A 2019 study by Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology determined that there were nearly three billion fewer birds in North America than in 1970. Put another way, that is a loss of more than one in four birds in less than 50 years.
Garden Gate magazine’s James A. Baggett shared these facts and more in a recent Zoom seminar hosted by the North Shore Horticultural Society. The program, called “Gardening for the Birds,” described both how such a fate has descended upon birds as well as ways to help our avian friends. There are many ways that gardeners can help.
The first way forward is found in trees. Trees provide nesting and resting spots, protection from predators, nesting material, food, and more. The white oak is considered one of the best trees for birds as it “has it all.” For example, as a food source it can claim more than 540 types of caterpillars that call it their home and many birds that call them their dinner.
Flowering dogwoods are another excellent tree. The blooms are enjoyed by us in the spring, and birds tell us the autumn berries are fleshy and high in fat. Crabapples are a real goodie with spring blossoms followed by buds, flowers and berries that are all edible. Their small berries are easy to pick and swallow. And serviceberry trees (and shrubs) are a big favorite for their pome fruits.
Conifers are another tree type with high value. The Eastern Red Cedar provides food, habitat and nesting sites. They are a particular favorite of birds such as Cedar Waxwing, Cardinals, Sparrows and Robins. The needles are homes for all sorts of insects, and dinner plates for many birds. Did you know that the Nuthatch is the only bird that can walk both up and down a tree as it searches for food?
Vines are another excellent choice with which to lend a hand here. Grapes are easy to grow and hardy, and more than 50 species of birds appreciate the bugs they attract in the summer and the fruits they bear later on. Other vines such as Virginia creeper cater to birds that enjoy the caterpillars they host (especially sphinx moths) and then provide small fruits that are easy for them to pick and eat.
Shrubs are an important part of most birds’ habitat and generally a nice fit in anyone’s yard. The denseness of the Bayberry is especially good at giving ground dwellers a nesting option, and their fruits (not berries!) are the first choice of many Warblers. Red twig dogwood is a deciduous shrub favored by more than ninety species of birds for its high-fat berries. Viburnum has something for everyone as it comes in many colors, has large flowers, attracts caterpillars, and bears its fruit in the fall.
And then there are the flowering perennials. Where to start? Coneflowers attract butterflies, bees, and birds. They are easy to grow and very hardy. Their cones give way to seed heads adored by many small birds such as finches, and if the flowers are not pruned the seeds are also savored by cardinals and blue jays in the winter months.
Milkweed is often associated with monarch butterflies, of course, but the fluff from their seed pods is perfect nesting material for you-know-who. Warblers especially like the stem fiber for lining their nests. Other nourishing perennials to consider would include black-eyed Susans, sunflowers, zinnias, daisies, bachelor’s buttons, asters, and many more.
Lastly, should you choose to focus on a single bird such as the Ruby-throated hummingbird—the only hummingbird that visits the Cape Ann area from a species found only in the Western Hemisphere—one can select from among Fuchsia, Columbine, Bee balm, Trumpet honeysuckle, Salvia, Agastache, Penstemon and other nectar-rich flowering plants.
Birds have been a carefree joy for all of us forever, but they can now use our help. It’s good to know that in managing our landscape we can assist them in ways that have real benefits to us both.