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A Bird’s Eye View of Your Landscape

by Cindy Gilberg

The young male goldfinch flies along in the open cautiously, keeping an eye out for the neighborhood cooper’s hawk, as he seeks the safe haven of a group of shrubs or small trees. His keen eyes are fine-tuned to also spot food, but in this neighborhood there is very little in the way of native seeds that the goldfinch hunts for. And on these hot summer days, water here is in the form of lawn sprinklers, also out in the open—much too vulnerable for a small songbird.

Most of the yards on this street have large expanses of lawn, clipped evergreens, non-native shrubs and some odds and ends of geraniums, daylilies and peonies. None of these provide the food songbirds look for. And many yards have evidence of insecticide use—there are no protein-rich insects here for birds to dine on and to feed to their young.

Yet, the goldfinch knows there is one yard in this neighborhood that is different—it is one that is lush with everything he and songbirds like him need. He finally reaches his oasis in this otherwise uninviting neighborhood. This yard is full of native plants and has small, open space with widely spaced trees and occasional masses of native flowering shrubs and small trees. In addition, in the sunny open spots are plantings of native perennials and grasses, including many coneflowers, sunflowers and blazing stars. In the shade of a dogwood and some beautyberry shrubs the homeowner added a water bubbler that runs year-round to provide a constant supply of water for birds.

It is mid-late summer and the goldfinch is searching for the perfect spot to find a mate and raise young. This is such a place. The common ground just beyond the fence is mowed only once a year and scattered about are some wild thistle plants—not a garden-worthy plant, but nonetheless it is one of the goldfinch’s food of choice. In fact, goldfinch nest-building is timed to the blooming of the thistle so that they can use the soft fluff of thistle flowers as a main part of the nest and have seed close by. It is also in mid to late summer that many flowering native plants bloom, attracting insects that birds dine on.

These plants are also the fall and winter sources of seed for both migrating and overwintering birds. Coneflowers (Echinacea, Ratibida and Rudbeckia), Coreopsis, sunflowers (Helianthus and Heliopsis), prairie dock and compass plant (Silphium) and blazing stars (Liatris) all fall into this group of plants and goldfinches add additional color to the garden as they glean seeds from these plants from late summer into winter.

There are too few yards that have even a small diversity of native plants that offer food, shelter, good nesting material and nesting sites for birds—all the essential requirements for bird habitat. It doesn’t take much to begin adding native plants to your existing landscape. Missouri native oaks are host to many insect species (bird food!) as well as a source of ample shade, shelter and nesting sites for a host of avian species. Many flowering shrubs and small trees such as dogwoods, hawthorns, chokecherry, winterberry, spicebush and viburnums attract insects when in bloom and offer ripe berries for birds in late summer through winter.

Is it worth it? Absolutely! To be able to sit and share with a child the beauty of a landscape that works for both humans (aesthetically) and for wildlife (habitat) is a gift indeed. It is a good way to show your children and grandchildren good stewardship of the natural world—by example and through quiet observation.

This article is compliments of Shaw Nature Reserve (Missouri Botanical Garden) in partnership with the Missouri Department of Conservation. Visit the Whitmire Wildflower Garden (at Shaw Nature Reserve), a 5-acre display garden, for ideas on native plant landscaping. Native plant conservation and the promotion of native plants in our landscapes is vital to restoring the rich biodiversity of our region.

Cindy Gilberg is a horticulturist and Missouri native who writes, teaches and does consulting and design work in the St Louis area. Her work focuses on native plant landscapes in both traditional and natural settings. Please email her at cindy.gilberg@gmail.com.

For more information about these organizations: www.shawnature.org and www.mdc.mo.gov.

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