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How to Garden For the Birds
Mariana DiVita
How to Garden For the Birds

Recently I did a seminar on Gardening for the Birds and as I was preparing the powerpoint I was fascinated by how our gardens provide even more than we can imagine to our feathered friends.

As much as I love many different plants in the garden, I also enjoy watching the birds that come to feed and nest in the yard.

Birds are simple in their needs. They want basically 3 things: food, water, and shelter. I try to provide all these things in my garden to draw them closer for a “birds eye view” into their world.

 

Shelter and Nesting Sites

A mix of trees and shrubs gives birds a place to hide from predators and also a place to nest.

Make sure you have some evergreens where they can hide from the predators in winter when the other deciduous trees have lost their leaves. Birds will roost close to the trunk of dense conifers in cold, windy and harsh weather.

Hedges and dense shrubbery give good cover and protected nesting sites.

Some birds are cavity nesters so providing a nesting box will also provide a place for them to nest in the spring and many birds will roost in them in the winter at night for protection.

 

Water

Birds need water year round to drink and bathe. A pond or birdbath with 2 to 3 inches of water can provide them what they need. Don't forget to replace the water in the bird bath on a regular basis. Running water is ideal such as a shallow fountain.

In the winter a heated bird bath will keep the water from freezing. We have a small pond with a fountain in the center and unless it gets really cold, there is enough movement to keep the whole pond from freezing like a bird bath would. It is a favorite gathering area for the birds in the winter time.

 

Food

I have saved the best for last! This is where you as a gardener and your plant choices in the garden can provide the berries, seeds, nectars, and insects to feed your birds!  

As much as I love to feed the birds at my feeders ( just look at my bird seed budget!), I can't provide everything that nature can provide.

Not all birds are seed eaters and 96% of terrestrial birds rear their young on insects. Doug Tallamy, an entymologist at the University of Delaware states that a chickadee can feed over 5,000 insects (mostly caterpillars) per clutch of hatchlings.

This is why planting native plants is so important because the insects that birds like to eat feed on these native plants. Mr. Tallamy said that the oak tree can have over 500 species of caterpillars while the non-natives may have one.

I am very lucky to have a yard with 8 mature oak trees and as much as I hate dealing with the acorns and all the leaves in the fall, I am happy that it is supporting the bird population. Unfortunately, we all can't grow an oak tree overnight but there are many other natives that you can grow to support the bird population.

Viburnums are great for the average backyard gardener. They can create an attractive back bone in the shrub border and provide sheltered nesting sites for small songbirds. They have great berries to feed all the berry loving birds. (such as V. nudum, V. rafinesquianum, and V. utile).

Other berry producing shrubs are Ilex species (deciduous and evergreen), dogwoods (Cornus florida, Cornus amomum), serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.), and american beautyberry (Callicarpa americana). My winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is covered in red berries right now and very attractive in the fall landscape.

Not all berries are created equal. The non-native Nandina with the red berries contains cyanide and can be fatal to birds if too many are ingested. Cedar waxwings are the gluttons of the bird world. A flock of cedar waxwings can eat berries until they burst. Researchers at the University of Georgia determined that dozens of cedar waxwing found dead in Thomas County, Georgia had ingested Nandina berries. If you have a berry producing Nandina in your yard, I recommend pruning the berry laden branches off.

Many of the fruits you and I like to eat also are tasty to the birds. When you plant figs, blueberries, elderberry, and aronia make sure you plant enough for the birds too!

Aronia berries are shown in the blog header picture. They change from red to plum-colored, finally ripening to deep purple-black.

Some birds like seeds produced by shrubs and flowers. As many as twenty five bird species like the seeds of Cephalanthus occidentalis, commonly known as buttonbush. Buttonbush has unique looking spherical flowers and it blooms in the heat of summer.

picture of a shrub birds like

Buttonbush serves the birds and the bees: Insects pollinate the flowers of buttonbush. After pollination, the fruits and seeds form. It's the buttonbush seeds the birds love. Above the insects, you can see one globe that's turning to seed.

 

Other birds, like the pine warbler, enjoy pine seeds. Many conifers have small seed producing cones that birds like.

I have watched goldfinches hang on the stem of my echinacea flowers that are spent and dried to pull the seed out of the cone. Finches and chickadees love the seed of many flowers such as blackeyed susan, aster, baptisia, and joe-pye weed.

We must not forget our littlest bird, the hummingbird. They are looking for nectar in tubular flowers like red buckeye, penstemon, salvias, foxglove, and red hot poker. Even butterfly weed that we think is for butterflies, has nectar that hummingbirds like and the silky seed down is used by goldfinches and other birds to line their nests. Planting a variety of these tubular flowers which have various bloom times from spring to fall will keep the hummingbirds in your yard well fed.

picture showing a shrub hummingbirds love

Hummingbird Nectar: Red buckeye takes center stage in this garden and picture. We read that native azaleas (lower left corner) also feed our fast friends with an early spring source of nectar.

The white tree above the red buckeye is a native dogwood - the ripe red fruits of this tree feeds birds in the autumn.

 

Although we can supplement with bird seed/nectar feeders, there is nothing like the ripened berries and seeds that birds can forage for themselves. By planting any of these plants mentioned, you are beautifying your yard and providing nesting places and/or food for the birds in your yard for years to come.   As the quote says at the beginning of this article, the garden is their dinner table and you just invited them to join you!

-Mariana DiVita

“To me, the garden is a doorway to other worlds; one of them, of course, is the world of birds. The garden is their dinner table, bursting with bugs and worms and succulent berries." -Anne Raver

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