Gardening to Attract Birds

By Cheryl Capaldo Traylor
photos courtesy of Wake County Audubon Society

After years of watching the Raleigh area lose green space to urban development, Christina Harvey decided to create a more bird-friendly garden. “Replacing some of that landscape is one small thing I can do to help save our favorite birds,” she says.

Harvey, an avid gardener and one of more than 1,200 members in the Wake County Audubon Society, says that personal enjoyment is a major benefit to having a bird-friendly garden. Homeowners know the joy of listening to birdsong and watching colorful birds flit around their yards and feeders.

Kim Brand, field organizer for the North Carolina Audubon Society, says birds also provide a crucial role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem. Birds eat a variety of insects, from mosquitos to caterpillars, keeping the insect population in balance. Birds are also pollinators and efficient seed dispersers, creating forests that have both ecological and economic value.

To help maintain a healthy bird population, it’s necessary to landscape with native plants that support the insects and caterpillars birds like to eat, and, as Brand notes, “Non-native plants that don’t have a shared evolutionary history with the insects that live here are basically a food dessert for our birds.” Or, perhaps worse, they are providing junk food.

Many of the popular non-native landscape plants, like privet, don’t support the necessary insects that feed our birds. Insects either don’t perceive their leaves as food, cannot bite them, or find them toxic. While these plants can be used as shelter, they are not a food source for our insects or birds. Some non-natives are actually poisonous to birds. For example, the berries of nandina have proven fatal to cedar waxwings.

North Carolinians are fortunate to have many native plants that are both utilitarian and beautiful, such as our majestic oaks. According to Douglas Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home, oak trees support 534 different kinds of moths and butterflies, which lay eggs on the leaves. The hatched caterpillars eat the leaves, grow, and eventually become high-protein food for baby birds. Brand says this series of events is crucial because caterpillars are the No. 1 food source for baby songbirds. Black cherries and hickories are also important
trees for birds.

For smaller gardens, native blueberries are the perfect
bird-friendly choice. The birds will keep the insects off the plants, and there will be berries for both birds and people, as well as caterpillars for baby birds. Other small bird-friendly shrubs include flame azalea and spicebush.

If you have space for only one plant on a balcony or patio, Brand suggests planting a trellised container with coral honeysuckle. The bright red tubular-shaped flowers attract hummingbirds, while finches and robins will eat the red fruit.

A few native perennials that will attract birds are purple coneflower, swamp sunflower, and black-eyed Susan. However, Harvey advises there is more to creating a bird-friendly garden than growing flowers. “Birds also need other native food sources—like nuts, berries, and insect larvae—as well as evergreen plants for shelter and nest sites, water year-round, and layers in the landscape ranging from ground cover to shrubs to trees.”

Supplemental feeding is very beneficial during the winter season, and suet blocks are especially appreciated on bitter cold nights. The Audubon Society recently began advising people to leave hummingbird feeders up year-round as rufous and other species are showing up more regularly during the winter months. Seed heads of flowers and ornamental grasses are also a valuable food source during the coldest months.

To ensure bird populations remain healthy, aim to reduce the use of pesticides in your landscape. Allow for some imperfection, and don’t be overly concerned about nibbled plants. Rely on the natural food chain to keep many pests in check.

Brand says the best advice for homeowners wanting to create a bird-friendly garden is to start by adding a variety of native plants. She explains, “You’re going to help birds raise more babies. You’re going to help birds on their migration journeys. You’re going to make sure your bird neighbors have enough to eat. You’re going to bring more birds into your life, which will in turn make you happy.”

To learn more about bird-friendly gardens and related events, contact the Wake Audubon Society


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