There’s little more frustrating in the garden than waiting for the first tomato of the year to ripen, only to find that birds ate it first.
Yes, birds love to eat ripe garden tomatoes, as a source of both food and hydration. Fortunately, there are several simple ways to deter them from your plants and keep your harvest for yourself.
In this post, we will discuss how to identify bird damage on your tomatoes, and go over the three tried-and-true methods for protecting your tomatoes from them: physical barriers, distractions, and scare tactics.
Will Birds Bother My Tomato Plants?
Absolutely. Birds tend to target tomato plants during the fruiting stage, once tomatoes begin to ripen.
For the birds in your garden, ripe tomatoes are a good source of food and also a water source, especially at the height of summer when water is scarce.
Birds have also been known to go after recently planted tomato seedlings, and sometimes use parts of the tomato plant to build their nest. So it’s important to have protection strategies in place all season long.
Identifying Bird Tomato Plant Damage
Before you employ any of the protection strategies below, make sure you’ve correctly identified the culprit. Ripe tomatoes are the target of many pests, but bird damage leaves a particular mark.
When birds feast on your tomatoes, they aim to reach the juicy, hydrating inner pulp. The tell-tale sign of bird damage is a fairly large, deep hole that looks like it was created by many tiny daggers. Picture your tomato being stabbed by a beak–because that’s exactly what happened.
Strategies to Protect Your Tomatoes From Birds
There are three main strategies for preventing birds from eating your tomatoes: physical barriers, distraction, and scare tactics. Let’s discuss all three in detail.
Physical barriers are very effective. The downside to them is that they make it more difficult for you to tend to and harvest your tomato plants. Still, they just might save your harvest, so let’s consider your options.
Cloches are an inverted container made of glass or plastic that protects small plants from pests. They also add warmth in cooler weather, since their design creates a mini-greenhouse effect.
Because of this, cloches are only useful early in the season, when tomato plants are small and temperatures are lower.
Still, this is a good time to protect your seedlings from birds that will nibble their tender shoots or pull them right out of the ground.
You can easily create your own cloche using an empty water bottle, milk jug, or similar container.
Simply cut the bottom off the container and place the cloche over your plant. Be sure to remove the cap of the container; this vents the cloche, allowing excess heat to escape.
2: Tomato Cages
It’s likely you are already using tomato cages in the garden. Unfortunately, most tomato cages are not enough on their own to deter birds, because the holes that allow for plant growth are too large to keep birds out.
Tomato cages can be useful in protecting from birds if used in tandem with bird netting or row cover, as explained below.
3: Bird Netting
Bird netting is the best option for protecting your tomato plants during the fruiting stage, when they are most vulnerable to bird attacks.
Large rolls of bird netting are available at your local hardware store or garden center. Bird netting is lightweight and easy to install:
4: Row Cover
Row cover can be installed over your tomato plants in the same way as bird netting. Row cover is sometimes recommended as a method for protecting tomato plants from birds.
However, like cloches, row cover is best used early in the season, before your tomato plants begin to flower, because row cover blocks pollinators and retains excess heat.
Although tomato plants are self pollinating, they depend on outside help for successful pollination.
In order to transfer sufficient amounts of pollen from the male parts of the flower to the female parts, tomato plants need exposure to vibrations from wind or bees.
The amount of pollen transferred directly correlates to the size of the fruits produced, so blocking pollinators from your plants during this key stage will adversely affect your harvest.
In addition, row cover adds warmth, which may or may not be desirable depending on the seasonal temperatures in your location.
Temperatures underneath the row cover can be as much as 15-30 degrees warmer than outside temperatures.
Exposure to temperatures over 85℉ causes tomato flowers to dry and fall off without setting fruit, a condition known as blossom drop.
Birds are motivated to devour your tomato crop by thirst and hunger, so if you meet these needs elsewhere in the garden, this will distract birds from your tomatoes.
1: Add a Birdbath
Tomatoes ripen during the hottest part of summer, when water is most scarce, so they easily become a target for thirsty birds. Adding a birdbath to your garden will help birds quench their thirst without attacking your tomatoes.
Your birdbath does not have to be fancy or expensive. A shallow bowl of fresh water set upon a rock will do the trick.
2: Provide an Alternate Food Source
Adding a bird feeder will also distract birds in the garden away from your tomatoes. While this may also attract more birds to the garden, it could be a worthwhile tradeoff.
You can also plant crops that birds love even more than tomatoes, like sunflowers. They will delight in perching at the top of the flowers and pecking out the seeds.
Lastly, a great way to keep birds away from your tomatoes is to frighten them away with shiny objects, wind chimes, scarecrows, or fake predators.
1: Shiny Objects
Hanging shiny objects near your tomato plants will keep birds away. As long as the objects are hung in a way that allows them to sway with the breeze, they will move and randomly reflect the sun, confusing and deterring birds.
Good materials for this are old CDs, balls of aluminum foil, small metal pie plates, and reflectors.
2: Wind Chimes
The unexpected sounds of wind chimes emanating from your tomato crop will also discourage birds from eating your tomatoes.
Scarecrows are a proven bird deterrent. Stuff some old pants and a shirt with hay, create a face out of stuffed fabric or a metal pie plate, and attach to a stake. This fake person will startle and scare off birds.
Make sure to move the scarecrow every few days so birds don’t grow accustomed to its presence.
4: Fake Predators
Installing fake predators will also scare off birds. One option is to install a bird of prey statue. A fake owl is a great option, available at many garden centers. Some models even have rotating heads for a more lifelike appearance.
You can also leave fake rubber snakes on the ground around your tomato plants, or even cut an old hose into three-foot lengths to use as fake snakes.
Like scarecrows, move your fake predators often enough to keep birds on their toes.
Physical barriers, distractions, and scare tactics are all proven ways to prevent birds from eating your tomatoes, and all three are affordable, accessible, and easy to implement.
By taking steps to protect your plants, you’ll be able to enjoy the birds in your garden without having to share your tomato harvest.