Planting (Is) for the Birds


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By Barbara DiBernard

Young robin in chokecherry (Barbara DeBernard)6/5/09 Cedar waxwings eating serviceberries.

6/16/09 Lots of robins eating serviceberries—up to 5 juveniles at once, feeding themselves, being fed by adults. And 1 juvenile cardinal. And squirrels!!!

7/31/09 Robins, including young, eating chokeberries.

8/19/09 Ruby-throated hummingbird in honeysuckle.

8/20/09 Robins and cardinals eating Chicago lustre berries. Gold finches eating purple coneflower seeds. Robins and cardinals eating grapes.

9/13/09 Nashville warbler, catbird, red-eyed vireo, brown thrasher in Chicago lustre viburnum and Washington hawthorn tree

10/4/09 Ruby-crowned kinglet, black-capped chickadee, robin, cardinal eating hawthorn berries

11/2/09 2 cedar waxwings eating crabapples

These excerpts from my “Bird Journal” tell of the joys we’ve had from planting shrubs and trees “for the birds.” When my partner and I moved into our newly built home in the East Campus area of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL), she suggested that we plant only trees and shrubs that would provide natural food for the birds. I was skeptical, but we (mostly) did that, and found that “if you plant it, they will come.” We choose not to have birdfeeders, but many birds live in and feed in our yard; we’ve seen 62 species of birds in the 17 years we’ve lived here.

For us, there are many benefits to natural bird feeding. We don’t have to refill or clean birdfeeders or try to protect them from squirrels (although the squirrels do eat our “bird food”!). After the first year of watering them in, the shrubs and trees we’ve planted need no care. Besides the berries and nectar for the birds, the plants also provide beauty, shade, flowers and brilliant leaf color in the fall. We sited them so they and the birds who feed on them are visible through the kitchen, living and dining areas, bedroom, studies and porch windows, giving us hours of entertainment and joy.

One of our favorite shrubs is the running serviceberry or “Juneberry” (Amelanchier stolonifera). After the delicate white flowers bloom in May, berries form quickly and in June are ripe and ready to eat. We have spent many mornings on our porch watching adult robins feed serviceberries to their young, and then young robins learning to eat them on their own. Juvenile robins perch on branches, trying to figure out how to position themselves to grab a berry. Often their early tries are unsuccessful, as they lose their balance or knock a berry to the ground. Later we watch them hold entire berries in their mouths, seeming to be unsure of what to do next, but eventually they throw back their heads and swallow them whole. Adult and juvenile cardinals eat serviceberries too. Cedar waxwings are among our favorite visitors. We suspended usual activities for hours one day when a flock of waxwings visited and fed on the serviceberries. Just think of the bird activity that goes on when we’re not looking.

The black chokeberries (Aronia melanocarpa) are ready next, toward the end of July. Robins and cardinals are the most frequent customers, again bringing their young. The chokeberries are larger than the serviceberries, and even harder for the juvenile birds to swallow, but eventually they become proficient at eating them.

A Nanking cherry (Prunus tomentosa) sits on the top of our berm. It has beautiful, fragrant white flowers in the spring, red berries in the summer and good color in the fall. The cherries attract cardinals, robins and brown thrashers, among others.

We love viburnums! We planted seven different kinds; five of them have berries the birds like and all of them have glorious fall colors. The Mohican (Virburnum lantana ‘Mohican’) has creamy white flowers that cover the plant in late April and May, followed by orange-red berries in July that turn dark purple in late summer. The Wentworth (Virburnum trilobum ‘Wentworth’) produces heads of white flowers in late spring; the small berries turn bright red when they ripen in late summer. The rusty blackhaw (Viburnum rufidulum) that we planted to screen a window has grown to the second-story roof of the house and has white flowers in the spring, dark blue berries in late summer and leaves that turn red to dark purple in the fall. Cardinals seem to especially love this bush. Our newest one, “cardinal candy” (Viburnum dilatatum ‘Henneke’), has creamy white flowers, shiny scarlet berries and leaves that turn red in the fall. The shrub has a beautiful low-branching shape and the berries form in attractive 5-inch clusters. We planted three Chicago lustre (Virburnum dentatum ‘Chicago lustre’) on the north, shady side of our house, partly to screen the air conditioner unit from sight. They have spread, intertwined and grown at least 10-feet high. Their dark blue/ purple fruit is plentiful and ready in early autumn. We love looking out our kitchen window this time of year to see cardinals, robins, starlings and other birds eating the berries. Nashville warblers, gray catbirds, red-eyed vireos and brown thrashers come to in these shrubs too.

One winter day when I was near Love Library on the UNL campus, I was stopped in my tracks by a tree loaded with small red berries. They were a wonderful burst of color in a drab landscape. I said, “I want one of those in our yard!” We planted a Washington hawthorn (Crataegus phaenopyrum) directly outside one of our kitchen windows. Some years it does not flower or fruit at all; some years it has some fruit but not a great deal; and other years it is loaded. In some years starlings and grackles (and squirrels) swoop in and gorge on the fruit, finishing it in a couple of weeks. In other years, the fruit persists into the winter, providing color as well as food for the birds that are still here. In 2004 the tree was still full of berries in January. We took the screen out of the kitchen window for clearer sight and left our binoculars on the counter, and in the next two weeks we saw robins, cardinals, cedar waxwings and two yellow-bellied sapsuckers eating hawthorn berries. Red-breasted nuthatches, ruby-crowned kinglets and black-capped chickadees have also visited our hawthorn tree.

Two crabapple trees on the east provide food for many birds throughout the fall and sometimes the winter. Over the years we have seen robins, cedar waxwings, starlings, house finches, house sparrows, grackles and bluejays in the crab. On Nov. 17, 2001, I noted in my journal: “In crab apple at the same time—cedar waxwings, robins, starlings, house finches, house sparrows!” The crabapple is one of our favorite trees because of its beautiful flowers and its fruit.

We were lucky to have an old grapevine in our yard, and even more fortunate that our architect, Lee Schriever, designed an arbor for the grape as part of our deck. When the grapes ripen in August, we enjoy watching the cardinals bring their second brood of young to eat. Robins, catbirds and white-throated sparrows have also enjoyed our grapes. Some birds eat the berries on the vine; others eat those that fall.

Usually one or more ruby-throated hummingbirds visit our honeysuckle vines around Memorial Day and return for Labor Day. Although they investigate other plants, the hummingbirds consistently return to the honeysuckles, using their long, extendable tongues to get nectar from each blossom. Celebrating the beginning of summer and fall with hummingbirds is another way we make connections with the seasons and natural cycles.

Because it’s just as important to have water for the birds as it is to have food, we have a birdbath we keep filled all year that is heated in winter. Perching places in shrubs and trees are nearby, so the birds can look around for predators before coming to the water or can escape quickly if predators appear. We have spent many happy hours watching the birdbath, seeing which birds chase others off, which will drink and bathe in companionable ways and the different ways birds bathe. Most hop into the water, fluff their feathers to expose the bare skin at the base of them and shake their feathers rapidly, sending water in all directions. Birds sometimes fly to a perch nearby and return several times to repeat these actions, and when finished return to the perch to preen. It gives us much pleasure to know we are providing birds with what they need, but, more importantly, they provide us with what we need—a connection to the natural world.

The birds who visit our yard have brought ever so much beauty and joy to us. Next time you plant a shrub or a tree, plant it for the birds.


Immigration in Nebraska