Witherod Viburnum (Viburnum nudum)
Feeding wild birds is definitely a delightful shared pastime for many of us. Often, it’s the only way we get to see birds up close. I like to think that it also makes us feel good, being a provider of sorts while times are tough; many of us only feed birds in the winter, after all. I wonder, though, why we don’t do more of that service year-round? What could be easier and more convenient than having your garden do the bird feeding (and housing)? If filling and cleaning feeders becomes a bit of a chore after a while (and let’s face it, it can be, especially with hummingbird feeders in the summer), consider this: the living buffet you can offer your feathered friends needs no cleaning out, no storage, no refilling and no repairing after a determined squirrel or raccoon succeeds at reaching the treasure. Besides, the myriad plants that offer food to birds (directly or indirectly) are attractive additions to any garden. That’s not to say I’d forgo the seed and suet feeders – far from it, because I like to see the birds up close – but consider how many more birds could stick around when they have easier access to food and habitat for the rest of the year.
Out of necessity, most songbirds have different dietary needs at throughout the year based on what’s available and what they’re doing. In winter, most eat dry seeds and fleshy berries, seeking fats and calories in order to stay warm. During very cold nights, they might huddle together and shiver to generate heat, which certainly robs them of lots of food energy. Before long, they’ll have to start expending energy on setting up breeding territories or migrating back north. Later in spring, they switch to an insect-heavy mix because that extra protein is needed for raising their chicks. Plants that offer dry seeds or berries at one point in the year can still offer lots of insects the rest of the time – a rich hunting ground serving double-duty in the bird buffet. (Triple-duty if they nest or shelter in it!) Another consideration for meeting differing needs is plant variety. Vary the plant heights, shapes, ripening times and seed types of your plant choices to attract the most diverse array of birds. Different species forage in different ways, so try multiple levels (tree canopy, shrubs, ground) and food options (nuts, berries, grass seeds).
Eastern Redcedar (Juniperus virginiana ‘Emerald Sentinel’)
Gardening for birds and other wildlife is, of course, still gardening. Choose the plants you like and those that will grow well in the conditions you have without too much of a struggle. The plants can’t offer much for the birds if they themselves aren’t thriving, so it’s a good idea to find out how much sunlight (in summer), moisture and room to grow they will have in the places you want to put them. Consider, too, the places the birds would prefer you put them – to block the winter winds; to provide quick escape in the event of a predatory attack; and, of course, to provide a bounty of food that can be relied-upon all season, whether their season with us lasts but a summer or all year. Lastly, bear in mind that some plants only produce fruit if cross-pollinated; plan on enough space for at least two varieties or, if possible, look for a self-pollinating option.
Unlike a complete butterfly garden where the butterfly and host plant need to be well-matched, birds can utilize a wider array of food sources, and a particular food source can attract a wide array of birds. Reference books can give you guidelines regarding favorite foods of specific birds, but in general, a handful of basic plant groups are excellent choices for giving you the best value for your efforts.
Oaks top the list for many measures of wildlife importance; they are of use to many insects and their acorns feed birds and mammals alike. Remember that an insect-laden plant (especially one as large as a tree) is a smorgasbord of goodies for anything that eats bugs – which includes the critters we’re excited to see in our yards like songbirds and tree frogs. (Yes! We have tree frogs here.) Remember, too, that just because I say “insect-laden” that it doesn’t imply your yard will be riddled with holes. There’s an astonishing number of insects right under our noses all year long and we barely notice most of them. Other nut-bearing canopy trees such as hickory (and their pecan siblings), beech and pine (well, nut-like) are also highly sought-after.
If you have good canopy trees, the next layer down should be the understory (and don’t worry if you don’t have trees over them, because most will thrive in full sun). Dogwoods of all shapes and sizes are excellent choices within the size range of a smaller tree or large shrub; there are several species well worthy of use beyond just the most popular flowering dogwood. Trees of similar stature and interest include hawthorn, fringetree, serviceberry, sassafras and crabapple. They all produce bird-tasty berries, but at different times of the year. Lest we forget our wee specialists, hummingbirds enjoy buckeyes.
Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia)
In the mid-level layer of small trees, shrubs and vines is where we also find the food we’re trying to grow for ourselves: persimmons, blueberries, elderberries, raspberries and blackberries, huckleberries, plums, cherries and grapes. If you don’t want to share, plant extra because the rest will need protection from the hungry hordes. Here, too, diversity brings a range of ripening times and more reasons for birds to stay and settle down.
Closer to the ground we have the smaller shrubs and perennials: winterberry holly, beautyberry, chokeberry, creeping wintergreen, partridgeberry, strawberrybush, viburnums, bayberry and wild roses. Don’t forget perennial flowers that, when not dead-headed, will entice with a crop of seeds – this includes the ornamental grasses that so many people cut down much earlier than they should. (Besides, who wants to see brown grass stubble all winter? Leave the leaves until early spring.) Coneflowers, black-eyed susans, asters and milkweeds are loved by American Goldfinches. They don’t eat insects and have to wait until late in summer to start raising young, since there won’t be enough seeds available to feed everyone until then. Hummingbirds, on the other hand, favor nectar to keep their metabolism in high gear (part of that energy actually goes to their hunting for insects) and seek it from long-tubed flowers in any hue (though red certainly is a favorite). Deciduous azaleas, columbine, sage, beebalm, lobelia, hibiscus, beardtongue and agastache are all top-notch attractors of these tiny marvels.
Coneflower (Echinacea) Seedhead
If left in a more natural state, the ground itself can be another kind of bird feeder – the platform tray, if you will. That entails not raking up all of your fallen leaves or trimming back all of your perennials in autumn or winter. Several bird species hunt for earthworms, hidden insects and fallen seeds on the forest floor by scratching through the litter. (Bonus – it shelters the insects you do want, too.) Low shrubs over their heads give them added protection from hunters above and beside, such as raptors and stray cats.
Speaking of safety and security, include some evergreens for shelter from both weather and threats. You’ll notice that, even at a feeder in a relatively safe location, many birds will opt to “take-out” their food and eat it elsewhere. The commotion of a feeding station can draw predators, whereas a yard full of food spreads everyone out, away from hungry hunters. Large-statured candidates include American holly, hemlock, juniper and pine. Smaller plants to shelter the low-altitude birds include inkberry holly and bayberry.
Inkberry Holly (Ilex glabra)
For those of us who like to be thorough, no home bird-watching package is complete without the other two necessities– water and shelter. Heated birdbaths are a welcome source of drinkable and bathing water in freezing temperatures (and cleaned feathers insulate more efficiently); baths also keep feathers in prime flight condition during the warmer months. If you have a garden water feature – be it a decorative fountain or in-ground pond – consider leaving it accessible all year for the birds’ benefit. (Have netting over your pond to catch autumn leaves? Take it off once it’s done its job so unwary birds don’t get entangled in it.) A small de-icing device or pump to move the water might be all it needs to keep a pocket thawed and drinkable. Birdhouses, too, aren’t just for raising young. In desperate times, they can serve as emergency shelter. One winter several years ago – one of the colder, snow-laden nights – nearly a dozen bluebirds crammed themselves into my bluebird box to roost for the evening. Dead tree cavities are the shelters of choice in the wild, but since gardeners and arborists tend to frown on keeping dead trees around, we have limited options. Some bird-product manufacturers specifically make “roosting pockets” – shelters that may not suffice as nest sites but could be attractive as a nice place to huddle in rough weather.
In the meantime, while we wait for more comfortable weather and fresh supplies of plants, its prime garden reading season. Looking for some inspiration, more advice on bird gardening, or just want to learn more about bird behavior? Take a look at the books below; I’ve read them all (though I could stand to revisit a couple) and they are informative and entertaining reads. If you want to learn more about forest ecology, the final book is a more all-encompassing, taking a closer look at many creatures that go largely unnoticed. If you are successful at drawing lots of birds to the garden, greater diversity will follow – “build it and they will come” – so it’s enriching to learn more about all the other plants and animals that the birds share their world with.
The Audubon Backyard Birdwatcher: Birdfeeders and Bird Gardens by Robert Burton and Stephen W. Kress, ©2011
The Living Landscape: Designing for beauty and biodiversity in the home garden by Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy, ©2014
Why Don’t Woodpeckers Get Headaches? and Other Bird Questions You Know You Want to Ask by Mike O’Connor, ©2007
Down & Dirty Birding by Joey Slinger, ©1996
The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature by David George Haskell, ©2012
by Miri Talabac, Woody Plant Buyer