For the Birds

by Karen Bussolini

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. When every feathered creature around descends on the big old winterberry (Ilex verticillata) out back or when the two-story juniper tree (Juniperus virginiana) sheltering my house is suddenly aflutter with cedar waxwings, cardinals, robins and woodpeckers frantically chowing down on its blue berries (with ground-foraging mourning doves and juncos cleaning up the spills), they predict nasty weather. The cheery sight of snow-covered red chokeberries (Aronia arbutifolia) on shrubs outside my office window draws my attention from work, especially when a returning flock of hungry bluebirds sweeps through and devours every single one. It’s 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.

Aronia arbutifolia ‘Brilliantissima’ berries in winter

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 the Birds Need

Food

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 seedcone 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.”

Winter color in wet streamside garden at Green Springs Garden Park, VA includes Cornus stolonifera ‘Flaviramea’, Salix purpurea ‘Canyon Blue’, Ilex verticillata ‘Winter Red, Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’, Myrica pensylvanica

Clean Water

Water is hard to come by when all is ice and snow. Invest in a heated birdbath or put a shallow plastic (not metal) dish of water out in severe weather. Some berries such as 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 super-important 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 evergreens in groves or clusters rather than single specimens. Massed plantings of twiggy or thorny plants provide a safe getaway, some, like wild roses, supply food with protection.

What to Plant for Winter Food

Plant those native maple trees and black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia species) that nourish grosbeaks and goldfinches; plant beautiful berrying shrubs and trees. Choose plants that bear nuts, nutlets and seeds, and provide foraging grounds for ground-diggers. Showy sterile hybrid shrubs and annuals with non-stop bloom (and marketing) are big sellers, but consider the tradeoff – sterile plants produce no seeds or berries for wildlife.

Berries

First Fruits

Timing is crucial. Summer is rich with succulent sugar-filled berries and fruits – shadblows (Amelanchier species), strawberries, blueberries, elderberries, bramble fruits – that birds like as much as we do, but they’re off the menu by winter. Autumn-ripening berries (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 woods edge, turn brilliant red when ripe. Plants with less colorful berries like Virginia creeper vine (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), black tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica), and shrub dogwoods command attention with brilliant scarlet autumn foliage.

For birds on the move, flamboyant advertisers such as spicebush, Virginia creeper, dogwoods (Tallamy ranks arrowwood viburnum (V. dentatum) among them) are the best of the best and the first to be consumed. Dogwoods include many shrubby species such as red-osier (Cornus. sericea, aka C. stolonifera), whose brilliant winter twigs brighten wet places (and gardens) throughout the nation, as well as silky (C. ammomum) and grey (C. racemosa). Poison ivy berries are top-flight food too, so perhaps places could be found away from the house where it could be left in peace.

Staghorn sumac berries (Rhus typhinia) are edible to birds and people and decorative in winter.

Survival Food

Later on, birds depend on plants like chokeberry, cranberry viburnum (V. trilobum), and native hollies, which become palatable after several freeze-thaw cycles. The evergreen hollies – spiny-leafed American holly, (Ilex. opaca) and inkberry (I. glabra) – are good cover, too. Other berries, such as those of hawthorns (Crataegus spp.) may be consumed early or remain as survival foods, depending on weather and flight patterns. Deciduous hollies, such as moisture-loving possomhaw (I. decidua), a more southern species, and hardy winterberry (I. verticillata), drop their leaves to reveal showstopping berry displays on female plants (hollies require male pollinators). Other reliables  that are also dioecious (only females have berries) are sumacs (Rhus spp.), including Staghorn sumac (R. typhina), smooth sumac (R. glabra), shining sumac (R. copallinum), and fragrant sumac (R. aromatica); bayberries, aka candleberries, such as Northern bayberry (Morella pensylvanica, formerly Myrica pensylvanica) and southern wax myrtle (M. cerifera), native from New Jersey south; all juniper species (females produce berry-like cones); and hawthorns.

Bayberry berries in winter (Myrica pensylvanica)

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. Seedheads contribute visual texture and stunning light-catching qualities, plus they provide all-important fat and protein-filled sustenance. 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.

Flowers

Some of the showiest (and beneficial-insect-friendly) summer flowers are also among the most valuable for birds in winter. A long list of composite flowers in the Asteraceae (aster) family grace gardens, meadows, roadsides and prairies. So plant sunflowers, coneflowers (Echinacea spp), black-eyed Susans and asters for year-round benefit. One small grouping of brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia triloba), anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) and bee balm (Monarda didyma), in my garden keeps hopping with foraging songbirds all winter.

Grasses

What would we – and the birds – do without lovely amber waves of seed-bearing grasses? Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), 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.

Trees

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 indispensable in wooded areas. American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana), hophornbeam (Ostrya virginiana), and painted maple (Acer pensylvanicum) bear strings of nutlets important to ruffed grouse, woodpeckers, and other forest birds.

Hemlocks with winter snow. Even trimmed in a formal manner, evergreens provide excellent cover for 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 – unless the plant is invasive.

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.

Bountiful Bugs, Beautiful Rot

Insects are lurking everywhere, and that’s a good thing. Bark crevices, log piles, rotting trees are full of larvae and eggs and overwintering spiders, arthropods and insects of all kinds – food for chickadees, titmice, woodpeckers and countless insectivorous birds. Wildlife biologist and staff botanist Ann DeBolt at the Idaho Botanical Garden finds that “Box elder (Acer negundo) and various ash trees really draw the birds in, due to their insect population and for the box elders’ tendency to develop rot.” The landscaping industry has not traditionally valued rot.

We need to take a new look at what we plant, how we manage our landscapes and what we consider beautiful. Dead and dying trees and fallen leaves support a lot of life. Instead of bagging up autumn leaves and sending them to landfills (with their insect cargo), use them to mulch garden beds. Doug Tallamy says “Move them in as soon as they fall, before they’re colonized, and keep them there year round. Most moths and butterflies overwinter as pupae in leaf litter. When you see towhees and flickers ruffling through leaves, that’s what they’re looking for.” And he decries the practice of mowing meadows in fall to neaten things up and put them to bed for the winter. “Chickadees peck open goldenrod galls and pull out nice juicy fly maggots rich in fat, a really valuable food source. Mowing destroys seeds, galls, praying mantis egg cases and insects.”

Leaving hollows in damaged trees gives nesting and roosting places for birds.

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 a NY Times editorial on the 100th anniversary of the death of the last passenger pigeon, “Healthy bird habitat makes for healthy human habitat.”

Final Thoughts on Birdfeeders

Feeder-raiding squirrels, raccoons, and bears; stalking neighborhood cats; and general aversion to scrubbing gunked-up feeders (to prevent the spread of disease) can make a person wonder if setting out birdfeeders is worth the trouble. It’s often said that birdfeeders are really for people, that birds can find their own food. “They used to,” says Dr. Tallamy, “but those days are over. We have modified habitats so much in suburbs and urban environments that there’s not enough food. The sterile manicured suburban setting – with 46.5 million acres of lawn – is not conducive to bird survival unless we put out feeders. We need more plants – in whole neighborhoods.”

David George Haskell presents an interesting perspective on birdfeeders in his thoughtful book of essays, The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature. Scientists have noted that numbers of sharp-shinned hawks migrating south in winter have dwindled in recent years. It turns out that they remain in the north, “making use of a remarkable new arrangement in the ecology of North America: the backyard bird feeders…. Bird feeders not only augment the forest’s larder, but, more important, they gather song birds into clusters that make convenient feeding stations for hawks.”

Hawks have to eat too, and they are important predators of small mammals like voles and the white-footed mouse, linchpin in the life cycle of the Lyme-disease carrying black-legged tick. Providing twiggy, evergreen or thorny cover near bird feeders gives birds a place to hide when a hawk swoops in. Tallamy suggests, “It’s best not to put bird feeders in the deadly zone near the house. When a sharp-shinned or Cooper’s hawk dives, birds all dive for cover. A dark window looks like cover, so we’re killing birds all winter long. Either put them really close, like one foot, or else 20 yards or more away.”

About the Author

Karen Bussolini, lifelong organic gardener and lover of natures, is also a garden photographer, writer, speaker, and eco-friendly garden coach. Her art background and focus on environmental topics – ecological landscaping, native plants, biodiversity, xeriscaping, organic gardening, and planting for wildlife, pollinators and other beneficial insects – inform every aspect of her work. As a photographer, Karen has six books to her credit, including The Naturescaping Workbook: A Step-by-step Guide to Bringing Nature to Your Backyard, The Homeowner’s Complete Tree and Shrub Handbook, and Elegant Silvers, which she also co-authored. Karen gardens on a deer-infested mountainside in South Kent, CT while maintaining a satisfying and busy eco-friendly garden coaching practice devoted to teaching homeowners how to garden in more environmentally sustainable ways that create healthy yards full of life, diversity, and delight. Karen can be reached through her website: www.karenbussolini.com.