A Winter Garden for Birds
Author: Julianne Labreche, Master Gardeners of Ottawa-Carleton; published with permission
My bird feeders are a source of life in the stillness of winter.
From my backyard window, I can watch the fluttering of wings at the edge of the garden. Northern cardinals perch on snow-covered evergreen branches. Woodpeckers hide black sunflower seeds in the crannies of a dead cherry tree nearby. Chickadees swoop in quickly to grab seed from a feeder, retreating to eat it in the safety of cedar hedges close by.
It’s easy to set out bird feeders. Keeping them filled, regularly cleaned, and mounted on a pole with a baffle to deter busy squirrels is usually all that is needed. However, to create a true garden for the birds, bird feeders are not enough. In an otherwise stark landscape, hanging a bird feeder is like creating a fast-food drive-through. Birds may visit, but they are unlikely to stay in your garden for long.
To provide a true winter garden for the birds, year-round habitat is needed. It is important to establish a bird-friendly winter habitat that includes shrubs and trees. Like us, overwintering birds want a safe, secure environment with food, water, and shelter.
In open spaces, songbirds are so vulnerable. They can fall prey to predators such as hawks, owls and roaming cats. In a more varied, layered habitat, there are places to hide and seek safety. Come spring, there will be diverse spaces for nest building. Fruit-bearing shrubs will provide food later in the summer and fall.
A good mix of evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs is ideal. Native plants are preferred. Even in a small garden, this mix can be accomplished with a little research and a solid design plan. A variety of perennials, annuals, vines, and groundcovers will add further diversity throughout the seasons.
Bird Friendly Shrubs
My garden contains a mixture of mainly natives and a few non-native bird-friendly shrubs and trees. Some favourite fruit-bearing shrub varieties include serviceberry (Amelanchier), currant (Ribes), elderberry (Sambucus) and cherry (Prunus). When mature, elderberry bushes have rich hanging fruit in summer, attracting robins, grosbeaks, waxwings, doves, finches, and other bird species. Grey dogwood (Cornus racemosa) is a native shrub that tolerates urban pollution and also attracts many bird species with its creamy-white berries.
Bird Friendly Trees
Trees provide an additional source of food, including juicy caterpillars and insects found on their leaves. Birches, maples, and pines offer seeds and nuts, as well as shelter and protected nesting space. Eastern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis) trees and hedges provide food and safe places to hide. Arriving robins and cedar waxwings in early spring always enjoy the dried fruit of the old crabapple tree in my backyard.
Larger trees, such as oaks, offer a cornucopia of food for birds. Situating any big tree well away from the house will not only prevent structural damage but is safer for birds, easily stunned or killed by crashing into windows. I keep the blinds down to avoid reflection from the glass. Window tape or film, appropriately placed, will also prevent bird crashes. In the summer, goldfinches will enjoy the seeds of black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) and many varieties of coneflower and other plants.
Bird Friendly Vines
Vines that attract birds include American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens), Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) and wild grape (Vitis riparia). A native species in our region, glaucous honeysuckle (Lonicera dioica) is popular with rubythroated hummingbirds that pollinate the plant.
Delaying Garden Cleanup
Come fall, you may feel compelled to tidy up your garden, but it is best to leave the garden rather messy, delaying cleanup until late the following spring. This will help to protect over-wintering insects that are a valuable source of food for many bird species. When snow covers the ground, there will also be seeds and dried fruit.
Water for your Birds
It is always good to have clean, reliable sources of water year-round for wildlife. In summer, my concrete birdbath is cleaned daily. In winter, a heater can be used to prevent water from freezing in a birdbath.
With more birds in the garden, winter will never seem too long or dreary. Instead, it will be action-packed and far more interesting than mere still life.
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More of Interest
Learn about the distinctive Squarrose Goldenrod and its tall cluster of flowers. This perennial herb can reach a height of 6 ft and produces a rosette of large leaves at its base. Up to 200 tiny yellow flower heads cover its slender, elongated array, attracting many insects such as bees, bumblebees, wasps, butterflies, and moths. Identify it and discover its prolific nature!