The morning’s sunrise revealed a frost covered garden. Our cardinals’ clicking and chirping drew me to the window. The fat, scarlet, Papa cardinal was searching through a pot on the patio for something to eat. His mate rooted through the leaves down on the slates looking for a morsel of breakfast. Our birds came out with the sun, scouring the warmer sheltered patio for their morning meal. I took pity on them, and braved the morning chill in pajamas to carry a scoop of bird feed round and sprinkle it on the patio where I could watch them feast.
We rarely put seed out for the birds. Instead, we make sure there is abundant wild food in the garden to carry them through the winter. We wait until a hard freeze and then feed the finches and cardinals from a sack of Niger seed. But I haven’t hung one yet this year, and the cardinals chose to discuss the matter with me this morning.
As we’ve watched various families of birds come and go from the patio all day, it set me wondering what food is still available for them in the garden. It was nearly 80 here only a few days ago, and we saw little flying gnats now and again. Surely other insects come out on warmer days as a special winter treat for the birds.
When the temperature plummets, and the ground is frozen hard, it is harder for the wild birds to find their meal. But the meal is still there, waiting for their exploration!
The round bed of Lantana, though frozen, is still the most popular daytime hang out for the birds.
Its dense thicket of branches provides plenty of cover for them as they hop about in search of seeds. Today I found an abundance of seed pods left behind by the morning glory vines along with dried berries left from the summer’s Lantana. Many different species fly in and out of this fast food establishment each day.
Hibiscus and Rose of Sharon seedpods, now dried and fully opened, still harbor many delicious seeds. There is enough to feed our birds for many weeks to come on the many shrubs around the garden.
Nandina and holly berries glow brightly red in the borders. For a while I thought the squirrels might steal all of these, but berries remain.
All of the red Dogwood berries went weeks ago, leaving only the buds for spring flowers on the naked branches. The holly is evergreen, however, and the prickly leaves are a little harder for the squirrels to negotiate. Plenty are left for winter’s hungry birds.
The Cedars have not put out as many blue berries as I’ve found other years. I noticed when cutting greens for wreathes that just as the oaks have taken a break from producing their usually abundant acorns, so the cedar and juniper berries are more scarce this year.
Wild vines and grasses are still full of seed. We found beautiful airy seed heads on the Autumn Clematis, ready for birds tiny enough to perch and feast on them. The clematis on the patio still has its ripened puffy seed heads as well. Perhaps this is what the cardinals found this morning?
Staghorn Sumac is rich with seeds as well. Still colorful, their mahogany colored seeds cluster tightly at the tip of each branch, swaying in the winter wind.
Looking up, there are cones of all sizes and descriptions. Our beautiful native white pines bear cones loaded with small, tasty seeds. Gumballs, open now, cling like tiny Christmas ornaments to every twig of the gum trees.
Food is literally everywhere! And the garden is alive with the flutter of winged comings and goings from before dawn until after dusk. They are all welcome here, and have plenty of spots to find shelter and build their nests.
Perhaps this winter I’ll start a bird list. Not just a mental, conversational list; but a bona fide official list as hard core birders keep one. Already today I’ve seen cardinals and tufted titmice; wrens, nuthatches, Canadian geese, a cormorant, a Bald Eagle, and a Great Blue Heron. Others remained anonymous, just out of focus in the shrubs shadowing me as I walked around the garden.
Food is even more important than usual in winter. Having just feasted with family yesterday, and completed a solid month of baking for special occasions, I’m feeling rather food obsessed at the moment. Cakes sit wrapped and ready for drop in guests during the week ahead. Beautiful cheeses wait on the shelves of the fridge; beside a whole tub of Cinnamon and cardamon laced dough, waiting to be formed into loaves or sweet rolls and baked this week.
As soon as my mother unwrapped a wreath made entirely of bird feed yesterday, she sent my sister out to hang it from a hook on the shed where she could watch the birds enjoy it from her kitchen window. Our gifts of food, whether to man or bird, are welcome ones; especially in winter. The wreath was literally covered with colorful little finches, wrens, titmice, and nuthatches all afternoon.
They are fun to watch, and I love drawing songbirds close to the windows in winter where we can appreciate their beauty. I never want them to depend upon such charity for survival, however; and so limit when and how much these little gifts of seed are offered.
Much better, I believe, to fill the garden with trees, shrubs, annuals and perennials whose seed will provide a steady supply of food all season long, and which will also attract and support the insects birds need in their diets throughout the year.
And there are plenty here, in our forest garden.
I value my garden more for being full of blackbirds than of cherries, and very frankly give them fruit for their songs.
Joseph Addison, The Spectator, 1712
All Photos By Woodland Gnome 2013
- Your Christmas Trees and Holiday Wreaths Can Double as Bird Habitat (allaboutbirds.org)
- Bringing Birds to the Garden (Forest Garden)
- Bird seed cake (instructables.com)
- The Curious Birder – by Maureen Eiger / Stretch Your Bird Food Budget (theroanokestar.com)
- Perseverance (mukhamani.wordpress.com)
- Cedar Waxwings Eating Cedar Berries (birdingnh.com)