Welcoming Migratory Birds

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By William Moss

Dogwood berries provide migrating birds with a high-fat, high-calorie food.
Dogwood berries provide migrating birds with a high-fat, high-calorie food.

Fall is for planting. The light is still strong and the temperatures mild. It's an ideal time for settling in many plants because they can establish a good root system before dealing with next summer's heat and drought. You may want to update or redesign your garden, so while you are browsing your favorite garden center, think about selecting a few shrubs and perennials for the birds.

As temperatures begin to cool, millions of birds will leave their summer breeding grounds and head to warmer areas in the southern United States, Mexico, Central America, and South America. This is a Herculean feat. Some birds travel nonstop for hundreds of miles. (For instance, ruby-throated hummingbirds cross the nearly 500-mile width of the Gulf of Mexico without rest.) However, most will land occasionally for a break.

They rest, quench their thirst, and refuel before continuing the journey. The four main flight patterns cover nearly all of the U.S., spanning forests, fields, mountains, and cities. Certain natural areas are designated bird stops. Many marshes, lakes, and rivers are crowded with waves of migratory birds from late September through November. Although it won't be as grand as the Mississippi River corridor, if your garden supplies the birds' needs, they will visit. This is especially true in an urban setting, where less food and water is available.

When birds are preparing to migrate, their hormones shift to allow them to store fat. Those that cannot build up or replenish their energy reserves may perish during the journey. If they have to delay their migration to gather more food, there is the danger of exposure to inclement weather. Adding food sources to the garden at this time of year can be a boon to the birds and actually save some avian lives. Our gardens are like oases in the middle of urban deserts, where they can rest and refill their tanks quickly.

Nutritious Berries and Seeds

Native plants are the best options for providing nutritious food for birds. For migration, birds need food high in fat and calories, such as the fruit of dogwoods, magnolias, and spicebushes. If you grow these plants, you'll notice that birds typically pick them clean by mid-autumn. Elderberries, sumacs, junipers, toyons, madrones, and pokeweed also have good fruit. Chokeberries, viburnums, hollies, winterberries, wild grapes, and Virginia creeper produce bountiful crops of lower-quality fruit. These shrubs are grown more for their ornamental value than for their edible fruits, although non-migratory birds feed on them during the lean winter months.

Pokeweed has invasive tendencies when spread by birds.
Pokeweed has invasive tendencies when spread by birds.

(A cautionary note: Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) berries are relished by birds, but this native can be invasive. I grew pokeweed for many years for its colorful stems, structure, cultural history, and dark purple berries in autumn. Without fail, sometime in mid-October, migrating birds would stop by and pick the plant clean of berries in one day. After a few years, the pokeweed grew huge (over 8 feet) and ripened hundreds of berries. The birds would gorge themselves and defecate right in my garden, instead of somewhere over Tennessee. Countless pokeweed seedlings began to appear, and I realized that this beast was not meant for my small urban garden.)

For those with open space, there are many prairie or field plants to try. Bee balm, coneflowers, coreopsis, goldenrods, Indian grass, leadplant, little bluestem, prairie docks, sunflowers, and switchgrass are tough perennials that produce abundant seed. Some annuals, such as celosia, cleome, and cosmos, also attract birds.

Mixed Plantings Offer Food and Shelter

Woody plants also offer shelter. A hedge of cedars or a screen of alternating hemlocks provides a protected place for the birds to roost. Although most urban gardens are space-challenged, it's helpful to place plants in groupings or clumps. Single specimens may not provide enough cover for birds to feel safe. Where there's room, mixed hedgerows and meadows are invaluable. For instance, along Chicago's Montrose harbor in autumn, a large, informal mass of crab apples, sumacs, and viburnums are always loaded with migrating birds feeding, resting, and chattering.

Crab apples offer a feast for birds in fall and a feast for our eyes in spring.
Crab apples offer a feast for birds in fall and a feast for our eyes in spring.

Plants you put in this fall may take a few years to become large enough to provide cover and be fruitful. If you want to feed migrants this season, get a bird feeder or two. Place feeders in a sheltered but open spot, where you can observe them but cats can't ambush them. Consult with the retailer about which feeder and feed will work best in your area. Baffles may be necessary to keep the squirrels away.

Whether you add plants, feeders, or both, be patient. It may take a few seasons for the birds to find your garden. But once again, if you supply what they need — food, shelter, and water — they will add your space to their list of approved stops along their migratory route.

More than almost any other animal, birds demonstrate the connectivity of nature and the whimsy of political borders. A hummingbird that sips nectar from your wild columbine in June could also drink from a Venezuelan gardener's fuchsia in December. The cedar waxwings eating your juniper berries in November may have bred in the coniferous forests of Manitoba through the summer. The scarlet tanager that sings solo in the treetops of your local woods in May joins a larger chorus in the rainforests of western Peru during winter. When they visit, these birds link our humble gardens to all other habitats in the Western Hemisphere. Let's show them some American hospitality and send them on their way full of good food!

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