Managing a Woodland for Wildlife

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I’ve talked before about how a small portion of my property is wooded. It’s between 1/8-1/4 of an acre so very small–but in the heavily developed suburbs, that is the size of a building lot–and indeed, it is part of a second lot that we own.

Because it is wooded, we try to leave it in as natural state as possible. That means if a tree dies, and it’s not near enough to endanger our neighbor’s home, it stays.

What does this accomplish? Several nice things. Many birds nest in dead trees, which can be difficult to find, particularly in the suburbs. I have an abundance of woodpeckers on my property because I manage it in this way and woodpeckers are one of the birds that nest in dead trees.

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It also brings insects that digest such materials–and keeps them where they belong, in the woods and not in our home.

One drawback is that I am constantly scouting for invasives. I had just about gotten rid of garlic mustard out of here–after a decade of hand pulling–and I now see it’s in all my neighbors yards so it will be back here shortly.

Oriental Bittersweet is a constant issue. I try to find the seedlings when they are small. If all else fails, I cut the vines before they fruit–but of course, I will have twice as many vines the following year. At least, without the birds eating the berries, I won’t have multitudes more and I won’t have spread it to my neighbors.

But the fact that I do have a place for birds and wildlife is important to me. It makes the work worth it.

Ugliness is in the Eyes of the Beholder

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This is a juniper. At least the evergreen on the right is–on the left is a weeping Norway spruce. But for the purposes of this post, I am talking about the juniper.

When this garden was put in back in 1993 (before I married the house and gardens, as I say), the juniper was one of those crazy ornamental things with 5 or 6 pom-poms at the end of branches.

Time, heavy wet snows, ice storms and other things have caused it to revert to its natural shape. Several times the Spoiler and I have discussed removing it. And always, just about the time when we decided it needed to go, something would happen like a neighbor who planted their swingset on our property line. It’s amazing how much this big shrub blocks.

The final “it stays, and as it is,” decision came one February as I looked out my second story den window in a snowstorm. I pretty much overlook this garden from my den.

In this juniper, in the snow, I counted 14 American robins–and there could have been more. They were feasting on the berries.

So that was all I needed to see. The shrub stays–and of course the more shrub there is, the more berries there are.

Bring on the robins!

Persistent Fruit?

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Back when I worked in retail gardening, there were certain plants that everyone wanted–until they understood what was required for fruiting. Hollies (the genus ilex) was one of these. Everyone wanted the red berrying hollies.

No one wanted to plant a male plant (in other words, one without berries) so that they could get the red berries. If you knew how many times I answered the question about “but my neighbor has a holly. Can’t I just use theirs for the male?”

So we sold far fewer hollies than we should because they are lovely, deer resistant native plants for New England and they have persistent fruit (meaning their berries stay on the shrub and don’t fall off and make a mess) until they ripen after the winter. That’s why the birds harvest them in the spring and why they’re available if you choose to cut them for winter decorations.

Since my retail gardening days, hollies have come a long way as well. Breeders are making smaller shrubs and more heavily berrying shrubs. You still need plants of both sexes for most kinds of hollies to get berries–but now at least, the sizes of the shrubs are a bit more manageable for home gardens!

Another small tree that was a near impossible sell was the crab apple. Crab apples have come a long way and they too have persistent fruit. But many folks remember the older variety that dropped messy “apples” and so won’t even consider them.

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Crabapples are another fruit that remains on the tree throughout the winter and is available for returning migratory birds in early spring so it’s a valuable resource.

Take a little time to learn about our new and improved plants the next time you are shopping for a small tree or evergreen shrub. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Now That You’re Feeding Birds, Think About Counting Them

This will give you 4 days to think about whether you might want to be involved in the Great Backyard Bird Count–and no, you don’t technically need a “backyard” to participate. You can count birds anyplace you can watch–or even hear birds! People start their counts just after midnight on the first day (this year the first day of the count is February 15). I am presuming they are hearing owls. I am sleeping.

What’s the Great Backyard Bird Count (or GBBC, for short)? It’s a 4 day count, held every year over the Presidents’ Day weekend. You can find out more than I could ever tell you here, at the web site.

And it’s pretty much as easy as it sounds. You “count” birds (instructions for counting are at the web site, along with optional counting sheets) over the 4 day “count period (again, this year February 15-18) and submit those counts to the web site. Last year close to 3 million birds were counted.

Why do you want to do this? For one thing, it’s fun. You’d be surprised at the number of different birds you’ll see if you just sit still and look.

For a second, it’s remarkably low tech (despite the fact that you have to submit your results online). You have to sit still and look at nature for at least 15 minutes. When was the last time you did that? It’s almost like forest bathing through a window. It can be remarkably relaxing.

So get to the web site, read the instructions, and even if you don’t participate, at some point over the long weekend, get your favorite hot beverage, park yourself in front of a window (or better yet, outdoors if it’s nice enough to do so where you are!) and just watch nature for 15 minutes. You’ll be surprised how refreshed you are at the end of it.

Nesting Places for Birds

I’ve lived in my house 25 years. By now, I know where I am likely to find birds nests. Every so often one will surprise me–but for the most part, there are several trees–small trees–and shrubs where I know that I am likely to find birds needs if I just pay attention.

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I will always find at least one, if not two, American robin’s nest in my American dogwood (cornus florida). Interestingly enough, they also like the Japanese maple and the japanese holly–so it’s not an “american” thing.

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I will also find various other birds nesting in these topiary blue spruce we have. We have several (don’t blame me–I inherited them). They stay because they birds like them.

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The japanese holly is another inherited shrub that I tolerate because it’s good for the birds. As I mentioned in the last post, it’s wonderful shelter for them (it doesn’t berry–I don’t think we have enough sun) and they do nest in it so I am not likely to remove it even though it is a bit of an overgrown monstrosity.

As for other nesting places, I was foolish enough to think that you needed nest boxes. Silly me. We must have at least 10 pair of nesting birds on the property at any one time all summer long. I attribute that to providing habitat (and of course, no pesticides).

You saw 2 nest boxes in the dogwood. One is pretty much decorative. The other is a working wren house and it’s used every year. I fledge ( actually the wren parents fledge) at least 2 broods of baby wrens each year. And they get mighty irate if I try to garden underneath.

But the trees and shrubs are the true nesting stars. My bird population relies heavily upon them to perpetuate their future.

Giving Birds a Place to Shelter

So in talking about birding habitat–or any habitat for wildlife–we’ve already covered food and water. And if you think about it, all living things need these–you or I wouldn’t survive for longer than a week or so without sustenance.

We’d also have to find some sort of shelter for ourselves. Birds and other wildlife need to do the same.

And in just the same way that each of us chooses different types of dwellings, birds have surprisingly different requirements when it comes to “shelter.” (I will talk about “nesting,” or places to raise young, on Friday).

If there’s a hawk or other bird of prey after them, any sort of cover will do, of course. They will duck into a shrub, a thicket, a tree with branches near a trunk or even under a rock.

But if it’s winter and they need to shelter from cold winds, evergreens are better protection for this. Evergreens on the leeward side of a building are even better (away from the prevailing winds).

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These 2 pieris andromeda don’t look like much, but I have seen lots of finch, sparrows and cardinals sheltering here. It’s on the south side of my house. I suspect that my cardinals even nest here but I haven’t confirmed that.

Even ornamental grasses left standing can be protection–and can offer valuable seeds–in a pinch.

What’s important is to know the places where your birds do shelter and to try not to let things disturb them. On a cold day–or night–it costs them precious energy to fly. I try hard not to let my dog get too close my large evergreen hollies where I know that birds sometimes huddle for protection. I don’t want her flushing them out needlessly.(You’ll see these hollies in my post on nesting).

Take a look around your yard–or if you don’t have a yard, a park or other place you like to visit. Can you find the places where birds like to shelter?

Providing Water to Birds in Winter

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You saw the photo of my little backyard pond all frozen over–or almost frozen over–last Wednesday. Believe it or not, that’s one of the best ways for birds–and even the squirrels and the chipmunks that pop out of torpor on a warm day–to get water in winter.

Once that pond gets a nice crusty, ice covering, it’s a safe place for birds and small wildlife to approach the small open fountain for a drink.

Obviously when the pond is completely un-frozen, it’s not very wildlife friendly–at least not for drinking! I have witnessed birds flying through the bubbler fountain, but I haven’t seen any really try to drink from it. I did see a mourning dove try to sit on it though. That was funny. It knocked the whole pump/pump box right over!

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Until it gets really cold, I do try to keep these plastic bird baths filled and relatively clean. Once they freeze solid, all bets are off. The stone is to keep them from becoming airborne in our gusty winter winds. It also helps the smaller birds that don’t want to dunk, but merely drink, have a perch.

I haven’t talked about what elements you need to provide to give birds–or any wildlife–a place to survive. There are four and we’ve already covered two. Food is essential, as is water. I will cover the next, shelter, on Monday.