For the Birds

A passion for preserving habitat for feathered friends inspired Elizabeth Jensen's K-5 students in Gunnison, UT, to dig into trees and shrubs. With their sights set on learning about birds' habitat requirements, they became keen observers, beginning with a hunt for bird nests.

"We found some old nests in ash trees and cottonless cottonwoods," says Elizabeth. "The kids also observed meadowlarks, robins, magpies, and sparrows settled into cedar trees, and even found an owl nesting in a conifer." Resulting questions about birds' food preferences prompted students to leave different types of fruits and seeds outside, then monitor which birds were drawn to which foods.

With these observations and data in hand, students did Internet research on wildlife-friendly trees for their region, then consulted a local nursery owner to confirm their findings before purchasing trees. "We are located in a high-altitude desert with hot, dry summers, so we had some limits on what we could select," explains Elizabeth. Other unique factors also influenced their choices. For instance, due to school insurance policy guidelines, the kids could select only trees that branched high enough from the ground to prevent people from climbing them. And they needed to avoid shrubs like Pyracantha that could be toxic.

"By tuning in to bird life in and around trees, the kids came to appreciate their role in providing habitat, and they're certainly less likely to take them for granted now," says Elizabeth. But environmental lessons weren't the only harvest. Students also discovered the human connection to some of the non-native trees that existed in the area. "It turns out that Mormon pioneers who came to the relatively barren land, which featured only river willows and sagebrush, were desperate for familiar greenery," says Elizabeth. "So they actually had relatives send out some favorite trees from back East."

Bird-Friendly Trees and Shrubs

The best way to discover which trees and shrubs appeal to birds in your area is to invite students to become avian detectives. They should discover that species featuring fruits and berries, seeds, nuts, and potential nesting cavities are birds' best friends.

Seeds: Trees with small seeds, such as birches, draw small birds such as goldfinches. Larger seeds from trees such as ashes and tulip poplars appeal to cardinals, grosbeaks, and other large-beaked friends. Chickadees, nuthatches, and titmice enjoy the seeds of small-coned conifers, such as hemlock. Grouse, grackles, and other large birds go for acorns.

Fruits: Mountain ash, cherry, dogwood, crabapple, and highbush cranberry offer favorite bird fare. Many also hang on to their fruits and nourish birds through the winter.

Shelter: Conifers tend to provide good shelter for small birds.

Insects: Bark crevices, leaf galls, and other parts of many trees harbor insects that appeal to sharp-beaked birds such as nuthatches, warblers, and woodpeckers. Sparrows and other birds find insects amid fallen leaves, seeds, and other debris.

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