Answers to your gardening questions
effective Deer Fence!
Birds in the
Fall and Winter Landscape
Welcome through Fred's Garden Gate! So, what happens now that the deep-freeze is close at hand and we can no longer play on our hands and knees in the garden? Plenty!
Any avid outdoor gardener has a built-in reserve of winter indoor gardening activities. Windowsill gardens; small, attached greenhouses which are heated for winter forcing or morning coffee; supplemental lights in a basement "garden;" shelves filled with good books, magazines, catalogs and personal notes; garden club meetings; making sure bird feeders remain filled; all of these things - and more - help wile away the long and dark winter days.
One of my personal favorites is sitting quietly near a window which overlooks our array of bird feeders and nearby "watering hole." Few activities are as satisfying as those which nourish and provide comfort for some of Nature's most charming little creatures: birds!
Of course, if the sole attraction for birds in your yard is a feeder, you'll only see a limited assortment. Chickadees, nuthatches, song sparrows, jays (of course!), finches, and perhaps a passing flock ("swarm") of grackles or grosbeaks are seed-eaters who prefer a diet of cracked corn, millet and sunflower seeds. Some other species just don't care for store-bought seeds, preferring fodder of a slightly wilder sort.
A number of ornamental plants produce small nuts, berries or other seed structures which usually attract some other species not ordinarily observed at the feeder. As different ornamental crops come and go, so also will different kinds of birds. A flock of cedar waxwings, for example, may swoop in and completely strip a planting of its berries or seeds in a few short days, then totally disappear for the remainder of winter.
When garden or landscape space is abundant, there are several types of small shrubs and trees which will provide ready provender for these more unusual birds. So, if you'd like to increase the bird varieties in your yard, begin planning now for some changes or additions to your plant varieties when spring returns.
A few you might consider are Hawthorn, dogwood, holly, crabapple, winterberry, pyracantha, service berries (A. melanchier), cedars, black gum (Nyssa sylvatica), choke cherry, barberry, cotoneaster (pronounced "ka-tone-e-AS-ter" – not: "cotton-Easter" as I’ve heard so often), honeysuckle, and any of the several viburnums like American (high-bush) cranberry and nannyberry (V. prunifolium).
Birds also need the shelter and resting places provided by such plantings, especially those whose form is dense and brushy. If you watch birds as they feed, most will snatch a morsel then fly off to some protected spot to consume it. Jays, of course, stay right there, gorging themselves on everything in sight but, on average, the little fellows seek out the protection of dense cover.
Birds generally select nesting and resting places which fall somewhere between five and twenty feet above ground. It's important to consider (as most birds do) that larger trees with strong, stout limbs are more easily climbed by predators, so plants which you choose should be more "twiggy," thorny or in some other way more difficult for animals like cats and raccoons to climb. Evergreen trees and shrubs generally provide better protection against winter's biting cold and wind.
You should plant shrubs and small trees away from buildings so pruning will be less a necessity. Pruning makes them less attractive as resting and nesting sites. It also helps to locate new plantings away from areas frequented by rambunctious children or predatory household pets.
Vines like Virginia creeper, Boston ivy and bittersweet are particularly attractive to bluebirds, robins, woodpeckers and various types of sparrows.
A supply of fresh, thawed water is also a means of attracting a wider variety of birds. Small garden ponds or pools with re-circulators kept running in the winter seem to be especially attractive to birds - mostly because the sound of running water is an irresistible invitation: "Here's water...come and get it!" When all else is frozen solid, and there's no snow on the ground, a supply of readily available water may very well provide an crucial means of survival. A small heater (I use an automotive heated dip-stick readily available at most mega-stores) to keep the source unfrozen shouldn't run up the electric bill more than a dollar or two over winter.
Giving birds a safe and pleasant place to live will give us—and them—comfort and enjoyment...and we may also enjoy some rare and unusual birds as they make a brief stop on their way to someone else's gardens or woods.
Additional Resources on the same subject: Birds rely on us in winter
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