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Gardening for Birds: Planting for Sparrows

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Author: Julianne Labreche, Master Gardeners of Ottawa-Carleton; published with permission

Many different species of sparrows visit my backyard garden, no matter the season. Sparrow sightings in the Ottawa area include song sparrows, chipping sparrows, swamp sparrows, house sparrows, white-crowned sparrows, and white-throated sparrows, among others. Even the dark-eyed Junco is part of the North American sparrow family.

In fact, there are over 20 species of sparrow in Ontario. Each species can be identified by differences in colouration on their head and breast. The house sparrow, though a frequent visitor in our backyards, is not native to the Americas. It was introduced by European settlers in the mid-19th century. Sparrows are so common that they are sometimes underappreciated. Yet they are frequent and delightful visitors to backyard feeders, eating sunflower seeds, cracked corn, millet, and other grains and seeds. Generally, these birds are ground feeders but will use a tray feeder. However, putting seeds on the ground will also attract squirrels, chipmunks, and other small mammals. In the winter, these small birds often forage in flocks for safety.

Sparrows love thickets and tall grasses, so planting willow or a thicket of blackberries will attract them, as will planting native grasses. To attract sparrows to your garden, try growing these native grasses:

Native Grasses that Attract Sparrows

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) – With its lush stems that turn a reddish-copper colour in the fall, this is a tall grass that is lovely in any garden. This native North American plant from the prairies attracts butterflies and also provides safe habitat and food for birds. It grows in full sun or partial shade in well-drained, dry, or moist soil. It tolerates drought and poor soil conditions. This grass dies back to the ground in winter and should be cut back in late spring to provide new growth. This grass needs space in any garden, growing about 2 m tall.

Matt Lavin, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) – This is another tall North American grass, growing about 2.5 m tall. With its bronze seed heads, it will add beauty to any garden and provide shelter and food for birds. It spreads quickly through its rhizomes; therefore, Indian grass is better suited to larger properties. It grows in full sun and in a variety of soil conditions, including clay, loam, sand, and coarse soil.

Matt Lavin from Bozeman, Montana, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix) – This eastern North American native grass will grow where others will not, in full sun to full shade. Its spiky, soft seed heads emerge in mid-summer. It is a medium-sized grass, 1-1.5 m tall. Its natural habitat is the forest. Bottlebrush grass grows best in well-drained soil and is suitable for an urban garden.

Daderot, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Winter Food for Songbirds

Tip: To create a winter food patch for birds, especially small songbirds, wait until next spring to cut back any perennials and grasses with seed heads. In winter, birds will enjoy seeds from purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum) and other native perennial plants, as well as annuals such as sunflowers and cosmos. If you must cut back perennials in the fall, then create some ‘bird bouquets’ by sticking cut stems with seed heads in the ground or in a planter. Birds will benefit from these bouquets as winter progresses, eating the seeds and using the twigs for spring nesting materials.

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