Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Middle South
November, 2011
Regional Report

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Beautyberry is one of the many plants that can be added to make the garden more wildlife friendly.

New Adventures in Birdwatching

Living near a river has brought a whole new dimension to my backyard bird watching, even though I now reside in an urban neighborhood. In addition to the songbirds I expect to see in the garden, there's a blue heron that frequently swoops up and down the watercourse and a pair of red tail hawks that keep watch for prey from the uppermost branches of a neighbor's dead tree.

When the water is low, the heron, a wading bird, can sometimes be seen picking his way down the stream looking for small fish. I can watch to my heart's content from the kitchen window, but the bird is shy about company and will complain with a harsh croak if I open the back door and step onto the deck.

The hawks seem more accustomed to making their life in an urban area. They come and go with little notice of what I'm up to and have no compunction about sharing a squirrel meal in their favorite perch while I work below them in the garden.

Recently, on bad-weather nights, a pair of Carolina wrens has begun taking shelter under the eve of the porch. They don't huddle together, but hunker down individually, beak first, into a corner and fluff their feathers for warmth. They arrive to roost as twilight closes in and leave at the first crack of dawn the next morning, as soon as the other birds begin to twitter.

Though I do nothing to attract these particular birds to my garden, I take great pride in cultivating a bird-friendly habitat that is welcoming and safe for a wide variety of species. This goal is not difficult to accomplish, and my feathered friends provide me with hours of enjoyment throughout the year, whether they're jostling for a turn at the feeders on a cold winter morning or taking a quick dip in the birdbath on a warm summer afternoon.

Grow a Welcoming Habitat
You can easily triple the number of species you attract to your landscape by adding plants that provide food, cover, and nesting spots.

Of all possible enticements, berries are the main attraction. Cedar, holly, dogwood, barberry, cotoneaster, beautyberry, and several of the viburnums, such as cranberry (V. trilobum) and nannyberry (V. prunifolium) are all excellent food choices. Birds can be attracted by the seeds and nectar of some flowers too, such as sunflowers, coneflowers, bee balm, and honeysuckle.

They will also devour small fruits with relish. Serviceberries, cherries, and crabapples are all favorites.

For cover and nesting sites, birds typically select limbs that are 5 to 20 feet above the ground. A combination of evergreens and deciduous trees will allow a variety of options. Include some trees or shrubs that are twiggy or thorny, as those with strong, stout limbs are easily climbed by predators such as cats and raccoons.

Provide Clean Water
Fresh water can be hard to come by, so birds will flock to a source that is suitable for drinking and bathing. Some birds, such as robins and bluebirds, are not attracted to feeders but can be drawn to the garden for its clean water.

I've yet to install a fountain in my new garden, which is a shame because moving water is a bird magnet. I do, however, have a large birdbath. To make it safe for even the smallest birds that might be crowded on the birdbath's slippery rim, I've placed a rough stone in the center of the basin for sure footing.

Offer Seed and Feed
Stocking several feeders in the landscape will attract a greater number of species. I supply safflower seed for cardinals, black oil sunflower seed for wrens and sparrows, and thistle for finches. The feeder that draws the most interesting birds, however, is a suet cage. I particularly like the sleek nuthatches and brightly colored woodpeckers that seek out this high-calorie food.

When time allows, I like to make my own suet cakes. The recipe below, adapted and changed over the years, is always a big hit with the birds in the garden, as well as the neighbors and friends who receive the home-made cakes as a holiday gift each year.

Peanut Butter & Jelly Suet
1 cup lard
1 cup crunchy peanut butter
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 cups uncooked quick oats
2 cups cornmeal
2 cups raisins (the jelly!)
Optional: dry dog food kibble, nuts, pretzels, seeds

Soften the lard and peanut butter in the microwave and then mix in all the other ingredients one by one. Use plastic sandwich storage containers to mold suet cakes, refrigerating to solidify. Suet can also be spread on pinecones or the bark of trees. (Makes 4 cakes.)

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