Gardening for Birds

In the background is the red Crocosmia "Lucifer", native to South Africa, but very rarely found in the Finger Lakes. In the foreground is Echinacea "White Swan" or Coneflower as it is commonly known.

Gardening for the birds is like running in a marathon for your favorite charity. You accomplish something for the charity, but you also enhance your own life in a very special way. Two of the top pastimes here in the U.S. are gardening and bird watching, to the tune of billions of dollars spent each year.

Children get a huge kick out of watching and feeding birds, and seniors in retirement homes and apartments take a great deal of joy from watching bird activities at feeders and bird baths. There are many simple ways to get the birds to come up close, like attaching a feeder to a window. Chickadees and Nuthatches will even eat out of your hand if there are no feeders nearby.

As wildlife habitats continue to shrink, it becomes more and more important for gardeners everywhere to think about including birds in their backyard plans. Attracting birds is easily done, and you don’t need tons of space to accomplish your goal. Bird gardens can expand to include your entire property as a habitat or sanctuary. The right plants in your balcony container can also be a great way to attract and enjoy these beautiful creatures.

Birds have three basic needs: food, water and cover for both roosting and nesting. Small trees, shrubs and vines provide cover and roosting space, while fruiting trees provide food. Trees like the weeping cherry, weeping crab, kousa dogwood and hawthorne all stay under 15 to 20 feet, and provide flowers and fruits for the birds. Vines planted along fences, arbors or trellises serve as great roosting space for many birds, and honeysuckle or trumpet vines attract hummingbirds. The Honeysuckle, called Lonicera “Burgundy,” is one that I often use because of its big, beautiful, fragrant blossom, and the vine, though invasive, is much easier to control than Trumpet vine. My favorite shrubs to use are Clethra (summer sweet), Itea (sweet spire) and Chaenomeles (flowering quince). Flowering quince attracts the Baltimore Oriole, and though a large shrub, is worth making the space in order to see these gorgeous birds.

A home for the hummingbirds 
Hummingbirds are perhaps the most sought after birds in our yards, and many people have success with putting out feeders, but the truth is that they prefer flowers to feeders. The key to attracting them and keeping them is to have flowers they like from early spring to fall, and the only way to accomplish this is to use perennials.

Hummingbirds come back to our area sometime in late April or early May, and they are really hungry when they get here. One of my favorite spring bloomers for hummingbirds is Lamiastrum (Dead Nettle) “Herman’s Pride.” It is a great ground cover for partial shade, is 12 inches tall and has yellow flowers – not what you would imagine for them, but these birds are not very picky when they arrive from their long migration.

A couple of other good early bloomers are Ajuga (Bugle Weed) and Dicentra (Bleeding Heart). Early summer flowers they like are Penstemon (beard’s tongue), Heuchera “Vesuvius,” Delphinium (lark’s spur), Monarda (beebalm) and Phlox. I use the Phlox varieties called “flame” because they are very mildew-resistant.

In mid-summer, Crocosmia “Lucifer” is my all-time favorite hummingbird attractor. It is pictured on page 27 in combination with the white coneflower called “White Swan,” and could be planted this way in a large container on your deck as well. In late summer and fall, these tiny birds feed heavily as they prepare for their long migration south. This is when they like the flowers of Begonia grandis (Hardy Begonia), Hosta, Belamcanda (blackberry lily) and Lobelia cardinalis (cardinal flower).

Butterflies, birds and bath
Coneflowers are a favorite of butterflies, and the large seed heads provide food for the birds all fall and winter. Many other perennials have seed heads perfect for the birds, such as Rudbeckia (black-eyed-susan), Eupatorium (joe-pye-weed), Sedum (stonecrop), Roses (hips) and many ornamental grasses. In the case of the Asclepias incarnata (milkweed), the seed pods break open to allow the explosion of the silky seeds, and the Gold Finches, because they nest twice, use this as nest-building material.

Water sources can be as simple as a bird bath, a small contained fountain with a recycling pump or a pond with a waterfall. Heated bird baths are great for birds in the winter. In summer, the sound of water trickling on rocks is very relaxing for you, and the birds love taking showers.

Here in the Finger Lakes, we have a relatively short growing season, especially for annual plants (plants that do not winter over), so using perennials in your garden plan will extend the flowering season from early spring to late fall. I recommend plants based on long blooming periods, low maintenance and good garden behavior. Here’s just a quick list of favorites.

Lamium (dead nettle)
Lamiastrum
Liatris (gay feather)
Coreopsis (tickseed)
Aster
Asclepias (butterfly weed, milkweed)
Aquilegia (columbine)
Dianthus (carnation)
Echinacea (coneflower)
Rudbeckia (black-eyed-susan)
Scabiosa (pin cushion flower)
Sedum (stonecrop)
Helianthus (perennial sunflower)
Heuchera (coralbells)
Miscanthus (ornamental grass)

I hope this has given you enough information to get you started on an activity that could become a life-long love. Remember that it is meant to be fun, and do a little at a time. A backyard garden for birds can be a very beautiful and busy place, while also being the most peaceful spot on your property. Gardening is a very healthy activity, and bird watching is a great way to relieve the stress from your day, so why not do both?


by K. C. Fahy-Harvick