Sunday, December 5, 2010

Feed the birds

The English robin heralds the Christmas season

One of the first things we bought after moving here in 1996 was a bird identification book. We were fascinated by the many small songbirds but only recognized a few. I remember watching this large brown bird with a red chest strutting its stuff on the grass then laughing when I read that it was just an American Robin! (The English robin is small, cute and fluffy; trust the Americans to have to do everything bigger and better…).

The big brother! (American robin)

Birds bring life to a garden as they flit amongst the bushes and I always design gardens to include sources of food and shelter for them, especially during the winter. Bird feeders are wonderful and suet blocks can be used to attract woodpeckers which would otherwise only be seen on trees drilling for insects. However bird seed can also attract unwelcome visitors such as squirrels, rats and even bears (one local home owners association has banned bird feeders for this very reason) so I prefer to think of these as supplemental to providing natural foods.

We are all familiar with the idea of leaving the seed heads of ornamental grasses and perennials such as black-eyed Susan’s (Rudbeckia sp) for the birds to enjoy, but in a small garden these can quickly become unsightly so may not be ideal. Here are a few ideas which can be adapted to our winter gardens ranging from containers to the larger, wilder landscape.

Barberries 'Helmond's pillar' & 'orange nugget' together with blue star juniper
form a great backbone for these containers year round  (my design)

Barberries – these thorny, mostly deciduous shrubs are available in shades of green, orange and gold as well as the more familiar purple. From 18” mounds to 5’ fountains you are sure to find a variety which works for and enhances your color scheme yet fits the space available. The thicket of branches provides good shelter and nesting habitat while robins, waxwings and juncos enjoy the small, shiny red berries.

Parney cotoneaster
There are many varieties of Cotoneaster from upright evergreen shrubs to deciduous groundcovers, but all have an abundance of red berries which last well into winter. Rock cotoneaster (Cotoneaster horizontalis) looks striking with its distinct herringbone branches splayed against a stone wall or boulder while the evergreen Parney cotoneaster (Cotoneaster lacteus) forms a 6’ loose fountain, laden with flowers in summer and clusters of red berries in winter. Finches, towhees and other fruit eating birds enjoy the berries, with robins considering those on the latter variety as pure caviar!

In larger, wilder landscapes the Pacific Northwest native Oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor) is a useful shrub to transition from more cultivated areas to the woods beyond. It blooms profusely in summer with frothy white flowers and the twiggy growth provides songbirds with good cover. In winter insectivorous birds such as chickadees and the gymnastic bushtits forage for insects.

'Charity' Oregon grape
The evergreen Oregon grape ‘Charity’ (Mahonia x media) provides bold structure to the garden with glossy holly-like leaves and fragrant, bright yellow, shuttlecock shaped flowers in winter which the hummingbirds love. These are followed by rich purple berries in summer, providing food for robins, waxwings and towhees with juncos and sparrows enjoying those fruit which fall to the ground. This shrub adapts well to container culture, can be grown as a barrier or hedge or used as a specimen shrub, perhaps underplanted with a carpet of the yellow flowering winter aconite (Eranthis). These bulbs quickly naturalize and bring a welcome splash of color in January.

Many conifers provide seeds and fruit for evening grosbeak, nuthatches, pine siskin as well as shelter. Junipers are particularly favored and there are many species and varieties available from the low growing, richly hued ‘blue star’ (Juniperus squamata) to the columnar ‘blue arrow’ (J. virginiana) and vibrant ‘sea of gold’ (J. x pfitzeriana 'MonSan') which grows 3’ tall and 4’ wide. Blue star is especially effective in containers and looks wonderful when combined with purple and orange (see photo above) or burgundy and white.

To get more ideas on how to select and maintain plants that fulfill wildlife needs I recommend the book ‘Landscaping for Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest by Russell Link which discusses everything from stewardship for wildlife habitat, to attracting butterflies and creating hedgerows.

Get out your binoculars and enjoy your winter companions.

1 comment:

  1. I totally agree with you. Birds bring life to a garden, that' why it's important to always feed them.

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