By Barbara Heimlich
Sources: News From The Nest: Audubon Connecticut;
Andy McGlashen, Senior Editor, Audubon Magazine
As you have probably guessed from previous Crier articles, I am a bird watcher with multiple feeders, including window feeders, which entertain me more than most streaming shows. Winter is a tough time for birds, especially when it comes to finding food and shelter – but there are ways that we can help!
Birds have the same needs—food, water, shelter—in winter as they do any other time. Supporting these needs for overwintering birds could help to sustain their populations. Audubon Connecticut has compiled the following guide on simple ways you can help.
Creating Bird-friendly Yards and Communities
Where birds thrive, people prosper. One of the most important things we can do to help birds and other wildlife is to make our yards more bird and wildlife-friendly.
- Make a brush pile in the corner of the yard. Collect and set aside fallen branches and logs. This will provide shelter for birds from predators and storms, and a place to roost at night.
- Rake leaves up under trees and shrubs and leave them there. The resulting mulch will make a lush environment for the insects and spiders that birds love to eat.
Many birds rely on fruits and seeds for survival, especially from feeders when food is scarce.
- Providing bird feeders in winter will attract many birds to your yard. Place feeders in locations near, but not directly next to shelters. This allows birds to see any potential predators—but doesn’t allow the predators to catch birds on the feeders. This also prevents bird collisions.
- Attract different kinds of birds with different kinds of food. In general,
- Suet and peanut butter are attractive to woodpeckers, wrens, chickadees, and others.
- Sunflower seeds appeal especially to finches, but many other small-to-medium sized birds eat sunflower including chickadees and juncos.
- Hulled sunflower seeds can be eaten by smaller birds as well—though more pricey, there’s much less waste and less mess under the feeder.
- Nyjer or thistle is attractive to smaller finches like goldfinches, siskins, and redpolls.
- Mixed seed will attract most species to some extent; doves and pheasants like the millet content.
- Cracked corn on the ground will attract ground-feeding species including doves, pheasants, quail, and turkeys.
- Provide Water. A clean source of water, such as a birdbath, will be of great use to birds, and a dripping water source can be a magnet for birds. In areas with winter freeze-up, it’s best to use a heated birdbath.
Plant a native plant garden — winter is the perfect time to get started. But if you’re itching to start preparing for the warmer months, consider growing native plants from seed this winter. Doing so is simple and affordable and comes with other benefits, says Emily Baisden, seed program manager for the Wild Seed Project, a Maine nonprofit that advocates for native gardens.
Plants grown from seed, rather than through cloning, help to promote genetic diversity. And nurturing them can help build a sense of hope and connection to one’s local environment. “A lot of people think of winter as being a time of death, and it’s not—all of these plants are very much alive,” she says. “It’s a good way to remind people to think about all this life that is actually going on around us, and that we can help to promote in our own way.”
Audubon spoke with Baisden to walk through the basics of growing native plants from seed. Here are a few of her hints:
Make a Plan
First, assess the site where you intend to plant. Is it wet or dry? Sunny or shaded? Sandy or loamy? Then, use Audubon’s native plants database to find species suited to your region that will do well in that spot. “There’s a beautiful plant for all locations,” Baisden says.
Baisden also recommends checking out the directory of seed sellers and other native plant providers offered by Homegrown National Park, a native plants campaign led by the entomologist and author Doug Tallamy. The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation also provides a native plant, seed, and services directory.
Before purchasing seeds, confirm that they were produced without pesticides. Baisden says it’s especially important to avoid anything grown with systemic chemicals such as neonicotinoids (e.g. like RoundUP), which can linger throughout a plant’s tissues and harm the insects birds rely on for food.
Sow Your Seeds
Once your seeds arrive, it’s time to pot them. Baisden recommends using containers between four and eight inches wide, and they don’t need to be fancy—inexpensive plastic pots work fine. Pack each one with organic potting soil, leaving about half an inch at the top, and use labels to remember which species each contains.
Sprinkle the seeds densely on top of the soil. Baisden finds that many native species are more likely to germinate if they’re packed in close to or even touching one another.
Take Them Outside!
With that, it’s time to take the seeds outside—yes, outside. Don’t worry about the cold or snow: Many native plants go to seed in the fall, so those seeds are built to spend the winter in the elements, biding their time.
Haul your seed-filled pots outdoors and place them in a flat, somewhat shady spot. Baisden recommends putting them under a deciduous tree so the seeds will soak up some sun in the winter but the sensitive seedlings will receive protective shade when the tree leafs out in spring.
Here’s an important bit: Cover all of the pots with rodent-proof wire mesh, such as hardware cloth.
The plants will emerge when they’re ready. Some will send up seedlings as soon as the weather begins to warm up, while others may take weeks or months longer. And some species need to lie dormant for multiple winters before they germinate, so read up on the plants you choose and know what to expect.
As spring arrives, keep your seeds or seedlings watered. If you’ve planted a species that requires more sun, move those pots to a sunnier spot. You can leave the plants potted throughout the summer, though you may need to move some large species to bigger pots.
In that event, there’s no need to tease apart each plant—just gently remove the whole mass from the smaller pot and plop it into the bigger one. Be sure to remove the rodent-proof mesh before the seedlings grow too big.
As summer turns to fall, prepare your planting site by removing grass or weeds that would compete with your young native plants. Then, it’s time to plant: Dig a hole just wider than the plant’s roots and deep enough so that the soil level from the pot will match that of the planting site. Carefully remove the plant from its pot, place it in the hole, fill the hole with soil, and give the plant a drink. No need to be finicky, Baisden says: “You can use a little bit of leaf mulch if you’re worried about it, but I find the great thing about native plants is that you can just kind of put them in the ground, and they’re happy as can be.”
Don’t get down on yourself when things don’t go perfectly. “Everybody who’s in the plant world has killed a lot of plants.”