planting for winter birds

I happened to glance out of my kitchen window the other day and was rewarded with a beautiful sight—a flock of cardinals flitting back and forth among the trees and shrubs in my yard. There must have been at least a dozen bright scarlet male birds and less showy females. As they flew about foraging for food, the sight of their colors and movement against the background of white snow was breathtaking!

While cardinals generally hang out in pairs during the breeding season, in winter they come together in groups to look for food in the winter landscape. They love to dine on seeds and fruits, and they are delighted to feed on sunflower and other kinds of seeds offered in birdfeeders. Setting out feeders is a sure-fire way to attract cardinals (and many other kinds of birds). But feeders need regular maintenance — filling and cleaning. They also attract pesky squirrels that not only raid the seeds; they’re also likely to chew up the feeder itself to get at them!

 After many seasons of battling the bushy tailed rodents, about five years ago I decided to forgo feeders and provide natural bird food instead in the form of berried trees and shrubs, along with the seed heads of flowers and grasses. While I already had a number of bird food-providing plants in my gardens, as I selected additional plants I looked for those with the best bird feeding potential. I tried to choose mainly native plants, as these generally provide the best nutrition for native birds, but I’m not a stickler. Some of my choices are native to more southerly areas, such as fringetree (Chionathus virginicus) with dark blue berries on female trees or the evergreen inkberry (Ilex glabra) with its inky black berries.

The result is a landscape that not only looks attractive, but gives me the satisfaction of knowing that I’m helping my feathered friends make it through the cold and snow of a Vermont winter. Some of the berried plants I grow include gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa) and northern bayberry (Morella or Myrica pensylvanica). The fruits of these plants make especially good bird food because their berries contain a high percentage of fat — just what birds need for fuel on cold winter nights!

I also grow winterberry (Ilex verticillata) with its bright red berries that hang on into the winter on the female plants (be sure to include a non-berried male for pollination). Did you know that cardinals get their bright red color from the foods they eat? As the birds digest colorful berries, the pigments make their way into the birds’ feather follicles, giving them their vivid hue.

Viburnums are also good bird food choices. Sadly, a relatively new pest, the viburnum leaf beetle, has made growing many species in New England a challenge. Some, like arrowwood and American cranberry (V. trilobum) are very susceptible to damage. I’ve pruned down my viburnum collection as a result and now only grow Viburnum x rhytidophyllum ‘Allegheny’. This hybrid is not a native plant, but its berries (red, maturing to black) do attract hungry birds and the leaf beetles leave its thick, leathery leaves alone.

I’ve also made sure there are evergreens to provide cover from predators and shelter from winter winds. One of my neighbors conveniently planted a row of arborvitae on his lot line, and I’ve planted pines, spruces, and junipers around my yard. In addition, the rear third of my yard is a natural wooded area that welcomes birds with food, shelter and nesting spots throughout the seasons.

Landscaping to feed the birds is a great strategy for school gardens. It gives students the chance to help birds, while providing lots of opportunities for the observation and study of these beautiful creatures. Winter is a good time for students to research the kinds of plants that are best suited for feeding birds in their part of the county and to plan where in the school landscape the plants can go. Then, when spring planting time comes around, they’ll be set to do some “berry” good deeds for their feathered friends!

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