Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
New England
July, 2006
Regional Report

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Grow your own birdseed!

Grin and Bear It

I could say I feed the birds to help them make it through the winter with its scarcity of food, but that would be stretching the truth. I feed them as much for my benefit as theirs, because I don't stop even in summer when wild food abounds. I feel like I'm welcoming back old friends when the first rosy breasted grosbeaks arrive in spring to break open the sunflower shells with a loud "crack," and the woodpeckers resume their fancy footwork up and down the tree trunks looking for insects. But something put a stop to my bird feeding this spring -- something big and furry, like a bear.

A neighbor heard a noise one night and looked out her window to see a bear demolishing the wooden hot tub on her deck. No amount of shouting and barking dogs and projectiles out the window distracted the bear until he reached what he was after: sunflower seeds inside the tubing, probably hidden there by a squirrel. Subsequently the bear visited other homes, climbing back steps and appearing on decks and porches looking for food. Apparently, sunflower seeds are like a drug to bears, at least when they emerge, hungry, from winter hibernation.

After many phone calls amongst neighbors and phone conversations with the game warden, every homeowner on the road was directed to stop feeding the birds or risk a fine for luring the bear. So now we need to rely on our landscapes to attract birds. Of course, some berry-producing plants are also tempting to bears (especially blueberries, and especially in the Rocky Mountain region), but in our area, plantings aren't considered lures, and they don't typically draw bears close to homes in summer the way bird feeders do.

Plants not only offer tasty meals of berries and seeds, they also give shelter from storms and summer's heat, and provide a place to rest, to nest, and to hide from the neighbor's cat. Here are some ways to make your landscape more welcoming and nourishing to birds:

Seeds and Berries
Plants that are native to the region are easy choices since birds are already accustomed to the food they provide. And when birds unwittingly deposit the seeds in new locations, there won't be the risk of spreading unwanted introduced species. Here are some of our common birds' favorite food plants:

American goldfinch - Birch, spruce, fir, pine, oak, hemlock, maple, white ash, box elder, grape, rose, mulberry, serviceberry, thistle

Black-capped chickadee - Pine, birch, hemlock, sunflower, viburnum

Eastern bluebird - Dogwood, sumac, cedar, hackberry, Virginia creeper, holly, chokeberry, cotoneaster, dogwood, crab apple, mulberry, rose, blueberry, grape, viburnum

Northern cardinal - Holly, hackberry, dogwood, mulberry, sumac, viburnum, hawthorn, magnolia, black cherry, rose, blackberry

Northern oriole - Mulberry, highbush blueberry, maple, serviceberry, black cherry, blackberry, elderberry, grape, honeysuckle

Tufted titmouse - Hackberry, mulberry, pine, oak, grape, crab apple, blackberry, Virginia creeper

Yellow-rumped warbler - Honeysuckle, viburnum, pine, sumac, cedar, dogwood, American elm, juniper, Virginia creeper, American beech

Include plants that offer fruit at different times of the year. For example, elderberries and mulberries are ripe in summer (and blueberries and brambles, if you're inclined to share), winterberries and crab apples are ripe in fall, and sumacs and hollies hold their fruit into winter.

Birds need water for drinking and bathing, and birdbaths can be as decorative as they are utilitarian. A birdbath with a rough surface and a gradual slope to a depth of 3 inches is best, and for added safety, set it out in the open and off the ground where it's out of reach of any interested felines.

Gimme Shelter
Consider planting some of these trees and shrubs for shelter: alder, ash, azalea, beech, birch, cedar, cherry, cotoneaster, cottonwood, crab apple, dogwood, fir, hackberry, hawthorn, hemlock, holly, juniper, larch, maple, mountain ash, oak, ornamental grass, pine, rhododendron, rose, serviceberry, sumac, yew.

Plant trees and shrubs in mixed groupings of different types and sizes of plants, rather than a homogenous planting. That way you'll attract more different kinds of birds.

Being a neatnik about your landscape won't help the birds as much as if you leave some brush piles and dead trees about, and some perennials gone to seed. Isn't it lucky that you can do the birds a favor and at the same time relieve your conscience about not getting to that garden cleanup!

I miss the birds chattering at the feeders this summer, but they are still drawn to my yard by other enticements. Bluebirds perch on the deck railing, and an indigo bunting stopped by for the first time. I just planted some chokeberries, which will be covered with blue-black berries in the fall. It's better than luring a bear too close for comfort.

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