By Patricia Drackett, Director Crosby Arboretum
The Picayune Item
Last week when many of us were reflecting on the past year or the one that had just arrived I came across a Facebook post by long-time friend Alan Branhagen in Missouri, with a list of the thirty-two species of birds that had recently visited his backyard feeder. The post about his “winter wonderland” and a small portion of the 170 species he has sighted in his yard to date caused me to ponder the variety of activities that were splashed across the social media site, examples of what working people do on their leisure time over a long holiday. But I was also left with equal parts of awe and admiration for people like Alan who devote a large portion of their lives immersed in specific aspects of nature study.
It is no secret that Alan thoroughly enjoys his job. He is Director of Horticulture at Powell Gardens, located thirty miles east of Kansas City, a 970 acre garden that is the home of America’s largest edible landscape, the Heartland Harvest Garden. Powell Gardens is incidentally the only public garden with more than three structures designed by E. Fay Jones, the American architect who also designed the Crosby Arboretum’s Pinecote Pavilion.
Many botanical gardens and arboreta across the county offer blogs about their activities, and Powell Gardens recently released a post about their “Hollywood,” with some spectacular photographs of their holly collection. The images included one of my favorites, possumhaw holly (Ilex decidua), a native tree also common to Mississippi with spectacular color in the winter landscape and tasty berries for birds to feast on.
Rick Webb, owner of Louisiana Growers nursery has conducted programs on native plants at the Arboretum, and has spoken about the native plants he calls “thicket plants” – those you might not look twice at, as they aren’t the showiest in the landscape, but have high wildlife value. Thickets offer cover and protection to birds, and places to raise their young. As a young landscape gardener I once viewed Smilax vine, also called “greenbriar” or “catbriar” as a species needing eradicating in the garden. But I’ve learned to appreciate its thorny mass that scrambles among the treetops as a perfect location for nesting birds, offering both a food source and protection from predators.
Although native hollies such as inkberry, yaupon, and American holly appear to dominate the winter landscape, other plants have persistent fruit that provides winter food for birds and other wildlife. These include sumac, viburnum , magnolias, American beautyberry, chokeberry, and Virginia creeper. Nuts are eaten by larger birds, and the seeds from many herbaceous and woody plants are also consumed.
One of Alan’s favorite plants for winter birds is sugarberry, also known as hackberry (Celtis laevigata), a tree in the elm family. This tough native tree is often planted in urban situations, and would also make a good addition to your wildlife garden. Alan says that this tree is loved by flickers, robins, waxwings, hermit thrush, bluebirds, and mockingbirds.
Another of his recommendations for winter birds is Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana). This dense conifer prefers alkaline soils and full sun, and is a great tree for windbreaks or used as a screen along a property line. Alan said the berry-like cones on the female trees make this a phenomenal bird plant preferred by many species of songbirds, including yellow-rumped warblers. Sparrows, he says, love to scratch around beneath the trees.
In my former career as a landscape designer, several of our clients tended gardens that still stand out clearly in my memory from the others because of the constant activity of birds (and butterflies!) that transformed these landscapes into much more than just a run-of-the-mill garden. If you would like to create gardens with that will be remembered many years later, think about how you can add layers of experiences in your garden, to engage all of your senses. For example, fragrant blooms, the sound of trickling water or a wind chime, or the movement of birds and butterflies all add to the ability of a garden to establish a lasting memory.
See the Mississippi State University Extension website, www.MSUcares.com, to read more about how to attract birds and other wildlife to your yard. From the MSUcares Publications menu, search for “Establishing a Backyard Wildlife Habitat” (Publication No. 2402). Also, pages 60 through 66 of “Selecting Landscape Plants” (Publication 0666) deal specifically with landscape plants to attract birds and wildlife. More information on attracting birds is available by searching on the MSUcares home page for these titles: “Attracting Birds to Mississippi Gardens”, and “Attracting Hummingbirds to Mississippi Gardens”. All of these resources contain extensive lists of plants with high wildlife value, both native and non-native, making them a valuable reference if you would like to add plants to your garden to will bring in more birds.
Many books on the subject of attracting birds are written for a general audience. But two excellent books by authors who are familiar with our area offering entertaining and informative winter reading are “Attracting Birds to Southern Gardens,” by Thomas Pope, Neil Odenwald, and Charles Fryling, Jr. (Taylor Trade Publishing), and “The Wildlife Garden: Planning Backyard Habitats,” by Charlotte Seidenberg (University Press of Mississippi).
To learn more about birds and birdwatching, attend our “Introduction to Birding” program on Saturday, January 12 from 10 to 11 a.m., with avid birder and author Susan Epps. For more information, visit our website at www.crosbyarboretum.msstate.edu or call the Arboretum office at 601-799-2311. We are located in Picayune, off I-59 Exit 4, at 370 Ridge Road (south of Walmart and adjacent to I-59).
For further exploration:
Read about how you can participate in the next Great Backyard Bird Count to be held February 15-18, 2013 at www.birdsource.org/gbbc. Last year, over 17 million birds were counted in this four day event, by birdwatchers of all ages. You can count for as little as 15 minutes a day, or all day long.