Ask the Master Gardener: Providing the right material to help birds build nests

Some materials that seem useful can have adverse effects because they can contain chemicals or other dangerous things.

A bird standing on a next with three chicks in it.
Natural materials that are beneficial and safe for birds to use as nest building material include twigs and small sticks, dead leaves, dry grass, chicken feathers, plant fluff or down (milkweed and cattail fluff, cottonwood down), moss, pieces of bark, straw, hay and pine needles.<br/>
Contributed / Metro Newspaper Service

Dear Master Gardener: I love helping the birds with nest-building material, but my neighbor says I shouldn’t leave yarn or string or dryer lint for them. True or False?

Answer: True. Many of us enjoy helping our feathered friends, so it’s important to provide them with appropriate nest-building material rather than unintentionally putting them at risk. Most ornithology experts agree that anything synthetic should be avoided and only natural materials provided. Natural materials that are beneficial and safe for birds to use as nest building material include twigs and small sticks, dead leaves, dry grass (as long as it hasn’t been treated with any fertilizer or pesticides), chicken feathers, plant fluff or down (milkweed and cattail fluff, cottonwood down), moss, pieces of bark, straw, hay and pine needles.

Some materials that seem useful can have adverse effects. Birds often use animal fur to build their nests, but pet fur could be dangerous if it has been treated for fleas and ticks. Human hair could also be harmful due to the products we use such as dye, perfumed shampoo and conditioner, hair gel, and hair spray. Human hair, which is strong and thin, can entangle or even sever a bird’s legs or wings. String, yarn or thread may have toxic dyes and can create a hazard by tangling a bird’s feet, legs, or wings causing it injury or death. Dryer lint can be detrimental for nesting birds because it falls apart easily and doesn’t give enough structure for a safe, well-built nest. When dryer lint gets wet it gets sticky and can coat a bird’s feet, legs, and feathers. The dust from dryer lint, which can have chemicals from detergents and fabric softener, can damage baby birds’ lungs. Stick to nature’s materials!

April’s Gardening Tips

  • When the snow finally melts, lawns will be quite spongy and wet. Hold off on raking and walking on your lawns until they have a chance to dry out or you could damage the grass plants and compact the soil. When the soil is dry enough, lightly rake leaves, dead weeds, and debris that could interfere with mowing. Don’t fertilize until the grass is actively growing and you’ve mowed a few times.
  • As soon as the soil is no longer soft and muddy, sow grass seed to fill bare spots or where a little thickening up of the lawn is needed. Avoid seed mixes dominated by perennial ryegrass because this grass is not winter hardy. Better grasses for Minnesota lawns are fine fescues, tall fescues, and Kentucky bluegrasses.
  • Don’t worry if we get another snowfall (after all this is Minnesota!) and your daffodils or other early blooming bulbs are up and bent over. As the snow melts, they usually re-orient themselves and begin to grow more upright again on their own. The snow is not cold enough to damage the plants. In fact, it actually protects the foliage from colder air temperature.
  • At the first signs of warm weather don’t rush to uncover roses and flowering perennials. Mulch keeps them cool and prevents breaking dormancy too early, when cold weather could still damage them. Begin removing mulch as it thaws — usually around the end of April in the Brainerd area. Keep some mulch on hand to re-cover perennials if frost threatens.
  • Hydrangea arborescens (Annabelle, Bounty, Endless Summer Bella Anna, Grandiflora, Incrediball) can be cut down to the ground. Ornamental grasses can also be cut down now. Make sure to do it before new growth starts.
  • Typically, conifers require little pruning. If needed, spruce and fir can be pruned in spring before growth begins. Prune stem tips back to a healthy bud making cuts at a slight angle just above the bud. Don’t leave stubs because it creates an entryway for health problems. Always avoid topping a tree. 
  • Start seeds for annual flowers such as marigold, cleome, dianthus, nicotiana, sweet alyssum, and salvia.
  • Start seeds for tomatoes. They need six to eight weeks indoors under lights or in a bright, sunny window before they are large enough to transplant into the garden.
  • As soon as the soil is workable, plant seeds for cool-season crops such as radishes, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, spinach, peas, kale, and leaf lettuce. Onion sets can also be planted. 
  • Flowering sweet peas can be seeded as soon as the soil is workable. 
  • Plant pansies, violas, and johnny jump-ups outdoors at the end of this month or beginning of May to enjoy them as long as possible. They thrive in cool weather and typically don’t hold up once summer temperatures start to rise. They will even withstand light frosts, although cold temperatures could temporarily turn the foliage a purplish color. Keep deadheading the faded flowers to promote more blooms.
  • When choosing an Easter lily, look for a healthy, heavily budded, dense, straight growing plant. Pass up any with yellowing leaves or leaves with brown tips. When you get home remove the pollen-bearing stamens from the flowers because the pollen stains clothing and linens.
  • Plant flowers for pollinators! Pollinators are critical to the health of our landscapes and food supply! Native perennials that attract birds, bees, and butterflies include: New England and Woods Series Aster, Rudbeckia hirta or fulgida (black-eyed Susan), Joe Pye weed, Liatris, wild lupine, Echinacea angustifolia (purple coneflower native to Minnesota) or Echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower native to Wisconsin and Iowa).
  • To get a head start, you can plant calla lily rhizomes in pots indoors. If planting them directly in your garden, wait until the soil temperature is at least 65 degrees.
  • Use graph paper to lay out your edible garden. Be sure to space plants according to their mature height and width.
  • Clean and disinfect your garden tools and containers to reduce the chance of spreading disease.

You may get your garden questions answered by calling the new Master Gardener Help Line at 218-824-1068 and leaving a message. A Master Gardener will return your call. Or, emailing me at and I will answer you in the column if space allows.

University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardeners are trained and certified volunteers for the University of Minnesota Extension. Information given in this column is based on university research.

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