Birds, Plants and Habitat

· Let’s talk tree care, friend or foe????
· What do people need? Why? Tree biology. Dead tree risk? Are there enough dead trees?
· What do birds want? Why? Bird biology, what do they eat, where do they get it??? Nourishment? Birds need more dead trees.

· The urban forest is a mixed bag. There can be food and habitat in even the smallest town home yard. Hang a shoe in a cherry tree and a house wren will pay the rent! The bluebird was nurtured back through completely artificial means. Build it and they will come. This statement is truer than most realize. Old tree lines with volunteer trees are the best habitat.

· Plant diversification is always the answer. Build your landscape according to levels and if you need help, there are landscape designers that specialize in “landscaping with wildlife”. (Could there be one without the other)?

· What are the layers? Just close your eyes and start from bottom to top. Do we want grass or ground covers? Will one service the needs of the surrounding plant’s roots better than another? Maybe our lowest layer should be mulch. What kind, how much? Hey, wait a minute! Just because we are walking on this layer doesn’t mean nothing lives under our feet. Hey wait a minute, birds eat things that live in the mulch so, we’ve already begun!! What kind of birds eat off the ground? Have you ever watched sparrows? They are called hoppers rather than walkers and use both feet to skillfully scratch at the ground. What other birds feed on the ground. How about towhees, thrashers and thrushes?

· In the mulch or ground cover we can plant grasses, vines and shrubs. This will be our second level. What birds do we find here and what makes this level so important? The most difficult and uncomfortable areas for us are the best for tiny birds, whether they be residents or migrants. An example would be planting green briar. No one in their right mind would ever plant this trouser shredding machine but the birds love it for protection. Other brambles and berries are great here, such as blackberries and black raspberries. The more tangled they are the more the birds are drawn to them.

· Some of the passive things birds do are, perch, loaf, rest, stretch, sleep and make music. They must have a place to do all of this where larger birds and animals don’t fit, places like hedges and thorny thickets where they can hide. Which are great thorny plants? Landscaping was made for creating places just like this. What are some good examples of great shrubs for birds? I’ll give you some, and a few are spectacular, I’ll put an asterisk by my favorites: Viburnum sp*, holly sp, bayberry and barberry, berries such as blue and huckleberries as well as other brambles, coralberry, elderberry, spicebush*, junipers sp, Vitex.

· Move up a layer and we come to understory trees. These are the fun ones. Can you name a few? Red cedar, (until they become shade trees), Hawthorns sp, shadbush or serviceberry, fringe tree, alder, where would you find alders? Ironwood or American hornbeam*, hop hornbeam*, viburnum such as black haw, bladdernut, dogwood sp, crabapple sp and paw paw*.

· What’s the final layer? Shade trees of course and what are some great choices? Most oaks, especially white oaks* and others as well. I don’t recommend pin oaks as yard, shade trees anymore but they are great habitat for birds. They grow very dense with vast amounts of deadwood. Red maple, linden, but which species? Why? American holly*, Ash, beech*, black and river birch*, black gum*, sweet gum, hackberry, hickory, mulberry, persimmon*…, beware what you eat! Black and white walnut, tulip poplar, spruce sp, fir*, Cryptomeria, and many of the cypresses – Hinoki.

· Again, even the smallest yard can be filled with bird habitat. Bonnie and I live in a townhouse and have 50 different species of plants in our yard, (thanks to Bonnie!) We have cedar waxwings everywhere, why??? Because we have large canopy deciduous trees in which they can congregate. We also have goldfinches and pine siskins because we have tall conifers in which they can hide with the ruby and golden-crowned kinglets.

· The birds you get depends more on your habitat than on the food you provide. Our brown thrashers, catbirds and mockingbirds never visit the waxwings as will the waxwings have nothing to do with them. But they all live in the same tree. They learn to respect the others territory.

· Thousands of airplanes are able to fly at the same time because they occupy different altitudes. Dragonflies don’t harass other dragonflies because different species are only territorial within certain altitudes. Red-tailed hawks are great nest builders but great-horned owls couldn’t put two twigs together, so they use the red-tailed hawk’s nest in January and February while the hawk nests in June. The point, you ask? If you know what you are planting, how big it will get and what its fruiting life cycle is, you can plant them to feed at different times and levels during the year. The birds will discover whatever it is and wherever it grows. Here’s an example. If you want red berries in winter you can plant a stand of Fosters holly for a medium height, use winterberry holly for a short stand and use winter king hawthorn for berries to 20 feet. It’s not that you have covered 20 feet; you have covered it by diversifying a dense crown cover from top to bottom. You have 3 separate layered crowns the birds can use for cover, protection and food, and you’ve given yourself, (let’s not forget the esthetics of this whole project) the beauty of green, silver and red for the entire winter! Our kinglets and siskins would not be here in winter if not for our conifers. They rarely come to the feeder but must have cover. Important conifers in our area are: spruce, pines, some fir, holly, especially American holly, yew, juniper, eastern red cedar, Cryptomeria and cypresses to name a few. South Riding in eastern Loudoun County has long hedgerows that were left during construction all through the community and a few riparian strips that bisect the entire city. These areas are filled with myriad resident and migrant birds because they are unfragmented and contain plant diversity for cover, food and protection. They also follow riparian strips that provide water and thick cover less accessible to humans and other predators.
· We have left out two ingredients. What are they? That’s right, food and water. The food is easy, give them what they eat. The good old Wild Bird Stores can help you with that, whether it’s the food or its delivery. The water, that’s where it gets fun and important.
· What are some ways of offering water? That’s right, BUILD A POND!!!! Trust me, you’ll love it. I said I would never have one. I lied, I built one. Four thousand gallons and it’s been in for 10 years, maybe more. Of course there are other ways but if you are planning on staying where you are, give it a try. To see a green frog watching a catbird taking a bath in your pond is worth a million words.
· There are also bird baths, and little self contained fountains and waterfalls made for decks and patios. The water will be the draw, especially in the winter or during drought and should be near your feeding station.
· It’s important to link your habitats together if possible. A key to successful development for wildlife and ecological diversity is having contiguous corridors. The words connect, link and integrate will help us build habitats that are healthier than building an island or an oasis. A good example of this is a parking lot where all the parking islands of trees and medians have been joined together at one location to make a larger natural area. Nature has another truism: The more organism to which a single organism connects itself, the more successful that single organism becomes. When we plant trees and shrubs as communities rather that individuals, the same principle will apply. Nature demands that individuals connect and diversify, most of the time.
· I recommend feeding black oiled sunflower seeds, thistle and plain millet. I put the millet on the ground where it will bring wintering sparrows. It’s a good way to get American tree sparrows. Use the sunflower seeds in whatever feeder you wish such as a tray or tube feeder, the thistle in a thistle feeder and again, sprinkle the millet on the ground.
· So, what and where should your plants be and what birds will you see? The plants mentioned above will work and there are many more, many more. The birds you see vary from region to region. For instance, Washington, DC will have different birds than you will find in Virginia Beach. We have white-breasted nuthatches in DC but when I visit friends in the Northern Neck I see brown-headed nuthatches.

What are the best plants and which birds will they attract? Rather than give you a list here, which would be a task, here are some resources that will help you find what you need. They are resources I have used for years and are a wealth of information.

· Any VA Extension office will have handouts as to what plants to use and which birds they will attract.
· Try The Wild Bird Store near you. They are well versed in the whole subject of bird habitat, and have more contraptions than Thomas Edison could have ever invented. (Actually I think he still lives on in The Wild Bird Board Room!)
· Go to established garden centers. Some advertise their experience with birds, butterflies and other wildlife.
· Call the Irvine Nature Center in Maryland @ 301.484.2413. They not only have handouts on birds but have wonderful lists of native plants and actual established gardens you can visit to see exactly what we are talking about.
· Fairfax County Park Authority has 3 Nature Centers that are staffed with Naturalists who can answer questions about anything that grows or flies. My favorite is Hidden Pond NC in Springfield; ask for Jim Pomeroy, he knows a great deal about many things, including good music! The others are Riverbend NC in Great Falls and Hidden Oaks NC in Annandale.
· Try this book: Attracting Birds and Butterflies, by Barbara Ellis. It is one of the “Taylor’s Weekend Gardening Guides”. One thing we did not cover that the book does is attracting hummingbirds.
· Experiment on your own, so let’s summarize.
1. Look at your property as having different layers. The ground, the understory and the super canopy. Which plants will fill each horizon and what birds are you feeding?
2. Ask questions about your planting environment. Wet, dry, hot, cool, shade, sun soil type and properties, and match the correct plant to the site. Ask for professional help if you need it.
3. Do you have a diversity of plants; grasses, ground covers, vines, density, thorns, herbaceous and woody plants, shrubs deciduous verses conifers, tall, short, medium?
4. Are there places for birds to perch, loaf, feed, hide and nest?
5. Have you considered your plant’s fruit and chosen plants that will provide food throughout the seasons? Remember, birds will not only eat the fruit but get nourishment from the buds and other parts of plants as well.
6. Remember if you are planting viburnum, many are sterile and will not produce fruit. These are usually the ones with big showy, snowy flowers.
7. Try to envision what your plants will look like in 20 years as a guide for selection. This step is critical no matter what your reason is for planting. If we carefully plan our selection of species and place each one appropriately within our landscapes, our gardens can only respond with increased quality of life for not only its plants but for us as well! This is the law of the garden, plant according to your environment and this truth shall set your plants free! There is no such thing as a disposable landscape, only delectable old gardens with exquisitely seasoned plants.
8. Choose native plants when possible or trees such as dawn redwood that have proven themselves over many years.
9. When a sharp-shinned or Cooper’s hawk takes a goldfinch off your feeder, try to remember, that’s a good thing! Your garden has been chosen as part of the natural process, without which there is no tomorrow!
10. If possible, leave some deadwood in your yard. If you need to remove deadwood for the safety or wellbeing of your tree, that’s great, but the best way to attract our 7 species of woodpeckers is to give them deadwood, standing and fallen. The myriad insect life provided by deadwood is irreplaceable, as are the homes provided for untold hundreds of animals. Pilleated woodpeckers and flickers forage on deadwood that is on the ground. If fallen logs and branches are not in your way, let them lay!
11. If you lack deadwood, put up nesting boxes and houses. These boxes can be used for roosting and wintering as well. Wood duck boxes are excellent nest holes for screech owls when vacant. How many morphs or color phases of screech owls are there?? What are the colors?
12. Most of all, water, water and water. It doesn’t matter how you get it to your feeding stations, just have it available for your birds. They must have it everyday, not just for drinking but for bathing as well. That’s what makes a pond so valuable. You don’t have to fill a bird bath if you have a pond and it will draw every animal in your yard.
13. But… finally, the real reason for all this work is so you can become a vital part of your environment. It’s time for you to connect with the rest of the organisms in your garden. Go out and sit in your garden, next to the pond or that favorite shrub when it is in flower. Maybe it smells as good as it looks. If you plant Korean spicebush viburnum, your garden will smell like gardenia. Can you stand it?? Be still, as the spicebush swallow-tailed butterfly lands next to your nose and wood thrush peeks at you through the cardinal flower. More people go to a garden than anywhere else to relieve the uncomfortable parts of their lives. Now you can too, in your garden that you have built for you, your family and your friends, all your friends. They will all love you for it, and… that’s the best reason of all!

Copyright 2005 by Peter Deahl. All rights reserved.

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