts are attractive to light, quick flying insects such as butterflies. Shallow, slow moving waterfalls and pools within a larger pond will also work. You want to be sure that these areas have adequate circulation to prevent the water from going stale. They also use the rocks that support and beautify the pond to warm themselves.

Birds also like shallow moving water. And will use rocks as perches to dry once their feathers are wet after bathing.

Invite a new habitat to your garden and put a little SPLASH in your life!

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