Home of the Practically Perfect Pink Phlox and other native plants for pollinators

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Birds in the winter garden

The feeders are stocked with sunflower seed, thistle, suet and there's plenty of water and cover. It's a party in the back yard all winter long, but especially on cold snowy days.

I love feeding the birds and get a kick out of their antics.

Each species has a distinct personality. Some are curious, while other are quite gregarious.
Cardinals visit early in the morning and late in the afternoon.
Doves are especially fun to watch. They always seem to be the last bird to figure out what they heck is going on when all the other birds have skedaddled as the hawk flies over.

The house finches are aggressive and push others away from the feeders.

 I like knowing that the seeds, water and shelter I provide are giving the smallest birds a fighting chance to survive when winter gets particularly harsh. 

But, when nesting time arrives, seed is not what they want or need. They need insects to feed their young. According to Doug Tallamy, entomology and wildlife ecology professor at the University of Delaware, a single pair of breeding chickadees must find as many as 6000 caterpillars to rear one clutch of young.

That's just one bird family in this garden. When you consider that 96% of terrestrial birds in North America rear their young on insects, you can see how important it is that our gardens be hospitable to those insects.
 What's a gardener to do?

 Please continue to feed the birds all winter. It's a wonderful way to supplement their winter foraging and it's so much fun.
Juniperus virginiana and Cornus drummondii have good wildlife value
Right now, in the middle of winter, when you're missing the heck out of your garden, is an excellent time to assess whether your garden is as insect friendly as possible.

1. Make sure native trees play a major role in your garden.Why is that so important? Desiree Narango, a doctoral student with the University of Delaware and who is conducting a three-year study to learn how nonnative, or exotic, trees in cities and suburbs affect the availability of food birds need during the breeding season explains that “Nonnative trees may support insects, but they do not support the insects that birds want and need to feed their young." (from Why birds need native trees  National Wildlife)

2. Do your native trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals out number the non-natives? Need to add more natives? Be sure to plant pollen and nectar rich perennials, herbs and annuals to attract beneficials, bees and other insects. Avoid hybrids and cultivars that are double flowered. They are sterile and have no pollen or nectar for insects and no seeds for the birds. If possible plant “true open-pollinated native wildflowers”. (Native annuals)

3. Does a messy garden get to you? Work on tolerating leaves and decaying plants. Don't be in a rush to clean up the fall garden. Leave plant stalks and seed heads standing all winter. Leave those fallen leaves or as many as you can tolerate! Insects over winter in the fallen and decaying leaves and so do some species of insect eating bats!

4. Have you invited toads into your garden? They like a cool, wet spot. How about under the birdbath?

5. Do you have room for a pond? Be sure you have a muddy edge for damsel flies and dragonflies. They will eat mosquitoes which make gardening in the summer a nightmare. Birds will appreciate the water and the flying snacks.

6. Do you have a brush pile? Stack fallen brush, cut tree limbs, broken pots for ground beetles. Ground beetles are excellent at eating "bad bugs". They're also good bird, toad and small critter food.

7. Weirded out by spiders, aphids, strange caterpillars, beetles, grasshoppers, crickets and the odd larva of beneficials! Rethink what you consider icky or a pest. Bluebirds eat crickets and grasshoppers. Spiders are important predators and a very important bird food! Snakes keep the rodent population in check.

8. Can you embrace imperfection in the garden? Learn to tolerate damaged plants because insects can ugly up their favorite plant foods.

9. Do you know which local or online nurseries sell plants that are neonicotinoid free? Frequent them, their plants may cost more but, your garden will be healthier for pollinators, insects and birds.

10. Never, ever, ever, ever, ever use pesticides....They're deadly in a wildlife friendly garden.

Downy Woodpecker

Now go enjoy those birds,  before long you'll be planting and planning for all the critters in your garden.

Gail Eichelberger is a gardener and therapist in Middle Tennessee. She loves wildflowers and native plants and thoroughly enjoys writing about the ones she grows at Clay and Limestone. She reminds all that the words and images are the property of the author and cannot be used without written permission.


  1. I've seen optimistic dragonflies altho our pond is still a work in progress.

  2. On the subject of non-natives, we inherited a lot of nandina as foundation plants around the house, north-facing, part-shade, decomposed granite and clay. The bees love it, and I've seen evidence of birds using it, but I wonder if we should phase it out in favor of something else. I live in a similar area to you (across the AL line) - is the nandina horrible? What would you put in instead?

    1. I ripped it all out because it's invasive in TN and the berries are poisonous. I would plant blueberries or huckleberries for that nice autumn color, or iteas. If you want evergreens you could plant inkberries.

  3. Great post, Gail! Of course, this is just about my main message, too... I'm talking about native plants for pollinators in a couple of days at a symposium in VA and am sidling back to focusing on increasing native plant diversity and habitat as my main theme, as it's been for long time...

    1. Do you enjoy the speaking gigs Lisa? If I were better at putting together a "slide show" I would be offering more talks. I love being a native plant evangelist.

    2. I'm a long-time teacher, of course, so I am glad of the opportunities, in whatever venue. So yes, I''m glad to speak (and do so as a volunteer). It's a great way to continue to give back and spread the message!

  4. A great post Gail. Newbies will have great information and it is a great reminder for those of us that might need a reminder.

  5. Excellent post! I do have a messy garden...trying to get our clients to embrace it a bit more too! I do plan/design gardens with lots of natives. There are so many wonderful native trees here in Houston that stay small and work in urban areas. I wish I could get toads to come to my garden. I invite anything that might keep the mosquitoes at bay. Love your bird photographs.

  6. Fabulous post, Gail! Wow--6,000 caterpillars! I had no idea. Our garden/forest are full of birds, but I really do only think about their winter feedings, although we do provide water, nesting materials, and shelter, too. Hopefully, we've been providing some good native plants to attract enough insects, but your post inspires me to take an inventory to make certain we have enough! Thank you.

  7. Your photos are just exceptional. I've replanted the yard to provide year round sources of berries and seeds; it is such fun to watch the birds gather and feed.

  8. Great captures of the birds, Gail! These are all common in my garden, too, except the Bluebirds. I think the lot is a little too shady for them. I agree--it's so fun to watch them all!

  9. Great post, Gail. And excellent points about the importance of native plants for supporting our feathered friends :)

  10. Oh Gail, I just love your bird pics! And thanks for sharing the wisdom of Tallamy with your readers. It finally occurred to me that the area behind my Southern wax myrtle bushes is a good spot for throwing brush because you can't really see it. But the birds certainly can!

  11. My moment of Zen this morning was watching a flock of Cedar Waxwings work over a blue Atlas cedar at work. I am not sure if they were finding something to eat, or were just using it as a stage.


"Insects are the little things that run the world." Dr. E O Wilson