Activities

Birds in Urban Gardens

By Leo Shapiro, courtesy of the Council on the Environment of New York City and the American Community Gardening Association

Throughout history, birds have fascinated us. They are able to fly, as no human beings can do, and many of them are bright and colorful. Some birds are wonderful songsters, and their cheerful sounds add beauty and a note of victory to the air. They are an essential part of a garden's ecology. They control insect populations and help to spread plants by eating berries and releasing the indigested seeds in their droppings. In the following resource sheet, various aspects of attracting birds to urban gardens and encouraging them to nest are discussed. A bibliography is also included for those who want to study birds further.

Planting For Birds

Birds use shrubs and trees year-round for food and, in summer, for nesting. The following plantings are excellent for attracting birds to the urban garden:

Shrubs and Vines

Fruiting Period

American Honeysuckle, Sambucus Canadensis

Late Summer – mid-fall

Amur Honeysuckle, Lonicera maakii

Fall

Arrowwood, Viburnum dentatum

Fall

Bayberry, Myrica pennslyvannia

Fall to early spring

Black Haw, Viburnum prunus

Fall

Highbush Blueberry, Vaccinium corymbosum

Early summer - fall

Nannyberry, Viburnum lentago

Fall

Siberian Dodwood, Cornus alba sibirica

Fall

Tartatian Honeysuckle, Lonicera tatarica

Summer

Sargent Crabapple, Malus sargentii

Fall

Winterberry, Ilex verticulata

Fall-winter

Blackberry and Rasberry, Rubus

Summer

Red Osier Dogwood, Cornus stolonifera

Midsummer - fall

Barberry, Berberis

Spring - fall

Chokecherry, Aronia arbutifolia

Fall-winter

Sumac, Rhus

Early summer - winter

Serviceberry, Amelanchier

Early summer - fall

Greenbrier, Smilax

Fall - winter

Elderberry, Sambucus Canadensis

Late summer - fall

Virginia Creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia

Late summer - winter

Bittersweet, Celastrus scandens

Fall - winter

Wild Rose, Rosa

Fall - winter

Coralberry, Symphoricarpos orbiculatus

Fall- winter

Common Spicebush, Lindera benzion

Mid summer - fall

Russian Olive, Elaeagnus angustifolia

Fall



Trees

Fruiting Period

Flowering Dogwood, Cornus florida

Fall - winter

Japanese Barberry, Berberis thunbergii

Fall – winter

Red Mulberry, Morus rubra

Late summer

Cherry Eleagnus, Eleagnus multiflora

Summer

European Mountain Ash, Sorbus aucuparia

Fall-winter

Hawthorn, Crategus

Spring – winter

Oak, Quercus

Fall

Wild Black Cherry, Prunus serotina

Mid summer - fall

Choke Cherry, Prunus virginiana

Mid summer - fall

Pin Cherry, Prunus pennsylvanica

Mid summer - fall

Eastern White Pine, Pinus strobes

Year round

Japanese Black Pine, Pinus thunbergii

Year round

Japanese White Pine, Pinus parviflora

Year round

Red Maple, Acer negundo

Fall

Silver Maple, Acer saccharum

Early summer - fall

Sugar Maple, Acer saccharum

Early summer - fall

Box Elder, Acer negundo

Fall

American Beech, Fagus grandifolia

Fall

Birch, Betula

Year round

Spruce, Picea

Year round

Canadian Hemlock, Tsuga Canadensis

Year round

Black Gum, Nyssa sylvatica

Late summer-fall

Mulberry, Morus

Summer

Eastern Red Cedar, Juniperus virginiana

Fall - spring

Mountain Ash, Sorbus

Late summer - spring



Flowers and Grasses

Fruiting Period

Sunflower, Helianthus

Mid-summer - fall

Ragweed, Ambrosia

Mid-summer  - winter

Panicgrass, Panicum

Mid-summer - fall

Timothy, Phleum pratense

Summer

Bristlegrass, Setaria

Summer

Knotwood, Polygonum

Late spring - fall

Pokeweed, Phytolacca

Fall

The following plants will protect birds from the weather, as well as from predators, and are therefore potential nesting sites:

Blackberry, Rubus

Beach Plum, Prunus maritima

Greenbriar, Smilax

Mock Orange, Philadelphus virginalis

Pine, Pinus

Flowering Dogwood, Cornus florida

Spruce, Picea

Cotoneaster, Cotoneaster

Fir, Abies

Willow, Salix

Viburnum, Viburnum

Honeysuckle, Lonicera

Canadian Hemlock, Tsuga Canadensis

Photinia, Photinia villosa

Native Roses, Rosa

Black Locust, Robinia pseudoacacia

Sassafras, Sassafras albidum

 

Feeding

Planting with birds in mind is the best method of feeding them. However, you may want to hang feeders with seed. In our opinion, sunflower seed is the best all-round food, and it is unpopular with house sparrows. Wild birdseed can be purchased at supermarkets; quality birdseed can be also obtained in 10 or 20 kilogram bags from the National Audubon Society which also sells excellent feeders that will last for many years. If you feed birds in the winter, it is very important to check feeders daily and keep them filled. Birds will concentrate around the feeders and become dependent on them for food. In times of severe weather, if the birds find their food source suddenly gone, they may not be able to find new supplies quickly enough and will starve or freeze. Do not stop feeding until spring has very definitely arrived. For insectivorous (insect-eating) birds such as the woodpecker, you can hand suet (beef fat) in a mesh bag (an onion bag, for example), or use a container with metal parts, as in very cold weather the bird’s tongue may actually freeze to the metal surface. You may wish to decorate your evergreens for the holiday season with strands of cranberries and popcorn – these will be eaten quickly by the birds.

Some Birds That Eat Suet

Some Birds That Eat Sunflower Seeds

Downy Woodpecker, Picoides pubescens

Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis

House Wren, Trogolodytos gedon

White-Throated Sparrow, Zanotruchia albicollis

White-Breasted Nuthatch, Sitta carolinensis

Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia

Starling, Sturnus vulgaris

White-Breasted Nuthatch

Black-Capped Chickadee, Parus atricapillus

Black-Capped Chickadee

Tufted Titmouse, Parus bicolor

Tufted Titmouse

Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata

Blue Jay

Mockingbird, Mimus polylottos

House Finch, Carpodacus mexicanus

Water Supply

It is essential to supply birds with water for drinking and bathing. A garbage can lid mounted on an old pipe or post a few feet above the ground and filled with an inch or two of water is excellent; do not make the water too deep. Even better than this, if possible, is a small pond with a few lily pads or other aquatic plants. Keeping the water thawed will allow birds to use it even in freezing weather. Some gardeners place water bowls on top of a "cooking" compost pile to keep them from freezing.

Injured Or Motherless Birds

Apparently motherless birds are often not motherless at all – the mother is only hiding, waiting for you to go away. If you find an injured bird, it is usually best to leave it alone; caring for it will require a tremendous amount of time and a good deal of knowledge and skill. If, however, a wounded bird does somehow come into your care, call your local Audubon Society for advice. The number is 212-832-3200 in New York City.

Nesting Boxes

The only birds that commonly use nesting boxes are those that nest in tree holes in the wild. In small urban gardens, usually surrounded by building and concrete, the numbers of these birds are limited, but the house sparrow, starling, and the less common black-capped chickadee and house wren can all be expected to use nesting boxes. The wood should receive a natural finish or be painted a dull color. A few small (1/4") holes should be drilled in the floor – or you can simply cut off the corners of the floor – for drainage; a few holes should be drilled near the roof for ventilation. The inner surfaces of the wood should remain rough. Put two or three handfuls of coarse sawdust on the floor of the nest box. Do not use a perch – it is unnecessary and may aid an attacking bird such as a starling. Be sure that the entrance does not face prevailing winds (generally from the northwest in the New York City area) or the birds may get caught in the wind and have difficulty entering or leaving the nest. Boxes should be mounted firmly on a tree or post, as most birds will not use a hanging nesting box. Certain birds, such as the American Robin, Turdus migratorius, will build nests on a simple nesting platform, about 6" X 8", placed 15 or 20 feet up in a tree.

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