Garden Diary - August 2018

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Planting Native to Attract Birds to Your Yard
by Sharon Sorenson

Thursday, 30 August 2018

What did birds do before people started buying feeders and bird seed to fill them?

I have a bird feeder hanging from a shepherd's crook style pole outside the kitchen. The indoor only cats and I enjoy watching the birds. The feeder must be brought in at dusk because the raccoon can maneuver its fat body up and over the squirrel baffle that keeps the fluff tailed gray tree rats from emptying the feeder in short order. But birds need more than seeds. Some prefer fruit. Others eat insects. All of them need shelter: a place protected from rain, from wind, from winter cold and snow.

I've seen birds feeding on seeds from some of my garden flowers. But often we're wearing blinders, focused on what we find beautiful in flowers for our garden, heedless of what might be needed by the creatures that share it. Double flowers are showy, all right. But they generally produce no seed. Something exotic from abroad is enjoyed for its rarity, but birds may not recognize it as food.

Planting Native to Attract Birds to Your Yard by Sharon Sorenson is a lucid explanation of how to have both an attractive garden and one that naturally attracts birds while also feeding them.

There's an ecological term - carrying capacity. It refers to the environment's ability to indefinitely support the maximum population size of a species given the food, habitat, water, and other necessities available. A place in the city will have a different carrying capacity than one in the suburbs compared to one in the country. Sorenson's view is that, regardless of where you live, the planting choices you make for your garden have an impact on the wildlife - in this case, birds.

Different birds need different food and shelter. Reasonably enough, the book's focus is on the eastern half of the country - from the Canadian border to the Gulf coast, and Minnesota, Arkansas, Louisiana to the East Coast. Even given that limitation it is a huge area with large climactic differences, between what is native in Florida, for example, and native in New Hampshire.

Sorenson's starting point was a year-long bird watch of her 3 acre property: regular visitors, transient migrants, outlier once-and-not-again visitors. She points out that bird feeders have an environmental cost, not all species of birds visit feeders, nestling birds need insects to eat, and planting native plants that provide nectar, sap, berries, bugs, buds, blossoms, and seed is a more sustainable way to increase the carrying capacity of your property. Bugs, attracting bugs to our gardens. Yes, you might plant to attract butterflies but often gardeners want only the butterflies and not the caterpillars that eat their plants. Birds eat the caterpillars so without caterpillars there is less food for the birds, and fewer butterflies too. Clearly, there's more to the book than just lists of plants with seeds and fruits that birds might eat.

Simple, conversational explanations of what's native, what's a species, what's a cultivar. What birds needs at different times of year, why they seek out different fruits, seeds, and berries at different seasons.

copyright BelleWood Gardens
Blackberries and other soft fruits in summer,

copyright BelleWood Gardens
and old field cedar, Juniperus virginiana in fall and winter -
high fat / high carb food for migration / cold weather survival.

copyright BelleWood Gardens
Birds are attracted to red berries, such as this Ilex verticillata, a source of winter food.
Not the typical red of the native species, a yellow berried viburnum is a garden cultivar.
Growing in your garden, birds may not recognize the yellow berries as suitable food.

copyright BelleWood Gardens
How you care for your garden makes a difference too. Rake leaves off the lawn
but allow them to stay under trees and shrubs. Insects will live in the leaf litter
and birds will forage there, scratching up the leaves, helping turn into compost.

There are chapters covering the decisions about choosing natives, moving on to separate chapters about trees, shrubs and vines, flowering perennials and grasses. For quick review there are tables with common name, Latin name, color and benefits (nectar, insects, seeds, berries), comments, and native planting zones. There are even a few suggestions for city dwellers, with information about native plants for containers, pots and patios.

copyright BelleWood Gardens
Native plants may be beautiful - lovely orange butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa,
attracts butterflies. The pink daisies of prairie coneflower, Echinacea purpurea
are an excellent source of seeds after the flowers have been pollinated and mature.

Shelter, as was mentioned, is needed for protection from inclement weather. Coniferous trees, such as hemlocks, provide excellent shelter. Snags and hollows in damaged trees.

copyright BelleWood Gardens
Places to nest and material from which to make their nests

Don't stop here. Water is important too. Not all gardens have a natural source of water, and even if they do what about cold winter temperatures sealing it over with ice. A dedicated chapter discusses how to embellish a natural source of water with plants to invite birds to hang out after getting a drink or bathing. There's a design for a bubble rock with water heater.

image courtesy Joan Carter

My friend Joan has something similar, which clearly is popular year-round,
as these spring and winter images show.

image courtesy Joan Carter

There's much to learn from this book. The hips of nonnative, invasive, multiflora rose are eaten but are significantly lower in fats than those of native berried shrubs. Which means that the birds are getting poor nutrition at a time when they need it most in order to cope with cold. Sorenson has a tight focus on native plants. Non-natives are given short shrift with comments such as "generally benign but take up space that could better be used for natives . . ." Planting Native to Attract Birds to Your Yard offers not merely a different palette of plants but also a different style of landscape design and very different methods of caring for your garden to increase the carrying capacity of your yard.

Published by Stackpole Books,
an imprint of The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc. Lanham, Maryland, 2018
ISBN 978-0-8117-3764-7 paperback, $24.95

A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher.

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