Monday, October 13, 2008

Native Plant Gardening is for the Birds!


April 7, 2006

Do you enjoy watching the antics of glutinous squirrels, those Flying Wallendas of the animal world, as they combine agility and recklessness in their quest for feeder domination? Do you anticipate the appearance of the earliest migrating songbirds or the arrival of exhausted parents with their newly fledged offspring for their first lessons in feeder etiquette? By offering a variety of bird food in a diverse assortment of feeders or all manner of bird baths, from rudimentary pie plates to specially designed ponds, you are naturescaping. A new name for an old practice in which you enhance the features of your property to encourage wildlife to visit and with luck and forethought, to set up house.
One aspect of naturescaping is to use native plants (and non-invasive horticultural plants) to benefit not only your visual enjoyment but also contribute to enhanced habitat for many creatures, including our feathered neighbours.
Most birds are insect eaters when need for nourishment is great and fruits, nuts and nectar are not abundant; even hummingbirds snack on bugs. Trees with thick, ridged bark, like mature Douglas-fir and Garry oaks supply habitat for many insects that brown creepers, red-breasted nuthatches and woodpeckers are adapted to locating. Snowberries harbour many bugs and caterpillars as well as supplying excellent cover for ground-using birds. A snarl of trailing blackberries provides a source of berries and a favoured nesting site for towhees. All the warblers are insect eaters and the bugs and spiders you see on your native shrubs are a natural part of the food chain. Resist spraying pesticides which removes these important food sources.
Many of us hang hummingbird feeders outside our windows so that we can marvel at the their beauty and territorial battles. To increase their preference for your yard, the March-April flowering of the gummy gooseberry with its scarlet red, fuchsia-like blooms and the pendant flowers of its near relative, the flowering currant are both a source of nectar for our Anna’s and Rufous hummingbirds, as are the dark pink blossoms of salmonberry. These are all invaluable food sources when so little else has begun to flower. In bloom at the end of March and equally welcomed are the pink and white blossoms of the hairy manzanita. April and May follow with red elderberry, twinberry and western honeysuckle coming into flower with their hummingbird favoured blooms. May through June, the flamboyant red columbine and the more restrained Pacific bleeding heart both contribute to the hummers diets while another favourite, Cooley’s hedge-nettle, with its red to pink flowers, blooms later in the season. In fact, some of these plants are pollinated almost exclusively by hummingbirds.
Many shrubs and trees produce fruit and nuts that last from spring, well into the winter and supply much needed food. Manzanita berries are eaten by band-tailed pigeons (now considered a blue-listed species) and Oregon grape fruit are consumed by fox sparrow and towhees, while kinnikinnick berries are munched by grouse, among others. Indian plum are quickly stripped of their fruit early in the season and Saskatoons provide mid-summer nourishment. All these shrubs require well-drained, sunny areas for maximum fruit production. Even the shade loving huckleberries will produce more fruit if they have the benefit of extra sun. Think of the fields of blueberries (usually a shade lover) growing in full sun on the drive from the ferry to Vancouver.
Salal, dull Oregon grape, huckleberries and many of our currants and gooseberries do well with light shading to full sun and dry to slightly moist soil conditions and are appreciated by thrushes, grouse, quail, robins and others. Of course, these plants need supplemental watering if they are to survive the additional sun and the drying out that entails.
Sitka mountain ash, alders, elderberry, bitter cherry, Pacific crabapple and black hawthorn are usually found near streams, lakes and wetlands and, as you would suspect, require more moisture. Purple finch, evening grosbeaks, cedar waxwings, robins and many other birds will devour the fruits and seeds of these plants. American goldfinch, warblers and flycatchers appreciate ninebark, another great shrub for riparian areas and grosbeaks find the bigleaf maple’s winged seeds to their liking. Apparently, 23 species of birds, in particular grouse and quail, find the tender buds of Scouler’s willow delectable.
Garry oak acorns are quickly eaten by Stellar’s jays and band-tailed pigeons and many birds consume arbutus berries. Thrushes, pine grosbeaks and red-breasted nuthatches love cedar, pine and fir cones and pine siskins indulge in hemlock seeds.
Birds really appreciate and need plenty of cover nearby to help them escape easily if a hawk or other threat appears. However a lot of dense ground cover or shrubs, which towhees, fox sparrows and quail love, can be counter-productive if there are cats nearby, who will wait patiently for unsuspecting birds to land. In that case some cat proof fencing is in order. I used short fence-like edging around my feeder, which gave the birds a “heads-up” when the cat would have to jump over it before reaching them. Lots of stakes in the ground can accomplish the same result at no expense.
Non-native, non-invasive garden plants can be a complementary addition to your naturescaped garden: fuchsias, weigela, flowering quince and the honeysuckle vine “Dropmore Scarlet” are all appreciated by hummingbirds. The evergreen California lilac attracts sparrows to its small fruit capsules and we’ve all seen many birds feast on sunflowers seeds.
Please do not plant any of the invasive species, even though birds might love them. English hawthorn, ivy, holly and cotoneaster are 4 big-time no-no's! They might supply some extra food and habitat for birds but eventually they decrease these necessities for other forms of wildlife as they turn biological diversity into virtual monocultures.
Naturescaping is a way to enhance our yards for our enjoyment of wildlife and at the same time, helps achieve a balance that encourages our co-existence with the natural world. Planting native trees, shrubs and flowers is one way that this can be accomplished and once established, needs no more input from us yet gives back many seasons of bird watching pleasure.

References and Resources:

Naturescape Stewardship Series, Caring for Wildlife Habitat at Home. 1995. Written and compiled by Susan Campbell and
The Bird Garden, produced by the National Audubon Society, 1995
Canadian Wildlife Federation has excellent resources for Naturescaping:
Naturescape BC has an excellent guide on Caring for Wildlife Habitat at Home that you can find at:
Another great naturescaping site:
A wonderful website, PlantNative, an Oregon based group, is dedicated to moving native plants and naturescaping into mainstream landscaping practices.

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