For the birds: Plant food and shelter for our feathered friends
Bob Mulvihill, an ornithologist at the National Aviary, always seems to have a pair of binoculars hanging around his neck. In midsentence, the faint sound of a songbird will grab his attention, and with just one note, he can identify the species.
He sits outside in the Aviary’s courtyard surrounded by a diverse landscape of trees, shrubs, perennial and annual flowers. Bright-red crabapple trees fill the west entrance; they are just one of the things he says gardeners can plant to create a landscape for the birds.
On a trip to Powdermill Nature Reserve in Rector, he discovered a specimen of flowering crabapple — Malus x zumi ‘Calocarpa’ — that the birds favor over all others. Even though the other varieties were teeming with fruit, the zumi crabapple lured flocks of birds, which happily devoured the tiny crabapples.
“The birds tend to wait until they’ve been hit by frost a couple times, which softens them up,” he says. “Once that happens, they don’t leave the neighborhood until that tree is stripped of its fruits.”
There’s a bigger picture, though, for gardeners as they consider constructing a bird-friendly habitat, he says.
“The first thing I would do is to think about creating complexity in the vertical dimensions of your yard’s plantings,” he says.
That means tall trees such as oaks, maples and birches, then smaller understory trees such as serviceberry, followed by shrubs all the way down to smaller plants and ground covers. The same is true when thinking of the landscape horizontally, too. Patches of plants, with some open area between the patches, provide a great habitat.
Even though birders and gardeners live in different worlds, he says, there’s a lot of common ground between them. “I think if your connection to the outdoors and nature is through gardening or birds, ultimately one leads you into the other,” he says.
In most cases, Mulvihill prefers plants that have grown here for centuries.
“Clearly, food is very important to birds,” he says. “The native species will host the herbivorous insects that a lot of those birds will feed on. Fruit is really nice to have; there are so many native fruiting shrubs and trees, you don’t have to go with the non-natives.”
Besides plants, having moving water is a good idea. In the winter, use commercially available heaters to keep the water from freezing.
Mulvihill also recommends leaving some areas wild for the birds. “You’re creating those nooks and crannies, some nice landscaping rocks, fallen logs, and then leave some areas under the trees to gather the leaf litter,” he says.
Weeping branches of beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) weighted down with bright-purple berries sway back and forth as Diana Knapp carries a large pot filled with the plants across Hahn Nursery in Ross, where she’s the nursery manager.
“Birds have basic requirements: food, water and shelter,” she says.
Fall is the perfect time to plant trees, shrubs and perennials, and many will provide things for the birds.
“Right now, you can plant just about anything,” she says.
One of the things that makes gardening so fun is helping wildlife, such as pollinators and birds, which in turn help the gardener by eating pests and are wonderful to watch.
“I like that they have a home,” Knapp says of the birds in her garden. “In the front of my house, I have a huge ‘Manhattan’ euonymus (Euonymus kiautschovicus) growing up the front of my sunroom, and in the wintertime, I can look out there and see at least three or four birds nests. It gives me joy.”
Plants for birds
Bob Mulvihill’s recommendations:
• Gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa). “I’ve watched the birds; they love it more than any of the other dogwood shrubs that I know of,” he says. The low-growing shrub will spread nicely and has a deep-red color in the fall. The flowers are not too thrilling, he says, but there’s something special that sets it apart from the rest. “The berries are white; they look kind of like doll’s eyes,” he says with a smile.
• Other shrublike dogwoods, such as Pagota dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) and the Silky dogwood (Cornus amomum).
• Native dogwood tree (Cornus florida). The red fruits are very fatty, and “they make a very good energy source for migratory birds. Especially the thrushes seem to really love those,” he says.
• Spicebush (Lindera benzoin). It will be filled with tiny, yellow, aromatic flowers in spring. “It’s a native shrub that deer don’t like to eat. It gets a small, waxy, spicy-smelling red fruit that are very eagerly consumed by birds in migration.”
• Evergreens, including eastern hemlock and white pines. They provide shelter and can be a food source for some birds.
• Daisylike flowers, asters, Joe Pye weed, ironweed, coneflowers and black-eyed Susans. “All of those things look beautiful, attract a lot of pollinators, and then, when they go to seed, the goldfinches, juncos and migrating sparrows find them. They are basically organic bird feeders,” he says.
• Virginia creeper. “It grows beautifully on trellises and on walls. It gets small fruits that the birds love, and it has gorgeous fall foliage.”
• Poison ivy. “I will even say if you’ve got a patch of poison ivy and it’s in your back 40, not hurting anything, if it’s growing up the side of a tree, let it be. It’s one of the most favorite fruits that birds eat.”
Diana Knapp’s recommendations:
• Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis). “That’s a native; that’s a great one for birds. Most varieties get 4 to 5 feet tall. They get an unusual flower on them — it almost looks like a golf ball — and it gets a big seed head.”
• Pyracantha. “The birds like those berries. It’s thorny, so the deer don’t like it. It’s pretty hardy and will fill a space.”
• Small trees such as serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea). They bloom early for the pollinators and then produce a bitter dark-blue berry that ripens as a treat for the birds.
• Winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata). It serves a dual purpose, Knapp says. The berries are attractive, and the birds will not go after them until they soften up.
• Rose hips. The fruit persists most of the winter. Her favorites are the David Austin Roses. She grows ‘Darcey Bussell,’ ‘Princess Alexandra of Kent,’ ‘Wisley’ and others.