Bringing Birds To the Garden

July 11 2013 garden 011~

Do you feed the birds?  Most of us gardeners do.  Unless you are protecting a crop of blueberries or blackberries, you probably enjoy the energy and joy birds bring to the garden with their antics and songs.

Birds also vacuum up thousands of flying, crawling, and burrowing insects.  Even hummingbirds eat an enormous number of insects as they fly around from blossom to blossom seeking sweet nectar.  Birds are an important part of a balanced garden community.

We have everything from owls and red tailed hawks to hummingbirds visiting our garden, and we enjoy the occasional brood of chicks raised in shrubs near the house. There is an extended family of red “guard-inals” who keep a vigilant watch on our coming and goings and all of the activities of the garden.  There are tufted titmice who pull apart the coco liners in our hanging baskets to build their nests.

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Mistletoe, growing in many trees, produces winter berries enjoyed by many birds. But it also offers sheltered areas for nesting, collects water when it rains and attracts a variety of insects.

Mistletoe, growing in many hard wood trees, produces winter berries enjoyed by many birds. But it also offers sheltered areas for nesting, collects water when it rains and attracts a variety of insects.

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A forest garden welcomes many types of birds.  During the frozen months especially, a lawn full of robins proves endlessly entertaining.  The bright yellow flash of goldfinches brightens the dullest winter day.  Some birds make our garden their year round home, others come and go with the seasons.

There was a time when I kept feeders stocked with seed during much of the year.  I felt a sense of obligation, almost, to provide for the back yard flock.  What a mess!

As much as I love watching the endless parade of birds and food tray drama, There was always the pile of empty sunflower husks and spilled millet seed, and the rodents it attracts.  Our first winter or two in this particular garden I put out pounds and pounds of food in the deep winter.  Many times we watched as huge flocks of grackles swooped down, and  emptied our feeders  in less than half a day.

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Snow~

Well, grackles weren’t what we had hoped to attract.  We were looking for the cute and colorful birds who eat a little at a time, and chirp their appreciation on the shrubs by the windows.

That brought some rather brutal soul searching about the true nature of generosity.  Did it really matter whether one type of bird or another ate the seeds I freely offered?  Did it matter how many came at once, or whether the life-giving seeds were consumed by bird or squirrel?  Or a raccoon at night?

It did matter.  I mattered to me, and to those who share the garden, the birds, and the bill for the bird feeder with me.

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bird feeder

A sack of Niger seed and a tube of seed  hang in a Hazelnut shrub to attract finches, cardinals, and other small colorful birds. Squirrels soon learned to tear into both feeders to liberate the seed for themselves.

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So, I tried a different approach;  I targeted my offerings to those birds I most wanted to attract.  We bought skinny stockings full of Niger seed.  Niger seed attracts goldfinches, purple finches, tufted titmice, and cardinals.

After the first frost or two, when the garden was largely empty of other food, we hung the Niger seed feeders in a shrubby Hazel near the living room window where we would see them easily.

This worked beautifully, until the very hungry and very determined squirrels learned to tear holes in the feeder bags and gobble up the seed like it was Chicklets gum.  After a year or so of making repairs and frequent re-filling,  I finally realized the birds were living in the garden whether my little offering of purchased seed was there, or not.

Maybe we don’t need to keep buying better feeders, bigger baffles, more seed, and all sorts of other gizmos to invite birds into our garden.  In fact, biologists tell us that birds need insects in their diets much more than they need seeds and the other treats we like to offer.

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the ravine in fall

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Bringing birds to the garden, and keeping them as residents, simply requires providing for their needs.

Birds chiefly need shelter, safe perches, varied food sources, and water to choose a garden as their home.  They also like their privacy.  A feeder rig out in a lawn, without shrubbery and trees nearby, actually makes the  birds vulnerable to all sorts of predators and competitors while they eat.

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Trees

A Magnolia tree, a gift from my neighbor’s garden, will offer abundant food and shelter to birds in years to come. Planted here near a Red Cedar and a Mimosa.

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Begin by considering which birds you most want to attract, learn their preferences, and then provide those things in the garden.

For example, large predatory birds, like hawks and owls, like to perch in the branches of large trees, well off the ground.  They prefer to eat small mammals, amphibians, and reptiles.  By leaving areas of old forest with tall trees intact, and wild areas where the small animals they hunt can live, we have families of these beautiful birds living around us.  We hear the hawks calling to one another by day, and the owls by night.

Cardinals, robins, and grosbeaks come for the many berries provided by our shrubs; and goldfinches appear in late summer to feed on ripening seeds of Basil, Echinacea, and Rudbeckia.

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Pokeweed

American Pokeweed, Phytolacca americana, is a shrubby herbaceous perennial which grows to 8′ in our garden.  Birds love its nutritious berries, which ripen over several months.

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A forest garden is built in layers.  There are the tall pines and hardwoods, the shorter under story trees, various shrubs, annual and perennial herbaceous plants, grasses and finally ground covers.  Each of these layers has something to offer to wildlife, whether food, shelter, nesting areas, perches or playgrounds.

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Barmboo, technically a grass, not a tree, attracts huge numbers of birds to live in the shelter it provides.

Bamboo, technically a grass, not a tree, attracts huge numbers of birds to live in the shelter it provides. American Beautyberry shrubs grow nearby.

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The trick then, to attracting birds to the garden, is simply to cultivate plants which not only meet the needs of the gardener, but also meet the needs of the gardener’s favorite avian companions.

To bring colorful finches up close, leave some flowers to go to seed, and they will swoop in for the feast.  Expect  Dogwood trees to fill with a variety of birds in the autumn when their berries ripen, and the Pyracantha will lure cardinals and grosbeaks a few weeks later when their berries are ready for harvest.

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Eastern Redbud produces abundant, nutritious seeds. They may be eaten while still green like peas, or left to feed birds and other wildlife as they ripen.

Eastern Redbud produces abundant, nutritious seeds. Their pods may be eaten while still green like peas, or left to feed birds and other wildlife as they ripen.

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Beginning with whatever trees or shrubs already grow in your garden, plant additional useful varieties, keeping an eye to what is best suited to your climate.  Plan mixed borders where  species of different heights, textures, colors and forms blend together.

Just as most people are happiest among friends and family, most trees and shrubs enjoy growing in community with others.  This is how they grow in natural areas.

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Provide shelter, water, food, and nesting areas and birds will make your garden their home.

Provide shelter, water, food, and nesting areas and many different birds will make your garden their home.

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Avian visitors actually help spread seeds of the fruits and berries they love from one garden to another.   Over time, seedlings  pop up in odd spots, and you can encourage the ones you want, and remove the rest.   The more different species your garden offers, the more interest it will hold for you, and the birds you welcome to your garden.

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Flowers have grown into seeds on this butterfly tree.

Butterfly tree, Clerodendrum trichotomum, attracts many butterflies when in bloom, but feeds the birds as its berries ripen.  This small tree has naturalized in our neighborhood.

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Here is a list of trees, and a few shrubs, native or naturalized in Eastern Virginia (Zone 7B), which attract multiple species of birds.  Although those shrubs and  trees listed below are either native, or naturalized, in Eastern Virginia;  most grow throughout much of North America. They are specifically chosen for this list because they attract birds to the garden.

They all provide food in one form or another, in addition to the myriad insects crawling and buzzing around them.  But trees and shrubs offer so much more than just food.  They provide shade, privacy, perches and nesting spots.  They allow birds to move about the garden safely in short swoops from one to the next.

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Dogwood berries feed many species of song birds.

Dogwood berries feed many species of song birds.

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The Devil’s Walking Stick, Aralia spinosa Deciduous native shrub with a very thorny trunk, crowns itself with a huge spray of flowers each summer, quickly followed by inky purple berries. 

This plant spreads with runners and readily self-seeds.  It grows along the edges of roads where it leans in to the sun.  It is striking when in bloom in berry, but grows best in low-traffic areas where the gardener won’t get caught on its thorns!  Long compound leaves give this tree a tropical appearance.

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"The Devil's Walking Stick" berries ripen at the end of summer.

“The Devil’s Walking Stick” berries ripen at the end of summer.

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Beautyberry Callicarpa americana Deciduous ornamental shrub to around 8′ which blooms through the summer months, with small berries quickly following each blossom.  The berries turn an unusual shade of violet as they ripen.  Native to the Southeastern United states, it forms clumps and thickets and easily spreads from dropped seeds.

Beautyberry attracts nectar loving insects all summer.  Birds enjoy this shrub for its ready food supply and dense growth, which gives them cover.  Berries persist for many weeds, even after the leaves fall after frost.  This shrub responds well to hard pruning in late winter.

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Beauty berry grows like the native (weed?) it is. These self-seed around the garden, and never suffer from hungry deer. Our birds take great delight in the berries as they ripen.

Beauty berry grows like the native (weed?) it is. These self-seed around the garden, and never suffer from hungry deer. Our birds take great delight in the berries as they ripen.

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Butterfly Tree Clerodendrum trichotomum Deciduous ornamental shrub to 30’ which blooms with clusters of white flowers July-September and forms bright seeds well into the autumn.  Native to Asia, naturalized in our area.

Butterfly tree attracts butterflies and other nectar loving insects.  Many birds are attracted to Butterfly tree for the dense shade and shelter provided by its huge, heart shaped leaves, the insects it attracts, and its berries in autumn.

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Butterfly Tree

Butterfly Tree

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Red Buckeye, Firecracker Plant Aesculus pavia Dedicous ornamental shrub or tree to 30’ which produces clusters of red flowers in spring important as a food source for hummingbirds and bees, and seeds in the fall.

Red Buckeye attracts hummingbirds and nectar loving insects when in bloom.  Many species of birds are attracted to feed on the insects, nest, find shelter under its large leaves, and eat its seeds.

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Ligustrum

Ligustrum produces abundant dark purple berries, which feed birds through the coldest months of winter and into early spring.

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 Birch Betula species Deciduous, beautiful bark, grows to 80’ depending on variety

Birch attracts many different birds who nest, eat its seeds and buds, or eat insects in its foliage or bark.  Incl. dark eyed juncos, blue jays, pine siskins, titmice, chickadees, cedar waxwings, goldfinches, purple finches, towhees, bobwhites, wood ducks, orioles, vireos, warblers, grouse.

Catalpa Catalpa speciosa, deciduous ornamental tree to 100’ or more with very showy spring flowers important as a food source for hummingbirds and bees.

Catalpa provides secure nesting and roosting sites for many birds, shade and shelter under its large leaves, nectar in spring for hummingbirds, and a huge variety of insects for other birds throughout the season.  In fall its seeds are produced in long “cigar like” pods which are an important source of food for many species of birds and other wildlife. 

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Birds enjoy the Euonymus berries, and we enjoy its scarlet leaves.

Many different birds enjoy these Euonymus berries, and we enjoy its scarlet leaves.  This shrub earns its name, ‘Burning Bush’ when it turns bright scarlet each autumn.

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Burning Bush Euonymus americanus, Euonymus alatus Deciduous ornamental shrub which turns scarlet in early autumn before dropping its leaves to reveal highly textured bark and scarlet red berries. It may grow wider than it is tall, and the native species can top out around 20′.  Dwarf varieties are widely available.

This shrub, whether the native species or a hybrid, feeds and shelters wildlife while remaining highly prized by gardeners  for its stunning fall foliage.

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White Crepe Myrtle tree is a popular spot for birds to rest, and provides seeds all winter.

White Crepe Myrtle tree is a popular spot for birds to rest, and provides seeds all winter.

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Crepe Myrtle Lagerstroemia indica Deciduous ornamental tree or shrub to 30’ but most smaller, cultivated for its bright flowers in shades of red, pink, lavender, and white which last approximately 100 days from July through September.  Crepe Myrtle was brought to North America from Asia in 1790, and has been widely grown ever since.

Crepe Myrtle flowers attract hummingbirds, as well as insects which hummingbirds and other birds eat.  Many different birds eat the seeds which remain available all winter. Birds use Crepe Myrtles for shelter and nesting.

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Catalpa, or Monkey Cigar tree, on the Palace Green at Colonial Williamsburg. The lawn is lined with Catalpa trees of various ages, and they are absolutely stunning when in bloom.

Catalpa, or Monkey Cigar tree, on the Palace Green at Colonial Williamsburg. The lawn is lined with Catalpa trees of various ages, and they are absolutely stunning when in bloom.

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Eastern Cottonwood Populus deltoids Deciduous landscape tree to 100’ or more

Cottonwood attracts birds who nest, find shelter, eat its seeds, and eat the insects in its bark Incl. goldfinches, grosbeaks, grouse, and great blue herons

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Holly

Holly provides high-value nesting sites for many birds, including our cardinals who remain in the garden through the winter.

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Crab Apple Malus species Deciduous ornamental tree or shrub with spring blossoms, colorful fruit, and fall color to 30’

Crab Apple provides secure nesting and roosting sites for many birds, nectar in spring for a variety of insects, including bees, and fruit for many species of birds. Incl. cedar waxwing, robin, mockingbird, finches, bobwhite, woodpecker, flicker, grosbeak

Dogwood Cornus florida Deciduous ornamental spring blooming tree with colorful fall foliage and berries to 40’

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Dogwoods, scarlet in November, frame a view of the ravine.

Dogwoods, scarlet in November, frame a view of the ravine.

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Dogwood attracts many different types of birds who nest, eat its berries, or eat insects from the bark. 98 different species of birds eat Dogwood berries incl. flickers, tanagers, woodpeckers, catbird, thrashers, bluebirds, cardinals,

 Hawthorn Crataegus crus-galli A deciduous ornamental spreading tree with spines which produces beautiful berries. Grows to 30’

Hawthorn attracts over 39 different types of birds who nest, eat its fruit, or eat insects from its foliage.  Incl. robin, purple finch, several different grosbeaks, cedar waxwing, blue jay, mockingbird, chickadees, warblers, cardinals, and hummingbirds.

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Perennial Lantana, 'Miss Huff'

Perennial Lantana, ‘Miss Huff’

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Lantana camara  Lantana may be sold as an annual in our area, but often survives winter and grow into a 6’+ tall perennial shrub.  Its summer blooms feed pollinators, but tiny green berries follow each flower to the delight of a wide variety of birds.

Frost kills its flowers and leaves, but the berries last for many months on Lantana’s woody branches.  Small birds take shelter in these branches through the winter. Certain cultivars, like L. ‘Miss Huff’ and related varieties, have proven hardy through our Zone 7 winters.  Cut this plant back in late winter, and it will leaf out and begin its new season of growth by May.

 Ligustrum japonicum An evergreen shrub or small tree which covers itself with white flowers each spring, and produces abundant purple berries each autumn.  This tough shrub forms a good windbreak.  It self-seeds easily to the point it is considered invasive in some areas.

Ligustrum provides secure shelter nesting and a steady supply of food for many species of song birds.  It is strong enough to support vines such as honeysuckle, grape and Virginia creeper, which also produce berries. 

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American Holly trees come male and female. Both are required for the female to produce red berries. This seedling is only a few years old.

American Holly trees come male and female. Both are required for the female to produce red berries. This seedling, one of many volunteers in our garden,  is only a few years old.

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Maple Acer rubrum or A. saccharum Deciduous landscape tree, grows to 70’

Maple attracts many different types of birds who nest, eat its seeds, or eat insects from the bark. Incl: grosbeaks, finches, pine siskins, cardinals, nuthatches, bobwhites, orioles, wrens, warblers, chickadees Excellent shade tree.

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Maple

Maple

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 Mulberry Morus Rubra Deciduous ornamental tree which produces edible berries to 60’

Leaves are valuable food for caterpillars, including silk worm caterpillars.  Fruits are delicious in pies and over ice cream.  Mulberry attracts many different birds who nest, 59 species who eat its berries and others who eat insects on its bark.  Incl. bluebird, cedar waxwing, orioles, cardinal, blue jay, grosbeaks, woodpeckers, yellow billed cuckoo, kingbird, warblers, robin, titmouse, and mockingbird

Holly Ilex opaca and other species  Evergreen, grows to 50’, covered in red berries in winter.

Holly provides shelter during bad weather and protected nesting sites for many birds.  Over 49 species enjoy its fruits.  Incl. cardinal, mockingbird, catbird, brown thrasher, bluebirds, cedar waxwing, and robin

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Live Oak

Live Oak on the banks of the York River.  This Southeastern native tree grows to huge proportions and remains evergreen, producing abundant acorns.

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 Oak Quercus species Decidous or evergreen landscape trees to 100’ or more depending on species

Oak is one of the most important wildlife and landscape trees.  It attracts birds who nest, find shelter, eat its acorns, and eat insects in its bark and foliage Incl. woodpeckers, chickadees, titmice, cardinals, flickers, grouse, blue jays, meadowlarks, nuthatches, doves, thrushes, ducks, bobwhites, quail, grosbeaks, and scarlet tanagers

 Oregon Grape Holly Mahonia aquifolium Ornamental evergreen shrub to 5’

Mahonia offers flowers for nectar loving insects and hummingbirds and dark purple clusters of berries. Its dense cover, when established, offers shelter from the weather and protected nesting areas.  Mahonia has naturalized in central and eastern Virginia.

Pine Pinus strobus Evergreen tree to 100’ or more which produces seeds in large cones.

Pine attracts birds to nest, roost, eat its seeds, and even eat its needles.  Birds also eat the many insects attracted to pine trees.  Pine is one of the most important trees for wildlife.  Species attracted Incl. woodpeckers, chickadees, grosbeaks, nuthatches, jays, dark eyed juncos, pine siskins, meadowlarks, woodpeckers, thrashers, warblers, grouse, robins, doves, cardinals, and finches.

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Mahonia blooming in January. Each golden flower grows into a deep purple, edible berry. Evergreen leaves sometimes turn yellow or red in the cold.

Mahonia blooming in January. Each golden flower grows into a deep purple, edible berry. Evergreen leaves sometimes turn yellow or red in the cold.

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 Prunus various species including plums and cherries Deciduous ornamental trees to 30’ grown for beautiful flowers in spring and edible fruit in summer

Cherries and plums attract 84 species of birds to nest, eat insects, and eat their fruits Incl. grosbeaks, cedar waxwing, finches, blackbirds, jays, orioles, robins, bluebirds, woodpeckers, catbirds, sparrows, mockingbirds, cardinals, and  thrushes.

Pyracantha various species and hybrids (Firethorn) Thorn covered evergreen shrub to 20’ native to Europe and Asia, and now naturalized across large areas of the US grown for its white spring flowers and abundant red or orange berries in autumn.

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Pyracantha berries

Pyracantha berries turn bright orange in October.

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Pyracantha shrubs attract many species of birds to nest, roost, eat its berries in early winter and eat the insects living in and around it year round.  It is an important source of nectar for bees and other nectar loving insects in spring Incl. bluebird, cedar waxwing, orioles, cardinal, blue jay, grosbeaks, warblers, robin, titmouse, and mockingbird

 Red Cedar Juniperus virginiana Evergreen tree to 50’ with aromatic leaves and blue berries.  Foliage is good for holiday decorations and its aromatic wood for storing clothing.

Cedar provides shelter during bad weather, protected nesting and roosting sites for many birds, and over 54 species eat its fruit. Incl. cedar waxwing, purple finch, robin, evening grosbeak, warblers, flickers, mockingbird, bluebird, bobwhite, swallows, eastern kingbirds, jays, and cardinals.

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Rose of Sharon

Rose of Sharon

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Rose of Sharon Hibiscus syriacus, Deciduous ornamental shrub or tree growing to 12’ with large flowers which attract hummingbirds, butterflies, and nectar loving insects

Rose of Sharon provides nectar for hummingbirds and attracts insects eaten by many species of birds.  Capsules of seeds  feed many species of birds all winter.   More information on Hibiscus here

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Sumac

Sumac

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 Sumac Rhus species Deciduous shrub or tree to 30’ with brilliant fall foliage and abundant berries. 

Sumac trees are an important winter food source for nearly a hundred species of birds.

 American Sycamore Platanus occidentalis Deciduous landscape tree to over 100’ with excellent fall color

American Sycamore provides shelter during bad weather, protected nesting and roosting sites, and seeds and insects for many bird species

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Trees

Tree on the far right is the beautiful Tulip Poplar, a very important tree for wildlife. Bees need it as an early, reliable source for nectar.  Dogwood grows to the left, with Ligustrum taking center stage in this mixed woody border.

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Tulip Poplar Liriodendron tulipifera Deciduous landscape tree to well over 100’ tall.  Its spring blossoms are an important source of nectar for bees.  This is an especially beautiful tree with interest year round.

Tulip Poplar provides shelter during bad weather, protected nesting and roosting sites for many birds, and many species eat its seeds and the insects living in it.  Hummingbirds use it as a nectar source in spring.

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Evergreen Wax Myrtle provides dense cover as well as fall berries loved by many species of birds.

Evergreen Wax Myrtle provides dense cover as well as fall berries loved by many species of birds.

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Wax Myrtle Myrica cerifera and M. pensylvanica Evergreen shrub to 40’ with small blue berries covered in wax.  Small flowers in spring attract nectar loving insects.

Wax Myrtle berries are eaten by 86 species of birds Incl. robins, tufted titmouse, finches, chickadee, bluebirds, bobwhite, swallow, woodpeckers, cardinals, and finches

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Woody perennial vines

 Virginia Creeper

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All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2013-2016

For more detailed information, especially on the habits of many much loved “backyard birds”, see Birdscaping Your Garden: A Practical Guide to Backyard Birds and the Plants That Attract Them by George Adams,  Rodale Press 1994

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American Holly

American Holly growing among mature pines

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About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

15 responses to “Bringing Birds To the Garden

  1. Hear, hear!
    I still choose to battle the squirrels competing with birds at the feeders in winter, as I love seeing them close to the house. Most plants wouldn’t sustain them for long. For example, my winterberry is cleaned out in the space of a few weeks before the hordes move on.
    There are lots of plants to choose from and I try to plant ones that help. Lots of seeds that finches, chickadees and titmice love. I don’t use sugar feeders, but provide hanging pots of hummer-attracting flowers. Even leaving standing dead trees (that don’t threaten buildings) attract cavity dwellers, woodpeckers and other insect seekers. Each season has its attraction.
    Great post, my friend!

    • Eliza, thank you so much for this enthusiastic endorsement. I respect you highly as a naturalist, gardener, and a treasured blogging friend. You’ve added some great ideas here! Some of our shrubs, like Pyracantha are quickly stripped each fall, too. I know exactly what you mean. The birds take their favorites first, but we seem to have enough variety to sustain them through our much shorter winters. I put out feeders when we have ice and snow. Last winter I made my own ‘suet’ and seed concoction with lots of nuts, seeds, dried fruit and peanut butter. Everything was fine until my partner spotted the squirrels raiding the feeders I’d placed on our deck. . . . Once the squirrels are on to a good thing, there is no way to keep them away! We can all do our own small part to sustain those who share our garden when times are tough 😉 Happy Sunday, Eliza ❤ ❤ ❤

  2. Reblogged this on Forest Garden and commented:

    September through December prove the best time of year for planting new trees and shrubs in our area. Woodies planted now have the chance to develop strong root systems through the autumn and winter. They are more likely to survive when planted in fall than in the spring.
    My ‘to do’ list for the next few weeks includes moving various shrubs and small trees out of their pots and into the garden. And I am always most interested in those woody plants which also attract and support birds in our garden.
    -WG

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  9. Having read this I thought it was very enlightening.
    I appreciate you finding the time and energy to put this article together.
    I once again find myself spending way too much time both reading and commenting.
    But so what, it was still worth it!

  10. Pingback: Rottumeroog island birds and flowers | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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