Gardenwise: Is Your Garden For the Birds? (Really, That’s a Good Thing

This ruby-throated hummingbird can’t resist cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), a native perennial.
This ruby-throated hummingbird can’t resist cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), a native perennial.

By Susan Tito

Many people design gardens around their favorite plants, trees, shrubs and flowers, which can be attractive when planned correctly. But those outdoor spaces could also serve a greater need.

A garden is so much more than a disparate collection of flora. It’s part of a complex, interconnected natural community of living organisms in their chemical and physical environments. The plants you grow make an impact, good or bad, on the creatures that visit your property. Birds, for example, are drawn to certain landscape features in their quest for food, water, shelter and nesting sites.

Speaking of which, unless you’re having a Tippi Hedren moment in an Alfred Hitchcock flick, you will want to encourage birds to flock to your property. Why?

“Both in the garden and in the larger ecosystem, birds serve a vital role in pollinating plants, dispersing seeds and recycling nutrients back into the soil,” said Kelly T. Knutson, New York field organizer for the National Audubon Society.

That’s why the Audubon Society is encouraging homeowners to make their community more bird-friendly by planting native species, which help migrating avians find food and shelter.

“Through planting native patches of grasses, trees and shrubs — no matter how small — you can provide a habitat for birds,” which face threats from climate change, said Mr. Knutson.

There are thousands of native plants from which to choose, and the Audubon Society has an easy-to-navigate native database that can generate a region-specific list (audubon.org/native-plants). Also, many local chapters, such as the North Fork Audubon Society, conduct seed and plant sales as part of native restoration efforts. Visit northforkaudubon.org for information about their next Native Plant Sale, to be held May 19 and 20 at Inlet Pond County Park in Greenport.

The American holly (Ilex opaque), a native evergreen, is an important food source and shelter for many bird species in the winter.
The American holly (Ilex opaque), a native evergreen, is an important food source and shelter for many bird species in the winter.

You may be surprised to learn that some of the plants you already grow are native and support a variety of wildlife.

That’s what happened to me one year when I was late in pruning back my spent black-eyed Susans. Dark brown seedheads had already replaced the plants’ bright gold blooms, giving the garden bed an untidy look. As I gazed out my kitchen window, berating myself for being behind in my cleanup, I noticed a little yellow bird flitting from one seedhead to the next, followed by another yellow bird. Then a third bird arrived. Some American goldfinches decided that my messy garden was a splendid place to grab a seed snack!

Since then, I’m not too quick to clean up the yard. I just invoke the ol’ “I’m feeding the birds” excuse.

I learned from that experience that birds are an inexpensive source of entertainment. They “add a spectacular variety of color and movement to any garden,” said Mr. Knutson, who said that depending on the season, Eastern Long Islanders can expect to see the following species in their backyards:

Spring: Yellow-bellied sapsucker, purple finch and indigo bunting

Summer: American goldfinch, ruby-throated hummingbird and Baltimore oriole

Fall: Tufted titmouse, cedar waxwing and northern cardinal

Winter: Dark-eyed junco, white-throated sparrow and downy woodpecker

What’s the best way to attract different bird species? Create a healthy habitat for them. Mr. Knutson offers the following tips:

• Don’t plant only for birds — think about insects, which provide a protein-rich food source that baby birds need to thrive. For example, oak trees host hundreds of insect species, such as ants, bees and beetles.

• Choose species that provide other types of food that nourish birds throughout winter, such as cedar and holly, which bear fruit, and walnut and hickory trees, which offer nuts. Consider choosing plants with red blooms, such as cardinal flower, beardtongue and honeysuckle, all of which are excellent sources of nectar for hummingbirds.

• Remove invasive exotics, as they reduce the value of a habitat for birds and can outcompete native species, which are adapted to local climatic conditions and help birds survive by giving them food and a place to rest and nest.

• Avoid using pesticides, which are harmful to beneficial insects and birds and unintentionally create a no-fly zone.

Even if you don’t have much property, you can create a bird-friendly environment. Consider hanging a hummingbird feeder or setting out suet on a nearby tree. Put together a native plant container garden on your patio or deck.

Easier still, create a brush pile, which can provide much-needed shelter for birds. Even something as simple as setting up a heated bird bath can make a big difference for our avian friends, especially in the dead of winter.

As you can see, with a little planning it is easy to create a bird-friendly space that’s something to crow about!


Susan Tito
Susan Tito

Susan Tito is a freelance writer and proprietor of Summerland Garden Design & Consulting (summerlandgardendesign.com). She earned a certificate in ornamental garden design from the New York Botanical Garden and is a member of the American Horticultural Society and Garden Writers Association. She can be reached at stito630@gmail.com.

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