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Making Your Garden a Birding Mecca

Wax myrtle often grows along the Delaware bay where birds enjoy the berries.

The Cape May area is a real Mecca for all kinds of birds. Birders come from all over the world during migration seasons to watch and count them. Besides songbirds, there are owls, hawks, waterfowl and many other unusual birds. Because of the variety of birds there are many plants that have been planted or seeded by the bird droppings. Although some of these plants are invasive, many are beneficial and provide food for the birds. There are many wonderful natural areas in which to hike and bird watch. There are often walks and events at the Nature Center of Cape May and other Cape May wildlife areas.

Do you have birds gobbling up seeds and insect pests in your garden? If not, you should consider adding a bird feeder and planning to plant some bird-friendly plants for next year. Birds are fun to watch. They add color, movement and song to the garden and they eat harmful insect eggs and larvae. We have been using a mix of white safflower and sunflower seeds. I am not sure why, but the squirrels didn’t bother the white safflower as much, or at least they ignored it for a while. It seems they are now beginning to eat the white safflower seeds too. Perhaps this is because of deep snow covering other foods. I find that it pays to buy good seed that does not have filler in it. Stores that specialize in birdseed will have many kinds of custom blends that attract numerous types of birds.

Holly trees provide shelter beneath their solid leaves and food with their berries.

As natural food becomes more and more scarce in late winter, birds are more apt to take advantage of feeders. Americans are avid birders, feeding the birds year round. This pastime is more than just amusement; it is beneficial for your garden because birds eat harmful insects and pests in addition to weed and left over flower seeds. As they snack on the seeds we put out they also clean up the lawn and garden for spring. I love to watch the wood peckers on the dead trees around our property. This year there are flocks of red wing black birds and grackles at our feeders. I do not remember seeing them in such numbers other years. I try not to complain about them as they eat a volume of gypsy moth larvae and other harmful pests in spring and summer when they have young in the nest.

If your attempts at feeding are not quite as successful as you would like you might evaluate your feeding sites. Is there nearby cover? I find that most of the birds that come to my feeders first sit in the red cedar, holly or spruce trees that naturally line our yard. They not only eat the berries, or pull the seeds from cones, but also find shelter from predictors among the prickly greens and protection from rain and snow beneath their cover.

Many birds love to eat bayberry. It grows in the dunes at the shore but will do well in most well drained yards that are not over watered.

If your yard is bare and the feeder sits out far from any trees or evergreens you must remedy the situation by planting some tall ornamental grasses, fruit bearing shrubs, trees and evergreens as a screen behind the feeders.

Make your first planting of the season an evergreen backdrop for the birds. Sometimes you can find balled and burlaped evergreens left from the Christmas season. Plant a spruce, a fir, a pine or a native cedar. This permanent cover within distance to the feeding area will insure a holding area for hungry but insecure birds on their way to your feeder.

All evergreens are a Mecca for wildlife providing both food and shelter, but the cedar is a very valuable native that should be protected more and planted in residential a well as public landscapes. It is plant that demands nothing of the environment and gives much back. Cedars are not always sitting in nurseries, but we often dig them in our fields for special orders. Watch for them in and among borders as birds often drop the seeds and they grow naturally. We have several very nice specimens that were here in our woodland setting when we built our house more than 40 years ago. There are gardens of shade tolerant plants under them and bird feeders near them. I am so glad these cedars were left to grow in all their glory.

Plants to plan on for attracting birds to your garden

This blue bird is sitting on my garden fence where he loves to eat beach plums from the many shrubs planted along the garden. A pair nests in the box also on the fence.

Ornamental grasses provide both quick cover and food for many varieties of birds. Low plants for ground cover include bearberry for dry shade, cotoneaster, cranberry, lowbush blueberry and spreading junipers. Other taller shrubs that have berries such as Pyracantha, bayberry, choke cherry, Rosa rugosa (large orange rose hips), raspberry, black berry, nandina, clethra and fruiting vines. Taller trees include hollies, cedar, dogwood, Amelanchier (shad blow), fruit, nut and berry trees that birds like for both food and shelter. The dogwood is usually at the top of the list with birds visiting them in the fall. Because of these numerous red berries in autumn, the dogwood is said to be a very good wild life tree. Many songbirds devour the pretty red fruits. Cedar waxwings can often be seen visiting them in fall especially when they are near the cedar trees like in my garden. These flocks also eat the black fruit of the sour gum in fall and the dried frozen persimmon in February.

As I look out my front window now I see towering pines, then many hollies, dogwood, cedar, gum and sassafras. There are various shrubs next, several with fruits and berries. The birds are everywhere, many making their way to the feeders close to the house. Jays, mockingbirds, and cardinals are all eating the numerous kinds of berries. The robins are here and beginning to strip the berries from the holly. There are still berries on my favorite nandina shrubs, but the birds will soon eat them. For some reason, they are eaten last. We enjoyed watching chick a dee pulling the seeds from white pines a while ago.

Chickadees love rose hips and are often in thickets eating and roosting in the safety of the rose thorns.

There are many good books and lists that can provide homeowners with detailed information. Email me at for more information on planting a bird watcher’s garden. Also contact the National Wildlife Federation in Washington DC for their packet for homeowners. We were among the first 100 to register our property as a wildlife habitat way back in the 1970s. Their publications have good ideas on making a garden for the birds. Having been working at this since the ‘70s, we see the many benefits of planting for wildlife. Join me to learn how to make your yard a bird and butterfly Mecca.

On April 10 at 1:30 there will be a Workshop for planting the garden for the birds. The $15 registration fee covers handouts, a one-gallon native plant for birds, a lecture, and walk. Sign up soon. Refreshments also included. Call 856-694-4272.

Mark your calendar for the winter interest, “looking for spring” plant walk and talk on March 14. Event is free and there is home made soup at the end. Please register now. Call 856-694-4272.

lorraine-kieferLorraine Kiefer has gardened all of her life. She is a garden writer, floral designer and professional horticulturist. Lorraine teaches many classes at Triple Oaks nursery and Herb Garden in Franklinville, NJ. Email for garden help or leave your questions below!