Winter Bird Feeding–A Session With Randy Carone’s Camera

downy-woodpecker

carolina-wren

Hello, everyone!  This post follows up on a conversation I started with Randy Carone, who contributed one of the photographs for a previous blog post about leaving plant seedheads and fruits for winter birds to eat and when which birds eat particular fruits and seeds.

After feeding birds in his backyard for 30 years, Randy now has a seriously addictive bird feeding habit.  Randy, who is a photographer first and a birder second, doesn’t count himself a having seen a bird unless he has gotten a photograph of it.  In fact, he may end up photographing a bird and not really knowing what he has “seen” until he views the photo, since light conditions make it hard to see with the naked eye.

Randy has one pole mounted bird feeder that his daughter Kate bought him a while ago.

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He also has two window mounted feeders—the one in the front acts as “cat TV” for his (and his wife, Emily’s) two cats.

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red-bellied-woodpecker-as-cat-tv

He also has two “finch feeders,” round clear tubes with a roof, hanging from a line.  During warmer weather, he also has a hummingbird feeder.

His basic food of choice is Audubon Supreme Blend, which has seeds, fruit, and nuts, and which he buys a 40 pound bag of for about $40 every two weeks.

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He supplements this with suet on the pole feeder.

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The pole feeder also has a “squirrel catcher” that prevents squirrels from getting to it, although they still get to feed since the birds slop things over the sides of the feeder onto the ground.  Squirrels –two of them—can and do get to the window feeders, but so do the birds.

cardinal-on-squirrel-catcher

He fills the two finch feeders with Nyger seeds (sometimes called thistle seed, but apparently not actually related to thistle at all).

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Randy’s feeding (to me) is that it has given him ample opportunity to intimately observe and learn some bird habits.  He has noticed that while cardinals stay around and are feeding year round, they generally like to wait until dusk to feed, and like to eat alone or in the company of other finches (since they are also a type of finch).  White throated sparrows are only around in the winter, when they migrate south from their summer range for the somewhat warmer weather New Jersey represents for them.

Red-bellied woodpeckers are aggressive, and will peck other birds; blue jays are also aggressive.

winter-bluejay

The bird feeders indirectly also feed meat eaters—hawks will sit some distance away, pretending not to notice, but waiting until an unwary smaller bird can be picked off at the feeder in a cloud of falling feathers.  Mourning doves, in particular, are “dumb,” as shown by how often they end up being someone else’s meal.

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One of Randy’s favorite photo sequences is of a mother Red-bellied woodpecker feeding her almost same size offspring; he feels sure that the juvenile was fully able to feed itself, but the mother still wanted to do so.  She had picked out a peanut from the mix, used cracks in the roof of the feeder to smash it into smaller pieces, and then carefully picked out and fed the pieces to her child.

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Randy’s and Emily’s yard includes various trees and shrubs that also provide cover; in particular, finches take refuge in a Blue Spruce tree, and an Azalea bush right by the back porch is also a common source of cover, especially when it leafs out.

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Randy grows Tithonia, Passion flowers, Sage, Cat Mint and other flowering plants that provide nectar to hummingbirds and seeds for other birds to eat.

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Upcoming Composting Workshops: Learn How Composting Can Make the World Healthier

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Composting a Backyard in Newark

Did you know home composting reduces methane emissions and helps sequester carbon—all in the space of your own back yard?  And you can create a home-grown soil amendment, which will make your soil, your garden, and the rest of your landscape environmentally healthier.  This session explains how to compost vegetable and fruit waste from your kitchen, along with other organic waste.  We will discuss compost “recipes,” how to choose or build a composter, and how to troubleshoot any challenges that arise.  A counter top collection container and easy to use take home handouts with reminders from the session and a resource list for further reading will be provided.

Whether you have never composted or are currently composting, THIS WORKSHOP IS FOR YOU!

NON-COMPOSTER:  Are you thinking, “It would be too hard to compost at my house.  I don’t have time, I don’t have a yard or I am afraid that my neighbors will think my compost pile is stinky.  Why should I come to this workshop?”

  • Learn how you can be a “lazy-composter” like me, minimizing work but still getting the best soil feeding food ever.
  • Learn how to avoid odors.
  • Learn how to compost even on a balcony, in your garage or in your kitchen.

ALREADY COMPOSTING AT HOME:  Are you thinking, “I already compost at my home, so I don’t need to learn how to compost.  Why should I come to this workshop?”

  • Learn about the soil foodweb that makes soil able to support optimal plant growth while also cleaning up pollutants out of the air and water.
  • Learn a better way of applying compost to your garden, to help reduce weeds and also reduce the soil nutrient losses that occur with standard compost adding and even standard gardening practices.
  • Learn how composting can help reduce harmful volatization/gasification of carbon.

Composting Workshop Dates and Locations:

  • February 15 , 2017: Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, Pennington, 7-9 p.m. $20/$15 (includes free counter top collection container and “Rottwheeler”)  See: http://www.njriverfriendly.org/resident (scroll down for workshops)
  • February 22, 2017: Fairview Farm Wildlife Preserve, Bedminster, 7-9 p.m. $20/$15 (includes free counter top collection container and “Rottwheeler”)  See: http://www.njriverfriendly.org/resident (scroll down for workshops)
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Simple Pallet Composter With a Leaf Corral for Carbon Sourcing

 

Planting Signs in Your Natural Landscape Part Two–River-Friendly Resident Certification, Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association

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The first of my landscape signs to arrive was the wonderful River-Friendly sign pictured above.  This certification recognizes actions taken both outside, in the landscape, and inside, by using less water for everyday activities, while looking through the lens of water quality and quantity with a side of healthy wildlife habitat.  The program is voluntary (no one is forcing you) and free!  Although there is a somewhat similar education and outreach program without certification in California, this program is currently specific to New Jersey (although with a few Pennsylvania participants).  The River-Friendly program has a new website at http://www.njriverfriendly.org/ with technical assistance resources including in-person training sessions starting early 2017; these are especially valuable to those of us on this journey towards making our yard look like something other than a desert with nothing for the critters to eat and nowhere for them to hide or live.  The program has also just won the New Jersey Governor’s Environmental Excellence Award in the Water Category.

The River-Friendly program, begun in the late 1990s, involves a partnership of two non-profits and a state agency, all with an interest in keeping our water bodies clean for not only humans, but for plants and animals.  Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association (SBMWA) is a non-profit that was started in 1949 as the first environmental organization in Central New Jersey.  As the only one of the three organizations with a staff member, Brittany Musolino, dedicated specifically to the program, the SBMWA will take the lead, working with its state agency partner New Jersey Water Supply Authority (NJWSA) and its non-profit partner Raritan Headwaters Association (RHA).  The certification program has a separate track each for golf courses, businesses, schools and residents (homes).  Businesses and golf courses are required to provide documentation beyond what is required of residents, and “usually create narratives with attached maps, monitoring sheets, etc.”  Schools can start with a basic registration, and work on achieving graduated levels of certification, reflecting more and more River-Friendly elements.

A sister program, administered by North Jersey Resource Conservation and Development (NJRC&D), supported by a large partnership of its own, offers River-Friendly certification status to farmers.

In answer to the question “What does River-Friendly mean to us?”, the website provides details and support in four main areas, each with their own specific goals:

  • Water Quality Management: Manage stormwater on property to reduce polluted runoff.
  • Water Conservation: Decrease indoor and outdoor potable water usage.
  • Wildlife Habitat Enhancement: Enhance property features to support beneficial native species.
  • Education & Outreach: Share information and encourage environmental stewardship.

Here are some sample actions required for Resident certification (some edited for brevity):

  • My gutters are directed away from paved areas and onto vegetation or into a rain barrel.
  • I planted groundcovers or other vegetation or used mulch to cover exposed soil areas.
  • I dispose of household chemicals properly (the SBMWA questionnaire also includes proper disposal of prescription drugs, with the Project Medicine Drop program, available at local police departments 24/7).
  • I never water my lawn, I water early in the day or I water according to a soil moisture sensor.
  • I converted a portion of my lawn to garden or natural vegetation using native species.
  • I have a compost pile and use compost as a soil amendment

The program will kick off the new year with a series of supporting workshops to help residents, either certified or not yet certified, to achieve more River-Friendly land stewardship.  The initial series will include sessions on rain garden design, composting and soil health, rainwater harvesting, and adding native plants to your landscape.  You can sign up at http://www.njriverfriendly.org/resident; scroll to the bottom of the page for registration.  I will be doing the two composting workshops, so I hope to see some of you there.

I was pleased that I was able to achieve certification under this program, but it has made me realize how much farther I will need to go to give nature more than a foothold in my yard.  I hope you will find this as valuable as I did.

 

Which Birds Eat What and When? Part One: Fruits

VIBERNUM
Viburnum with berries–Photo by Linda Brazaitis

As I mentioned a couple of blog posts ago, I am leaving a lot of seed heads on my end of season perennials in hopes that the seeds will become bird food.  Since I’m only a beginner birder, I’m doing this without any real understanding of who will eat it and when—and why certain seed heads or fruits stay on the plant so long.

So it was serendipitous that the last program in my Naturalist Training at Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, given by Master Naturalist Dr. Ed Lignowski, included some details about which birds eat what and when, from mid-summer through winter.  Dr. Lignowski focused on how specific fruiting plants and birds had co-evolved, so that the plants provided fruit for the birds and the birds dispersed the seeds by pooping them out in a location away from the parent plant.  While Dr. Lignowski didn’t specifically talk about plants that don’t produce what we think of as fruits, being “only” seed heads, his information provides a framework from which you can make your own observations and gain an understanding of what needs various plant foods are meeting for birds.  I will have to do research on the seeds I am leaving on my plants for a future blog post, or this one will be too long.

It makes sense that birds who are about to migrate need to chow down and stock up on energy for their trip (they may do this several times, during stops along the way).  What became clearer from Dr. Lignowski’s presentation was that these birds cannot just chow down on whatever is around—they specifically need foods that are high in lipids.  So, these birds aren’t the ones eating the blueberries, blackberries, black cherries, and service berries that ripen from mid to late summer, since these fruits are “characterized by high sugar/low fat content.”  It is resident birds, not migratory birds, that eat these fruits—and the fruits become ripe just as the resident birds switch off eating the main flush of insects in spring.

Just a quick aside—did you know that even hummingbirds have a diet that is 80% insects?  The availability of insects that can serve as food, especially an abundance of caterpillars, is crucial to most birds’ ability to successfully rear their young.

Getting back to plant food.  With these high sugar fruits, just as for humans, it is the change in fruit color that signals to the birds that the fruit is ripe.  For example, blueberries go from green to pink to dark purple as they ripen, which, due to co-evolution, also coincides with the readiness of the seed inside the fruit to be dispersed by a pooping bird.

A separate group of especially “high quality” fruits ripen just in time for fall migration, including spicebush, flowering dogwood, sassafras and Virginia creeper.  These fruits are those high in the lipids which provide energy for migration and are not sweet enough to be attractive to mammals, so there is less competition for them.  The migrating birds feed “voraciously” and “deposit seeds locally,” otherwise known as pooping the seeds out in the area surrounding the plants that the fruits originated from.  The migratory birds are tipped off to the ripening of these high-lipid fruits by “foliar fruit flags”—a change in leaf color that quickly alerts the birds where to go for ripe fruit.  It seems New Jersey’s own Dr. Ted Stiles first did a study of these foliar flags.  Marcia Bonta, a naturalist with more than 300 articles and 9 books to her credit, followed onto his work in explaining that fruits high in lipids rot quickly, so it is crucial that the plant attract birds to eat the fruit while the seeds are still viable. (Appalachian Autumn, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1994).  Thus, the plant needs a clearly visible signal in the form of the foliar flags to get birds to the fruits just in time.

Still other plants provide food for resident birds during or at the end of winter, including hawthorns, chokeberry, poison ivy, viburnum, and winterberry holly.  These fruits are “low quality” in terms of concentrated energy, being low in lipids, and thus are passed up by migratory birds.  While the fruits are on the plants from fall through winter, anyone with a winterberry holly knows that birds often don’t get around to eating them until the end of winter/early spring, suggesting there are more desirable foods around, even for resident birds.  Obviously, these fruits must not be prone to easy rotting, as they often remain on the plant for months.

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Robins eating fruit in January–Photo by Randy Carone
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Pileated Woodpecker with grapes–Photo by Mary Anne Borge  (https://the-natural-web.org)

 

 

As this picture of a yellow-rumped warbler eating poison ivy fruit shows, some of the latter fruits are eaten by birds that are semi-resident and semi-migratory.  Yellow-rumped warblers live in our area from fall through spring, then summer further north of us.

Yellow-rumped Warbler with Poison Ivy Fruit
Yellow-rumped warbler with poison ivy berries–Photo by Mary Anne Borge (https://the-natural-web.org)

See Mary Anne Borge’s blog at https://the-natural-web.org/ for more bird and other photos.

 

Native Plant Garden at John Witherspoon Middle School–Plant Communities and Human Communities Come Together

My school, the John Witherspoon Middle School (JW), has a Memorial Garden tucked into a wonderful small niche in the front of the school.  It is a sort of “secret garden,” bounded on one side by a school corridor with a wall of windows.  This allows humans a view inside without needing to encroach on the garden’s privacy.  This makes it a perfect place to try to create a functional—and visible–ecosystem where plants will feed insects and other animals, where insects will pollinate plants and raise young, where some insects will become food for birds, and where birds and other animals will find shelter, food and water.

We had plenty of native plants–I still had part of a donation to the Princeton Schools from Pinelands Nursery, arranged through sponsorship from the Mercer County Soil Conservation District.  Mark Eastburn, the Science Teacher from the Riverside School, had native plants through grant funding from the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB).  Mark’s plants included some carnivorous (insect eating) plants, specifically Venus fly traps, sundews, and pitcher plants.

The garden already had some traditional decorative landscape shrubs, including azaleas, crape myrtle and those green bushes that prune so well into geometric shapes but whose names I never learn.  We decided to retain the existing shrubs as a layer in a multi-layer landscape.  Under and around the shrubs we would add the herbaceous native plants including sedges, monarda, goldenrod, columbines, and many others to provide shelter to flowers and animals as well as soil health promoting ground cover.

The whole project was a team effort not only by Mark and myself, but of the whole Princeton school community.  A lot of the effort was enthusiastically provided by students from Nyrie Janho’s Food Science and Wellness Classes, and by the school’s two Robotics Club teams, the JW Hornets and the Techno Tigers.  Students helped clear the English ivy and other invasive weeds that were overrunning the garden.  Mr. Eastburn and his students sunk five tubs into the ground for the carnivorous plants; the tubs will be watered only by rain water, which will help the plants retain the moisture they require to thrive.

Both of the Robotics Club teams are preparing for a competition that requires them to not only build Lego robots but to plan and carry out a community service program.  The Techno Tigers, whose project involves encouraging birds to take up residence at JW, raised funds for a bird house and bird bath.  The JW Hornets are working on a project to help bees, which are increasingly endangered in the modern American landscape, and will be adding elements to the garden for this purpose.

Compost and mulch were supplied by Princeton Public Schools Grounds Foreman Tony Diaforl and his crew from the ecological facility that Princeton shares with Lawrence Township.  We applied the compost as an initial top dressing to supply organic matter and some nutrients from the surface down, just as it happens in natural systems.  The top dressing of compost will work with the mulch to discourage weed seeds from growing by denying them the sunlight that they require to germinate. We mixed the donated mulch with leaves collected from the school lawns for the second layer over the compost.  This combined mulch layer will provide not only protection for the soil, reducing oxidation of carbon and soil nutrients, but cover for small critters including insects.

John Witherspoon Middle School Teacher Kelly Riely has arranged for some of the members of her Do Something Club to water the new native plants once a week until it gets colder.

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The project could not have been done without the support of Princeton Public School District personnel, including Science Supervisor Edward Cohen and John Witherspoon Middle School Principal Jason Burr.

The garden is still very much a work in progress, as we wait to see both how well our new introduced communities of plants and the ones already there function together.  In the spring, we will add additional plants to fill any holes and to replace any plants that don’t make it.  We will continue to recruit members of the JW and the larger Princeton communities to help with maintenance as a form of stewarding some of the ground that stewards us.

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Planting Signs in Your Natural Landscape Part One: National Wildlife Federation Program

Like many fairly new suburban neighborhoods, my neighborhood has broad stretches of lawns punctuated by landscape beds with shrubs (including those curlicue ones) and a few annual flowers surrounded by expanses of mulch or stones.  My beds are increasingly filled wall to wall with mingled native plants and flowers (as well as a few shrubs), leaving me with less and less open mulch every day.  And, as noted in the last post, I am leaving more and more browning stems and seedheads on my plants.

So, I have already signed up for two programs that provide explanatory signs for my native plants/wildlife habitat enhancing landscape.  I was going to write one blog post outlining some of the best of the sign-providing programs, but it immediately became clear that they offer very different things and that the signs are really just a small part of what you can get out of participation in each program.  So, this will be the first of a series of posts on sign programs, starting with the program of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), which has the sign I have seen most often designating a certified wildlife habitat.

NWF certification and a sign depend on your answers in five areas the organizations deems critical to providing wildlife habitat.  Before you launch right into the registration (and what I consider a rather expensive payment for your sign), you should read over the tutorials for each of the five areas.  Doing so can not only give you ideas on easy ideas for enhancing wildlife habitat, but will underscore what practices you are already taking to help wildlife.

FOOD SOURCES:  You need to be able to certify that you provide three types of food sources, not just three food sources.  The list of possible choices includes, first, food sources from things you are growing in your yard (which NWF prefers to be native plants):  seeds from a plant (see my last post, for ideas), berries, nectar, leaves or twigs, nuts, fruits, sap, and pollen.  Providing insects for consumption by birds or by other insects is mentioned several times, although not specifically on the tutorial’s primary list.  Other acceptable types of food sources are bird feeders, squirrel feeders, hummingbird feeders and butterfly feeders.  While the website describes the last four as “supplemental,” and indicates that such food sources can be particularly helpful in the winter, there is no apparent requirement that any of your food source types must be the plant derived ones.  See http://www.nwf.org/Garden-For-Wildlife/Food.aspx.

WATER SOURCES:  You need at least one water source on or adjacent to your property.  I was thinking of my little birdbath as I made this certification.  It is true that you can create a birdbath quickly using a shallow dish of water, but a look at the NWF page specifically on birdbaths will help you understand that you can’t just put anything out and be finished.  You need to add a layer of stones for small birds to stand on when in the bath if the birdbath is too deep.  During winter your birdbath may freeze, making it useless—see http://www.nwf.org/Garden-For-Wildlife/Water/Bird-Bath.aspx for all sorts of considerations that go with a bird bath.

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Acceptable water sources need not be right on your property—bodies of water such as rivers or bays visible from your property can be used for certification purposes.  NWF especially encourages people with larger properties to consider putting in a rain garden or backyard marsh, and provides special pages to help you with either of those.  See http://www.nwf.org/Garden-For-Wildlife/Water.aspx for more information, and links to descriptions of specific water sources.

SOURCES OF COVER:  Did you grow up with the image of birds sheltering each night in a nest, as I did?  Imagine my shock to learn—rather recently—that birds only build and use nests while they are laying eggs and raising young.  The rest of the year, many birds just hang out, day or night, in a place that provides cover.  They apparently don’t necessarily have settled “homes” like humans do, and may not even hang out with the birds that they share offspring with.

Other animals may use “homes” such as burrows or holes in trees for more of the year, but perhaps the chief sheltering need animals have, aside from raising young, is for cover–places to hide from predators, and places to shelter from weather.

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NWF requires a certified wildlife habitat to have at least two sources of cover, with acceptable options including wooded areas, bramble patches, ground cover, rock piles/walls, caves, roosting boxes, dense shrubs/thickets, evergreens, brush/log piles, burrow, meadows/prairies, water gardens/ponds and even dead trees with tree cavities.  Cover is an area where a little reading can go a long way in opening up your understanding of the natural world.  See http://www.nwf.org/Garden-For-Wildlife/Cover.aspx, and the several links included there.

PLACES TO RAISE YOUNG:  So now that we’ve established that birds only hang out in nests when they are laying eggs and raising young, we can consider the NWF certification category for places to raise young, which recognizes the fact that animals cannot survive long term if they cannot successfully raise a next generation of their own kind.  Raising young, as with cover, requires shelter; options you can offer to wildlife for NWF certification include mature trees, meadow or prairie, nesting box, wetlands, caves, host plant for caterpillars, dead trees or snags, dense shrubs or a thicket, water gardens/ponds, and burrows.

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Actually, the main write up on this aspect of wildlife habitat, found at http://www.nwf.org/garden-for-wildlife/young.aspx, notes that animals may not simply have baby needs and adult needs for shelter/cover, but varying needs at different stages of their lives—think human teenage or young adulthood needs.

SUSTAINABLE PRACTICES:  The last NWF requirement is that you be using two sustainable practices.  This is the one where reading the tutorial at http://www.nwf.org/Garden-For-Wildlife/Sustainability.aspx, and clicking on links there is most useful.  The listed areas of sustainable practices are soil and water conservation, controlling exotic species, and organic practices (including eliminating chemical pesticides and composting).  Each of these areas has several sub-options.  You are probably already doing two things—however, reading the tutorial can suggest even more.

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To Trim or Not to Trim?

It is the time of year that gardeners’ thoughts turn to garden cleanup.  The flower garden may look like this photo (maybe minus the garden Viking that my son bought me).  Is this messy, charming, or both?  In a Participatory Ecology garden, should you trim the dead, brown stalks or not?

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Is the garden Viking saying this is too messy?

If you do determine that you won’t be trimming now, will your neighbors begin to believe they are living with an eyesore?

As with other garden questions, under a more natural gardening paradigm, you have to make plant-by-plant decisions.

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This sedum is not a native plant, but it is one of the plants that has the most rationales for not trimming; not only is it rather lovely as a dried winter flower in the garden, but it provides both food in the form of seeds for birds and cover for winter critters.  Okay, this may not be great if the critters are mice!

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I think the seed pods on these hybrid hibiscus plants are rather nice looking, and my research shows they also offer up seeds as bird food.

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Asters are not quite as attractive by human standards, but still dried-flower worthy, and their seeds are also eaten by winter birds.

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Monarda is even a little more scraggly looking, but still nice, and also provides seeds.

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Is Joe Pye weed getting to the limit of human aesthetics?  I like it, and it definitely provides food.

spent-penstemon

 

These penstemon stalks still have their seed capsules.  Even if the seeds were not eaten by birds, I would leave the stems holding the capsules untrimmed since I count on the plants, one of my favorite garden flowers, to sow any uneaten seed and multiply.

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This tangle of gaillardia, another favorite flower, still shows a few blooms.  These blooms will keep providing pollinator food, while the seeds from spent flowers provide bird food.  I imagine these might tiptoe into the human aesthetic of messy.

I have other bird seed plants in the garden not pictured here.  Mountain mint looks like a plant that provides bird seed, but I haven’t yet confirmed that.  Goldenrod is definitely a bird seed plant, although I may bag the flower head so I can save seeds myself and plant in other parts of my gardens.  Daisies also provide bird seed.

I probably won’t need a bird feeder with all this seed, unless I want to provide things like suet.

So, as you may have guessed, I am not planning to trim any of the plants listed above just now, though there are a few plants I do think I will trim.

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These annual sunflowers, a product of years of development by Native Americans before European incursions as well as years of breeding for beauty since then, have mostly given up their seeds to goldfinches and other birds.  They took over one of my vegetable beds before I had a chance to plant it.  It’s time for them to go, hopefully pulled with as little soil disruption as possible.

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This chicory grew from an Insectory seed mix I got as a free bonus with a seed order, but I don’t really want more chicory plants.  The few I have are enough for me, so I will be clipping this as well.

So, it seems like my garden trimming work will be rather light this year, but what about my neighbors, with their manicured shrubs and wide expanses of mulch in landscape beds?

I guess I will just have to start putting up signs to let them know about all the birds.  I will let you know how that goes in the next post.

 

Here are some great resources that list more birdseed plants:

Check out this advice from a fellow WordPress blogger at https://laidbackgardener.wordpress.com/2015/09/05/plants-that-attract-seed-eating-birds/

Another good list:  http://birding.about.com/od/attractingbirds/a/Seed-Bearing-Flowers-For-Birds.ht