Call to the Wild: One Gardener's Quest to Cultivate a Haven for Birds
When Living's founding garden editor and former editorial director moved to a farmhouse in the Hudson Valley to fulfill her lifelong passion for cultivating and caring for nature, we knew she'd make something magical. Over the years, she's created a serene sanctuary for herself-and the birds. We welcome her back to tell us how she did it.
Nobody visiting my 30-year-old garden would say I need more plants-except maybe the local birds and insects. Which is fine with me, since those are precisely the visitors I'm trying to entice. But this wasn't always the case. In 1986, when I bought my farmhouse, situated on 2.3 rural acres spanning a deep hillside in New York's Hudson Valley, I was far more infatuated with colorful photos in plant catalogs than with colorful birds. I wanted everything, and quickly started collecting: oddball conifers of varied foliage hues and textures; a range of crab apples, hollies, and viburnums; European and Asian woodland ring bloomers like hellebores, Epimedium, and primulas.
As I ripped out massive tangles of brambles with a mattock and crowbar, and reclaimed century-old apple trees from invasive oriental bittersweet and multiflora rose, I realized I was being watched-and entertained-by birds, who charmed me with their breeding-season antics and songs. I fell in love. Binoculars and a field guide soon became part of my garden tool kit.
My new passion gave me hours of enjoyment, and an in iring ecology lesson on the food web and who eats what. I was determined to attract more winged friends to my property. I quickly realized that all of my beloved exotics, and the carefully groomed beds and borders I'd been tending organically, weren't creating the more welcoming habitat for them. I didn't want to dig up my whole garden and start over, so I came up with another plan: I'd retrofit the landscape, tucking in more natives and letting the outer areas go wilder. It would still be my garden, but better.
As ornithologist Pete Dunne, the former director of New Jersey Audubon's Cape May Bird Observatory, once wrote, "Birds are almost always where they are supposed to be." Attracting them is a form of matchmaking: You review your nearest bird club's local species checklist, then assess what you have growing in your garden, plus what's in the surrounding natural areas (a forest or field, for example). The goal is to figure out what you have the right conditions for, then make your place more robust and welcoming.
My property, next to a wooded state park, is edged with mature native birch, maple, and oak trees (packed with nourishing acorns in fall) that feed insects, birds, and other animals. It's also prime breeding territory for many cavity-nesting songbirds and other species that favor the shrubby forest edge, including thrushes, warblers, and tanagers. Any dead and dying trees in the park are heaven for woodpeckers; they make their homes there and dine on burrowing insects. To lure these species to my land, I reduced my lawn, which is nondiverse and useless for sustaining insects because it's mowed. I left a few areas of it untouched and let little bluestem, goldenrod, and asters sprout in the resulting mini meadows. I also stopped mowing just short of my fence line, where I've placed native shrubs that birds relish.
The core principle in bird, pollinator, or habitat gardening is to support more bugs. Insects feed a variety of birds and also pollinate plants, which in turn produce seeds and fruit that also feed birds. Even songbirds that are vegetarian as adults usually feed insects to their young. This is why pesticides, even those labeled organic, are defeating. It's a year-round endeavor. During cleanup each autumn, I let fallen leaves in the outer areas be, since completely removing them is lethal to caterpillars and other environmental helpers like spiders, which tuck themselves underneath them for the winter. I rake those leaves in the spring, but not until the temperature has reached 50 degrees for a few days, so the creatures have had time to emerge from their hideaways.
With each adjustment I've made, more wildlife has arrived. I now enjoy nearly 70 "regulars," from scarlet tanagers to fluttering hummingbirds, as well as a growing list of butterflies, moths, and even dragonflies. Thinking back, I'm grateful for one stroke of beginner's luck. All those years ago, I dug two water gardens, seeking the meditative splashing sound. There is not a minute in any season that I don't see birds at the little pools, showing me the way, just as they have from the start.
Start with a regional field guide (she likes "The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America," by David Allen Sibley; Knopf, 2016), and contact a local bird club or sanctuary, where experts can answer site-specific questions. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds online encyclopedia includes life histories and diets of more than 600 species. Xerces Society has downloadable regional pollinator plant lists. Audubon's native-plant database is searchable by zip code, as is the database run by the National Wildlife Federation, U.S. Forest Service, and the University of Delaware.
To track the birds that visit your garden, consider joining eBird, where you'll be able to log sightings and search species lists for your area. If you're looking build shelters, check out All About Bird Houses, from Cornell's NestWatch, which offers plans for dozens of cavity-nesting species. Sialis is a valuable hub for bluebird lovers, with instructions on how to monitor boxes, as well as predator-prevention information. And to identify insects, Bugguide.net is an exhaustive database; you can even upload photos to the site for an expert ID.