Winter is for the Birds

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It’s nice to appreciate the crisp autumn weather and the peaceful winter wonderland from the comforts of our warm homes. As we gaze out the windows from our toasty living rooms and watch the birds and other wildlife searching for food in the cold, how many of us wish we could do more for our feathered friends, and observe nature in action at the same time? Provide winter food for the birds in your garden by doing absolutely nothing. You read that right… do nothing!

Whether those birds in your garden are year-round residents, winter guests, or just passing through, all types of birds will enjoy a nutritious feast in your garden just from all the various seeds to be found. Don’t cut off those dried flower stalks and stems. All you have to do is leave the seed heads on your plants, allowing them to dry and mature, and nature will do the rest. Mature seed heads of many of the summer- and fall-blooming plants will provide a natural food source for many types of birds throughout the winter months. Many songbirds eat insects during summer, but come winter, many change their diet to seeds, berries, and other vegetable matter.

It is as easy as it sounds. The small seed-eating birds, like chickadees and goldfinches, feed straight from the plant, choosing the ones that are easy for them to perch upon. Finches are fond of the seeds from composites (the daisy-like flowers) of every variety, from asters, coreopsis, and sunflowers.

The larger songbirds, like cardinals, sparrows, and towhees, prefer to feed on the ground. They scratch and peck around under the flowers that have burst their seed pods and have fallen to the ground. Some of their favorites include coreopsis, evening primroses, grasses, mallows, and the sages.

Another nice bonus about leaving dried seed heads on your plants, is they add architectural features to a winter garden that otherwise may lack any sort of interest. The dark stems of black-eyed Susans, seen from a far, standing out of a deciduous garden; the assorted sizes and shapes of the sunflower heads; and the fluffy heads of Joe-pye weed add an element of texture and height to the winter yard. But, if leaving these dead-looking stems poking out of the ground here and there is a little too unsightly for you, just cut the stems as if you were cutting a bouquet of fresh flowers, but leave the stems a little longer. Tie the dried bouquet together and hang it on an arbor, fence, post or tree limb. The birds will find it and hang onto the stems and enjoy the bounty from there. You can make as many as you’d like, positioning them near windows so the feasting will be easily viewable from indoors.

Seed-Bearing Flowers

There are many species of birds that feed on seeds, and without birdseed available, they are perfectly happy to find any and all wild seeds from flowers, shrubs, trees, and vines. Adding seed-bearing flowers to a garden can attract many bird species such as chickadees, doves, finches, quail, sparrows, and towhees. Small, agile birds that can perch on flowers feed directly from the blooms; the larger ground-feeding birds benefit from the flowers as well after the seeds have matured and fallen on the ground.

Not only can seed-bearing flowers be an attractive addition to a bird-friendly landscape, but the blooms that produce copious amounts of seeds can help birders save money on birdseed by relying on natural seed that you have grown, instead of continuously filling birdfeeders. Flowers can also attract a greater variety of birds, especially the more timid species that may be unwilling to come out in the open to feed from the birdfeeders. Depending on the variety of flowers that you grow, flowers can continue producing seeds for years by reseeding themselves, with minimal pruning or maintenance required.

Attracting Birds

There are dozens of flowers that produce seeds to tempt birds to visit and/or make their nests and take up residence in your garden. The most popular seed-bearing flowers for backyard birds such as cardinals, chickadees, gold finches, indigo bunting, nutcatcher, sparrow, and towhees include: asters, black-eyed Susans, coneflowers, coreopsis, corncockle, cornflowers, cosmos, daisies, evening primroses, flax, globe thistle, goldenrods, hibiscus, Joe-pye weed, knapweed, mallow, marigolds, moss roses, mullein, sedum, sunflowers, violets, and zinnias.

Insect Control

Birds are also great for controlling insects. There are many species of birds that we want to attract into our garden, especially the ones that love eating caterpillars, cutworms, grasshoppers, etc. Of course this means no spraying for these pests in your garden, or any other pest for that matter. Whether it be an insect, disease, or weeds, pesticides used to combat these issues can kill your lovely family of birds, as well as bees and beneficial insects, too. So you have to consider which is more important to you: a pest-free environment or the joy that the birds have to offer. If at all possible, avoid spraying your garden with pesticides. Attract the feathered friends to your garden with a few water features such as a birdbath and fountain, as well as putting out birdhouses to provide them with some shelter.

Lastly, the added bonus of leaving the seed heads on the plants is that whatever seed survives in your garden, this all-you-can-eat bird buffet will provide more flowers the following year from reseeding. So think about spending your time bird-watching instead of dead-heading the spent flowers in your garden. Leave those seed heads on your plants and enjoy the view of your garden full of wildlife — because winter is for the birds!

Trees & Shrubs With Lots of Berries

In addition to eating certain yummy insects, some birds like the bluebird also enjoy berries – especially in the winter when they are nice and ripe. These species will keep your birds nourished year-round.

Amelanchier (Juneberry)
Arbutus (strawberry tree)
Aronia (red chokeberry)
Berberis (Barberry)
Callicarpa (Beautyberry)
Celastrus (bittersweet)
Celtis occidentalis (hackberry)
Cornus (flowering dogwood)
Cotoneaster (cotoeaster)
Crateagus (hawthorn)
Euonymus fortune (winter creeper)
Ilex (holly)
Juniperus (juniper)
Kolkwitzia (beautybush)
Ligustrum vulgare* (privet)
Lindera (spicebush)
Lonicera maackii* (honeysuckle)
Malus (flowering crabapple)
Myrica (bayberry)
Nandina (heavenly bamboo)
Nyssa sylvatica (tupelo)
Parthenocissus quinquefolia (Virginia creeper)
Pyracantha (firethorn)
Rhus (sumac)
• Ribes (current)
Rosa multiflora* (multiflora rose)
Sambucus (elderberry)
Sorbus americana (mountain ash)
Symphoricarpos (snowberry)
Viburnum (cranberrybush)

* Considered an alien invasive weed in many parts of the United States. Take care not to plant if it’s invasive in your neck of the woods. Ask you local Cooperative Extension if you’re not sure.

Gwen Kilchherr is a private landscape consultant and designer, specializing in residential garden design. She is co-host of Sonoma County’s “Garden Talk” show on KSRO 1350 AM radio with Steve Garner, Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Gwen has written a Q&A garden column in her local newspaper, The Press Democrat, for more than 20 years.

Mother Earth Gardener
Mother Earth Gardener
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