WESTCHESTER COUNTY, N.Y. -- When thinking “bird food” we need to graduate from our focus on backyard feeders. While feeders can provide some birds with supplemental food, natural food sources are much more critical. Not all birds eat the same thing and some birds have very limited diets, while others eat a bit of almost everything. Birds can be categorized by their diets, although some birds have flexibility in what they eat:
- Gramnivores: seed-eaters
- Insectivores: insect-eaters
- Frugivores: fruit-eaters
- Carnivores: flesh-eaters
- Nectivores: nectar-eaters
- Omnivores: generalists
By planting a wide variety of native plants you can accommodate all of these food requirements, directly or indirectly. By planting Coneflower, Anise Hyssop and Little Bluestem you will provide seeds for gramnivores, like Goldfinches. Serviceberry, Eastern Red-cedar, and Chokeberry will feed frugivores like Cedar Waxwings. Trumpet Honeysuckle, Bee Balm, and Cardinal Flower will provide a nectar source for Hummingbirds (nectivores).
The key is to plant diversely with native plants to support your overall ecosystem, which includes both bird habitat and birds’ food sources.
In his compelling book, “Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife With Native Plants,” entomologist and ecologist, Dr. Douglas Tallamy, explains that 96 percent of terrestrial birds in North America feed insects to their young, even though some of these bird species may not be considered insectivores. This tells us a few things about our plantings and our landscapes:
- If you plant for “bugs” you will attract and support birds. A diverse, layered landscape filled with native plants will accomplish this.
- A healthy ecosystem includes lots of insects, 90% of which are estimated to be beneficial or benign.
- Lay off the “secret sauce” in your landscape.
- Pesticides will poison insects, which, in turn, will likely poison birds, especially baby birds.
Many of the birds that we see in our landscapes are migratory and need highly nutritious food sources to fuel them on their long journey South in the fall. Include native plants like Flowering Dogwood, Spicebush and Magnolias that offer the power-packed food they need.
Some birds, like Northern Cardinals, Carolina Chickadees and Downy Woodpeckers will overwinter in your landscape – if you provide them with food and water. Leave your native flowering perennials and grasses standing through winter for overwintering seed-eating birds. Plant native shrubs like Winterberry, Inkberry, Bayberry and American Holly to offer food sources for overwintering fruit-eating birds.
Last but not least, provide a clean, fresh water source in your landscape throughout the year. Water can be the hardest resource for birds to find on their own, yet the one thing we often forget to include in our landscapes.
If you have a stream or a pond, you (and the birds) are very fortunate indeed, just make sure that the water feature has an easy access point for birds and insects – think “wildlife ramp” not “deep water dive.”
A clean birdbath will do in a pinch. A stepped birdbath with several levels is ideal; if you cannot find one, simply place some stones in the birdbath to offer little birds safe access to the water. A heated birdbath will be especially valuable to overwintering birds. With any birdbath, keep it clean and mosquito-free by replacing the water daily and by thoroughly cleaning the birdbath at least once a week.
Kim Eierman, a resident of Bronxville, is an environmental horticulturist and Founder of EcoBeneficial ! When she is not speaking, writing, or consulting about ecological landscapes, she teaches at the New York Botanical Garden, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, The Native Plant Center and Rutgers Home Gardeners School.