Even before spring officially arrives, the sweet coos of mourning doves and the songs of house wrens and common yellowthroat warblers can be heard early in the morning through windows left cracked open the night before. Those first musical trills of prodigal birds, likely exhausted from their migration from as far south as Central and South America, can make us feel simultaneously relaxed and energized — and elated that a new season is within reach.
But spring isn’t the only time of year we need think about birds. Although hundreds of bird species head to warmer climates in the fall, others, black-capped chickadees, cardinals and woodpeckers among them, remain to tough out the winter, trading the perils of migration for the hazards of harsh weather and the food scarcity that accompanies it.
As our perennials go dormant and deciduous trees shed their leaves, fruits and seeds disappear with them, as do insects, most of which either die or hibernate. But birds can adapt; some insect-eaters pivot to a berry-centric diet, and some grow extra feathers, then puff them out — essentially making their own parkas, trapping air between layers to create bubbles of warmth. Still, they can use our help.
Carefully choosing native plants for your garden will beef up the food chain, feeding insects that birds, in turn, will use to feed their chicks come spring. This is important because our native insects and wildlife evolved alongside our native plants, adopting them as diet staples. Many exotic plants, on the other hand, aren’t even recognized as food by North American insects and caterpillars, according to research published by University of Delaware entomologist and author Doug Tallamy.
What to choose
Our native oak trees, for example, support more than 500 species of insects, including butterflies and moths, he asserted in his 2007 book, "Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens," which has since become the bible of the native plant movement. When in their caterpillar stage, those butterflies and moths are the primary food source for birds. The nonnative ginkgo tree from China, on the other hand, while often prized for being "pest free," supports fewer than five.
Tallamy, who reminds us that baby birds do not eat seeds but rely solely on insects, has found that one nestful of chickadee hatchlings needs to consume 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars en route to maturity. Without native plants that support those insects, we simply would not have birds.
In addition to trees and perennials, consider including evergreen shrubs and ground covers in your landscape; they’ll provide shelter and cover. And bushes that retain fruit or nuts over winter offer food, as well as something nice to look at when all else is barren.
Consider, too, allowing dead trees to remain on your property. First confirm they are structurally stable, of course, then sit back and watch as birds set up housekeeping in their nooks and crannies.
To establish your garden as a safe haven, avoid using chemical pesticides; not only do they kill insects that compose many birds’ diets, but, over time, birds can become poisoned from eating insects exposed to such pesticides. This is in addition to the risk of direct contamination of water, feeders and the birds themselves.
When cleaning up your garden this fall, little changes can make a big difference for birds. Instead of cutting down faded perennial flowers like coneflowers (Echinacea) and black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia), leave them standing until spring. Their seed heads will provide food — and add much-needed vertical interest to your garden during the offseason. And when raking autumn leaves, push some under shrubs and trees, where they’ll harbor food for ground-feeding birds and return nutrients to the soil as they decompose.
Once you’ve made up the guest room, shift your focus to setting the table: Put out feeders with high-fat, high-protein foods that will provide energy for birds as they prepare for their migratory journey of hundreds or even thousands of miles — as well as those from points north that are just passing through. Many won’t survive the trip, but providing a variety of high-energy fuel will help increase their odds.
Fill feeders with shelled, unsalted peanuts and black-oil sunflower seeds — and hang suet, a nutritious cake made from rendered animal fat and sometimes grains, seeds or mealworms, in a cagelike feeder designed to hold it while protecting it from squirrels and other critters. Year-round resident birds, too, will appreciate your effort; the buffet will sustain and warm the insect eaters as temperatures drop and their food becomes scarce.
Remember that when temperatures dip below freezing, standing water freezes, too. That means birds will have difficulty finding fresh water, which they need for hydration as well as bathing.
Whether you provide it in a fancy birdbath, a pond or inverted trash can lid, be sure to drain, clean and disinfect birdbaths at least once a week, again draining before refilling (instead of just topping off) between cleanings. To disinfect, fill the cleaned basin with a solution of one-part chlorine bleach to nine-parts water and allow to soak for 15 minutes. Then drain, avoiding plants and grass that would not take kindly to bleach, and allow to air dry in sunlight for two hours, which is sufficient for bleach residue to evaporate, before refilling. Consider using an immersion-style heater, as well, to keep water from freezing in baths and ponds.
And when you’re lying in bed next March, with your window cracked open ever so slightly, and you hear a sweet, familiar song, take a bow, knowing that you have played a significant role in conducting this orchestra.
Here is a sampling of plants, as well as online resources, books and organizations to help you create a haven for native and migratory birds.
PLANTS FOR FOOD AND SHELTER
"It’s great to look at things through the lens of a bird because all the data is there," said Kathryn D’Amico, director of Theodore Roosevelt Sanctuary & Audubon Center in Oyster Bay. "Climate change has an impact on migrating birds because their food source is moving with the temperature changes," she said. "We now see different insects at different times of year, and different amounts of insects, as well as flowers blooming at different times of year and some plants migrating up north."
Birds are a "great indicator species," she said. "They indicate to us what’s changing in the environment. If certain birds are disappearing or aren’t seen as before, that indicates something is changing because we’ve been collecting data for over a hundred years, so we have a baseline," she added, referring to records kept by the Audubon Society since its inception in 1905.
"By bringing a green-habitat infrastructure into commercial properties, backyards and even container gardens where birds can find nectar and seeds, we’re helping to sustain that population of birds that might not find that food elsewhere," D’Amico said. "By planting native plants, we’re bringing back what they need to survive."
D’Amico points out four food types that birds need for survival: insects, berries, nectar and seeds. "Different plants provide different types at different times of year," she said. "You want to make sure you’re getting a good mix, so you’re not in a situation where everything blooms in June and then the birds have nothing to eat for the rest of the year."
These are her favorite bird-supporting plants.
Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia): Provides great fall cover and berries for chickadees, nuthatches, mockingbirds, tanagers, warblers and thrushes; it’s also a larval host for several species of sphinx moths.
Coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens): Provides nectar and attracts hummingbirds.
Scarlet bee balm (Monarda didyma): Provides nectar for birds and bees. This tall red variety blooms all summer and attracts hummingbirds.
Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum): Provides seeds for goldfinches, sparrows and house finches for six months of the year. "In summer, it attracts bees and butterflies, then provides seeds for birds when it turns to seed in August," D’Amico said.
Autumn goldenrod (Solidago 'golden fleece'): Provides food for caterpillars, which attract insect-feeding birds, during summer. Afterward, its seeds feed dark-eyed juncos, sparrows, house finches and cardinals from October through early winter.
Native oaks (Quercus spp.): Provide an abundant caterpillar food source for many species of birds, including nuthatches, woodpeckers, warblers, fly catchers and vireos, among others.
Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.): Provides fruit for robins, cat birds, cedar waxwings, grosbeaks and cardinals.
Black Cherry (Prunus serotina): Provides fruit for blue jays, robins, cat birds, cedar waxwings, grosbeaks and cardinals.
Winterberry (Ilex verticillata): Provides fruits throughout winter and is a considered an important food source "because its berries hold on for a long time," D’Amico said. Feeds cardinals, cat birds, bluebirds, mockingbirds, blue jays and cedar waxwings (to produce fruit, male and female shrubs both must be planted.)
Northern bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica): Provides winter shelter for cardinals, cat birds, bluebirds, mockingbirds, blue jays and cedar waxwings, especially during mild winters because it’s semi-evergreen.
Northern spicebush (Lindera benzoin): Provides early season fruit and swallowtail and Eastern tiger swallowtail caterpillars for warblers, chickadees, finches and vireos.
Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica): Provides food and shelter. "This is a great replacement for English ivy or vinca vine, both of which are very invasive," D’Amico said. "It turns brown but stays full through winter and attracts insects, which in turn attract birds. And when it goes to seed, the seeds attract ground-feeding Eastern towhees and sparrows."
The National Audubon Society is a century-old, nonprofit organization devoted to the science-based conservation of birds and their habitats. Today, it includes a network of 23 state programs and more than 450 local chapters, including seven on Long Island. Each has unique offerings that may include nature programs, field trips and information resources for bird lovers. For membership or event information, contact your local chapter:
South Shore Audubon Society, ssaudubon.org, 516-467-9498
Four Harbors Audubon Society, 4has.org, 631-766-3075
Huntington-Oyster Bay Audubon Society, hobaudubon.org, 516-987-7136
Great South Bay Audubon Society, gsbas.org, 631-563-7716
Eastern Long Island Audubon Society, easternlongislandaudubonsociety.org, 631-294-9612
North Fork Audubon Society, northforkaudubon.org, 631-477-6456
"Nature's Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard," by Doug Tallamy (Timber Press; $29.95)
"What It's Like to be a Bird," by David Allen Sibley (Knopf; $30)
"National Wildlife Federation: Attracting Birds, Butterflies, and Other Backyard Wildlife: 17 Projects & Step-by-Step Instructions to Give Back to Nature," by David Mizejewski (Creative Homeowner; $19.99)
"Garden Secrets for Attracting Birds: A Bird-by-Bird Guide to Favored Plants," by Rachael Lanicci (Creative Homeowner; $14.95)
Audubon Society’s Native Plant Database (audubon.org/native-plants): Enter your email address and ZIP code to get a sortable list of native plants. View the results by type of plant (tree, vine, shrub, perennial, etc.), plant resources (nectar, fruit, butterflies, caterpillars, etc.), and/or type of bird you want to attract. The tool also generates a list of nurseries that sell native plants in your area.
Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds (allaboutbirds.org/news): Access a free comprehensive bird guide that includes profiles of popular bird species along with delightful audio clips of their sounds and songs; there’s also a bird identification key (answer a few basic questions, such as where you saw the bird, and its color and size, etc., and you’ll see a photo-adorned list of species that match your criteria). Offers fee-based, beginner and advanced bird courses on topics including bird behavior, identification and birding basics.
The Great Backyard Bird Count (gbbc.birdcount.org): The 24th annual free, worldwide event, a collaboration between the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the National Audubon Society and Birds Canada, with support provided by Wild Birds Unlimited and other organizations, will take place Feb. 12 to 15, 2021. The goal is to track the presence of different bird species, their migratory patterns and numbers in each locale. To participate, register at gbbc.birdcount.org and commit to count the number of birds you see in your backyard, park or elsewhere for a minimum of 15 minutes during the four-day event, taking notes about their features and characteristics if you cannot outright identify them. Then enter your findings on the website, where you can track data from around the world on a map that’s updated in real time.