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Feed Birds the Natural Way

Natural Bird Feeding: Bird-friendly Plant Options for Your Backyard

Excerpted from the new book Feeding and Identifying Backyard Birds by Bill Thompson, III

Excerpt Topics

How would you like to feed birds in the very best way possible—in a way that is all-natural, environmentally sustainable, inexpensive, and easy to do? Is that something you might be interested in? If so, get out the garden gloves and the garden trowel and leave the bird feeders and seed alone for a minute. The very best way to feed birds is to offer them the kinds of foods they would find and consume in nature, and that starts with offering bird-friendly plants.

Birds eat all manner of plant matter: seeds, berries, fruits, buds, leaves, nectar, and, of course, the insects that occur on and around plants. Every plant from the shortest lichen to the tallest old-growth tree has something edible to offer to birds. But it's hard to start a bird-friendly yard with lichens and old-growth trees.

Birds and plants have evolved together on Planet Earth. The plant grows a fruit or a seed or nectar to attract a hungry bird. The bird then returns the favor by helping the plant reproduce itself. The happens in a lot of different ways, but the two most common are as follows: Method a) a bird eats a part of a plant containing a seed—let's say it's a blackberry—digests the fruit and poops out the hard, indigestible seeds. The seeds land with a splat on the ground and, with luck and the help of the bird's natural fertilizer, a new blackberry plant will grow on that very spot. Method b) A hummingbird pokes its bill into a blossom—say a honeysuckle's—and laps up the sweet nectar deep inside. While it's drinking, the flower's pistils are dabbing pollen on the bird's head and bill. The hummingbird takes this pollen on to other flowers and other stands of honeysuckle, helping the honeysuckle to pollinate and reproduce.

If you haven't already guessed it, plants that birds use for food, shelter, or nesting are called bird-friendly plants. The most successful bird-attracting backyards are the ones that feature a well-rounded selection of bird-friendly plants in addition to feeders, birdbaths, and nest boxes. In most cases, it will be the plants that will first catch the attention of a passing bird.

On our ridge-top farm in southeastern Ohio we've planted small stands of gray birches. These are native trees to North American, but they do not occur in our area naturally. However, they survive well enough to grow about 30 feet tall. The birch family of trees is very bird friendly. The birch buds are eaten by hungry finches in the spring. The leaves seem to attract every insect and caterpillar in the book, which pleases the warblers and vireos in spring and summer. In fall, the catkins get munched on by the finches again. And the soft wood of the birch trunks is perfect for passing sapsuckers to drill sap wells. In both spring and fall I've witnessed countless migrant warblers, vireos, tanagers, orioles, and even cuckoos drop out of the sky, making a beeline to the birches. Clearly they recognize these trees as good places to find food.

Letting it Go

Sometimes the easiest way to make a yard more bird friendly is to leave it alone, literally. Nothing is less appealing to our native backyard birds than a large expanse of perfect lawn. Sure you may get a few American robins or chipping sparrows or common grackles foraging on a huge lawn, but only if that grass still harbors grubs and worms and insects that most perfect, chemically enhanced lawns do not. In fact, if you are really into having a perfect lawn and you plan to soak it with chemicals and fertilizers to achieve the desired level of perfection, all you're doing is putting up a big sign that says: "Native Birds and Wildlife Go Elsewhere!"

If, on the other hand, you're open to letting nature dictate, allow a corner or small section of your yard to grow out into its full "weedy" goodness. Then watch the birds come in to take advantage of the food and shelter this patch offers. You will likely get a mix of native and non-native plant species.

Native versus Non-native

The North American continent is overrun in many places with plants that don't belong here. These non-native invaders come from other parts of the world, often to the detriment of our native plants. The birds and animals that rely on our native plants for food and shelter suffer when the habitat is radically altered by the domineering presence of non-native plants. Plants such as pampas grass from Africa, or Japanese honeysuckle and kudzu from Asia thrive in our North American habitats because the factors that keep them under control in their native lands do not exist here. These invasive exotics may do so well that they completely choke out any other competing plant life. If these plants offer nothing of value to our native birds, the birds have no choice but to move elsewhere.

Before planting any new species in your yard or garden, take an inventory of what you've already got. If you can identify any invasive non-native plants, remove them right away. Your local extension service or native plant society can help you with plant identification as well as with suggestions for wildlife-friendly native plant species to add to your property.

Bird-Friendly Plants Overview:

Nearly all plantlife has something to offer to birds and wildlife. But some plants are more bird-friendly than others, meaning they meet the essential needs of birds on a variety of levels. Here are some general groupings into which we can lump bird-friendly plants, along with some representative plant genera. Please note that it's always best to use native plant species in your bird gardening. Check the plant species name with a reliable resource before you add it to your garden.

Annuals

Annuals are plants that have a one-year life cycle. They sprout from seed, produce flowers, ripen their seeds, and then die. This cycle normally runs from spring through fall—essentially one growing season.

Bird-friendly annuals include: amaranthus (Amaranthus spp.), coreopsis (Coreopsis spp.), cosmos (Cosmos spp.), marigolds (Tegetes spp.), sunflowers (Helianthus spp.), and zinnias (Zinnia spp.).

Perennials

Perennials are plants that live for more than two years. They bloom and grow for a season, then die back. The following growing season, they re-emerge from their root stock, rather than re-germinating from seed as annual plants do.

Bird-friendly perennials include: asters (Symphyotrichum spp.), black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckis spp.), goldenrods (Solidago spp.), coneflowers (Echinacea spp.), and grasses such as little bluestem (Schizachyrium spp.).

Shrubs

Shrubs are a very general category of broad-leaved plants that have small, tightly grouped branches and thick foliage. They are basically short, leafy trees. Shrubs are excellent sources of shelter and nesting sites, as well as foraging sites, for birds.

Shrubs that are very attractive to birds include: sumacs (Rhus spp.), elderberries (Sambucus spp.), viburnums (Viburnum spp.), and boxwoods (Buxus spp.).

Small Trees

Small trees are differentiated from shrubs by their form and growth pattern. Shrubs have multiple branches growing up from the soil. Small trees tend to have a single trunk which then divides into branches and then foliage at some height above the soil. While they may not offer the shelter that thickly vegetated shrubs do, small trees are excellent sources of food for foraging birds.

Bird-friendly small trees include: hollies (Ilex spp.), serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.), and dogwoods (Cornus spp.).

Fruiting Trees and Shrubs

Fruits produced by plants come in a variety of forms. There's the stereotypical fruit, such as an apple or a cherry-colorful, edible flesh surrounding a seed or seeds. But did you know that the samaras (seeds that look like helicopter rotors) of maple trees, the acorns of oaks, and the walnut are also considered fruits? It's true. I don't want to get too deep into proper application of botanical terminology. Let's just say that the most bird-friendly trees and shrubs are the ones that not only provide some sort of shelter and protected site for nesting but also offer the birds something to eat in the way of fruits, nuts, berries, sap, tender buds, or the insects and other prey items that may live on or in them.

Bird-friendly fruiting trees and shrubs include: blueberries (Vaccinium spp.), cherries (Pruns spp.), crab apples (Malus spp.), hawthorns (Crataegus spp.), mountain ashes (Sorbus spp.), spicebush (Lindera benzoin), sassafras (Sassafras albidum), and black gum (Nyssa sylvatica).

These groupings and the species listed under each are a small fraction of the bird-friendly plant options available to you. North America is a huge continent with a range of ecoregions and growing zones. The best bird-friendly plants for your region, climate, soil, and bird habitat plans will be very different from those of your friend who lives on the opposite side of the continent. For this reason, it's important that you get expert advice specific to your region in order to enjoy maximum bird-attracting success.

Excerpted from the new book Feeding and Identifying Backyard Birds by Bill Thompson, III. Order your copy today >>

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