I Want More Birds in My Yard!

Part Three

By Caroline Eliot

Part One, Part Two

This hummingbird is feasting on Jewelweed, a native annual common to wetter areas. Photo credit: Doug Tallamy

As noted in prior posts, if you want birds in your yard, you need to create a landscape that provides the type of food they need, places to nest, water, and shelter. During migration and nesting season, birds need high fat, high protein caterpillars. What will bring caterpillars into your yard? Native plants, especially trees and shrubs. It’s worth repeating that the top caterpillar-producing species in Maine are (in this order) willow (not including weeping willow and other non-native willows), oak, Prunus species (e.g. cherry), and poplar. Planting native trees and shrubs also has many added benefits beyond providing food and habitat for caterpillars and birds. Replacing lawn with these plants helps retain water onsite (reducing flooding), sequester carbon, enhance food sources for wildlife (and sometimes us humans), and much more.

Where to start? If you have space, plant native trees first because they will produce more caterpillars. They also provide the greatest environmental benefits. Trees grow faster than you think, especially if you start with small or bare root saplings. We transplanted a spindly, 5-foot bare root sugar maple (which we hacked out of the soil elsewhere on our property) 23 years ago. Today, it is 35-40 feet tall, has a 25-foot-wide crown, and shades our kitchen. So, despite the traditional maxim that one should “plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit,” I have been enjoying the shade of this tree for quite a few years. And, when its leaves fall, we enjoy discovering the bird nests we knew were there from the regular ‘feed me’ choruses of tiny hatchlings.

Titmouse with caterpillar food for its young. Photo credit: Doug Tallamy

But really, start with whatever feels manageable, knowing that whatever you do with native plants is good for the birds and our natural systems. Listed below are resources to guide you in selecting and finding the right native plants for your site conditions. I have moved from planting nursery stock in containers or burlap to planting mostly bare root stock. I find the planting easier and the plants seem to recover from the transplanting faster. Planting smaller stock is also much less expensive, easier on the back, and offers a wider array of plants from which to choose. A few tips:

  • When selecting plants for your yard, try to avoid cultivars – plants bred by humans to favor one or more specific traits such as bloom color, leaf color, bloom shape, etc. These changes can make plants unrecognizable to their insect partners, potentially compromising their value to the food web. While there is little research on this topic, for now we will presume that the more cultivars look like the ‘wild’ plant, the more likely they are to fulfill the same ecological functions (i.e. food for caterpillars, nectar for insects).
  • Before you plant, understand what conditions your plant needs, e.g. sun/part shade/full shade, dry/moist/wet, etc. There are many excellent resources to help with this. See the resources listed below.
  • To make digging your plant holes easier, put cardboard (weighted with something heavy, such as stones or woodchips) over your planting area as far in advance of the planting as possible (months, ideally). The cardboard will kill the grass while retaining nutrients in the thatch and topsoil. When you plant, if the thatch isn’t decomposed enough to incorporate into the soil, compost it! It contains lots of nutrients.
  • Follow the planting instructions that come with your plants! If planting potted plants (especially pot-bound ones), scratch/loosen the outer roots and soil of the rootball before planting. This encourages roots to grow away from the rootball and into surrounding soil.
  • Provide plenty of water for the first two seasons. Water is vital to the success of your plants, especially during especially dry summers. Plan to water 2-3 times per week through the entire first season (one inch per week), and at least weekly during the second season.
  • Mulch trees and shrubs heavily, ideally with wood chips from hardwood trees. Hardwood chips promote fungal mycelium which facilitates nutrient uptake by the tree’s root system. Woodchips over cardboard help to suppress weeds around the new plant. Leave a small area (6 in. diameter) free of mulch around the plant stem to reduce risk of rot and rodent damage.

Yellowthroat occupies a native cherry tree while gracing the neighborhood with song. Photo credit: Doug Tallamy

I have a few favorite native plantings from my recent efforts. A well-established grove of sweetfern, an aromatic, woody plant that has some medicinal uses is thriving in a dry, shady, shallow to bedrock part of my front yard.  Two small but mighty shagbark hickories are slowly settling in to a corner of my backyard.  One was planted from seed, one from bare root stock. I celebrate the appearance of each new (huge) bud on their branches much as a grandmother would the arrival of new grandchildren. They won’t make hickory nuts for forty years, but future generations will appreciate these statuesque trees and their bounty.

I could go on, but I don’t want to delay you from getting started on your native planting effort! I hope your native plantings enrich avian life in your neighborhood. And, I hope monitoring their progress brings you the same joy it gives me.

Native Plant Resources

Taking Root Plant Sale

  • Saturday, June 1 from 9am – 1pm at 65 Baribeau Drive in Brunswick.
  • Learn more here.

Maine Audubon native plant sale

  • The plant sale is usually in May or June, at Gilsland Farm in Falmouth.

National Audubon Society

Maine Wild Seed Project

University of Maine Extension Service

Native Gardens of Blue Hill

Maine Natural Areas Program

The Xerces Society