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A DIY Guide to Landscaping for Winter Birds
Often the only sign of life you may see during the winter are the birds which come into your yard in search of food. Bird feeders are not the only thing that causes winter birds to frequent particular yards in the neighborhood. Planning ahead for the basic needs winter birds have begins with landscaping.
First Things First
Consult a good bird identification book to identify which birds you may expect to stay the winter in your region. The bird book you have should contain range maps for each bird listed. The National Geographic Field Guide to Birds and Kenn Kaufman’s Birds of North America are two excellent pocket guides with this information. A good beginner’s pocket guide is Birds: A Golden Guide published by St. Martin’s Press.
Birds which seem to winter in many sections of the United States include the following: dark-eyed junco, downy woodpecker, red-breasted and white-breasted nuthatches, northern cardinal, song sparrow, house finch, common redpoll, pine siskin, jay (blue or Stellar’s), and chickadee. Decide which of the winter birds you especially wish to attract and concentrate on landscaping for those birds. Some winter birds prefer certain foods and have different habitat needs than others.
Winter Birds Require Food
If you wish to attract winter birds to your yard, your landscaping design should include seed, fruit, and nut bearing perennials, shrubs, and trees which will hang onto their seeds or fruit during the winter months. In combination with bird feeders, your yard and garden plants will provide enough food to satisfy the birds that overwinter in your area.
When selecting perennials and shrubs for your landscape, you must think ahead to what the average snow fall is for your region. If you live in an area with large amounts of snow and you plant perennials or shrubs which hug the ground, they will not be found by the winter birds. Landscaping for winter birds in these regions means selecting perennials and shrubs taller than one or two feet in height.
Know which type of bird likes what type of food+
Here is a list which may help you:
Winter birds which eat only seeds: dark-eyed juncos, red-and white-breasted nuthatches (also eats nuts and insects), common redpolls (also eats insects), pine siskins (also eats insects), chickadees (also eats insects).
Winter birds which eat both seeds and fruit/berries: downy woodpeckers (also eats insects), northern cardinals (also eats insects), song sparrows, house finches, jays (also eats acorns and insects).
Perennial plants in the landscape can supply smaller ground-feeding winter birds with seeds to eat. Look for ornamental grasses with seed heads like little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), or spear grass (Achnatherum calamagrostis). Juncos, sparrows, and finches enjoy the seeds from these grasses. Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) grows to two or three feet and has a central seed head at which winter birds will peck. Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia) is a native wild flower and like purple coneflower is a natural winter bird feeder. Another interesting landscape idea: stake up a few towering sunflowers against a wall and let the seed heads develop and dry out. Northern cardinals, finches, jays, and chickadees will perch and enjoy their winter meal.
Do not forget that ornamental shrubs often supply winter birds with berries, besides looking beautiful in your winter landscape. Highbush cranberry (Viburnum trilobum) grows up to ten feet, has bright red berries, and is either evergreen or deciduous depending upon your USDA hardiness zone. David Beaulieu, the landscaping guide for About.com, recommends both holly and bayberry shrubs. You must make sure you have both a male and female plant when planting these two species or you will not get the berries so popular with winter birds. The blossoms from rosa rugosa, also known as salt spray rose, will die back and form rose hips, a type of emergency food for winter birds when they can not find other sources.
Trees can provide fruit, nuts, or seeds for winter birds and often tower above your winter landscape. American mountain ash will have some berries well after the cedar waxwings pick it over in the autumn. Woodpeckers and jays eat these leftover berries. Pincherry and chokecherry trees in the landscape provide berries eaten by jays, woodpeckers, and finches among others. The American beech tree is an excellent choice for its nuts which jays, chickadees, and tufted titmice eat. Siskins and redpolls clamor for the birch tree’s tiny cone-like fall seeds, some of which may hang on through part of the winter.
Berry-producing evergreen trees in your landscape like junipers and cedars are favorites of some game birds. The seeds in the cones of pine and spruce trees feed woodpeckers, chickadees, siskins, crossbills, nuthatches, and finches. Evergreen trees perform a function other than food which we will see in the next section.
Some species formerly sought for their food value to winter birds have been discovered to be more invasive than desired. These include sumacs, honeysuckle, red chokecherry, Oriental bittersweet, multiflora roses, Japanese barberry, and privet. The person wishing to plant these species should either select an alternative native species for their landscape or be vigilant about controlling the plant’s growth and distribution.
Winter Birds Require Shelter
If you were outside during the winter on a day when the wind blew harsh and cold, you would seek shelter, wouldn’t you? Winter birds require some kind of shelter as well against strong winds and the cold. Pines and spruces are some of the best trees in the landscape to provide this. Another place winter birds sometimes find temporary shelter is among patches of dried grasses. Although you may be tempted to clean up a brush pile or wood pile, birds find shelter in these areas, too. The winter birds which eat insects as well as other foods find dormant insects hidden under the bark of trees and in brush and wood piles.
Trees and tall shrubs in the landscape provide perches for winter birds taking their turns at bird feeders. For that reason, the smart birdwatcher places his feeders and suet baskets within a short distance of a hedge or other trees and shrubs.
To plan where in your landscape to plant trees, shrubs, or hedges consider where the snow drifts the most and plant so you have a windbreak. The winter birds will benefit from a windbreak as well.
Some birds use the peeling bark from birch trees in building their nests in the spring. Other winter birds utilize the cavities of dead trees to seek shelter. If you choose to keep a dead tree section as part of your landscaping design, an ornamental vine can hide it during most of the rest of the year.
Winter Birds Require Water
One of the most difficult of basic needs to supply to winter birds is the water they require. Birds simply can not maintain the efficiency of their feathers to warm them without baths during the winter. Snow will not take care of a winter bird’s thirst. Terra cotta or clay bird baths may crack with prolonged exposure to cold winter temperatures. Ponddoc.com recommends an electric bird bath deicer for days when the temperatures are freezing. Bird baths need not be elaborate either, according to her. A garbage can lid is shallow enough that even smaller birds will not be frightened to use the water it contains. Of course, if you do not use a deicer to keep the water unfrozen, you will have to use boiling water to unfreeze it or tap the ice out and refill it throughout the day. Use of salt and antifreeze, needless to state, are absolutely forbidden because of the hazards to the health of the winter birds.
Remember . . .
Try to select native plant, shrub, and tree species instead of introducing non-native varieties which may be difficult to prevent from becoming invasive.
A yard that is mostly neatly trimmed lawn with few shrubs or trees attracts few birds. Without the food and shelter a diverse selection of plants brings, your winter landscape will look sparse and unattractive to a winter bird.
Buchanan, Rita. The Winter Garden: Plants That Offer Color and Beauty in Every Season of the Year. Taylor’s Weekend Gardening Guides. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
David Beaulieu. “Popular Plants, Ideas for Winter Landscapes: Ideas for Turning Winter Landscapes Into Winter Scenes Worth Painting.” [Online] http://landscaping.about.com/cs/winterlandscaping1/a/winter_shrubs_3.htm
http://www.garden.org/subchannels/landscaping/trees?q=show id;=764 page;=3