Welcome to 2023! What a way to end 2022 with a polar blast that kept me inside but watching out to see how the birds were managing. Glad to report that my dozen regular species made it (or are at least still represented).
Two years ago, I started repurposing my lawn into a bird diner to avoid buying commercial bird seed (prompted by reading that growers can get permits to kill birds that help themselves to their crops- that’s so wrong!).
Leaving fall bloomers, such as lamb’s quarter, common evening primrose, prairie coneflower, goldenrod and purple fall aster, go to seed was a major goal. Each of these wildflowers produce thousands of seeds that are smaller than milo, a common filler in bird seed mixes. (Milo brings in house sparrows and brown-head cowbirds.) But given the choice, wild seeds are readily eaten by overwintering juncos, goldfinches and tree sparrows. These small birds with small pointier beaks had no trouble nibbling out the teeny seeds. Dropped seeds are picked up by mourning doves and house finches. Proof that small things matter, and do add up.
Leaving seed stalks up through winter provides the natural nourishment that songbirds need. Even when it looks like nothing could be left in the evening primrose goldfinches will tear apart the seed capsules to get those bottom tasty morsels. (After all, we buy evening primrose oil capsules for its rich oils!) Even though lamb’s quarter reached 6 feet, I left them, but it wasn’t until the cold smacked that juncos and tree sparrows were all over the seeds that hadn’t fallen. (The Native Americans ate the leaves and seeds as well.) Not all seeds fall at the same time, nor go to mush with snow and rains. Obviously, Nature has worked out how to keep providing over the winter season.
Asters and other members of the dandelion tribe produce seeds that are mere dashes on parachutes, yet the juncos were pulling them apart, despite the larger commercial niger seed in feeders.
We tend to think that tidy and bigger is better, but it seldom helps wildlife. To show my neighbors that I really am gardening, at least in the front yard, flower stalks were cut down to about 3-4 feet, the seed heads saved for dining bouquets. The lower stalks were left in hopes that insects had bored into them to overwinter, especially bumblebees (I did find some with tiny slits in some stalks). Dead leaves also shelter insects, and chickadees are great at finding hidden insects and overwintering larvae. Later, robins will start flipping through the leaves looking for their food choices.
In the bigger picture, my yard is not very big, it backs up to a 60-acre harvested corn/soybean field. But my yard brings in more birds than the plowed field (occasionally crows will poke around out there). Birds must expend energy to fly over, or flit from wooded patches to get to my diner with 80 species of native plants.
A chickadee has a territory of about 2 acres; I have under a 1/4 acre (minus footprint of house, garage and driveway). My trees don’t have cavities for it to nest, but I can offer some of its menu and water. Nuthatches, brown creeper, and woodpeckers work the bark of the sugar maple, while house finches are starting to nibble tiny leaf buds. I probably have the most diversity of plant food for birds in the neighborhood; I’m still watching to see how these plants feed insects besides pollinators. The birds need to find shelter somewhere else.
One next-door neighbor has a black cherry and grapevine thicket. Another has a viburnum and the mixed woodland across the field. Others have spruce and pines, walnuts and a few oaks. Birds make use of these different spots to meet their seasonal needs. Without a plan, my street is still a corridor for the birds. I try to add what is missing.
So, here’s a New Year’s resolution that is about small things. Leave some weeds go to seed for next winter’s food. If your worried about being run-over by weeds know that one junco’s daily intake is hundreds to thousands of small seeds, and they are always in a flock! Add a few more native plants (any of the sunflower family is a good start).
Such steps can turn your yard into a PEARL (Pocket Environments Animals Really Like). A strand of pearls gains in value; likewise, together each yard could provide stop-overs that can link to the larger protected conservation, state parks, and National Wildlife Refuge areas, as well as be an important refugia for wild plants and those they support (consider bees and other insects that also need help). Even a watering dish can bring species that won’t come to a feeder.
It’s a great way to get to know, as well as help, your wild neighbors.