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The Hairy Woodpecker

Birding Business December 2014: Birdscaping

Designing a Landscape 
for Birds

By Michelle Z. Donahue | Contributing Editor

It’s easy to choose plants for a lovely summer show, but don’t forget their value to birds in the winter months.

Winter: the time when we all crave comfort foods and a warm place to rest. And truly all nature lovers will be thinking of their outdoor friends throughout the big chill.?
Though birds happily visit seed feeders when their usual insect prey has gone to bed for the year, a growing trend among bird enthusiasts is to choose garden plants with birds in mind for their pleasure and protection—for all four seasons. Especially important during frigid months of scarcity, this so-called “birdscaping” brings together the twin passions of the bird-watching and gardening.

Most plants can be installed even into early winter, as long as the ground hasn’t frozen yet. Roots grow no matter the season, giving fall-planted specimens a good head start on spring.

Plant nurseries often label their inventory as appropriate for birds or butterflies, but birding stores can also capture some of this interest. And that doesn’t mean you need to expand to include a full-blown plant section. Dave Titterington, the owner of the Wild Bird Habitat Store in Lincoln, Nebraska, has partnered with a nearby nursery and the University of Nebraska to develop programs and educational materials for customers on how they can attract more birds to their yard simply by changing how they garden. He gives a Saturday morning slideshow presentation on landscaping for wildlife at Finke Gardens in Lincoln, accompanied by a handout he developed describing the benefits of various trees, shrubs and other plants appropriate for the frigid Nebraska winters.

“Even if it is one crabapple tree or a single viburnum, it’s a start,” Titterington said, commenting that sometimes cost can prohibit people from expanding their bird care regimen away from a simple feeding station. Selling a feeder is selling bird conservation, and carefully planned backyards may one day provide some of the last remaining quality habitat for songbirds. “A backyard bird feeding specialty store will become a thing of the past if we don’t promote bird conservation now,” he added.
Get past the notion that yards must be spic-and-span once the growing season is over. Allowing perennials to stand through the winter provides valuable seeds and often, places where insects and their protein-rich larvae take shelter in winter. Birds also seek refuge in piles of fallen branches in a quiet corner of the yard. But proper plant selection is critical.

Grasses and native shrubs are especially helpful, said Anna Pidgeon, an avian ecology expert with the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Allowing trees with hollows to stand will make you popular with owls, woodpeckers and flickers—as long as it doesn’t cause a safety concern for neighbors.

Also, choose plants that draw the birds’ insect prey, Pidgeon said. Sharp population declines of swallows, flycatchers, nighthawks and swifts may partly be caused by reduced numbers of flying insects like bees, butterflies and flies. “Planting habitat for these species may be beneficial for both the insect population and the bird species that prey on them,” Pidgeon advised.

With a landmass that encompasses some of the most varied weather in the world, American birdscapers must choose their plants carefully. Often, tolerance to cold and freezing is the bottom line for what will grow successfully in a given area of the country—though deciding what to provide for avian visitors can help whittle the list of options, as well. Are providing food and shelter primary concerns? Or is the interest in how much room a plant will occupy in the landscape, or whether it will mesh with the existing gardens?

Plant experts in each region of the country weigh in with what they regard as some of the most valuable plants for birds—particularly overwintering species—to help you give advice to budding birdscapers.

New England – Ellen Sousa, 
Turkey Hill Brook Farm,
Spencer, Massachusetts
Sousa likes to consider a plant’s insect value when she’s choosing what to plant: species that draw larval hosts for moths and butterflies makes it easier for hard-working parents to feed their hungry broods in spring.

  • Shadblow serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis): Provides early-season blooms and sweet June fruit.
  • Eastern Redcedar (Juniperus virginiana): Scratchy evergreen foliage offers excellent year-round protection and nesting sites.
  • Fall-blooming goldenrod (Solidago) and asters (Aster) are two important perennial plants Sousa recommends that provide food into the winter months.

Mid-Atlantic – Kurt Kurzmiller, Mid-Atlantic Natives, New Freedom, Pennsylvania
Kurzmiller urges his customers to consider chemicals when shopping for birds—pass up plants that have been treated or sprayed with pesticides to avoid poisoning the very creatures you’re trying to support.

  • Arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum): A true four-season plant. Fluffy white spring flowers are followed in fall by blazing red foliage, and birds rely on the heavy clusters of dark blue berries for food.
  • Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum): An under-used species adaptable to a wide variety of growing conditions, boneset’s nectar-laden flowers are popular with the locals in summer. Its fall seeds provide food for overwintering songbirds.
  • Broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus): This feathery native grass provides both food and cover, sporting a sandy tan color in fall. Clump-forming and easy to maintain, it won’t spread like many non-native ornamental grasses.

Southeast – Jacqueline McRae, President, Georgia Native Plant Society
McRae’s selections have been voted by Georgia Native Plant Society members in years past as Plants of the Year. They furnish outstanding landscape value for both human and animal visitors.

  • White Oak (Quercus alba): Though slow-growing, this will eventually become an extremely large tree—up to 100 feet tall under good growing conditions! White oak is a very important food source, also providing nesting sites and year-round shelter to a huge variety of bird species.
  • Piedmont Azalea (Rhododendron canescens): With ethereal, fragrant pink flowers in spring, native azaleas are versatile, especially for shady yards.
  • Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa): An unusual perennial with lantern-shaped orange flowers in summer, butterfly weed is popular with—you guessed it—butterflies, especially monarchs and their larvae; birds eat the seed. Don’t let the “weed” in its name drive you away—it’s well-behaved, but can grow in even terrible soil.

Great Plains – Benjamin Vogt, Monarch Gardens, Lincoln, Nebraska
Very cold temperatures and several feet of snow characterize winters in the country’s mid-section, and Vogt recommends allowing dried-out wildflowers to stand over the winter. Jutting up from the snow, their seed heads provide an easy-to-find food source.

  • Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpus): An archetypical stately, rounded oak, animals of all types are drawn to this species for food and shelter. Can become as wide as it is tall—up to 90 feet.
  • Common Snowberry (Symphoricarpus albus): Birds love the white berries for which this low, shrubby species is named. Early summer flowers attract pollinators.
  • Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans): With showy fall color and nice seed heads, this tall native grass remains fairly upright all winter long. Drought tolerant in summer, the grass provides shelter from snow and wind storms and spring nesting sites.

Southwest – David Salman, founder & chief horticulturist, 
High Country Gardens, Santa Fe, New Mexico

  • Winters in the desert can be quite cold – but dry. Conserve water and take advantage of the region’s aridity by choosing plants with good drought tolerance.
  • Big sacaton (Sporobolus wrightii ‘Windbreaker’): Bred to defend against wind, this salt-tolerant native grass is an excellent alternative to invasive Pampas grass.Reaching six to eight feet in height, the plant provides shelter and food for ground birds including quail and pheasant.
  • Fendler’s barberry (Berberis fendleri): A native shrub whose spines furnish good protection for birds. Persistent winter fruit feeds hungry songbirds just when food is getting scarce.
  • Perennial sunflower (Helianthus maximiliana): Besides being undeniably cheerful during the summer, birds rely on these flowers’ seeds come fall and winter. Tall and tough, perennial sunflowers can grow to 5 feet, but lack the giant heads of the more familiar annual sunflower.

Pacific Northwest – Jennifer Rehm, Hansen’s Northwest Native Plant Database, Oregon
Rehm maintains this database and online magazine as a labor of love in memory of her native plant mentor, Wally Hansen. Though winters in her region can be mild closer to the coast, shelter and food are still important considerations.

  • Mountain hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana): Especially good for areas with short growing seasons and long cold winters, this tall and narrow native tree is important for year-round shelter.
  • Sadler’s oak (Quercus sadleriana): A short, evergreen shrub, this oak species still bears characteristic oak acorns and fills in the sometimes hard-to-populate middle layer of the landscape.
  • Alpine Forget-Me-Not (Myosotis alpestris): You’ll never forget this one after seeing its cerulean flowers; neither will the quail with her queue of youngsters who come to visit this perennial flower.