If you’ve been reading my Gardening with Nature newsletters, you know I talked about Growing a Pollinator Garden in June. Now I want to expand this conversation to include birds. Like many butterflies, bees and pollinators, song birds, in particular, have seen a dramatic decline in their numbers. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has found that in the last 50 years North America has lost more than 25% of its birds. That’s a population decline of about 3 billion birds. As with pollinators, the factors contributing to this decline are many such as habitat loss, use of pesticides, and pollution. Ho wever, waterfowl and specific species, such as bald eagles, have increased over that time period mostly due to wildlife conservation efforts. So, there’s hope. For many birds, that hope resides with home gardeners. We don’t necessarily need a large grassland, forest or wetland to attract and sustain a healthy bird population. With millions of home gardeners working the land, we can make a difference creating habitats and food sources for birds to thrive. Here’s some ways you can help.
Creating a Bird Habitat
Creating an ecological habitat is often the first step to luring birds back into our yards. The common American landscape usually consists of a few shade trees, foundation shrubs around the house and mostly lawn in between. This is not beneficial for birds. They need food, water and nesting areas to thrive. Creating a diverse landscape with native trees, shrubs, and flowers, water and shelter will give nesting birds a place to call home and still create a beautiful landscape to enjoy.
Book author and entomologist Doug Tallamy, has done research that shows growing native, to the Eastern part of the USA, shade trees, such as oak, willow, and cherry, attract far more moth and butterfly species than exotic, introduced trees, such as ginkgo and Bradford pear. The reason moths and butterflies are important is their larvae (caterpillars) are an important protein source for baby birds. Research shows a single hatch of songbirds will require up to 500 caterpillars each day for 2 weeks to reach the fledgling stage. While an oak tree harbors more than 500 different species of caterpillars, a ginkgo tree harbors only 10.
Recreating various ecosystems helps as well. Consider growing a meadow with grasses and native wildflowers to encourage nesting field birds such as sparrows. This doesn’t have to be elaborate. It could simply mean not mowing as much lawn and letting wildflowers and native plants come back in the out of the way areas of your yard. Mowing once a year in late fall is enough to maintain the meadow.
Another option is growing a small forest area, filled with a diverse array of native trees and shrubs that fill the ecosystem from the forest floor to the canopy. Again, you don’t need acres for this to be effective. In Japan, botanist Akira Miyawaki has introduced the concept of mini, high density forests that grow quickly, are diverse, attract birds and wildlife and can be grown in an area as small as the size of a tennis court! Using this ” Miyawaki Forest” design, small, ecologically diverse forests are sprouting up around the globe. They make perfect homes for many nesting birds. Incorporating hiding places, such as evergreen shrubs and trees, brush piles and climbing vines into the design helps birds stay safe while feeding and raising their young. Check out this forest design.
Not only do birds need food, they need water. Having a bird bath, stream or small pond helps give birds the water they need. Keeping the pond or bird bath unfrozen in winter is critical for overwintering species such as chickadees. You can use heated bird baths that keep water ice free, even during winter in the North.
Best Plants for Birds
While placing bird feeders in the landscape is one way to feed birds, a more important, complimentary idea is to grow shrubs and perennial flowers that offer berries and seeds. Native berry shrubs, such as dogwood, holly, elderberry, and viburnum, produce a vital food source. While introduced plant species, such as Japanese honeysuckle and buckthorn, may produce berries for birds, when compared to the native shrub berries their content is different. The caloric content of native and exotic shrub berries is about the same, but the fat content of native berries can be 6% to 48% compared to 1% fat for most exotic shrubs. This means the berries offer more energy for migrating birds getting ready to take flight and overwintering birds getting ready to face the cold.
Another food source is the seeds formed by perennial and annual flowers such as echinacea, rudbeckia, coreopsis, zinnia and cosmos. By growing heirloom varieties of these flowers, which produce viable seed, and by leaving the spent blossoms in the garden into winter, you can provide an essential food source for birds. My wife Wendy and I always delight in watching the gold finches in fall “working” the echinacea spent blossoms we leave in the garden for the nutritious seeds.
So, we don’t have to totally recreate our landscape to help the birds. Creating some forest or meadow areas, having water available, and growing flowers and native berry producing shrubs will help migratory and overwintering birds survive. Even if your garden space is small, if everyone in your community changes their gardening habitats a small amount for the birds, our feathered friends will be more likely to thrive during this unsettling time.
About Charlie Nardozzi
Charlie Nardozzi is an award winning, nationally recognized garden writer, speaker, radio, and television personality. He has worked for more than 30 years bringing expert gardening information to home gardeners through radio, television, talks, tours, on-line, and the printed page. Charlie delights in making garden ing information simple, easy, fun and accessible to everyone. He’s the author of 6 books, has three radio shows in New England and a TV show. He leads Garden Tours around the world and consults with organizations and companies about gardening programs. See more about him at Gardening With Charlie.
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Growing flowers for bees, butterflies and hummingbirds benefit both you and the pollinators that receive their nectar and pollen from the plants. These annuals are easy to grow and loved by our pollinator friends.
Bulbs are a favorite of many gardeners because they are easy and showy. Who can resist the first snowdrops or crocuses? Honey bees like to visit the blossoms for nectar and pollen, so I’m busy adding more bulbs to my garden just for them and for me. .
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The July 3rd issue of this newsletter was sent with the wrong subject line. The error was noticed only after it had already been emailed out to everyone, so it was too late to correct it. We regret the error and will be more attentive to this kind of detail in the future. We have had positive feedback about this newsletter and we hope you are enjoying it, also!