Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens, wrote in a2016 article in Bird Watcher’s Digest, “Some plants are far better at producing insect bird food than others. For example, oaks support 557 species of caterpillars (bird food) in the mid-Atlantic states alone, whereas non-native Zelkova trees from Asia support no caterpillars at all.
“Ninety percent of the insects that eat plants can only eat specific plants; if those plants are absent from our landscapes, so will be the bird food they produce. Unfortunately, this is the case in our yards and managed landscapes when we remove native plant communities that are good at making insect bird food and replace them with vast lawns and ornamental plants from other parts of the world that produce few insects in North America. This oversight must end if we want birds in our future.”
Are you telling me you’re removing some turfgrass to make way for native plants that actually attract insects? That’s really smart of you! In case a neighbor asks you why your lawn is getting smaller, tell them a lot of research is being done on why birds are in decline, and urban landscapes are proving to have great potential to help, see the article below.
Oh, and you can also mention that people who already feed birds are the most likely to transform turf to native plants that birds need. And, by the way, many younger homeowners are getting savvy to gardening for birds, too. So, you are definitely part of the in-crowd when it comes to forgoing the “old school” vast expanse of lawn for bird and wildlife-friendly plants.
Look back at this previous article and learn more about the critical ways native plants support local bird populations.
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One sunny morning last month, the most unusual visitors appeared at my birdbath. Well, maybe not that unusual. It is a birdbath after all. I snapped off as many photos as I could before they hurried on their way. But after 10 minutes, cat and human noses remained pressed to the window, soaking up the scene. Finally they did take flight and I assumed that would be the last we’d see of them. Until the next day when they returned for another bath. And stayed for an entire week!
So, who were these unexpected backyard visitors? A couple of juvenile Cooper’s Hawks.
Like so many of you, I’m fascinated by our native wildlife. And while many critters can’t easily avail themselves of my yard, that’s not the case for birds. Since my hawk visitors have departed, I’ve taken steps to make my backyard more ‘bird friendly’ in hopes of inviting more avian friends in. Bird baths and feeders were easy to add and cleaning them weekly keeps visitors happy and healthy. Adding innative plants like American Beautyberry, Barbados Cherry and Turk’s Cap were next. These plants not only look great in my yard but provide shelter and food for birds, bees and butterflies. A fewbirdhouses are next, once I determine the best fit for my yard.The National Wildlife Federation’s “Create a Bird-FriendlyHabitat” has served as a great guide.
And it’s working. Carolina wrens, cardinals, robins, and even a downy woodpecker are a few of the recent visitors. Perhaps a rufous hummingbird or an eastern screech owl will make the next appearance in my bird-friendly yard.
I don’t know if I’ll see those Cooper’s hawks again, but I do know that they’ll forever be the catalyst to me becoming a backyard birder. Join me in exploring some of the larger native birds that are likely to stop by – if you lay out the welcome mat.
Backyard Birds: Raptors
The word “raptor” means “to seize or grasp” in Latin. Raptors use their powerful, sharp talons to catch prey and to defend themselves.
Birding is one of the fastest growing outdoor activities in the country. Formerly known as “birdwatchers,” birders come from all walks of life, running the gamut of professions, age, and locales. There are as many varieties of birders as there are birds – and as many reasons we enjoy it.
Whether deep in the woods or standing at the kitchen window, birding strengthens our connection to the outdoors. Birds draw us in with their complex behaviors, beautiful plumage and captivating melodies. They can be observed day and night, alone or with a group, competitively or casually. I do most of my birding while engaging in other activities like walking in the park, weeding the garden, and sipping my morning coffee. Birders also contribute mightily to the scientific world by reporting their observations through apps like Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBirdand Merlin Bird ID.
If you want to get a little more serious about your birding, try challenging yourself: quickly check off a list, learn to identify calls, or improve your observation skills by identifying birds in flight.
Regardless of what form birding takes, we are all held to an important code of ethics that ensures birders and birds alike are only positively impacted by this ever-growing pursuit.
(b) Avoid stressing birds or exposing them to danger.
Be particularly cautious around active nests and nesting colonies, roosts, display sites, and feeding sites.
Limit the use of recordings and other audio methods of attracting birds in heavily birded areas, and for species that are threatened, endangered or not common to the area,
Always exercise caution and restraint when photographing, recording, or otherwise approaching birds.
(c) Always minimize habitat disturbance.
Consider the benefits of staying on trails, preserving snags, birding in small groups, and following leave no trace principles including disposing of waste properly, leave what you find and traveling on durable surfaces.
2. Respect and promote the birding community and its individual members.
(a) Be an ethical role model by following this Code and leading by example. Always bird and report with honesty and integrity.
(b) Respect the interests, rights, and skill levels of fellow birders, as well as people participating in other outdoor activities. Freely share your knowledge and experience and be especially helpful to beginning birders.
(c) Share bird observations freely, provided such reporting would not violate other sections of this Code, as birders, ornithologists, and conservationists derive considerable benefit from publicly available bird sightings.
(d) Approach instances of perceived unethical birding behavior with sensitivity and respect; try to resolve the matter in a positive manner, keeping in mind that perspectives vary. Use the situation as an opportunity to teach by example and to introduce more people to this Code.
(e) In group birding situations, share your knowledge of this Code of Ethics with the group to ensure the group does not unduly interfere with others using the same area.
3. Respect and promote the law and the rights of others.
(a) Never enter private property without the landowner’s permission. Respect the interests of and interact positively with people living in the area where you are birding.
(b) Familiarize yourself with and follow all laws, rules, and regulations governing activities at your birding location. In particular, be aware of regulations related to birds, such as disturbance of protected nesting areas or sensitive habitats, and the use of audio or food lures.
By following these ethics, we ensure that both birders and the birds we admire experience safe and beneficial interactions.
Check out these past articles on birding for beginners
Often spotted in late summer, a fully grown orb weaver can be a startling discovery. They seem to appear overnight, spinning expansive webs across paths and between plants. Despite their sometimes-intimidating appearance, spiders deserve a place in your garden if you can get past the “creepy” factor.
99.9% of all spiders are no threat to you
Unlike the giant arachnids you may have seen in B-grade horror films, it’s humans who are large enough to be a spider’s worst nightmare. Like with snakes, almost all spiders are benign and a small few are venomous. Learn how to recognize those two species in Texas; the other 900 are worthy of welcoming to your garden.
Your best friend against pests
Spiders consume a massive quantity of garden pests, including aphids, mites, leafhoppers, stink bugs, earwigs, armyworms, leaf miners, spider mites, flies and mosquitoes. Their insect feasting removes more pests than even our feathered friends.
While orb weavers are rather stationary, trapping prey in webs, many others chase down their meals instead. Known as cursorial species, jumping spiders, wolf spiders, and crab spiders are especially important to gardeners because they move around the garden in search of prey. A healthy spider presence is an excellent way to keep insect pests at bay without the need for traps or pesticides.
Give spiders a space
Orb weavers like tall plants – sunflowers, cornstalks, tall grasses, shrubs, even tomato cages on which to attach their webs. Seeing webs in your garden beds means that these natural predators will be ready to munch on pests trying to munch on your plants. Running spiders prefer mulch, ground covers, and other damp places to hide.
Sheltered areas of undisturbed leaves and small twigs are also important overwintering sites. Spiders live only one to two seasons. Most die in fall leaving papery, brown egg cases nestled in protected nooks until spring, when teeny tiny spiderlings emerge. They often spin a silken thread that carries them on the wind like a balloon to a new garden home.
Spiders are more friend than foe. If you see a web, leave it be if possible – or use the long stabilizing silks to move it to a better location. If you’re raking mulch and a spider scurries out, resist the urge to squash it. They are an essential part of controlling insects that would happily feed on your plants.
Keeping spiders outside
Spiders inside the house can be easily transported outside. If you care to keep them out…
Seal cracks around doors and windows where insects may get in.
Trim back any shrubs and trees that touch the house; ideally leave a 2-foot gap between plants and your siding.
Give everything a good vacuum – get above door frames, in corners, and behind furniture. A good spring cleaning will eliminate spider egg sacs and all the insects that spiders love to eat.
Keep in mind that, inside or out, most pesticides aren’t effective on spiders. These products rely on the insect crawling over the chemical to penetrate their outer shell while spiders keep their bodies aloft while they walk.
If you want to learn more about the importance of spiders and other beneficial insects, check out these resources:
Thousands of birds migrate through The Woodlands every fall. The reason – food. As days grow shorter, birds begin to head south in search of abundant food and warmer temperatures. Lucky for us, The Woodlands happens to lie right along the path that many species take on their journey south. Our warm climate and dense vegetation provides an ideal rest stop for swifts, swallows, hummingbirds, hawks, flycatchers, warblers and more. Our parks, yards and preserves are heavy with greenery, berries and flowers throughout the fall, but are they providing the food these migrating birds need?
The Early Bird Catches the Worm
…and the berries, insects, seeds and nuts. The most sought after avian delicacies varies with the season. Research shows that all birds, migrating and resident species, require different nutrition in winter than in warmer months. Summer is breeding season for most species and protein to produce healthy eggs and chicks is in high demand. Protein means insects and lots of them. Consider that a single pair of chickadees must find 6,000-9,000 caterpillars to raise their young!
As breeding season ends, birds shift their diet from protein to fat to help them survive cold nighttime temperatures. Fat intake is extra critical for migrators in preparation for the grueling flight ahead. Produce from Woodlands natives such as American beautyberry, wax myrtle, coral honeysuckle, native dogwoods and viburnums, and yaupon holly are prized. Right now, most of these species are in the early stages of their fall and winter fruit and nut production.
Our native plants (and insects) have co-evolved with birds over the centuries, meaning birds depend on the specific nutrition these species provide. So, not just any seed, nut or berry will do. Consider the popular non-native plant, nandina (heavenly bamboo). It produces a bevy of bright red berries – quite attractive to our eye as well as the bird’s. Unfortunately, nandina berries, like most non-native berries, are sorely lacking in fat and other nutrients. Much like feeding french fries to a marathoner, these imitation foods leave birds depleted, unable to complete their migration route or make it through a cold night.
Just like you and me, birds need the right food. Here’s how to help.
Fall in Love with Natives
Migrating birds face several threats to their continued survival: the greatest being loss of habitat. We often think of habitat loss as a paved over forest. Yet, despite the green appearance, our lawns and landscapes have the same impact if they’re devoid of native plants. Much like a parking lot, they become a food desert for birds and other wildlife.
The simplest yet most impactful action you can take to support our migrating birds this fall is to add native plants to your landscape. Remove non-native or invasive plants to ensure you’re providing only nutrient rich food, not french fries.
Not sure where to begin? use the reference guide below and consider joining our free, online Invasives Species Workshop from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday, August 14, 2021, to learn how to identify invasive plants in our community. Register online here to receive more information.
For those who go one step further in helping our feathered friends with backyard feeders, consider that not all seed mixes are the same. Cheap mixes are full of milo, wheat, red millet, and various grains that birds can’t make use of. Most all of these “low cost” seed mixes contain little protein and almost no fat. The same holds for black oil sunflower seed. Cheaper seeds are often those which didn’t fully mature and lack protein and fat. Spend a little more on a quality seed and you’ll be rewarded with more frequent and healthier visitors.