Skip the Birdfeeder, Plant a Tree
Originally published in the Tallahassee Democrat
Birdfeeders are great additions to the wildlife-friendly landscape, but they can be a hassle to keep clean and filled up, especially in our brutal summer months. In addition to all the fuss of keeping up a birdfeeder, they do not provide full nutrition for wild birds. While seeds are part of wild birds’ diet, you might be surprised just how many insects they eat. Even our nectar loving hummingbirds have a diet of up to 80 percent small invertebrates like insects and spiders. So how does the wildlife gardener welcome birds to their yard without the trusty bird feeder? Native trees and shrubs!
Native plants have evolved with our native birds and wildlife, and so have their relationships over countless generations. Many of our native birds rely on plants in a secondary way. They may not eat the plant themselves, but they eat the insects and other small animals that eat the plants. In addition to the food these trees and shrubs provide, they also act as cover for birds and their young. By planting native trees and shrubs, we can help support our birds and other wildlife at every stage of their lifecycle. If enough of us have these plants in our yards, we can start to restore habitat we have disturbed with our own development.
Here is a small list of native trees and shrubs that will be sure to attract birds in one way or another:
Red mulberry (Morus rubra) is a favorite species of mine (and songbirds) because of the late spring sweet fruit. There are cultivated varieties available in the red mulberry species but also the non-native black (Morus nigra) and white (Morus alba) species. Birds tend to like any of the species, but flavor wise, I prefer the red and black species.
You will want to plant your mulberry away from your driveway and house, as the fruit can stain cars and other surfaces, even after it passes through a bird. Mulberries usually have plenty of fruit for both you and the birds. I like to freeze some for later in the summer for cobblers and other desserts. Some birds I have seen eating red mulberries are cardinals, downy woodpeckers, and cedar waxwings.
There are 19 species of oaks native to Florida and just about all of them have caterpillar species that rely on the trees to start their lives. Some of these caterpillars can seem annoying to us because they hatch by the hundreds all at once, but if you change your perspective, you will see a buffet of bugs for birds.
A few of these oak-specific species include tussock moths (Orgyia spp.), oakworms (Anisota spp.), and buck moths (Hemileuca spp.). According to the research of Dr. Doug Tallamy, professor of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware, a single couple of chickadee parents needs anywhere from 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars to raise one clutch over just a few weeks. Oak trees host thousands of caterpillars at a time, making them an easy choice for the birder’s garden. Occasional defoliation is to be expected, but with the typical size of oak trees, you probably will not notice.
Just about every blueberry grower I know has had to come to terms with sharing their harvest with birds and other wildlife. Whether you grow the domesticated rabbit eye or high bush varieties or a native species, blueberries and their relatives are wonderful plants for wildlife.
Some wild, non-cultivated, native species to consider are sparkleberry (Vaccinium arboretum), which is taller (18 to 25 feet) and more tree shaped than others, Darrow’s blueberry (Vaccinium darrowii), a petite type only about two feet tall and wide with tiny berries, and high bush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), which can grow six to 12 feet in height. Before planting blueberries, get a soil test done. Plants in this family prefer acidic soil in the 4 to 5.5 range on the pH scale. Many yards in Tallahassee naturally have soil in this range, but if you have a higher pH, you can amend the soil yearly or simply grow blueberries in containers of shredded pine bark.
Native plums like Chickasaw (Prunus angustifolia) and flatwoods (Prunus umbellate) are another selection that can be harvested both by humans who plant them and the wildlife they hope to attract. Do not expect these plums to be super sweet like the ones you would find in a grocery store. They tend to be smaller, tart, and have larger pits, but they can be made into jellies, jams, and syrups.
An added bonus if you have a cultivated plum, is that these native plums can aid in pollination, leading to higher yields for you and the birds. The Chickasaw plum is prone to forming root suckers while the flatwoods plum forms very few. Birds will eat the fruit from both of these plums, and there are a few caterpillars that thrive on plants in the cherry family including tent caterpillars (Malacosoma spp.).
A small shift in perspective can turn an average gardener into a wildlife gardener. While some may see caterpillars all over their trees and reach right for the pesticide, wildlife gardeners know that the birds will come take care of their ‘infestation’ for free. Flying takes a lot of energy and many birds need the juicy protein that a caterpillar offers to live and raise their young. As you continue on your wildlife gardening journey, here are some more tips to make your yard more wildlife friendly:
- Plant a diversity of native plants.
- Reduce or eliminate your use of pesticides. If you do need to treat for something, choose the least harmful product.
- Offer water to your wildlife visitors in the form of a birdbath, puddler, or pond.
- Learn more about gardening for wildlife by exploring educational sites online, such as reading the UF/IFAS EDIS publication, “Native Plants That Benefit Native Wildlife in The Florida Panhandle.”
Rachel Mathes is the Horticulture Program Assistant with UF/IFAS Extension Leon County, an Equal Opportunity Institution. For gardening questions, email the extension office at AskAMasterGardener@ifas.ufl.edu.