The Q&A Archives: Wildlife Plan

Question: I have an ares on the side of my house approximately 30 feet by 25 feet with a path about 15 feet from the house. The area looks out from a large three window side of the house to a row of birch trees about 25 feet out. I would like to fill in this area with bushes and perennials that attract birds especially yellow finches, bluebirds, hummingbirds and cardinals.

Can you recommend a short list of bushes and perennials or a simple layout.

Answer: There are many ways you could make this area more attractive to wildlife. Typically, the birds are looking for shelter, food, and water. The planting plan would then be done in a way to provide them with shelter from the wind during the winter, a spot to visit for food and water, and possibly a nesting area or materials. To specifically provide for all of these different birds would be a bit difficult since they like different types of materials, but you could however provide a range of deciduous and evergreen plants to allow them to pick and choose while passing through.

In nature, you will notice that most birds seem to prefer the edges of places, such as the line where forest meets field, because it allows a protective cover and an open view plus the widest variety of plants. You might try to mimic this in your planting by adding some smaller trees such as serviceberry (which is tolerant of sun and some shade and popular with a wide range of birds), some berried shrubs (Mariesii viburnum berries are widely popular, as are fruits such as raspberries and crabapples) and perhaps some perennials that can be left going to seed in the fall (purple coneflowers and black eyed Susans have decorative upright seeds) and annuals such as sunflowers and zinnias can be left going to seed as well. Next, perhaps some evergreens for cover. At my house, the cardinals nest in a large Catawba rhododendron every year. Birds have also nested regularly in a tangled forsythia and in the native red-flowered honeysuckle vine. Hummingbirds seem drawn to many flowers with a tubular shape ranging from hosta to columbine to yucca to annuals such as morning glory vine; in my garden their favorite tree is the mimosa but this would be too large for your space. Thorny bushes such as barberry also provide security from neighboring cats.

To design a habitat providing food to suit all of those birds might not be feasible, but you could certainly use their favorite foods in a feeder, again year round.

Good clean year round water is probably the most important attractant you can provide. And, water is of course the easiest thing to provide as a birdbath (set out fresh water daily summer and winter for best results) or can be a lovely year round feature as a reflecting pool or pond with fountain or other moving water in a design to complement your home and existing landscape. In my experience it is important to locate the water source in an area where the birds will feel secure, where they can see easily out around them across low plants or open ground. They also like a perching spot nearby so they can stop and survey the area before approaching the water and relaxing to drink and bathe.

The specific selection and arrangement would depend on the soil type and moisture levels as well as the amount of sun the area receives. Another factor would be the roots from the birch trees since these are large trees with extensive root systems that can compete with your shrubs and perennials. You may want to consider expanding a portion of the walk to form a small patio, adding an attractive bench, a feeder, a water source and a few low shrubs around it. A single small tree could add height to the arrangement. This would be simple to do, provide a year round focal point, and also allow an accessible, easily cleaned, sweepable area under the bird feeder.

The other important consideration is to reduce the use of chemicals in your garden so that you do not endanger the birds you are trying to attract, and to also allow for some slightly relaxed areas to occur. Nature is never quite so tidy, and the birds use snips of twig and grass and stem to make their nests, devour insects, take shelter in brush and twiggy overgrowths. You may need for example to adapt your trimming schedule to accommodate nesting birds, or accept some insect damage to protect the bird habitat. With luck, you will also find many butterflies frequenting the area as well.

Finally, I would suggest you consult with your local Audubon chapter for assistance in selecting plants that are locally popular with the birds most likely to be in your immediate area. Then consult with local nursery personnel as to which of those plants would do well in your particular location. You might also look into a book or two about designing for wildlife, or perhaps consult with the National Wildlife Federation which has a program specifically geared towards this.

I hope this gives you some ideas on how to get started, enjoy your habitat garden!

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