The latest thinking on ecological landscapes. Useful tips to improve our environment

Kim Eierman

Kim Eierman

Founder of EcoBeneficial!

Available for virtual and in-person landscape consulting, talks and classes.

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Robin_Holly_john Flannery

Welcoming Birds Back to the Garden this Spring

As the weather warms, neo-tropical migrating birds start to reappear in our landscapes.  Are you ready to offer a proper welcome?  Resources can be slim at this time of year in our landscapes, both for overwintering birds and returning migrants.

Now more than ever, we need to provide welcoming habitats for birds.  According to the National Audubon Society, 20 of our most common bird species have declined by an average of 68% since 1967.  Some species, like the Evening Grosbeak, have declined by as much as 91%.  You can do a great deal in your own landscape to help birds, but first, you have to evaluate what you have.

As you assess your landscape, determine if you have “The Big 4,” those critical resources that birds cannot do without, including:

  • Nesting Sites
  • Cover
  • Water
  • Food

For nesting and cover, different bird species have different requirements, so plant diversity in your landscape will attract a broader diversity of birds.  Raptors like hawks, and even some smaller birds like swallows and swifts like to be at the top of tall canopy trees.  Owls, woodpeckers, tanagers, and nuthatches gravitate to the interior of tall canopy trees.  Don’t have room to plant a large tree?  “Borrow” large trees from neighboring properties, and encourage those neighbors not to cut down large, healthy trees.

Other bird species utilize midstory and understory trees – mockingbirds, cardinals, chickadees, wrens, vireos and doves all fall into this category.  Some birds are shrub nesters like Eastern Towhees, which seek out brush piles and thickets.  When planting, don’t forget to include regionally native evergreen trees and shrubs.  These plants can provide important cover in winter, in severe weather conditions year-round, and also offer places for birds to hide from predators.

Many of our most threatened bird species have very specific needs, such as the Short-Eared Owl, which is an obligate grassland species, requiring a large grassland to survive.  358 million acres of the U.S. are covered in grassland with 85% being privately owned.  These grasslands serve as important habitat for 29 breeding obligate grassland bird species.  Although most of us don’t have large grasslands, we can support local organizations that seek to preserve them.

The key to providing natural habitat for birds is to emulate healthy natural areas.  Use nature as your reference when designing habitat and selecting plants.  If you live in the Northeast, where layered forests prevail, then plant that way and use regionally native plants that are found in that ecosystem.  If you live in the desert of Arizona, your plant palette and habitat design will be completely different.   To have a successful landscape for birds, you must get to know your local ecosystem and learn which birds inhabit that ecosystem.  Two great resources to help you are:  the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and your local Audubon Society.

When thinking “bird food” we need to graduate from our focus on backyard feeders.  While feeders can provide some supplemental food, natural food sources are much more critical.  Not all birds eat the same thing and some have very limited diets, while others eat a bit of almost everything.  Birds can be categorized by their diets, but note that some birds may have a food preference, with some flexibility.

These are the general categories of birds, by diet:

– Gramnivores:  seed-eaters (Gold Finches)
– Insectivores:  insect-eaters (Warblers)
– Frugivores: fruit-eaters (Cedar Waxwings)
– Carnivores:  flesh-eating birds (Hawks)
– Nectivores: nectar-eaters (Hummingbirds)
– Omnivores: generalists (Blue Jays)

When selecting native plants, try to accommodate all of these food requirements, directly or indirectly.  Planting Coneflower or Little Bluestem will provide seeds for gramnivores.  Planting for an overall ecosystem, which includes their habitat and their food sources, will support carnivores, like hawks.

If you have read Dr. Doug Tallamy’s book: “Bringing Nature Home” (if have not yet read it, please do), you know that 96% of terrestrial birds feed insects to their young, even though these bird species may not be considered insectivores.  This tells us a few things about our plantings and our landscapes:

– If you plant for “bugs” you will attract birds.
– Plant diversely to attract a diversity of insects to feed a diversity of birds.
– Lay off the “secret sauce” in your landscape.  Pesticides will poison insects, which in turn will likely poison baby birds.
– A healthy ecosystem includes lots of insects (90% of which are estimated to be beneficial or benign).

Last but not least, don’t forget to provide a clean, fresh water source in your landscape.  This can be the hardest resource for birds to find on their own, yet the one thing we often forget to include in our landscapes.

If you have a stream or a pond, you are very fortunate indeed, just make sure that that water feature has an easy access point for birds and insects – think “wildlife ramp” not “deep water dive.”

Birds are naturally attracted to running water, but a clean birdbath will do in a pinch.  Flush the water out daily and clean thoroughly at least once a week.  A stepped birdbath with several levels is ideal; if you cannot find one, simply place some stones in the birdbath to offer little birds safe access to the water.

Plant It and They Will Come!  from Kim Eierman at EcoBeneficial!

Photo:  American Robin with Lingering Holly Berries
Photo credit: Flickr_John Flannery


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