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Consider giving your backyard to the birds this year

Consider giving your backyard to the birds this year

Consider giving your backyard to the birds this year

January is the toughest month for me.

The first signs of spring are lying dormant waiting for February, the crisp smell of October is gone. By the second week of the year, Ohio usually gives into winter fully, forcing me inside with just my seed catalogs and imagination.

During this time my bird feeders are my joy. I watch them with my morning coffee, birds darting here and there. There is Mr. Chickadee, and the cardinal that lost his crest. So busy, all mingling. The blue jays come in groups, as do the doves and there is always a chipping sparrow in the shrubs.

But as we are all hibernating and watching the birds, we can do so much more than just set out some suet. Have you ever considered what you are really doing for the birds? How does your backyard help them?

In a time of new beginnings and resolutions consider giving your backyard to the birds this year.

Reduce your lawn

The American dream lawn is hurting our birds. Lawns are a mono culture, they contain only one (or a few) species of plants and is maintained at the same height at all times. As we struggle to maintain a manicured look, we take away the very things birds need.

The height of a lawn does not provide cover for birds. Think of a meadow, or an old field. While mainly made of grasses like a lawn, the varying heights of the plants allow birds to move horizontally and vertically within it. Birds are made to live in layers of plant growth, not in a uniformly mown lawn.

Birds use layers for different reasons. They go to the ground level to seek out soil dwelling insects, but also to hide from predators and the sun. They perch on the upper levels of grasses or trees to sing and declare their territory or intention to mate. Middle layers are used for nesting and sleeping. Remove these layers and put in an expanse of lawn, you also remove the birds that use them. (Want to learn more about layers – read this post).

This winter think of ways you can reduce the size of your lawn. You don’t have to begin by tearing out it all, start small. Maybe take a corner of your lot and plant some native shrubs, put in a small pond or make a mailbox flower bed. You will be surprised by autumn the new visitors you have by just removing a small amount of lawn.

Be different

Chokecherries are not commonly planted but provide late season fruit

Chokecherries are not commonly planted but provide late season fruit

I don’t know of many people who eat the same thing all the time, and birds are no different. When we create our backyards, we tend to purchase the same plants as our neighbors. This creates a large area of exactly the same plantings. Birds need many different plants to meet their needs across the seasons. A street lined with ornamental pears may look nice in spring but only has fruit once in autumn. Birds relying on our trees must go hungry the rest of the year on this street.

To prevent this, be different. Don’t purchase the same plants as your neighbors from the big box stores. Avoid Miscanthus grass (plant Big Bluestem), boxwood (try inkberry), silver maple (plant the native Sugar Maple), flowering pears (try a serviceberry or American Fringe tree) and English ivy (try Virginia creeper). Having diversity within your neighborhood  provides birds with more food and nesting choices.

Don’t purchase the same plants as your neighbors from the big box stores, plant for diversity. Click To Tweet

Notice when things bloom and bear fruit in your neighborhood. If all your neighbors have planted flowering cherries find a small tree that blooms a month later.  If you need ideas, head to your local garden center. Avoid the big box store and find a family owned operation. They can suggest what works for your area. Tell them what you see in your area. Do you have trees that flower in April? Ask for trees that flower in May. Are there crab apples in the fall? Ask for shrubs that bear fruit in the summer. They will be happy to help.

Grow baby bugs

Caterpillars feed baby birds

Caterpillars feed baby birds

When you see a hole in the leaf of your prize rosebush do you panic and reach for the spray? Hold off on that. Instead of killing the insects eating your plants you should feed them more! Insects are bird food.

Lawn as a monoculture (only one type of plant) does not support many insects. The non-native plants we surround ourselves with also don’t get bugs. While most are disgusted by the presence of these creatures, they are vital to the survival of birds.

Without a healthy insect population, the bird population does not have a chance. Many bird species rely heavily on caterpillars to raise their babies, in fact, 96% of birds need insects to fledge their young. These birds cannot go far from their nests either. They cannot leave their babies for that long. Most foraging for food by parent birds occurs within 200 feet of the nest. If that nest is surrounded by an expanse of lawn the babies are going to go hungry.

This summer, set down the bug spray and let the insects loose. So you will have a few holes in your hydrangeas, but you will be rewarded with more bird visitors.

Without a healthy insect population, the bird population does not have a chance.

It doesn’t stop at just not spraying. You also must have the right plants. As I mentioned, exotic plants don’t attract bugs so plant natives that insects have evolved to eat. When you pick the native Redbud over a non-native Katsura tree you provide a home for thousands of caterpillars.

But don’t just assume if it is native it’s good. Many native plant cultivars have been bred for an exaggerated feature. They may have more petals (double blooms), a different color (red coneflowers) or size difference (dwarf versions of full size trees). These changes change how insects see the plants and they may not recognize them. Some insects may not even be able to use the plant after the changes (especially in bloom size). So when planting, pick the plain old version of the plant, it will be cheaper and will support more bugs.

Grow more fruit

Brandywine Viburnum produces colorful fruit for the birds.

Brandywine Viburnum produces colorful fruit for the birds.

During different seasons birds need different foods. When they are raising chicks, they prefer insects (in general) for their babies, while the adults get the energy they need from high sugar summer fruits. These birds are looking for raspberries, blackberries, mulberries and wild cherries. In the fall their fruit needs switch. High sugar is nice, but won’t help them make it through the night. They then need high fat or protein fruits. These fruits are from bayberries, winterberries, conifers, dogwoods and viburnums.

While birds do love to eat from traditional fruit trees, these tend to need heavy pesticide sprays. There are plenty of non-traditional fruiting trees and shrubs that birds need for their survival. If you plan it correctly, you could have fruit year-long for the birds growing in your backyard. It’s feeding the birds without having to refill a feeder.

When looking for a fruiting plant you don’t have to stick to just the types humans can eat. While any fruit that a human can eat is fine for birds, they also eat many kinds we would consider poisonous or just not tasty.

Note: Many fruiting plants need a second of the same species to bear fruit. These two plants must be genetically different (not clones of each other). If you plant a ‘Blue Muffin’ Arrowwood Viburnum you can’t plant another Blue Muffin and expect fruit. You must plant another Arrowwood Viburnum that blooms at the same time as Blue Muffin. (Try ‘Chicago Lustre’ or ‘Autumn Jazz’).

Be Messy

Be messy, leave a brush pile for the birds

Be messy, leave a brush pile for the birds

Many believe that native wildflowers look weedy. But did you know that many formal gardens in Europe use these very flowers and consider them exotic? It’s time to lose the notion that native plants make a messy garden.

To make our natives look their best, try planting them in large drifts. A large grouping of coneflower looks intentional, while a single plant may look like a weed. Use symmetry in planting design and choose your colors to match each other for a more formal look. Another trick to avoid a ‘weedy’ planting is to place tall plants in the back of the area and the shorter in the front.

Birds love dead trees, brush piles and snags. They provide food, nesting, shelter and a place to sing from. The next time you loose a tree, consider leaving it in your backyard for the birds. First consider safety. Make sure if it falls it will not hit any structures. If you don’t want to leave a whole tree standing, you can have the branches removed so that it is just a pole, or have it cut at the halfway point and use it as an accent!

Don’t send the branches you cut off to the chopper. Instead use them to create a brush pile in a corner of your backyard. Brush piles are great hiding places for birds, and as a place to feast due to the small insects the decomposing wood attracts.  

Letting some native vines grow wild also benefits birds. Most won’t welcome the native poison ivy into their backyard but there are other native vines that fit right in. Virginia creeper is a wonderful native vine that has a brilliant red fall color and provides winter food for birds with berries. Other vines to consider are wild grape, greenbrier, native honeysuckle and crossvine. These vines provide food for insects and nesting opportunities for birds of all types. Wild grape alone provides food for 51 species of birds and 16 species use the vine to make nests.

Finally, consider skipping the fall leaf raking. Fallen leaves provide habitat for many ground dwelling insects, which in turn are eaten by birds. Thrashers, sparrows, robins and thrush all rely on these insects. If you want to keep the lawn clear of leaves, rake them under shrubs or trees. If you make the leaf mulch about 5 inches thick it will decompose enough by spring to attract all types of insects. Need more reasons to skip raking? Check out my post on why you should leave the leaves.

Helping out the birds this year doesn’t have to be difficult or break the bank! Take these ideas and use them this year in your backyard and by fall you will be helping out the birds.

Have any other ways you can help the birds this year? Tell me in the comments!

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