In a permaculture garden, balance is the order of the day. A permaculturist is looking to create ecosystems where no one species or type of organism becomes too abundant so as to crowd out or smother another. In order to create this harmonious system, checks and balances have to come into play. Because we are permaculturists we want to try and institute checks and balances that are organic or natural, rather than inputting inorganic materials into the system. Examples include planting thorny shrubs to prevent deer decimating crops, and mulching a weed crop to prevent it spreading and colonizing a location.
Another method by which natural processes are used to keep a system balanced is to attract insect eating birds to your site that eat insect species that, allowed to multiply unchecked, could prove detrimental to certain plant species or other insect populations.
Many insect populations bloom in the spring and summer. This is when they can be particularly dangerous to overpopulation in your permaculture garden. Fortunately, this is also the period when birds need most insects as they need more food to feed their young.
An abundant supply of insects to eat is not sufficient to attract birds to your plot. You will also need to have sufficient tree and shrub cover. This provides habitat in which the birds can nest, as well as protection from the weather and predators. Birds will also need a water body to drink from and bathe in. Meet these needs, and many beneficial birds will be attracted to your garden and help keep pest populations under control. Here are some of the more common species.
One of the most striking birds, with a sweet song, the bluebird is particularly effective at keeping grasshoppers under control. So if you have extended you permaculture plot into zone 3 and 4 crop planting, they can be very useful visitors. Even on smaller sites, bluebirds can be beneficial by eating snails, ants and sow bugs.
Chickadees are particularly useful to the permaculture gardener as they do not migrate, and continue to eat insects all year round. There are three main species: mountain, black-capped and Carolina. All three provide control of insects such as aphids, caterpillars, leafhoppers, moths and beetles. In the winter they search tree crevices for insect eggs and hibernating adults, so preventing insect blooms come springtime. Chickadees are also renowned for their tuneful song, another reason to attract these little birds to your permaculture plot.
The most common species of nuthatch have either a white or crimson breast, and all search for insects hidden in tree bark and branches, such as ants, caterpillars and all sorts of insect eggs and cocoons. During the summer months their entire diet, and that of their young, is insectivorous, while they do not migrate, so can also provide pest control during the winter months, particularly of hibernating insects and eggs.
Nighthawks specialize in catching insects on the wing, eating flying ants, grasshoppers, leaf chafers and moths. They are particularly useful birds for permaculture sites in urban areas as they tend to nest on flat surfaces such as roofs, rather than in trees.
Fast and agile, swallows are well suited to hunting winged insects, and primarily eat winged ants, moths, grasshoppers and flies. Indeed, during the spring, their diet is entirely insect-based. The purple martin variety is particularly attracted to sites with bodies of water on them, preferring aquatic insects. Migratory birds, swallows will often return to the same nesting sites year after year, so you may see the same individuals in your garden each spring.
During the winter sparrows eat mainly seeds; so to keep them coming back to your garden, you may need to provide some extra feed. Come summer, the sparrows will reward you by consuming large numbers of ants, beetles, grasshoppers, cabbage loopers and treehoppers. Be advised that sparrows do sometimes eat seedlings to supplement their diet, so cover young pants with mesh until they can fend for themselves.
The majority of the yellow warbler’s diet is made up of caterpillars. They will also help keep populations of moths, beetles and mosquitos under control. The yellow warbler also brings a melodious song to your permaculture plot, but is also known to be partial to berries, so protect your fruit plants if your want to preserve your crop.
Permaculture plots with lots of trees will find that woodpeckers are frequent visitors, even if they will tend to nest in more heavily wooded areas. With more than twenty species in the U.S. alone, they make short work of moth larvae, wood-boring beetles, ants, caterpillars and millipedes. The characteristic tap-tap sound of the woodpecker in your garden means it is busy helping keep insect populations down.
There are ten species of wren that live in the United States, and all are voracious in their appetite for insects, eating everything from boll weevils and stinkbugs to caterpillars and millipedes. The primary reason that they are renowned for their pest control abilities is that wrens tend to raise two broods of chicks during the warmer months, so requiring a lot of food for hungry infant mouths, and for the adults to keep their energy levels up.
Cardinals are another bird species that raises two sets of young during the spring, and so need a good supply of insects. They prefer many types of beetle, as well as grasshoppers and caterpillars. Cardinals like to have close access to bodies of water, so permaculture plots with a pond are likely to find them visiting.
One of the most abundant birds in North America, finches are particularly adept at catching insects, primarily because the adults train their offspring to catch insects during their adolescence when their digestive systems are unable to process seeds. They are useful to attract to your plot if you have over-abundance of beetles eating your vegetables, as finches eat asparagus beetles, potato beetles and cucumber beetles, as well as aphids, caterpillars and leaf miners.