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Naure's Garden: Backyard Birds

by Cliff Sharples (chief cultivator)

birds, winter interest, nature

In January, while the flowers of summer are buried under a blanket of snow in the mid-west, winter gardens remain colorful, thanks to a constant stream of visiting songbirds. This is how one rural gardener made a backyard habitat... You might not have all this space, but any of these ideas can be taken on their own for your own bird paradise.

I have a friend who has a magical farm in the cold land of Iowa. On any given day, flocks of goldfinches, house finches, cardinals, blue jays, red-bellied woodpeckers, downy and hairy woodpeckers, several species of sparrows, juncos, nuthatches, and chickadees visit their feeders outside the family room window in the cold months of the new year. In fact, he sais, each year it seems they get more and more birds stopping by for a snack. This winter, for example, they’ve played host to a squadron of cedar waxwings, that gorge themselves on the small, hanging fruits on our Sargeant crabapple tree. Usually this nomadic species swoops in (always in tight knit flocks) eats, and moves on to another location, but this season they’ve pitched their tents in the evergreen windbreak and only travel as far as the crabapple for refueling. When he first moved to his farm 18 years ago, there were few birds around the place. With the exception of the windbreak, there wasn’t another shrub, tree, or vine planted anywhere near the house or other buildings. It was obvious he needed to do some major landscaping, something that would make their new home a haven for both their family and the local wildlife.

Make a List. Check it Twice.

He started by making a list of trees, shrubs, vines, and ground covers that would survive in their region, have more than one season of interest, and, if possible, produce either food or cover for the birds. (You can do the same thing using our Plant Search here at DigtheDirt). Then, they started planting, focusing on trees the first year, with species such as serviceberry, crabapple, redbud, oak, sugar maple, hawthorn, linden, spruce, pine and a mini orchard of fruit trees. Gradually shrubs were added such as cranberry, Pagoda dogwood, red-osier dogwood, cotoneaster, spirea, hydrangea, lilac, yew, raspberry, and barberry.

The vines chosen included: wisteria, trumpet vine, Virginia creeper, Boston ivy, hops, and clematis. In addition to all this planting, they also erected a variety of bird feeders and houses around the property to lure the greatest assortment of bird species throughout the year.

Mess Hall Fare

For winter months: thistle feeders for the finches, platform feeders for the cardinals and juncos, suet feeders for the woodpeckers and nuthatches, and tube feeders for the chickadees. For summer visitors: bluebird houses, wren houses, purple martin apartment houses, hummingbird feeders, and nesting platforms for robins and barn swallows. Plus, they installed two birdbaths and a water garden--you’d be surprised at how many birds and other animals you can attract with even a small water garden.