Do you spend a lot of time looking out your kitchen window, doing chores? Does your home office desk overlook your landscaping? If so, you probably already have your bird feeders where you can watch them while you work. I do. Our suet cage is a few feet from our kitchen window, and as it happens, it’s in my direct line of sight as I work at my desk. On extremely rare occasions (just ask Marjorie), I will do the dishwashing chores, and my first step is to make sure the birdfeeders are well stocked. I love watching the endless flutterings of birds outside our windows. Do you?
This column is not a list of bird-attracting plants. Such lists are easy to find. Instead, I’d like to suggest some other ways to make sure there are always birds where you can watch them. Some of my suggestions may shock or surprise you, but I can attest that they work really well. You may have to change your ideal of beauty. You also need appropriate feeders; we have one for black oil sunflower seed, and a small suet cage. Both are hung well out of reach of critters and pets, on weak and flimsy branches that won’t support the weight of rodents or cats.
We removed the pegs from the seed feeder to make it hard for big, greedy birds like jays and crows to perch. Both feeders are hung from short, thin wires with snaffles so we can quickly remove them for refilling. We added a stone path so we can get to the feeders in any weather without dirtying our feet. A busy seed feeder needs refilling perhaps twice each day, consistently, day in and day out, all winter, or the clientele will go elsewhere. Having the suet feeder near our window makes it easy to scare off pesky, greedy starlings and jays.
Neat, manicured yards and tightly sheared shrubs don’t appeal to wildlife very much. As you can see in the photo, we have a gnarly old rotten tree in our backyard, and it’s a magnet for birds, particularly woodpeckers of all kinds. They chip away at it looking for insects, in between visits to our suet feeder. Eventually it will fall down, so we planted wisteria at the base. The wisteria will wrap around, support and eventually replace the tree as a place to hang our feeder. Trumpet vine works well for this also.
Birds love to perch where they can watch the feeder and take turns feeding. The tangled vines of wisteria are perfect for perching, and so are the trees and our large lilac bush nearby. When hawks or kittycats are nearby, the birds all scatter for cover, finding refuge in all the shrubs and trees. Torn between safety and hunger, they need lots of hiding places close by until the danger is passed. Water and grit are additional attractions, hence the birdbath and gravel.
Wintertime and early spring are really tough for birds. They need a constant supply of food they can depend on. We have acres of wildfower meadows, brambles and brush on our farm, but by this time of year they are picked clean. Leaving the dead flowers in our perennial garden provides much-needed food, even if the ground is snow covered. Shrubs like pyracantha, viburnum, chokeberry, juniper, barberry, serviceberry and sumac have fruit clinging to them in winter. Ornamental grasses, perennials — like shasta daisy, black-eyed Susan and many others — have stiff stems with seed heads. The key is lots of variety; some plants provide food in winter, others in spring or summer.
You probably don’t have or want a rotten tree front and center in your yard, and you really don’t need one to attract most types of birds. My point is that if you are a garden neatnik with all your shrubs clipped into neat little bowling ball shapes, your perennial garden cut neatly to the ground after frost and your trees “trimmed,” the variety of birds who habitually visit you will be much less. The rest will be in my yard.
Steve Boehme is a landscape designer/installer specializing in landscape “makeovers.” He can be reached at 937-587-7021 or firstname.lastname@example.org