During the winter months, I love to watch the various birds come to the bird feeders getting some seeds and suet that will help provide them with the energy necessary to help them survive the winter months. Not that the birds can’t survive naturally, but it doesn’t hurt to provide some quick energy assistance to help them along during the winter months, especially after a heavy snow or ice storm.
I also like to think about providing a permanent habitat that is welcoming to the birds and provides a buffet of naturally occurring seeds and berries during the winter months. Now is the time to start planning for developing such a habitat around your yard for next year.
To provide habitat for the largest diversity of birds, try to include in your plan plants from as many of the following groups of plants as possible on your property.
Choosing plants that produce fruits and seeds at different times of year will ensure that your backyard will always have something to bring in the birds. Let’s take a closer look at some plant groups that should be considered when developing a habitat for the birds.
The first group is the conifers, or the evergreen trees and shrubs, such as pines, spruces, firs, arborvitae and junipers, which provide excellent shelter and nest sites, and food for many species. For example, some northern finches specialize in extracting seeds from conifer cones, and some hummingbirds take insects and sap from the tips of conifer branches when they first return in spring, before nectar-bearing flowers are available.
The second group to consider is the grasses and legumes. Grasslands and smaller stands of grasses and “weeds” provide cover for ground-nesting birds, though they can serve as deathtraps if mowed during the nesting season. They also provide abundant food for many birds. I have watched the turkeys go through a field of grasses eating the small seeds.
Another group to consider is the nectar-producing plants whose flowers, especially those with tubular red corollas, attract hummingbirds and orioles. Insects attracted to these plants also serve as food for a wide variety of birds.
Moving into the summer, try fruiting plants such as various species of cherry, chokecherry, native honeysuckle, raspberry, serviceberry, blackberry, blueberry, native mulberry and elderberry, which provide food for many birds during the breeding season.
Then we have the autumn-fruiting plants, which include the dogwoods, mountain ash, cotoneasters, buffalo-berries, and other fall-bearing fruit and berry plants, which provide an important source of food for migratory birds, both to build up fat reserves before migration and to sustain them along their journey. Non-migratory birds also fatten up on these so they can enter the winter season in good physical condition.
The next group is the winter-bearing plants, or plants that hold onto their fruit long after they ripen in the fall, providing a winter food source for winter residents and early-returning migrants: Robins, waxwings, pine grosbeaks and mockingbirds are among the birds drawn to fruit trees in winter. Crabapple, snowberry, native bittersweet, sumacs, viburnums, American highbush cranberry, eastern wahoo, Virginia creeper and winterberry (holly) are all valuable for these birds.
The final group to consider is the nut and acorn plants, or the oaks, hickories, buckeyes, chestnuts, butternuts, walnuts, beeches and hazelnuts, which provide food for titmice, jays, turkeys, squirrels and deer. The other evening, I watched 30 to 40 turkeys marching across the lane heading to roost for the evening after going through the forest searching for nuts. These trees also provide nesting habitat for many species.
By developing bird-friendly landscaping that includes a selection of sheltering evergreen plants as well as plants that will provide fruit and seeds for a natural winter food source, you will attract the greatest number of bird species to your buffet. By providing for birds’ basic needs as seasons change, it can be easy to attract birds to your yard in winter so you can enjoy their company even when the weather is at its worst.
Bill Lamont is a professor and extension vegetable specialist in the department of plant science at Penn State University and can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.