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Fall gardening for birds


It makes sense to give thought to birds’ fall and winter needs when readying your gardens for the coming seasons. Dark-eyed Juncos and other birds that will be in London in the coming weeks and months will appreciate a bit of shelter and food in your yard. Photo by Paul Nicholson.


Those Londoners who have gardens around their homes are now enjoying late-blooming plants such as asters, sunflowers, goldenrod, Black-eyed Susans, and sedum. Their thoughts might also be turning to readying the flower beds for late fall and winter.

If you are a bird enthusiast as well as a gardener, you will already know that it makes sense to leave some seed heads for birds to feed on in the months to come. Give thought to the birds that will overwinter here in backyards. These include nuthatches, Dark-eyed Juncos, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Carolina Wrens, Goldfinches, Cardinals, Blue Jays, Waxwings, sparrows, finches, and of course Black-capped Chickadees.

An addition to seeds, resourceful birds such as Chickadees, wrens, and Downy Woodpeckers can even find insects that have hibernated inside plants. Fruit-producing plants and berry-producing plants might well attract Cedar Waxwings and American Robins. Birds including White-throated Sparrows will be attracted to dogwoods. Sumac and some grasses such as Little Bluestem are other plants that can sustain various birds as temperatures fall.

Even leaf litter, that many gardeners might want to tidy up, can be useful to birds. Morning Doves and some ground-feeding sparrows can root around in dead leaves and find nutritious invertebrates.

Another important consideration is a bird’s sense of security. They will certainly want a place such as a shrub or a tangle of vines to which they can retreat, especially if there is a perceived threat. Any structural diversity in a fall and winter garden can be useful to birds. It therefore makes sense not to cut back every garden to the ground. Sustained low temperatures can also be tough on birds. Shrubs and leaf matter can provide life saving shelter.

Some gardeners might embrace a paradigm shift. Instead of thinking that a garden completely cut back and stripped bare is the model of order and everything that is right, the colour and “architecture” of a garden bed left more or less “as is” can provide visually pleasing colour contrasts with the winter’s snow. It’s not a messy garden. It’s a welcoming space for birds that might otherwise ignore the yard.

A number of websites such as audubon.org and Ottawa’s wildbirdcarecentre.org have useful information on the theme of fall gardening for birds.

For those gardeners who are especially enthused about attracting birds, an entire four-season bird-friendly garden can be designed. Recognizing the contributions for birds that individual gardeners can make, Birds Canada launched a new BirdGardens.ca website in the spring of this year. It has useful region-specific factsheets, videos, and other resources.

Gregor Beck, a project director with Birds Canada, said “Our Gardening for Birds initiative is all about empowering people to get involved and get their hands dirty in local conservation efforts. Even small-scale efforts in small urban spaces can attract and benefit local and migratory birds.”

Many books on the theme of gardening for birds are listed on buteobooks.com. There are also courses on offer such as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Growing Wild: Gardening for Birds that can be helpful.

The bottom-line is don’t cut and prune and deadhead before at least considering our feathered friends.

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