Northeast Regional Reports

Northeast: Gardening Is for the Birds

How to care for our two-winged friends this winter and all year round

red-breasted nuthatch
This red-breasted nuthatch enjoys sunflower seeds from a birdfeeder in the depths of winter. Photo: Michel Berube

It’s impossible to imagine life without birds. Yet even habitat for black-capped chickadees is rapidly disappearing. According to Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home, “Conservation ecologists … believe that one fourth of all bird species will be functionally extinct (that is, so rare that they no longer contribute to the function of ecosystems) within a century.” There are things we gardeners can do—and should do—to help prevent that.

nesting baby bird
During nesting season, baby birds like these Carolina wrens rely on an insect-based diet. Photo: Diana Koehm

For starters, ditch the chemical pesticides. Birds rely on a high protein insect diet, particularly during nesting season when they and their chicks consume hundreds of caterpillars and other insects daily. Rather than reach for a spray that effectively closes the restaurant, give nature a chance to find the balance between infestation and famine. Birds and other insectivores will come back for seconds.

Leave seed heads standing for foraging birds to eat during winter. Photo: Kristin Green

Over winter, when insects are harder to come by, birds forage for seeds and berries, so leave seed heads standing, and include nutritious plants in your garden plan. Regionally native plants are the best choices for a couple of reasons: During the growing season they host insects adapted to pass those—and only those—plants’ nutrition up the food chain. Native plants and birds have a mutually beneficial exchange of calories for seed distribution. The same exchange offered by nonnative plants is an ecological liability when seedlings from introduced species outcompete natives for space and sun. We learned that the hard way with the invasives bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) and burning bush (Euonymus alatus).

Freeze-and-thaw cycles soften the bright red berries of winterberry, making it easier for birds to eat them. Photo: Kristin Green

Cedar waxwings and robins will flock to berry-producing trees and shrubs such as Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana, Zones 2–9), bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica, Zones 3–7), and crabapples with bite-sized fruit (half an inch or smaller) like Sargent’s crabapple (Malus sargentii, Zones 4–7) and ‘Prairifire’ (Malus ‘Prairifire’, Zones 4–8). Winterberry (Ilex verticillata, Zones 3–9) will be picked clean after several freeze-and-thaw cycles soften the berries and we’ve had a chance to enjoy their winter interest.

These bohemian waxwings are drawn to shriveled crabapples still hanging off the tree. Photo: Dennis Flarsen

Feeders provide an adequate food source for many other bird species. Choose a high-quality seed mix free of wasteful fillers like red millet and oats, or offer a limited menu of your own. Black oil sunflower seeds attract the widest variety of birds. I have seen finches, nuthatches, cardinals, woodpeckers, tufted titmice, juncos, sparrows, and black-capped chickadees at my feeder. Goldfinches love nyjer (thistle) seed, but squirrels don’t. Squirrels also find safflower seeds unappealing, as do grackles and starlings. Put suet feeders out when the temperature dips near and below freezing to feed woodpeckers, nuthatches, and chickadees. Place your feeders up high and in the open to prevent cats and squirrels from making the leap, but close enough (about 10 feet) to trees and shrubs for birds to retreat for cover.

This cardinal and junco rely on a feeder filled with sunflower seeds during a winter storm. Photo: Sheila Brown

Birds are an integral part of the cycle of a naturally balanced and healthy garden. Welcoming them is as easy as adding more native plants, taking a hands-off and chemical-free approach to insect control, and filling feeders and birdbaths during winter’s worst. This winter, measure your success by participating in the great backyard bird count ( February 14–17, 2020.

—Kristin Green is author of Plantiful: Start Small, Grow Big with 150 Plants That Spread, Self-sow, and Overwinter. She gardens in Bristol, Rhode Island.

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