Over the past few years, I have learned so much about backyard birding from my friends at Bird Studies Canada (BSC). I have met people like Jody Allair, a resident BSC biologist and science educator, who has forgotten more than I will ever learn about wild birds. And believe me, Jody does not forget much.
Here are some highlights of what I have learned.
Birds do not need us to feed them
Many well-intentioned feeders of birds (versus “bird feeders”) believe that wild birds become dependent on us for food. Other than, perhaps, during the coldest days of the year and the ones with the deepest snow fall, birds are very capable of finding food from natural sources. They are much like us in that they will take the easiest path to a meal, and if it happens to be at your feeder, that is where they will congregate. The good news is that you are free to go on vacation and not keep the bird feeders full, without feeling guilty.
Use the appropriate seed
Birds are foragers: they find food in some of the most unlikely places, like the seed heads of ornamental grasses in your yard. Consider what kinds of birds you wish to attract to your yard and put out the appropriate seed in your feeders. You will find an extensive list when you visit the Bird Studies Canada website (birdscanada.org).
Provide adequate water…
This is the single most impactful feature you can add to your yard in your effort to attract birds (apart from a full bird feeder). Birds need water to drink and bathe. It’s as simple as that. Once again, they have a few things in common with people. A half-barrel or a full-blown pond and stream works wonders. At last count, I have five birdbaths in my yard. They use them all.
Birds need shelter to breed and for protection from the cold, wind, snow and their enemies, such as hawks, falcons and neighbourhood cats. Especially cats. The best protection that you can provide wild birds is evergreens that grow tall and thick. Cedars, spruce and fir, for example, all work like a charm.
Keep in mind that bird feeders should be located either within a metre (three feet) of a window or more than 10 metres (33 feet) from a window. Within a metre, birds cannot build up enough speed to hurt themselves too seriously if they hit the window; placing a feeder more than 10 metres away provides birds an opportunity to veer away from the window when they realize that it is not a thoroughfare to another part of your garden.
Grow your own birdseed-producing plants
If you are one of the many people who haul bags of birdseed home on a regular basis, here is an idea: Why not grow your own? See Mark’s Plant Picks for my top six birdseed-producing plants.
Mark’s plant picks
Here are Mark’s top six birdseed-producing plants, plus tips for growing them in your garden.
1. Purple coneflowers (Echinacea sp.)
Purple coneflower is a native plant that native peoples used to help boost their immune system long before Europeans arrived on our shores 500 years ago. Everyone, it seems, has tried an echinacea tincture as a prevention to colds and the flu. I know that I have.
The fact is, purple coneflower is very easy to grow in a sunny position. It is a reliably winter-hardy perennial up to Zone 4 (Ottawa/Montreal) and does not have a lot of cultural needs. I have 50 of them growing on my property, and they do not get watered, ever. I don’t have to control insects or diseases. They bloom from mid-July through September.
You can cut them while in bloom and bring them indoors, to beat the band. Here is the kicker: the seed heads attract small songbirds like finches, nuthatches and black-capped chickadees. My echinacea “plantation” attracts birds from late fall through winter, until all of the seed heads have been foraged seedless by the birds.
2. Maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis sp.)
Maiden grass is another songbird magnet late in the season. I have two large beds of this plant, about 1.8 metres (70 inches) all, which I allow to stand all winter long, about three metres (10 feet) high. After a summer of slowly emerging from the soil, they mature into clumps of seed-heavy plumes. They stand tall even after a deep snowfall, and birds forage through them right up until the spring thaw, when other feeding options present themselves.
If you have ornamental grasses in your garden, do not cut them down come fall; rather, let them stand for the birds. If you don’t have any grasses in your garden, you’ll have to be patient until fall, which is the perfect time of year to plant some. The selection at garden retailers at that time of year is generally good, and you will see exactly what you are buying, as they have had all summer to mature. Hardy to Zone 3.
3. Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia sp.)
Who doesn’t just love this plant? It blooms for up to 12 weeks beginning in midsummer, butterflies and honeybees enjoy the nectar and pollen while it is in bloom, and when it finishes blooming it produces prodigious quantities of seeds that many foraging songbirds enjoy late into the fall and winter. Requires sun. Hardy to Zone 3.
Choose between the perennial helianthus, which you can plant early in spring, or the annual heliopsis, which you sow directly in the soil in spring. Personally, I prefer the traditional annual sunflower that produces a bright face surrounded by bright yellow petals. Sunflowers dominate my garden from early summer into late fall. I let them mature in situ, and I enjoy watching the bees forage like mad while the flowers bloom, and the songbirds pick away at the mature seeds in September and October. To see a mother finch teaching her young fledglings how to forage a sunflower is an education in itself. Bring the kids along and note how a sunflower follows the sun during the day, turning as the earth turns on its axis, to face the sun.
Perennial sunflowers are not nearly as much fun, but they are a reliable perennial and that is a bonus. Most varieties grow to about 60 cm (23.6 inches), and all of them require full sun for the best performance. While shopping for helianthus, be sure to ask for varieties that produce seeds, not the hybridized cultivars that have had seed production bred out of them. They bloom for several weeks beginning in midsummer.
Serviceberry is a native plant that attracts cedar waxwings midsummer (and the occasional red squirrel, in my experience).
6. Crabapple shrubs
Crabapples tend to hold their fruit until mid- to late winter or early spring, when the softened “apples” are attractive to birds like cedar waxwings, blue jays and cardinals.
Crabapples and serviceberry (see above) are winter-hardy shrubs that can mature into small trees. Both produce a great show of bloom early in spring, attracting bees and other pollinators.
Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author, broadcaster and tree advocate and holds the Order of Canada. His son, Ben, is a fourth-generation urban gardener and a graduate of the University of Guelph and Dalhousie University in Halifax.