University of Vermont
Department of Plant and Soil Science

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BIRDSCAPING

Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor Emeritus
University of Vermont
   
While you don’t have to be a gardener to enjoy watching and feeding birds, gardeners are in a particularly good position to help them through proper landscape and plant choices.  Any time is a good one for gardeners to be thinking about “birdscaping”—landscaping to benefit birds—but 2018 is the year to add even more bird-friendly plants and designs.

Several lead organizations including National Geographic and the Audubon Society, along with more than 150 partner groups, have proclaimed 2018 as the Year of the Bird, celebrating the centennial of an important piece of legislation—the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.  These groups are promoting, through various means, specific actions that can be taken each month to make the world (and our landscapes) more bird-friendly.  Plants should be chosen to provide for their food and shelter year round.

Plants for cover include dense ones with many twigs providing nest sites, plants of various heights, and groups of conifers for roosting and protection from winter winds.  Mounds and thickets, thorned plants, perches, wild areas, brambles and vines, and seed plots all provide attraction and protection for birds.

Plants, too, will enhance visits by birds to feeders.  I’ve observed they prefer feeders near large shrubs or small trees, providing them a place to roost while eating seeds.  Even more preferable to them are evergreen shrubs and trees which provide cover—protection from wind and possible predators.

One of my favorite evergreens, providing both fruits and excellent year-round cover, is our native white cedar. It is often seen near home foundations and windows where birds can be easily viewed. Just leave plenty of room, as these trees can grow quite large.  Further out in my yard is a grove of balsam firs, which provides both protection in an otherwise open landscape, and nesting sites.

While landscapes don’t need to contain all native plants, these should be a major component as they provide a huge food source for birds.  Many of our yards, particularly in suburban America, now contain few if any native trees and shrubs.  A research study from the University of Delaware on a popular and common songbird—the Caroline Chickadee—found that this bird avoided landscapes with few native plants.  Its main food during the summer is caterpillars, and non-native plants don’t provide nearly enough for them and their babies to survive.  In the 16 days between hatching and fledging, a nest of Chickadee babies may consume 9,000 caterpillars.

Native oaks, elms, and cherries are some other excellent native plants for such birds.  In the Delaware study, they found that some oaks can support more than 530 different species of caterpillars. Not just chickadees, but 96 percent of terrestrial bird species in North America feed insects to their young.

Food for birds can come from caterpillars and insects, largely from native trees, but also in the form of fruits and seeds.  The latter often come from shrubs and herbaceous plants, many of which aren’t native.  A good example of the latter are lilacs.  These provide birds protection, nesting sites, and their fruits in fall and winter are favored by many birds including finches.

Corn, wheat and weeds such as ragweed, crabgrass, chickweed and pigweed attract mourning doves.  Fruits of maple, mountain ash, Russian olive, and sumac attract evening grosbeaks.

The beautiful red cardinal is attracted to berries of sumac, viburnum, and ash.  Berries from the bayberry, red cedar, and wild cherry, are eaten by bluebirds.  Cedar waxwings also eat berries from red cedar, as well as viburnum, ash, and privet.

When choosing plants with fruits for birds, keep in mind the season they bear these.  Plants with summer fruits include several viburnums, red cedar, raspberry, blueberry, and mulberry.  For fruits later into the fall consider oaks, inkberry, bayberry, crabapples, hawthorn, sumac, mountain ash, spruces, pines, white cedar, and snowberry.  For winter fruits there are crabapples with their persistent fruits, red cedar, white cedar, birch, and spreading cotoneaster.  Spreading cotoneaster and red cedar also are good for spring fruits, as is  Washington hawthorn.

Barberry, while a good year round fruit for birds, often is spread by them making this plant seed-invasive in natural areas.   Similarly, honeysuckles can become invasive, so are another bird plant that is no longer recommended.  Alternative choices to these invasives include spicebush, bayberry, inkberry, red chokecherry, winterberry, serviceberry, and viburnums.

When birdscaping, choose the proper plants for the proper site to reduce future maintenance and have a good chance of success.  Avoid overplanting.   Consider the mature height and spacing for each type of plant, and the specific plant requirements for factors such as light, water, and soil. 

Choose a mix of plants to provide interest in all seasons.  You may use them to screen undesirable sights or to frame good ones. If you have dead trees, leave them unless they are a hazard.  These “snags” provide one of the richest sources of insects and habitats for birds.

Don't forget a source of water for birds, such as from a water feature, small pond, or bird bath.  You may want to even install a heated birdbath during winter.  There are a couple kinds of the latter— those with a heating element built in, and those with a separate element you place in the birdbath.  These plug into ordinary outdoor outlets.  Just make sure the cords you use, and outlets, are the correct ones and safe for outdoor use.  Even moving or sprinkling water is good, and it may attract more birds than stationary water.

Many songbirds are in decline, due in part to climate extremes (climate.audubon.org), to predation by cats (almost four billion birds a year in the United States are killed by cats, according to a National Audubon Society report), and in large part to habitat loss.  Imagine being a migratory bird, returning to your summer home to find it now being a parking lot or mall. 

You can learn much more about birdscaping, and other actions to help birds, through websites such as from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (www.allaboutbirds.org) or Audubon (www.audubon.org/yearofthebird).  At the first site you can learn all about bird species and their habitat needs.  At the Audubon site you can search your zip code for dozens, if not several hundred, native plant choices, and what birds each plant attracts.


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