Preparing Your Garden for Winter Birds
by – Richard Staniforth
It is the middle of October; we have already had snow and cold weather. But today as I write, the sun is shining, the snow has gone, any remaining foliage on shrubs and perennial plants have their delicate colours and there are Dark-eyed Juncos and White-throated Sparrows searching for fallen seeds beneath remains of the perennials. We try not to think of it, but winter IS on its way and we will lose some or most of the autumn charm. Is there any way that we can keep some of the features of October to help us keep up our spirits through the long winter months?
Chances are the Juncos and White-throated Sparrows will be far away before we reach the deep freeze that is February. Nevertheless, there will be other birds to catch our attention and keep us peering through the kitchen window at the otherwise white wasteland: Black-capped Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches, Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, and Blue Jays keep us entertained and are frequent in our cities. In forested rural areas to the east of Winnipeg, the inhabitants may expect additional species, such as Red-breasted Nuthatches, Pileated Woodpeckers, Canada Jays and winter finches such as flocks of the diminutive Common and Hoary Redpolls, or the robust Evening and Pine Grosbeaks.
Aside from the availability of commercial bird food such as suet, or black-oiled sunflower and Niger seeds is there anything we can do to attract and hang on to winter birds by our gardening practices? Two items come to mind: shelter and a natural source of food.
Over the years, my wife and I have discovered that densely foliaged trees and shrubs offer protective dormitories for winter birds. Shrubs such as cultivars of various cedars, junipers and dwarf pines (Thuja, Juniperus and Pinus species) and even dense stands of dead stems of perennials (now long dormant) such as Peonies (Paeonia species) and Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum species) may offer protection from powerful winter winds. These are welcomed by birds. The plan to keep the stalks of perennials available for winter birds must be made in autumn before the enthusiasm for efficient garden clean-up takes hold! Strategically placed log piles and solid wood fence lines also play a role in winter shelter for birds.
Soft fruits of many species are long gone by the time winter has set in. They have already been wolfed down by passing flocks of migratory birds until none are left for winter birds. Such species may include cultivated and wild cherries (Prunus species), Dogwoods (Cornus species), Highbush Cranberries (Viburnum opulus var. americanum, formerly V. trilobum ) and Nannyberries (Viburnum lentago). Exceptions to these are perhaps the Red Osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea) and certain non-native species that are not in step with our seasons in Manitoba. The dogwood flowers and fruits continuously until the first fall frosts and therefore provides a longer fall feeding period. Non-native species may produce fruit so late that winter arrives before they fall from the parent plants or are eaten. This latter category includes various apple cultivars which may attract a Robin or Varied Thrush if we are fortunate. Of European origin, the Black and Bittersweet Nightshades (Solanum nigrum and Solanum dulcamara) hold their berries well into winter. By the time they are black or red respectively they will have lost all or most of their poisonous chemical, solanine, and are edible to birds – a fact not worth testing by humans!
It is certainly worthwhile to leave old seed heads above the snowline; they will likely attract birds! Cultivars of Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Blood Amaranth (Amaranthus cruentus), Eastern Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), Pot Marigold (Calendula officinalis) and many other garden flowers retain a proportion of their seeds during winter and these attract birds like Chickadees. There are usually tiny bugs hiding in their seed heads which are equally as attractive as food. We have found, by neglect, that the same is true for “weeds” like Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica), Spotted Lady’s-thumb (Persicaria maculosa) and Prostrate Knotweed (Polygonum aviculare), Redroot Amaranth (Amaranthus retroflexus) and Common Lamb’s-quarters (Chenopodium album).
For those gardeners who are anxious to continue with fall clean-up, seed heads which are borne on long stalks may be artistically arranged in planters above anticipated snow lines, attached to the fabric of fences, or displayed in hanging baskets.
Customise your yard in the autumn to feed and provide shelter for birds during the upcoming winter but both endeavours must maintain a predator free environment for birds to feel safe. Unfortunately, the establishment of your winter bird sanctuary will soon become a magnet for cats. Tricky, because usually the local cat owners may be your neighbours and you may not wish to antagonise them! The price of encouraging birds to your yard, perchance?
Richard Stanifoth was born and grew up in Devonshire, England where he, his sisters and brother benefited from the diversity of landscapes, animals and plants that filled their environment. He went to Bangor University for an Honours degree in Plant Biology and it was there that he met his future wife, Diana Parry. After their marriage, the couple made their home in London, Ontario but eventually moved to Winnipeg where Richard taught plant and ecology courses at the University of Winnipeg for 33 years.