Feeding birds with native plants

  • The eastern bluebird. Contributed photo/Deborah Bilfulco

  • Female ruby-throated hummingbird. Image contributed by the Native Plants Trust. Contributed photo/Getty Images/iStockphoto

  • What appears to be a ruby-throated humming bird darts about the blossoms of an iris plant in Hawley on Thursday morning. June 15, 2017. Staff FILE Photo/PAUL FRANZ

Published: 1/11/2020 6:00:53 PM
Modified: 1/11/2020 6:00:11 PM

I love watching the birds in my garden — which is not to say that I know them by name or species.

Blue jays, robins and the ruby-throated hummingbird are just about the only birds I can identify. I enjoy having all these birds in my garden. Even so, I do not provide bird feeders — not even during the winter — as I am not ready to battle the many squirrels that live in my garden.

I did try, once, using a Plexiglas feeder that stuck to my window. In this way, I thought I would finally see the shapes of beaks and the feather markings clearly enough to identify the birds with the help of a guide book.

We stuck the feeder to the window, added black oil sunflower seed and sat by the window to see who would come.

A squirrel came and, within minutes, had managed to get from the feeding platform to inside the seed space. That was the beginning and end of our bird feeder experiment.

I do, however, provide plants that will go to seed and feed the birds. Some of the plants that attract and feed the birds in my garden are very familiar. 

The list of seed-bearing flowers begins with dandelions in the spring and goes through the summer and fall with cosmos, zinnias, black-eyed susans, asters, coreopsis, blanket flowers, sunflowers, sedums and many others. All of these flowers will also make the bees happy. Bees come to these flowers to sip the nectar and collect the pollen. They leave the seeds for the birds.

In addition to flowers that produce seeds for the birds, I also plant berries. I have elderberries and winterberries. I can tell you those elderberries disappear really fast in the summer. I have two tall American cranberry viburnums; they only look like cranberries but the birds still enjoy them. I also grow raspberries. Oddly, birds are not very interested in raspberries; blueberries are another story.

Since I have two river birches, a willow, a huge Norway spruce and neighboring maple and oak trees, I know there are many insects that live in those trees. Birds eat lots of insects, especially in the spring when they need to feed their hatchlings. According to Entomology Professor Doug Tallamy, “Insects are extraordinarily high in protein: They have up to twice as much protein, pound for pound, as does beef.” That seems amazing, but it explains how birds survive even though they expend so much energy flying.

Even though I do provide for the birds (including a little birdbath that I clean and fill throughout good weather), I have felt a bit guilty in the winter because I don’t put out bird feeders. Then, the other day I received my Native Plant News from the Native Plant Trust, formerly the New England Wildflower Society, with an article titled “Feeding Birds: An Eco-Gardener’s Approach.” by Christopher Leahy. He worked at Massachusetts Audubon for 45 years and knows his birds. He said that guilt was not necessary and neither were the birdfeeders, although he acknowledged that having a bird feeder will attract birds and provide pleasure to those who like watching the birds.

Leahy went on to say that feeding the birds, and the bird-feeding industry, did not exist before the 1930s.

“Birds are extraordinarily well-adapted for finding the kind of food they require and are vastly better equipped than our species for living outdoors in abominable weather, due to the highly effective insulation system called plumage and an exquisitely sensitive metabolism,” Leahy wrote.

He said to get familiar with 50 of the birds most likely to visit your garden. Then, become familiar with their favorite foods and nesting sites. He also suggested that we should encourage the presence of insects and such things as spiders, centipedes and creatures of leaf litter. Don’t use pesticides and don’t let the garden get too tidy.

Notably, the Native Plant Trust had four names before it chose its current name, similar to its original title, the Society for the Protection of Native Plants, which was chosen by its founders in 1900.

The Native Plant Trust’s website provides wonderful information about native plants. Its “Go Botany” project makes it possible for gardeners and hikers to identify and learn about unfamiliar plants. 

There are also tip sheets on available plants sold by the Native Plant Trust as well as caring for various kinds of plants. There are also workshops and seminars during the year.

I am a happy member and was surprised and delighted to learn that the Trust has other native plant sanctuaries in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, in addition to Massachusetts’s Garden in the Woods in Framingham. I am ready to do some traveling this summer. For more information about the Native Plant Trust, visit nativeplanttrust.org.

Pat Leuchtman has been writing and gardening since 1980. Readers can leave comments at her website: commonweeder.com.

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