Your Back Yard Birds and Habitat Gardens

If you are a birder, you probably already know that Eastern songbird populations have declined dramatically since World War II.  More information here.

Why do I need to provide habitat? Where has habitat gone?   Landscape shrubbery is sparse, and often non-native; it may not have seeds, berries or be arranged in a way that offers shelter for birds and other wildlife.  Lawns provide very little support in terms of food choices beyond worms and grubs, and offer no shelter.   Small streams are often “piped,” or relegated to underground pipes in modern commercial and residential developments, leaving no water resources for wildlife.

The GOOD news is that, yard by yard, it is possible to provide many things that migratory and resident bird populations need to live and raise young.  Birds need water sources to replace the piped streams;  They need safe and secure nesting sites to rear their young;  They need cover to hide from predators such as cats and hawks; They need a steady, year-round supply of food for themselves and their young.

Habitat:
Choosing varied plants that occupy different layers in a yard or garden creates a border  of more and higher quality urban bird habitat. Tall trees can be placed towards the property line with shorter subcanopy trees and shrubs facing the house or garden to create a multilayer border with plenty of perches and nesting sites.   Placement of tall trees on the northern edge of the property will prevent them from shading out the lawn or garden.  Include some thorny trees, such as Hawthorns (Crataegus spp.), which are good for protective nesting sites, with the added benefit of providing plentiful berries in the late summer and fall.

Layering promotes:

  • Diversity of plant material, creating a diversity of insect food.
  • More potential feeding and nesting sites.
  • Greater quantity of insect food generated by sub canopy layers of herbaceous plants.
  • Greater number of fruit bearing shrubs.
  • Different types of nesting and roosting sites that can accommodate a greater diversity of bird species.
  • More possible cover from predators such as hawks from above, or cats from below.
  • Leaf litter under shrubs which provides insects, grubs and worms.

Food:

  • Berries from a variety of shrubs and brambles can and should be available from late spring through winter
  • Dewberry, blackberry, or strawberry produce berries from spring through mid summer.
  • Dogwood, Devil’s Walking Stick, viburnums, greenbriar, poison ivy, etc. provide fruits from late summer through fall.
  • Hawthorns, beautyberry, some viburnums, chokeberry, crabapples, and hollies provide winter-persistent fruits that are important sustenance for many birds during the lean cold months. They also host hundreds of species of caterpillars which are a crucial protein source for developing chicks.
  • Native plants provide native insects and caterpillars, as well as edible seeds and fruits, for many songbirds.
  • Leaf litter provides important food sources such as grubs, insects and worms to ground feeding birds like robins, thrashers and towhees.
  • Native grasses provide nesting materials and edible seeds.

Nesting:
Cavity nesting birds
Snags, or standing dead trees, are important nesting sites for many bird species, but are difficult to accommodate in an urban setting.  The proper placement of the right nesting box can sometimes replace this natural feature of woodlands.  Woodpeckers, nuthatches, owls, chickadees, tufted titmouse, kestrels and purple martins use snags.
A correctly dimensioned box should be placed in the correct habitat and at the correct height for each species desired. For instance, bluebirds prefer open habitats like fields; chickadees prefer mature woodland or border woodland type habitats.  Go to the “Birdhouses” pdf and NestWatch for more information.

Cup and/or Saucer Nesting Birds
Undisturbed shrub areas and a subcanopy of small trees such as dogwood, viburnums, or hawthorns provide excellent nesting sites for a wide variety of passerines and songbirds including robins, thrashers, cardinals and mockingbirds.  Nesting materials can be provided in the garden by leaving an unmowed area where dried native grasses and small twigs are allowed to collect for nest building.  A tidy lawn and garden may look nice to humans, but provides little in the way of nest building materials. Instead of bagging yard waste, create a small brush pile in the corner of the backyard and let native grasses go to seed and turn brown for the winter before trimming them back in spring.

Ground Nesting Birds
Brush piles and large patches of ferns or low-growing, dense shrubs can offer important cover for ground nesting birds such as towhees.  Ground nesting species are at a severe disadvantage with neighborhood cats if this type of cover is not provided.

Water:  

Bird baths should be made of non-slip materials like cement or dull ceramic glaze rather than slick or glassy materials.  They should be shallow: 2 inches deep or less with gradually sloped edges to accommodate small birds as well as larger songbirds.

  • Pedestal birdbath is safer from cats.
  • Water should be cleaned every two days to:
    • Keep mosquitoes from breeding.
    • Bacteria from developing and making birds sick.
    • Cleaning the birdbath weekly with a stiff brush will keep bacteria down as well.

Place birdbath:

  • In an open area that is clear of hiding places for cats.
  • Near small overhanging tree branches that allow birds to preen and dry off; they are ungainly and easy prey with wet feathers.
  • Dripping or trickling water sounds attract more birds to a water source.

Sources:

Ehrlich, Paul R., Dobkin. David S., and Wheye, Darryl. The Decline of Eastern Songbirds.  http://www.stanford.edu/group/stanfordbirds/text/essays/Eastern_Songbirds.html. Stanford University. Stanford.  1988

Tallamy, Douglas.  A Call for Backyard Diversity.  http://www.americanforests.org/magazine/article/backyard-biodiversity/  2009.


Top Ten Native Plants for a Diverse and Beautiful Yard

This article originally appeared in the Wylde Center Fall 2015 Newsletter.

A short list cannot begin to describe the immense diversity and variation in the plant species and communities that evolved in what is now Georgia, USA. This list is just an attempt to get you to think about the plants that are in your yard and garden, where they came from, and what purpose(s) they serve. Landscaping can be beautiful AND provide food and shelter for wildlife.

In selecting these plants my criteria included: Native to Georgia, Number of caterpillar species hosted, Production of fruits/nuts for birds (and humans), Abundant flowers for pollinators (and humans), and cover/shelter for birds. The number of caterpillar species hosted is doubly important: Some lucky caterpillars get to grow up to be butterflies and moths that help pollinate flowers, but the vast majority of them are destined to be eaten by birds and other animals. Baby birds need large amounts of fat and protein to develop their brains and bodies just like baby humans, but unlike humans, birds cannot deliver these nutrients via milk. It takes lots and lots of caterpillars to raise a healthy bird to maturity. Each selection starts with a whole Genus of plants, and then narrows to one or two species that are endemic to the Piedmont. There are two reasons for this structure: The numbers for caterpillar species hosted* are expressed by genus, and if conditions in your yard will not support my selections then you can research the other members of the genus. The wide diversity of plants in the Southeast almost guarantees that there are other species in the genus that will find your yard delightful. Mindful selection of native plants for your yard helps to reunite a fragmented landscape into a larger community, and gives us all a sense of place in the land that we call home.

*All numbers cited for caterpillar species hosted come from Dr. Douglas Tallamy’s invaluable research that can be found on his website at http://www.bringingnaturehome.net/

Wild Cherry – Prunus spp. Prunus_angustifolium_01
Wild Cherry, Chokecherry, Wild Plum, Black Cherry and Laurel Cherry are some of the common names given to the native members of this genus. It also includes the cultivars that give us our plums, cherries, almonds, apricots, and peaches. The native Prunus species host a whopping 429 different species of caterpillars! In addition to the caterpillar smorgasbord, the fruits are also an important food source for birds. Chickasaw Plum (Prunus angustifolia) is a small tree (15 to 25 feet at maturity) that has glossy dark green leaves and reddish-brown bark. Clusters of small white flowers bloom in early spring, which provides much-needed nectar for emerging native bees. The small ½” reddish-orange fruits ripen in the late summer. The fruits are usually a bit tart to our modern tastes, but have a long history as a food source for Native Americans, and were later used to make jams, jellies, and wine by colonists. If you have the space Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) is a full size tree (up to 100 feet) with the same early blooming white flowers. The fruits are small, but abundant, and also have a long history of use in jams and pies, and as a flavoring in many foods and beverages.

Blueberry – Vaccinium spp.

vaccinium
Blueberries should be very familiar to anyone that has spent even a single summer in Georgia. The Vaccinium genus also contains the species commonly known as: Bilberry, Huckleberry, Cranberry, Whortleberry, and Lignonberry. Its members host 286 species of caterpillar in addition to making those delicious berries. The creamy white bell-shaped flowers bloom early in the season providing nectar for bees, and have their own native specialist pollinator, the Southeastern Blueberry Bee, that utilizes “buzz pollination” to efficiently transfer pollen and increase berry production. The Southern ‘Rabbiteye’ Blueberry (Vaccinium virgatum or V. ashei) has numerous named cultivars selected to produce tasty berries if you can beat the birds. It does better in the Southeastern climate than the Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), which is a more northerly native, and also has numerous named cultivars. Cultivars are all essentially clones, so make sure to plant at least two different ones for good cross pollination and berry set. If you want a true native try the amusingly named Farkleberry (Vaccinium arborescens), for a large shrub with evergreen leaves and smaller, tart berries that birds will still readily eat.

Joe Pye Weed – Eutrochium/Eupatorium spp.**
Eupatorium2
Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium fistulosum) is already a popular garden plant, especially with butterfly enthusiasts. It grows up to ten feet tall in ideal conditions (part shade, moist soils) and produces large rounded clusters of hundreds of tiny pink flowers. Every shape and size of pollinator will be on this plant at the height of its bloom in late summer. Another member of this genus that also attracts numerous and diverse pollinators is Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum). It has a long history of medicinal use by Native Americans and later by colonists. Boneset is easily recognized by its large, fuzzy perfoliate leaves. The opposite pairs are joined at the bases, and the stem appears to perforate them. Rounded clusters of white to pinkish blooms top the stalks in late summer. Eupatorium hosts 40 species of caterpillars, provide abundant nectar for adult butterflies, and follow through with lots of seeds for songbirds.

**Thanks to DNA sequencing all of the plants that used to be in the Eupatorium genus are constantly being shuffled around a few genera, so I am treating these two interchangeably.

Sedges – Carex spp.
Carex
Sedges are very similar to grasses, and are in fact close cousins of the grass family. They tend to be shorter at maturity, have broader leaves, and prefer partly shady moist areas, whereas grasses tend to prefer drier, sunnier habitats. Sedges are very well suited for border plantings at the edges of walkways, flower beds, and around the bases of trees. Anywhere that one might consider planting the dreaded invasive Monkeygrass (Liriope spp.) is a spot that would be much better off with a group of sedges. Broadleaf Sedge (Carex platyphylla) has attractive silvery green leaves that form dense clumps 8-10” tall and put up spiky flower heads that develop into seeds for songbirds. Blue Wood Sedge (Carex flaccosperma) has blue-green leaves, is semi-evergreen, and blooms in early spring. Carex hosts 36 caterpillar species in stark contrast to Liriope’s zero.

(NATIVE) Honeysuckle – Lonicera spp.

Lonicera sempervirens
The sweet smelling and tasting Honeysuckle with the creamy white flowers that is most often associated with that word is actually highly invasive and originally native to Asia. Lonicera japonica was spread all over the world in the 19th century and is now on every continent except Antarctica. Please do not propagate this plant, despite the fact that many nurseries continue to sell it. Scarlet Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) is native to this country, and is a tree-safe vine that produces clusters of brilliant red tubular flowers in mid-spring. These flowers are an important nectar source for our resident and migratory hummingbirds. The foliage is semi-evergreen, and the plant roots easily at the nodes making it easy to grow and multiply. It can be trained onto a trellis or fence into a very attractive, cascading mass of dark green leaves and bright red blooms. Yellow Honeysuckle (Lonicera flava) is another US Native that is essentially the same as Scarlet Honeysuckle in all respects except flower color. Its yellow tubular flowers are also attractive to hummingbirds. The native Lonicera plants host 33 species of caterpillars.

Goldenrod – Solidago spp.

Solidago
Goldenrod often gets a bad reputation by association. It blooms the same time as Ragweed, and frequently gets blamed by allergy sufferers as the cause of their congestion. Goldenrods are pollinated by insects, and as such do not release clouds of pollen into the air like Ragweed. The beautiful yellow flowers are a favorite of many pollinators when they bloom in late summer as most other flowers have faded. In addition to beautiful, nectar bearing flowers goldenrods host 112 species of caterpillars. Showy Goldenrod (Solidago erecta) is a low-growing set of leaves for most of the year until it sprouts a 3-4 foot tall stem in late summer that is covered in hundreds of tiny yellow flowers. The small seeds that follow the blooms are readily consumed by birds. Wrinkleleaf Goldenrod (Solidago rugosa) is a slowly spreading, rhizomatous, colony-forming plant that has deep green leaves with toothed margins. The low-growing rosettes of leaves put up stalks lined with small yellow flowers in late summer that are followed by abundant seeds.

Hawthorn – Crataegus spp.

Crataegus
Hawthorns are large, thicket forming, woody shrubs in the Rose family. As with roses, they have beautiful flowers and large thorns. A thorny hedge is a great way to deter a nosy neighbor, and it makes ideal cover for nesting birds. Hawthorns flower in early spring, which makes them another important nectar and pollen source for native bees, they produce edible fruits, and host an impressive 150 different species of caterpillars. Yellow Hawthorn (Crataegus flava) is a drought tolerant small tree/ large shrub with clusters of bright white flowers in early Spring, yellow fruits in Summer, and beautiful foliage in Autumn. Parsley Leaf Hawthorn (Crataegus marshalii) is a multi-stemmed upright shrub with small, deeply incised leaves that resemble parsley leaves. Small white flowers are followed by bright red fruits that persist on the plant to become winter bird forage. It does well in average to dry soils and part shade.

Arrowwood – Viburnum spp.
Viburnum
Viburnums are very popular with landscapers and developers. Low water needs, tolerant of many soils, attractive glossy foliage, beautiful flowers, autumn colors: They knock it out of the park. Unfortunately, many of the varieties that are in the nursery trade are either from Asia, or have been hybridized with Asian species. This has made for some very interesting looking cultivars, but there is scant research on whether or not the 97 species of caterpillars that feed on native Viburnum leaves can fully utilize these non-native plants. Best to err on the side of caution on behalf of the caterpillars and plant a native that will also produce viable seeds for the birds to spread around. Mapleleaf Viburnum (Viburnum acerfolium) is a great shrub to grow in the filtered shade of a large tree. It spouts multiple 3-5 foot tall stems lined with large opposite pairs of deep green leaves that are easily mistaken for Maple leaves. Rounded clusters of small white flowers bloom through the spring, and are followed by pea-sized blue-black fruits that birds will devour just as quickly as blueberries. The leaves put on a spectacular color show in autumn shifting through yellow, orange, red and then purplish hues before they drop for the winter. A larger specimen is Rusty Blackhaw (Viburnum rufidulum) which is a thicket forming large shrub/small tree that grows 10-20 feet tall. The young leaves are covered in fine red hairs that give them a “rusty” appearance, and they also turn brilliant colors in the fall. It does best in average to dry soils and full sun to part shade.

Asters – Symphyotrichium spp.

Symphyotrichum
Asters are one of the largest plant families encompassing over 1600 genera of closely related plants with very similar looking flowers including Sunflowers, Daisies, Coneflower, Black Eyed Susan, and many, many more. The members of the Symphyotrichium genus tend to be named “(Person/Place/Adjective) Aster.” Georgia Aster (Symphyotrichium georgianum) should be our state flower. It is a drought tolerant rosette of low-growing leaves for most of the year, but starting in September a 3-4 foot tall branching stalk of blooms emerges. The abundant 2” flowers have deep purple petals with purplish-white centers that often continue to bloom through October into November making it a great source of late season nectar and pollen. Another late bloomer that is also inconspicuous until it flowers is Calico Aster (Symphyotrichium lateriflorum). Its 2-4 foot tall bloom stalk is covered with hundreds of small white flowers with yellow centers that fade to brown as they age. The blooms continue to emerge through November or until they are killed back by frost.
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Thorny subject, protecting birds

Birds are a joy to listen to and to watch.  What backyard is complete without them?  Sadly, songbird populations have declined steeply over the past four decades.  Habitat destruction both here in North America, where many species nest and rear their young, and in the warm Caribbean islands and areas of Central America where neotropical bird species migrate to spend the winter months is a major factor in this decline.  Other factors include a lack of food resources and over-predation by introduced animals, ie: animals not native to an ecosystem. (Ehrlich, Paul R., Dobkin, David S., and Wheye, Darryl. The Decline of Eastern Songbirds. 1988)

How do we protect our birds?Southern Dewberry, Rubus trivialis

Nesting space: Plant shrubs and vines with protective vegetation.  Thorny shrubs, plants and vine tangles will help to protect nests and nestlings.  Slender, thorny stems will help prevent larger predators such as raccoons and cats from attacking nests and stealing eggs or killing chicks.  Many thorny shrubs also perform double duties by providing fruit and berries from summer through fall.

  • Low, brambly shrubs such as garden variety blackberries (Rubus spp), or Southern Dewberry (Rubus trivialis), provide delicious nibbles for us humans, while attracting birds and furnishing them with a food and cover.  They can be kept in check in a small yard, but the neater they are, the less cover they provide. Devil's Walkingstick in bloom
  • Devil’s Walking Stick (Aralia spinosa) is an important food source for migratory birds.  In summer it sprouts an enormous (3 foot diameter), misty plume covered with simple flowers that attract all manner of butterflies and other pollinators while blooming.  It will also support 3 to 5 birds feeding at one time when the purple berries ripen in fall, which is quite a sight! Devil’s Walking Stick has one of the largest, lacy bi-pinnate leaves of any plant in North America.  This prickly small tree will form a fairly large colony and would do well in a back corner of a large yard.
  • Hawthorns (Crataegus spp.):  these are an underused, extremely handsome group of shrubs/small trees.  When mature, their small rose-like flowers range in size from 1.25 inches across to clusters of smaller, 3/8 inch flowers.  Their slender branCrataegus species.ches usually have thorns making it doubly hard for larger predators to climb up to nesting sites. The fall sees hawthorns covered in small fruits that can be enjoyed by birds and humans alike.

Cover: A Safe Haven

After fledging, but before becoming flight savvy, nestlings need cover: places to flee from neighborhood cats and dogs.  Here are a few ways to thwart Tabby and Fido from making a snack out of local baby birds:

Fern patch:  Provide a densely planted fern thicket in a shady side border.  Low, moist areas in the back yard are perfect for hardier ferns such as Southern Shield (actually a coastal plain species, fine for gardens but not restoration) or Southern Lady Fern, or Christmas Fern.  Cinnamon Ferns, Royal Ferns, Beech Ferns, and Sensitive Ferns are also good cover, but need a consistently moist location.  Bracken Fern makes a wonderful escape for chipmunks and nestlings.  The stems are tough, the fronds can be three to four feet tall, and the plant will survive 6 hours of sun a day and fairly dry soils.  

I have seen cats completely flummoxed when trying to pursue an animal into a thicket of bracken fern.  However this fern is too aggressive for a small yard, it needs a big, broad area to spread out in benign neglect for both you and the fern to be happy.  If you have an untended railway siding nearby, or own some wild acreage, this might be the plant for you.

Brush pile:  A loosely bunched brush pile in the back of the yard is a very effective way to deter predation of small wildlife.  Brush piles don’t have to be huge, but should be large enough to keep a persistent cat from getting to the center.   The moist, slowly decaying wood at the bottom of the brush pile also creates an excellent habitat for tiny wildlife such as salamanders and larger limbs can provide homes for mason bees.

Do not use pressure treated wood products in your brush pile.  Pressure treated wood is toxic, and will poison the small wildlife and beneficial insects that both feed the birds and benefit your garden.

An added long term benefit of keeping a small brush pile at the back border of the yard is that it will gradually enhance your soil biology, providing food and homes to beneficial soil fungi and bacteria.   After a few years the soil under the brush pile will have become very rich, at which point you might want to start a fresh brush pile in a different corner of the yard as you consider which humus-loving native plant(s) to place in your newly enriched bed.

Sources:

Ehrlich, Paul R., Dobkin. David S., and Wheye, Darryl. The Decline of Eastern Songbirds.  http://www.stanford.edu/group/stanfordbirds/text/essays/Eastern_Songbirds.html. Stanford University. Stanford.  1988


Winter Persistent Berries: A Bird’s Best Friend

      The title says it all really.  Most birds do not migrate to warmer climes in the winter, and as freezing temperatures roll in food gets scarce.  A very important food source for birds during these lean months are the nuts and berries that remain on certain plants well into winter. The following list highlights some of the more common genera and species of trees and shrubs that provide food, and often shelter, for birds during the short, dark days of winter.  

  • One of the most familiar and noticeable plants with winter persistent berries is the Holly tree (Ilex spp.).  Most people have seen the bright red berries that stand in stark contrast to the waxy green leaves into the dead of winter.  Both the leaves and berries provide a great bit of color in the stark winter landscape, but they also provide excellent food and cover for birds.  There are a few species in this genus that are deciduous, but still have plentiful berries even after the leaves fall off.
  • Chokecherry (Aronia spp.) is another shrub that retains its berries into winter, even after the leaves have long since fallen and become mulch.  Pandra has a Red Chokecherry in her front yard and the birds usually come and clean it off sometime in January or February, often in the span of one day. Here it is laden with fruit on a chilly, icy January day:

  • Most Hawthorns (Crataegus spp.) have winter persistent fruit and thorny branches that provide great cover for birds as well.  Thrushes and Waxwings are particularly dependent on the fruits of hawthorns in winter, and the main way in which the seeds are dispersed.
  • Eastern Juniper (Juniperus virginiana) aka Eastern Red Cedar has large pale blue berries that last into winter, and since it is evergreen it provides cover and nesting sites for birds as well.
  • Several species of Sumac (Rhus spp.) have abundant berries that last well into winter.
  • Crabapple (Malus spp.) trees have small fruits that add vibrant color to the winter landscape, as well as feed numerous species of birds.
  • Certain species of Arrowwood, most notably Viburnum prunifolium and V. nudum, have brightly colored winter-persistent fruits.
  • Rose hips, the berries formed after a rose (Rosa spp.) blooms, are another colorful and bird-friendly addition to the winter garden.
  • Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) has winter fruits and also provides nesting sites and cover for numerous bird species.
  • White Oak (Quercus alba) is for the really ambitious and patient birder.  It produces acorns every year, will eventually grow 80 to 100 feet tall, and will live for several hundred years in optimal conditions.  Jays and woodpeckers are especially fond of the acorns produced by these majestic trees.

       These are just a few of the native trees, shrubs and vines that many of our feathered friends depend on for winter sustenance.  When planning your landscaping and garden designs, take a moment to ensure there’s a little something for the birds in each season and they might just reward you with a winter serenade.

I heard a bird sing.

In the dark of December.

A magical thing.

And sweet to remember.” 

Oliver Herford