For the Birds
Bluebirds brighten any day, but their blast of blue and muted melodies especially lift my spirits in winter. On sunny mornings they’re like blue-clad clowns catching drops of snowmelt mid-drip as they hang upside down from the eaves of my garden shed. I know nasty weather is in store when every feathered creature around descends on the big old winterberry (Ilex verticillata) out back or when the two-story juniper tree (Juniperus virginiana) that shelters my house is suddenly aflutter with cedar waxwings, cardinals, robins and woodpeckers. They frantically chow down on its blue berries as ground-foraging morning doves and juncos clean up the spills. The cheery sight of snow-covered red chokeberries (Photinia pyrifolia, formerly Aronia arbutifolia) on shrubs outside my office window is a sure sign that spring is coming, for the astringent berries don’t soften and sweeten until winter is on the wane. Planting native shrubs, trees and flowers right up close to the house gives me a ringside seat to observe birds that wouldn’t be here if the plants weren’t.
Winter is hard on birds, but there is much we can do to help. With even once-common birds on the decline due to habitat destruction, it is important for homeowners to create life-sustaining places for the birds – both year-round residents and migratory species. You just have to think outside the biologically impoverished suburban landscaping box. With a little planning and lots of native plants, any yard can become a richly diverse bird habitat cleverly disguised as a varied and pleasing home landscape.
WHAT BIRDS NEED
It’s different strokes for different feathered folks – a diversity of foods will attract a diversity of birds. Just look at their beaks. Grosbeaks easily crack maple seeds that a goldfinch’s tiny beak couldn’t dent, but they can’t perch on a black-eyed Susan’s seed head and extract tiny seeds like the goldfinch. An American woodcock’s long prehensile bill is designed to probe moist forest soils, while the pileated woodpecker’s beak digs for insects in much harder material. As the growing season ends, birds need to build energy stores to fuel their long flights to where food is more plentiful. Birds overwintering in cold climes need to keep high metabolisms stoked to avoid freezing to death. Entomologist and ecology professor Doug Tallamy, whose groundbreaking book “Bringing Nature Home” details the relationship between birds, insects and native plants, points out that, “Birds that migrate are typically insectivores. The ones that stay behind tend to be omnivores. Chickadees and titmice do seek insects but also eat seeds – they need their protein and fat.”
Water is hard to come by when all is ice and snow. Invest in a heated birdbath or put a shallow plastic ideally (not metal) dish of water out in severe weather. Some berries – snowberries (Symphoricarpos spp.) and American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) contain quite a bit of water.
Places to Be
Birds need protection from predators and shelter from extreme weather. Brush piles and tree cavities are critical shelters. Big clumps of grass bent over with snow often explode with emerging birds the morning after a cold night. Birds roost in old nests – so don’t be too hasty to knock last summer’s phoebe nest off the porch light. Instead of a skimpy line of shrubs along the foundation, make it a real garden with some depth. Plant evergreen shrubs in groves or clusters rather than on their own. Massed plantings of twiggy or thorny plants provide a safe getaway; some – wild roses, mesquite, Oregon grape (Mahonia spp.) and currants (Ribes spp.) – supply food as well as protection.
WHAT TO PLANT FOR WINTER FOOD
Plant those native maple trees and black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia spp.) that nourish grosbeaks and goldfinches, plus other beautiful berrying shrubs and trees native to your region. Choose plants that bear nuts, nutlets and seeds and provide foraging grounds for ground-diggers. Showy sterile hybrid shrubs and annuals with non-stop blooms are big sellers, but consider the tradeoff: Sterile plants produce no seeds or berries for wildlife.
First Fruits Timing is crucial. Summer is rich with succulent sugar-filled berries and fruits – shadblows (Amelanchier spp.), strawberries, blueberries, bramble fruits – that birds like as much as we do. Wildflower Center Director of Horticulture Andrea DeLong-Amaya says agarita (Mahonia trifoliolata) berries which ripen in spring are so delectable that they’re gone by May – good for growing baby birds but off the menu by winter. Berries that ripen in autumn (some technically drupes, pomes or achenes) evolved to be digestible, small enough to swallow, ripe, and full of fats and protein needed by native birds at the time of migration, in return for birds’ distribution of seeds. Plants advertise by waving red flags birds can’t miss. Berries of spicebush (Lindera benzoin) – from deciduous woods and swamps – and dogwood trees (Cornus florida) – from woodland edges – turn brilliant-red when ripe. Bird peppers (Capsicum annuum) in warmer parts of Texas and the South ripen red throughout the year. Plants with less colorful berries like Virginia creeper vine (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), black tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica) and shrub dogwoods command attention with bright-scarlet autumn foliage.
For birds on the move, these flamboyant advertisers – spicebush, Virginia creeper, dogwoods and arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum) – are the first to be consumed. Dogwoods include many shrubby species such as rough leaf (C. drummondii) for alkaline soils; red-twig (C. sericea, aka C. stolonifera), silky (C. amomum); gray (C. racemosa) and stiff (C. foemina). Poison ivy berries are top-flight food too, so consider allowing it to grow in a low-traffic spot.
Survival Food Later on, birds depend on plants like chokeberry, cranberry viburnum (V. opulus var. americanum) and native hollies, which become palatable after several freeze-thaw cycles. The evergreen hollies – yaupon (Ilex vomitoria) and spiny-leafed American holly (I. opaca) in the South and inkberry (I. glabra), an Easterner – are good cover too. Other berries may be consumed early or remain as survival foods, depending on weather and flight patterns. Deciduous hollies – moisture-loving southern possumhaw (I. decidua) and hardy winterberry (I. verticillata) – drop their leaves to reveal showstopping berry displays on female plants (hollies require male pollinators). Other reliables are sumacs (Rhus spp.) – staghorn sumac (R. typhina) in the East, smooth sumac (R. glabra), in 48 states, and western skunkbush (R. trilobata); northern bayberry (Morella pensylvanica), wax myrtle (M. cerifera), Pacific wax myrtle (M. californica) and all juniper species (females, with berry-like cones) and hawthorns (Crataegus spp.)
Seeds, Nuts and Other Delicacies
Seed- and nut-bearing plants aren’t as showy as those with bright berries, but they bring a lot to the party. Seed heads contribute visual texture and stunning light-catching qualities to the landscape plus all-important fat- and protein-filled sustenance for the birds. My fall garden cleanup philosophy is: If it looks bad, cut it off; otherwise, leave it alone and see what happens. It’s surprising how many plants bring subtle beauty – and birds – to the garden well into the winter if you don’t go hog-wild deadheading and cutting things back. Remember to leave persimmons and crabapples intact for foraging winter birds.
Flowers Gone to Seed
Some of the showiest (and beneficial insect-friendly) summer flowers are also among the most valuable to birds for their seeds in winter. A long list of composite flowers in the aster family (Asteraceae) grace gardens, meadows, roadsides and prairies. So plant sunflowers, coneflowers (Echinacea spp.), black-eyed Susans, blackfoot daisies (Melampodium leucanthum), prairie coneflowers (Ratibida spp.), native cosmos, asters and native zinnias for year-round benefit. Drummond phlox (Phlox drummondii), California poppies and other annuals produce copious seeds. One small grouping of brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia triloba), anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) and scarlet bee balm (Monarda didyma) in my garden keeps hopping with foraging songbirds all winter.
What would we – and the birds – do without lovely amber waves of seed-bearing grasses? Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), bushy bluestem (A. glomeratus), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) and other widely distributed warm-season grasses are gorgeous in the garden. Use them in meadows or masses or as graceful accents instead of invasive maiden grasses (Miscanthus spp.). Their seeds are small enough to be consumed by many birds.
It’s important to think big, too. Trees produce great volumes of seeds and nuts year after year, decade after decade, so planting a single tree is a great investment in bird futures. Bigger birds like flickers, quail, turkeys, ducks and woodpeckers eat acorns. Pines, spruce and hemlock are especially favored by crossbills, whose beaks have evolved to expertly pry seeds from their cones; other native conifers feed numerous bird species. Understory trees, often overlooked (or cleared to achieve a park-like setting) are indispensible in wooded areas. American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana), hophornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) and striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum) bear strings of nutlets important to ruffed grouse, woodpeckers and other forest birds.
Welcome Weeds … and More
And dare I say it? Native annual weed seeds are invaluable. According to Stephen Kress’ “The Audubon Society Guide to Attracting Birds,” the oil-rich seeds of pigweed and other amaranths are eaten by 47 species, and ragweed seeds are consumed by 60 species of songbirds and upland gamebirds, including snow buntings and quail. Maybe being a less-than-fastidious weeder is a good thing.
Buds and catkins are preferred food of some species. Grouse and quail are among those that eat winter buds of various aspens and cottonwoods (Populus spp.); catkins are also consumed. Willows (Salix spp.) and birches (Betula spp.) are bonanzas, supplying buds, catkins and seeds as well as harboring insects.
So let’s cultivate abundance, not neatness. When you make your yard bountiful, varied and interesting for birds you’ll find it’s more interesting to you too. And as John W. Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, recently wrote in an editorial in The New York Times on the 100th anniversary of the death of the last passenger pigeon, “Healthy bird habitat makes for healthy human habitat.”
Garden photographer, writer and speaker Karen Bussolini is an ecofriendly garden coach and Northeast Organic Farmers Association-Accredited Organic Land Care Professional.