Birds and gardens are natural partners. Birds are some of the best friends that we could possibly have in the garden. Most feed on insects and weed seeds and help us control pests.

Bird feeding and watching is second only to gardening as an outdoor leisure activity. Birds add beauty, color and liveliness to our gardens throughout the season. Other than when they steal some ripe cherries and strawberries, they are generally welcomed in the garden as part of the natural environment and the beauty that goes with it.Urban gardens provide some of the best feeding grounds for birds during the winter. The abundance of many different kinds of plants assures an abundance of food material for our fine feathered friends.

Many plants attract birds to the gardens. Annual plants include amaranthus, bachelor buttons, calendulas, coreopsis, cosmos, ornamental grasses, sunflowers and zinnias. These and many other plants produce an abundant crop of seeds for birds to enjoy after you have enjoyed the blossoms.

Perennial plants that attract birds include chrysanthemums, goldenrod, purple cone flower, asters and ornamental grasses.

During the winter, trees and shrubs provide the bulk of the food for the birds. Most shrubs that produce a fruit are excellent sources of bird seed. Serviceberry, cranberry bush (viburum), honeysuckle, pyracantha, dogwood, elderberry, euonymous, privet and serviceberry all produce an abundance of berries. This provides food and helps attract birds to the garden.

Vines that work well include honeysuckle, Virginia creeper, grapes and winter creeper (euonymus). Flowering trees also produce an abundance of food for birds. Crabapples, Russian olive, mountain ash and sumac are just a few of the trees that encourage birds to visit.

Bird feeding can also attract birds to your garden. An estimated 60 million Americans participate in bird feeding, and bird feeding and bird watching are fascinating hobbies and a delightful pastime for cold wintery days.

Birds eat many different foods, including seeds, suets and other meats, fruits, peanut butter, nuts and baked goods. Food helps determine which birds are attracted to the garden. Different birds are also attracted to different feeders. There are many books available at nurseries, garden centers and libraries on attracting birds to the garden. Sunset's "Illustrated Guide to Attracting Birds" and Ortho's "All About Birds" are both excellent sources of information. These give specific recommendations of food choices to attract the desired species.

In addition to food, birds also need water. In urban areas in winter, open water may be difficult for them to find, so a drinking station or bird bath may provide what's needed to attract them to your garden. Birds also look for protective cover. Thick trees and shrubbery provide them a safe roosting area.

In addition to protective cover, birds look for places to raise their young. Bird nests utilize a wide variety of materials, construction techniques and styles. Nesting materials such as string, yarn, tissue, hair and other materials are used to construct nests. Providing nesting materials helps encourage them to nest near your garden. Nests are generally built in the same kind of cover that mature birds use for protection.

An additional consideration for gardeners who like to keep the garden overly tidy is that each nest consists of thousands of pieces of material. If every dead leaf and twig is thrown away, birds are not attracted because of the lack of nesting materials. Tell your spouse you're doing your part to attract birds when you don't want to clean the garden.

Of course nothing in life, let alone gardening, is without drawbacks. Feeding birds may attract squirrels. Squirrels are often a garden nuisance. Undesirable birds may drive desirable birds away and create problems by disturbing the garden. Cats also interfere with bird nesting and feeding. Locate feeders so squirrels, undesirable birds or other rodent pests cannot get easy access to the feeders.

Avid gardeners increase their enjoyment by attracting these lively and fascinating creatures to their plantings. With the exception of protecting a few of the ripening fruits and vegetables, birds are a great help in controlling garden pests. They offer a unique and fascinating look at the environment around us.