Food for Birds, Food for Thought

by Henry Homeyer

I love those cheery little chickadees that show up every morning at my bird feeder, and I'm delighted when the cardinals show up. Occasionally I get vexed at the blue jays when they scare the others off, as pushy and brash as the stereotypical visitor from down country.

If you enjoy visits from our feathered friends, there are some things to think about this winter as you look out the window. Birds benefit from a free lunch, but most actually obtain a high proportion of their calories from the wild. You can help them by planting trees and shrubs that will be provide shelter as well as food; good choices will also provide you with some visual relief from the monotony of the snow.

I recently read a book that taught me a lot about the trees and shrubs that help birds the most, "Trees, Shrubs and Vines for Attracting Birds" by Richard M. DeGraaf (University Press of New England, second edition, 2002). It includes 162 common trees, shrubs, and vines, listing the birds that feed on them, nest in them, or depend on them for shelter. It made me realize that some common wild plants have virtues I had not considered.

Wild grapes, for example, are a pest in my mind. They climb up handsome trees, occasionally strangling them as they reach for light. In Ohio they are so rampant in the wild that the Forest Service actually offers woodlot owners a bounty to cut them down and remove them. But they're great bird feeders, with nearly 60 species feeding on them. They're a favorite food for piliated woodpeckers, scarlet tanagers and some warblers, among others.

Wild brambles fall in the same category: a pest to people, a boon to birds. In addition to feeding nearly 50 species of birds, they're used as safe nesting sites for indigo buntings, fly catchers and cardinals. Before you mow down the brambles behind the barn, take a look to see how many nests are there. You may want to change your plans.

Migrating birds need a lot of energy to fuel them for their long flights. They have learned to recognize the colors of fall leaves that signal a nutritious lunch. Poison ivy, for example, turns scarlet, as does Virginia creeper; both have high calorie, fatty berries for the birds.

The American Elder (Sambucus canadensis) can provide both you and the migrating birds with fall treats. I grow it for the juice I make from the berries, which (according to some) helps to prevent arthritis. Elders in the wild tend to grow in wet places, growing 8 to 12 feet tall, forming large clumps that bloom in June and display juicy clusters of deep purple berries in September. 

Elders are scruffy plants, often unkempt as an unmade bed, so I put mine at some distance from the house, down by my stream. Some 35 species of birds feast on it, including thrashers, thrushes and bluebirds. Some nurseries also sell European elder (S. nigra) which is, apparently, more ornamental. I've read that some have purple or variegated foliage, and some stay small but still produce lots of berries.

White Pines and Canadian Hemlocks are important trees for many birds. They're great protection from the cold north wind, an important factor in bird survival during our harsh winters. My chickadees often spend the night nested in the comfort of their branches. Both are the first home for many baby birds, and would be worth planting even if they they didn't provide food.

Hemlock seeds are a favorite food for crossbills, goldfinches and siskins. White pine seeds are a preferred food for 20 species of birds including cardinals, grosbeaks and juncos.

Many invasives plants are able to take over our wild spots because they are feasted on by the birds. Their seeds pass through the digestive tract of birds unharmed, and are deposited in the woods with a little drop of free fertilizer. Autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) and Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus obiculta) were formerly included in "conservation packages" sold by state agencies to provide bird food or control erosion. Both have become pests, taking over areas where native species once thrived, and are no longer recommended.

Other commonly sold landscape plants that birds love but have the potential to be invasive include some honeysuckle bushes (Lonicera spp.), Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii), and burning bush (Euonymus alatus). There is still much debate among envrionmentalists and nurserymen over the potential good or evil of these plants.

Roses, on the other hand, can please both you and the birds. Some 20 species feed on rose hips, which are good winter food. Rugosa roses are amongst the toughest of roses, producing large numbers of blossoms and hips. The ruffed grouse, bobwhite and ringed neck pheasants will eat not only the hips, but also nip at the buds earlier in the season, those rascals. And the hips are very high in vitamin C, so you can stop worrying about your birds getting scurvy.

Until reading DeGraaf's book it never would have occurred to me that nut trees like the black walnut (Juglans nigra) or butternut (J. cinerea) would be of much interest to birds. It explained, however, that many birds eat the meat of nuts after mammals have opened them, or after they split open naturally. Nuts are all high in oils, a big help for birds in winter. Woodpeckers, nuthatches, cardinals and others are keen on them.

Urban dwellers with small lots have to be much more selective about what trees and shrubs they plant than I do. Shrubs such as blueberry are great bird food, utilized by some 52 species of birds according to DeGraaf's book. Other good, non-invasive shrubs include all the dogwoods (Cornus spp), especially the Pagoda dogwood (C. alternifolia); common winterberry (Ilex verticillata); and most Viburnums. Of course, if you grow blueberries, you have to be willing to share- by taking off the netting once you've had your fill of pie.

13 November 2002