“Groundwork” column for May 5, 2013

It has been wonderful to come home from work and be able to sit outside free of mosquitoes, enjoying the pleasant weather and listening to all the different bird songs. The bird feeder in the backyard is kept filled with black sunflower seed and raw, unsalted, in-shell peanuts. This mixture attracts primarily redbirds, blue jays and mourning doves.

Birds can contribute wonderful things to the enjoyment of a landscape, such as movement, color, sounds and even pest control.

Gardeners almost universally welcome the presence of birds. They can even go so far as to design and plant landscapes that are particularly attractive to birds. Some people are motivated to do this because of the increasing loss of natural habitat facing many bird species.

So, what can we do to encourage birds to live in our landscapes? The primary features the environment must provide to invite birds into the landscape include shelter, nesting sites, food and water.

Although people often provide food and water for birds, shelter and nesting sites should not be overlooked. Difficulty in finding natural shelter near the food and water sources you supply may tempt birds to look elsewhere for a more promising environment.

If you can provide a place for birds to nest, you’ll have the pleasure of seeing them frequently at close range and the advantage of allies in insect control.

Each species shows a strong preference for the specific elevation at which it feeds and nests. This is apparent in natural forests, where some birds sing and feed in the high canopy level but nest in the lower canopy. Others may feed on the ground, nest in shrubs and sing from the highest trees. These bird movements demonstrate that a multilevel planting design is important.

Adding levels to a plant community increases surface area by creating more leaves, stems, nooks and crannies where birds can nest, feed and sing. Using various-size shrubs and small as well as larger trees planted in masses or groups will achieve this in a landscape design.

Shelter for nesting may also be provided with birdhouses or bird boxes. These human-made structures, if properly done to specific dimensions and located in the right spot, can provide nesting sites for birds that would find suitable sites rare in urban areas.

Birds that nest in the cavities of dead trees, for instance, will find few sites available because dead trees are quickly removed from urban landscapes. Birdhouses would be used by birds such as purple martins, house finches, woodpeckers, robins and Eastern bluebirds to name a few.

Include in your landscape plants that produce fruit that birds will eat such as hollies, cherry laurel and hawthorns wherever possible. Native fruiting plants are particularly desirable because our native bird species are accustomed to eating their fruit.

Putting out bird feeders is another option for attracting birds into the landscape. When setting up a feeding station, be sure you are willing to make a commitment to maintaining a dependable food supply and to keeping the health and safety of the birds in mind. Place bird feeders high enough so domestic cats cannot attack the birds while they are feeding. When suitable, place them near windows for maximum viewing pleasure.

Water is not food, but it can make a feeding station more attractive. By providing water, which birds use for both drinking and bathing, you may encourage birds to stay in your yard. Many commercial bird baths are available, but you can use almost any shallow container so they can drink or bathe.

If you’d like to learn more about birds and how to invite them into your landscape, I recommend the book “Attracting Birds to Southern Gardens” (Taylor Publishing; $24.95) by Thomas Pope, Neil Odenwald and Charles Fryling.

It is a handbook and identification guide geared specifically to our region, as well as one designed to tell readers how to create their own gardens to attract birds, especially songbirds. It includes a section on creating beneficial garden habitats — shelter, water, food, etc. — a section on planning for all seasons, a bird dictionary, a plant dictionary and a resource section, plus more than 300 full-color photographs.

Carpenter bees

About this time every year people see large, black bees hovering around their heads and homes. They’re probably carpenter bees. We get very little pollination benefit from them, but we do get some headache.

Carpenter bees are large, black and yellow bees often seen flying around the wooden eaves of houses, wooden decks and wooden fences. They are often mistaken for bumblebees, but unlike bumblebees they have black shiny tail sections. The carpenter bee got its name because of its ability to tunnel in wood with its jaws. The bees make half-inch round holes in wood. Female bees lay eggs in the tunnels until the tunnels are full. Male bees do not drill tunnels, but they are protective of their territory. The male is distinguished from the female by a white spot on the front of the face.

Male carpenter bees seem to be mean but it’s all an act. They’ll hover in front of people who are near, even dive-bombing occasionally. But the males are harmless. They don’t even have stingers. Female carpenter bees do have stingers. Their sting can be quite painful, but they seldom sting unless they are handled or disturbed.

Carpenter bees prefer bare softwoods, especially redwood, cedar, cypress and pine. They don’t typically bother painted or pressure-treated wood.

Control can be a combination of things. A fresh coat of oil-based paint is very effective. Wood stains and preservatives are less reliable, but better than bare wood.

Where the bees have already attacked, spraying insecticide on the wood surface won’t work. You have to inject it into each burrow to be effective. An aerosol spray for wasp and bee control will work if you direct it into the holes.

Applications of cypermethrin or permethrin may provide short-term control when applied to wood surfaces, but will have to be reapplied after one to two weeks to maintain control. After a couple of days, plug the hole with a piece of wood dowel coated with carpenter’s glue, wood putty or your choice of filler. This last step protects against future use of the old tunnel and reduces the chance of wood decay.

Got a gardening question? Write to Bob Souvestre, horticulturist with the LSU AgCenter, at Burden Center, 4560 Essen Lane, Baton Rouge, LA 70809, or email to bsouvestre@agcenter.lsu.edu, or call Master Gardeners at (225) 763-3990.