A Winter Landscape For Birds

A Winter Landscape For Birds

Part of Ep. 804 More Landscaping for Birds

Attract birds to your winter garden.  UW-Extension Wildlife Ecologist Scott Craven tells us how.

Premiere date: Dec 30, 2000

TRANSCRIPT+
Wisc Gardener Transcript: 

Shelley:
Attracting birds to your backyard isn't just a summertime activity. There are a lot of things you can do to make your winter yard and garden more attractive. We're in a very small suburban backyard in Madison where they've done a lot to attract birds to their winter landscape. I'm with UW Extension Wildlife Ecologist Scott Craven. Scott, what are some of the things we need to know to make a winter yard more attractive to the birds?

Scott:
Well, the first consideration is which birds we're thinking about. There are really two different sets of birds, the resident species that are here all year, the blue jays, the woodpeckers, both nuthatches, chickadees and things like that. They're going to be here anyway. And we've provided, in our yards, cover for them throughout the year. Then, during the winter, there are some species that will move down from up north, where Madison really represents the banana belt as far as those birds are concerned. Things like siskins and red poles and perhaps evening grosbeaks, that may or may not show up depending on the severity of the winter.

Shelley:
This is balmy to some of those. This is Florida to some of those birds.

Scott:
This is great as far as they're concerned. And then, once you think about those particular birds, you plan, during your summer growing season, what you're going to do in your landscape to provide something for them, whether it's a matter of evergreens for shelter or fruit producing shrubs and trees, or plant materials that are going to remain and provide them some food and shelter throughout the year.

Shelley:
Let's talk about what they've done here to make it more attractive.

Scott:
Well, there are lots of options. This is really impressive for a relatively small suburban yard. They are close to a city park, so they have some advantage there. But there's been a nice blend of all different types of shrubs and trees here that the birds find attractive. You have a tangle of vegetation with some large material, smaller material and vines intertwined that the birds use as a travel corridor and shelter, so that works out great. And then, you've got a variety of shrubs. Here's a high-bush cranberry, for example, some young material and some material at fruit-producing age. And you see these wonderful fruits, which are very pretty in the winter landscape, but they're very important to the birds, because they're persistent. They'll stay on throughout the winter. Birds will use them primarily in late winter, early spring, when that's a real bottleneck in terms of food supply. So, those kinds of things are very important. There's another example here in the buckthorn, which is kind of an invasive weedy tree. It's not really one we'd want to recommend. I would say not the first choice, and once the other materials get up, I'd be tempted to cut the buckthorn out.

Shelley:
I think that's exactly what they're planning to do here.

Scott:
So, that works out okay for the time being. And then another important consideration, especially for gardeners, and gardeners like myself, who tend to be kind of clean freaks in the fall-- don't do that. Leave a couple of your beds with the dead material in them. It not only provides some cover, but here on these coneflowers, for example, the seed heads are very tough and resistant to wind and weather, and they provide some seeds and again, the plants, some additional shelter and some texture in the landscape, too. It's a good deal to just leave this stuff.

Shelley:
For the birds and for me. I like it, too, because it just gives me some upright things. I don't just have flat snow out my window.

Scott:
Anything you can do to break up the landscape a little bit and keep the snow from blowing will help birds and small mammals.

Shelley:
What's this here? This is not natural!

Scott:
You can create your own feature, too, which gives us some texture and something to look at. But in the case of this lean-to, it's just a matter of providing a convenient ground feeding site for things like morning doves and junkos that feed on the ground, as well as small mammals. And the purpose of the lean-to is to keep the snow, ice storms or whatnot off of the food materials, and again, provide a little shelter. So, the lean-to is kind of a neat idea. I think recycling Christmas trees is one of the neatest things people can do. And the neighbors often appreciate it if you gather up their trees, as well, and make a pile like this. You can see there are some prunings here that look like honeysuckle from the last growing season mixed in with the Christmas trees. You get a nice bit of shelter from wind and weather. It's also close to the artificial feeders that birds can move to freely. I see a dead tree in the background, a little snag of birch there. If you can leave a dead tree, it's a terrific landscape feature. I realize there are safety concerns, especially in the suburbs...

Shelley:
Branches falling...

Scott:
Branches falling and things like that. But if you can leave one, it provides wonderful cover for a whole variety for birds and mammals that use the snag for shelter and for food.

Shelley:
I have a dying birch, and the woodpeckers love it.

Scott:
They're really neat. And I think a skeletal tree is a neat landscape feature in and of itself.

Shelley:
With the bright sky behind it and the shadow, I like looking at it, too.

Scott:
And then, of course, there are many types of artificial feeders. In this particular yard, they're near the shelter that's been planned for throughout the season. And the neat thing about feeding is, you don't have to go out and find an $80 bird feeder that looks like a Victorian mansion. A home-made feeder will work just fine, and you get something where the birds can get at the feed and they're perfectly happy. A good mix of seed, these are mostly black oil sunflower. That's the most attractive single food you can use. It works great. You can't hardly go wrong.

Shelley:
So, we use the artificial feeders and we can do the landscaping, as well. Well, I've heard people who have concerns with feeding, that they go away for a month on vacation in the winter and that the birds are going to die without them there to feed them.

Scott:
I've heard that a lot, too, but you don't need to worry about it. There are so many people feeding birds in the civilian environment now that the birds make a daily round to different feeders. And if you're gone for a week or two, it doesn't make that much difference.

Shelley:
And they're really adapted to this environment anyway. They were here for quite a long time.

Scott:
They were here before we were, and they can get along just fine. So, a lot of people are concerned when they don't see birds, "Well, what's going on?" You just need to be patient. It's like the Field of Dreams. If you build it, they will come. If you provide the landscape features in your yard, you'll have birds to enjoy.

Shelley:
Great. Thanks, Scott. And if you plant it, they will come. Here are some great ideas to give you an edge on the competition.

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