How to Garden to Encourage Colorful Wild Birds
It's springtime and time to start thinking about planting. We Raleigh area residents are lucky to have a variety of wildlife: birds, butterflies, and mammals. What all of them need are food, water, and shelter. Food is in the form of berries, seeds, nuts, nectar, and larvae.

Berry-eating birds include robins, catbirds, cedar waxwings, and mockingbirds, among others. Most of the berry plants produce fruit in the late summer or fall--dogwood, black cherry, red chokeberry, winterberry holly, viburnums, black gum, and the red cedar tree. Many shrubs, including beautyberry and winterberry holly, retain their berries throughout the winter. Birds don't mind cold or dried berries. I am always delighted to see my holly bushes and red cedar tree covered with migrating cedar waxwings and robins in the fall.

Seed-eating birds include cardinals, goldfinches, house finches, chickadees, Eastern towhees, tufted titmice, and sparrows. You can tell seed-eaters by their wedge-shaped bills. Many flowers produce seeds including sunflowers, cone flowers, Joe-Pye weed, bluestem, and black-eyed Susans. There is not a prettier sight than a black and yellow goldfinch eating from a black and yellow black-eyed Susan!

In our wooded neighborhood, we have several woodpeckers including yellow-shafted flickers, downy woodpeckers, and red-bellied woodpeckers. These birds--as well as blue jays and Carolina wrens--eat nuts.  The nuthatches--white-breasted and brown-headed may eat nuts but also pick at the seeds in pine cones. Nut-producing plants include pecan trees, oaks, and pine cones from loblolly and shortleaf pines. The winter migrant, yellow-bellies sapsucker, is attracted to pecan trees.  It makes small, even holes around the trunk from which sap oozes, which doesn't seem to hurt the tree. The sapsucker eats the sap and the insects that are attracted to it.

Nectar-producing plants attract hummingbirds and butterflies. Ruby-throated hummingbirds are usually here from mid-March to late-October. For hummingbirds, it's best to use plants for nectar throughout this period. Early nectar producers are columbines; phlox species produce nectar during the middle period, and late nectar is produced by goldenrod. Hummingbirds and butterflies are attracted to bright colors and cone-like flowers. I have ruby-throated hummingbirds and tiger swallow-tailed butterflied feeding from my abelia bush, which has small, pink cone-shaped flowers.

All birds eat bugs, including hummingbirds, but especially bluebirds. Also, birds feed larvae to their babies, so don't be afraid of larvae. The birds will thank you, and they will keep the larvae, which are in most trees, under control. Larval host plants include oaks, native blueberries, spicebush, native plums, and pawpaws. I sometimes see a white-breasted nuthatch moving head-first down a loblolly pine tree picking larvae out from under the bark. Thank you, nuthatch.

Here's a word about shelter. I am going to keep my thick hedge of azaleas out front because I know it is a nesting site for Eastern towhees and cardinals. It is also shelter for brown thrashers, catbirds, rabbits, and probably other wildlife as well. Rock piles and brush piles are protection for sparrows and butterflies. Tall trees with cavities provide homes for bluebirds, chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, and wrens. These birds will also use birdhouses. I am lucky that my neighbors have an open grassy yard, as bluebirds need an open area to hunt grasshoppers.

The bluebirds come to my yard for water. If water is provided, you may see birds that may never otherwise come to your yard. Every winter a hermit thrush I call “Hermie” hangs out by my birdbath.

When selecting plants, be sure they are native to your area. Birds may not be attracted to non-native plants. These plants could also be invasive and crowd out beneficial native plants.

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