While sipping some herbal tea and watching songbirds at my feeder from my kitchen window, it occurred to me that my articles have only featured food for thought for the human clan. So, this one’s for the birds.
I mostly abandoned my garden for the months of December and January favoring inside activities like baking and movie watching. After all, my garden was “asleep.” In actuality, the garden was only in the twilight of sleep. I liken twilight sleep to a smooth boat ride with the comforting hum of a well-tuned outboard as warm wind kisses your face. You could wake easily, but you don’t want to. Sleep doesn’t come as easily as it used to for the garden. As weather patterns become less predictable, with each rogue warm winter day the garden cracks one eye to see if it is yet spring. If it is just a short burst of warmth, the garden will roll over and continue its slumber. However, longer patches of warmth are more confusing for plants.
I have noticed in recent springs, plants are coming out of hibernation earlier. My observation is backed up by scientific studies I learned about in a presentation by Dr. Sara Via of the University of Maryland through the Talbot County Master Gardeners. In her presentation entitled “The Effects of Climate Change on Native Plants,” a direct correlation was drawn between the early flowering of native species and mismatched timing in species interactions. Plants that flower earlier are smaller and have less seeds. A plant’s failure to seed set equals lack of food for pollinators like the hummingbird. Plants that bloom early are also subject to unexpected late cold snaps that kill plants leaving nothing for pollinators to eat. Nature is becoming asynchronous.
It is easy to ignore that which we cannot see or participate in. With warm and comfortable homes to shield us from winter, we can be muted from the life that continues outside our four walls. As winter fades away and we are drawn back outdoors by the angle of the sun, it can be a thrill to witness a robin’s arrival in the springtime, but there were birds here all winter long. Did we notice? What did they eat? That depends upon the bird. Just like humans, they have their favorite foods, too.
While bird feeders are helpful to the birds, they are far from the solution. Throughout the winter, birds will snack on dried seed heads that have been left standing, such as coneflowers and sunflowers. Birds enjoy eating insects, fruits, berries, nectar, seeds and nuts and each species has their preference. Berries are so critical to wildlife because they contain specific proteins, fats, and nutrients necessary for winter survival. Many birds do not come to bird feeders preferring insects instead. The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker eats tree sap, insects, and will come to suet feeders. The Cedar Waxwing eats cedar cones, fruit and insects and spends most of its time at the top of tall trees. The American Robin eats insects, fruit, berries and earthworms. I point out these differences because, like humans, birds need organic rich and diversified sources of food. Unfortunately, this natural cornucopia of bird food has become scarce.
A scientific American article entitled “Silent Skies, Billions of North American Birds Have Vanished,” the author, Jim Daley, sites three main reasons for this precipitous decline: The intensification of agriculture that is happening all over the world, increased use of pesticides, and the continued conversion of the remaining grass, pasture land, and native prairie to cropland. Jim Jim writes, “These changes impact grassland birds in myriad ways: Widely used pesticides kill insects that some birds rely on for food, and exposure to these chemicals can even delay migration. Converting land for agricultural use removes nesting habitat.”
In the private sector, beautifully manicured yards provide nothing for birds to eat; they are like a desert to them. As human populations increase and a housing sprawl claims raw land where native grasses once grew and natural meadows thrived, we now have acres of “perfectly” manicured lawns. Perfectly manicured lawns offer nothing for the songbird.
If lawn were considered a crop it would the number one irrigated crop in America, according to the Washington Post article, “Lawns are a soul crushing time suck and we would be better off without them.” The author points out that the average homeowner spends about 70 hours a year on lawn maintenance on top of which a survey disclosed that for 1 in 5 people mowing the lawn was their least favorite chore. While grass does soak up rainwater and prevent run-off, so does other greenery like rain gardens and meadows. Between the fuel used to mow, the water used to keep them green, and the pesticides to keep them weed free, lawns are a burden on our environment; except that some homeowners really do love their lawns. For those that love their lawn, might you consider a compromise?
Little bird sanctuaries can be a big idea and exponentially significant if entire neighborhoods invest in the concept. Reclaiming small patches of lawn for birds can be a challenge but, in the long run, it will save you time and money and just maybe you’ll attract a few songbirds to your property by planting natives they enjoy.
Birds are a wonderment. After all, they can do that which we cannot – they can fly. As nature’s art in motion, they captivate our senses with colorful plumage and whimsical birdsong. All animals are a reminder that we are not alone on this planet, at least for now, but birds’ presence among us is paramount if we are willing to witness and embrace a greatness we cannot achieve. Sure, we can invent airplanes, but we will never be born with the ability to fly and that in itself is humbling.
For all we can achieve as humans we have limitations. Animals who naturally display their gifts so freely remind us that our place on the planet cannot be at the top but abeam. For if we do not embrace and support the beauty in front of us then we have not gotten beyond ourselves.
Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering. A food explorer, Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.
Suggestions For Bird Friendly Plantings
Oak (quercus) – they support over 530 kinds of caterpillars
Willow (salix spp.) – supports many caterpillars that birds love to eat
Birch (betula) – high wildlife value
Serviceberry (amelanchier) – downy serviceberry attracts 35 bird species
Tulip poplar (liriodendron Tulipifera) – a favorite of hummingbirds
Black cherry (prunus) – Birds feed on the berries
Silky Dogwood (cornus Amomum)
Dogwood, gray and red (cornus Racemes, c. sericea) – berries
Southern Arrowwood (vibernum Dentatum)
Virginia Creeper (parthenocissus Quinquefolia)
Winterberries (ilex Verticillata)
Blackberries, Raspberries, Blueberries, Gooseberries
Little blue Stem native grass (schizachyrium)
Joe Pye, Boneset (eupatorium)
Black Eyed Susans (rudbeckia)
Especially for Hummingbirds
Cardinal Flower (lobelia Cardinalis)
Native Trumpet Honeysuckle (lonicera Sempervirens)
Bee balm (mondara)
Red zinnias (zinnia Elegans)
1 1/2 cups of shortening – melted
3/4 cup of any nut butter
3 1/2 cups of wild bird seed
1 cup quick oats
1/2 cup corn meal
Combine the dry and mix together melted shortening and nut butter. Pour the melted mixture over the dry mixture and stir. Put into ice cube trays and freeze. Place cubes on feeder as needed. Do not use in temps over 50 degrees.
Resources & Readings
Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2012
Birds of Maryland & Delaware: A Field Guide, by San Tekiea, 2005
Adventure Publications Cambridge, Minnesota.
University of MD Extension Office: https://extension.umd.edu
Audubon Society: www.audubon.org
Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson