For the birds

With feathers

Are you feeling like hope is back? I suppose it was there all along, but until noon on Jan. 20, it didn’t seem to be sticking its neck up very high.

Photo shows the top part of an index card listing dates beside seed company names and notations on actions taken or not; underneath are the labels on index dividers listing various categories of tasks

Proof of organization. Not constant.

Now we can get back to wondering when those seed catalogs ordered in December will arrive. According to my records (this time, for a change, I really did keep a record, and there’s the photo to prove it!) … as I was saying, according to my records, I ordered a slew of them in early/mid December. As I started writing this, only Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog had arrived, and overwhelmed me. Drowning in possibilities.

Pages of vegetable seeds: 140. Pages of flowers: 37. Herbs: 14.

Mind you, that’s not the number of varieties. That’s the number of pages. Even allowing for all the photos and tables and sidebars with cultivation tips, I figure it averages five to eight varieties per page.

Montage of seed catalog covers: Johnny's Selected Seeds, High Mowing Organic Seeds, NESeed Growers Catalog, Hudson Valley Seed, shown atop a woodgrain background

And they keep on growing…

And then another three catalogs cascaded in. How’s a gal to choose?

By sidestepping! I started reading about birds. Not, mind you, with any great strategy in mind. I still don’t have my grow-lights setup figured out, and going through that first seed catalog, I knew it would take eons to figure out what I’d actually plant under the grow lights should I even get around to them.

But I needed to get something up for the blog before you give up on me, and I was wondering whether there’s anything going on outside that you might want to hear about, and I thought: BIRDS! Who doesn’t love them and want more of them around? (Okay, except when you just planted corn.)

So I looked into birds. That’s when it got interesting. Like a train wreck is interesting.

But hang on, because I also found some inspiration.

The ticking clock

A red-tailed hawk sitting on the crossbar of a telephone pole, against a gray sky

Red-tailed hawk surveys the landscape, or the photographer
© 2020 by Vilmarie S-R

Do you delight in seeing the pair of bald eagles nesting near your usual route home, or stop to watch when you spot a mama killdeer stilting across the lawn with her babies bumbling behind her? Or do you run for the binoculars to see who’s hopping around in the winterberry bush? Do you fill those birdfeeders with seed and suet and the birdbaths with water? If so, you are one of the people who has been paying some attention. Did you know that not only our springs but also summers, falls, and winters threaten to grow more silent year by year?

The experts have been sounding the alarm for decades now. It’s getting ever more urgent.

Bald facts:

  • North America has lost nearly 3 billion birds out of the total bird population since 1970. That’s about one in four birds.
  • Even as sedate a source as the US Fish & Wildlife Service lists 99 species of birds in the US and its possessions as either endangered (“in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range”) or threatened (“likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future”).
  • Now, as I am writing this, the Audubon Society warns that 389 species out of 604 face extinction in North America thanks to human impact on the environment—climate change especially, but not exclusively.

Rough arithmetic: 2/3 of our bird species may be gone in a few decades or less, if we don’t act fast.

Can we save them?

You may recall the sad fate of the passenger pigeon, a bird whose flocks once filled the skies, but which, thanks to rapacious hunting, now exists only in taxidermy cases.

That’s one species; a few others have already gone extinct. Some species have been rescued—for now, at least.

A line of whooping cranes flying behind an ultralight aircraft (heading from left to right of photo frame), against a misty background of wooded hills fading from very dark gray at bottom to light orangey-gray at top

“Whooping Crane Ultralight Migration” by USFWS Headquarters is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The whooping crane, for example, spells a success story of sorts. In 1941, this species, one of only two crane species in North America, teetered at the edge of extinction. The cranes were down to around 15 to 30 birds, from an original population of over 10,000. Huge recovery efforts, including captive breeding and training the birds to head north for breeding in the wild (by leading them there via ultralight airplane), have brought the population back up to over 800. Think of that. Sixty years of effort for 800 birds.

Economics alone would tell us that species-by-species, full-court-press conservation efforts like that are impracticable. Catching the attention of the public sometimes requires dramatizing the plight of some poster-child species (polar bear, whooping crane, black rhino, lowland gorilla), but in fact, these are but the proverbial canaries in the coal mine. They represent a far deeper problem: the downward spiral of ecosystem deterioration, in which the fate of every species intertwines with that of many, if not all, others.

That is a very big problem, and ultimately calls for big solutions. Over the long term, we can advocate for better environmental policies (and the funding to make them happen) and donate to conservation and environmental organizations.

In the short term, though, I am happy to tell you, we can start in our own back (and front, and side) yards.


I started by musing about how there seems to be more bird life in my spring-summer-fall garden than there used to be, now that I have more small trees and various sizes of shrubs out there. But why? Is it because I (more accurately, my plants) have been offering birds a wider range of nesting options? Better cover? Bird feeders? Birdhouses? How important is it that I try more deliberately to provide more bird habitat?

Front cover of Nature's Best Hope, by Douglas W. Tallamy, shot from side perspective showing numerous orange and pink flags marking pages

Proof that I’ve been reading!

Grabbing onto that last question first: pretty doggone important. Being both geek and gardener, I started digging. It was ridiculously easy to find the important facts.

I have to admit they astonished me. As I read, I found that I’d been looking at my garden all the wrong way. The eureka moment in my education came from a book I recommended a few posts back, Nature’s Best Hope, by Douglas Tallamy. It already sat on my shelf, but I hadn’t gotten far into it except to see what he said about garden cleanup. Now, on my bird quest, I delved deeper. And quickly realized that if I want more birds around, I need to think more like a bird. (Note: many of the facts that follow are gleaned from Prof. Tallamy’s book.)

Thought for food

A cardinal's nest amidst dark red foliage; nest is made of interlaced twigs, and contains 3 eggs, cream-colored with reddish-brown speckles

Cardinal’s nest with promises of future action
© 2020 by Vilmarie S-R

Picture this. Birds build their nests to raise a clutch of young. Thanks to the now omnipresent web cam, you’ve probably seen a parent bird arriving back at home sweet home to be greeted by two, three, four or more screeching babies with mouths agape, beaks jabbing towards mama or papa. They’re no sooner fed than they start squealing for more.

Three squares a day plus snacks will never do for these little darlings. Thirty to forty meals per nestling daily seems more the norm.

I recall that my mother found it oppressive getting dinner on the table once a day for nine people, and she didn’t have to run outside to forage for every crumb we ate. A weekly trip to the supermarket sufficed.

Bird parents have a far more grueling job: fly out, find food, grab it, fly home with it, pick the most insistent mouth and cram the food in. Fly out, find food… Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Anywhere from 150 to over 500 times per day. Not per pair; per parent. Mama bird seems to do the heaviest lifting. One researcher clocked her doing twice as much as papa.

Which goes to show, birds are only human.

Given this burden, birds have the sense to place their nests close to abundant food sources. No birdbrains here; they do the math instinctively and calculate the energy expenditures exquisitely. They want the food within about a 150-foot radius.

The long view down a supermarket aisle with a floor checkerboarded in pink and white squares; displaying shelves full of boxes and bottles, and several shelves full of candies at right foreground; at the back of the photo is a large sign for Pharmacy

Not for the birds: “Supermarket – WP_20130720_002”
by Nicola since 1972 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

I imagine my local mockingbird couple sitting in their sugar-maple nest watching me pull the Subaru out of the driveway to disappear for an hour before coming back with food in bags and boxes. They must shake their heads. What a humanbrain!

But what is that bird food? Here was my shocker: it’s not in the bird feeder, or the seeds they peck up from the ground. Oh sure, when they’re not feeding nestlings, the chickadees and nuthatches and jays and sparrows may congregate at the feeder. But for the babies, they need nice, juicy, soft, squishy caterpillars. Hundreds per day.

So if you want to bring in the birds, plant for caterpillars.

The very hungry caterpillar

At this point I felt a tectonic plate of lifelong assumptions creak and groan and start to slide away. Because—wait a minute, isn’t gardening at least half about fending off pests?What (Thumper and Bambi and Tamerlane-the-woodchuck aside) could be more of a pest than the caterpillar that chomps its way up one side and down the other of the delicate helpless leaves of your oakleaf lettuce and your chard, that shears off the tender bud-heads of your broccolini, or gouges big holes out of the magnolia leaves? The tomato hornworm that horns in on the tomatoes?

All these years, I’ve plotted to keep caterpillars out of the veggie patch. Prized the perennials and shrubs that don’t attract pests. Ripped out weeds to create neatly manicured beds. It turns out I’ve been making my mini world less appealing to birds because it was less appealing to their tiny juicy prey.

Now granted, I have planned to put in more milkweed to feed those picky-eater monarchs. And after the thrill of finding a hefty black swallowtail caterpillar in the parsley and a couple more amidst the dill, I have been aiming to scatter those herbs all through the sunny spots in various beds. But that was merely to keep the most decorative butterflies going.

A large black-swallowtail caterpillar in center of photo, bright chartreuse with black bands spotted with bright yellow, poised vertically on a parsley stalk. with leaves of parsley above and below it and to its left, and some grayish-beige straw in the unfocused background to the right

A very hungry black swallowtail caterpillar eating my parsley

From a bird’s perspective, not much help. The monarch caterpillars concentrate a cardiac toxin from milkweed precisely in order to deter hungry birds. And frankly, having seen the swallowtail caterpillar up close, I think it a bit alarming as meal material.

Where the appealing caterpillars truly flourish is on the native flora that evolved alongside the native fauna. Often, introduced plants, especially those that originated far, far away, serve as food for only a handful of species, sometimes even only one or none. Native plants, on the other hand, may host dozens or even hundreds of different species of hungry insects. Bird heaven. Smorgasbord for the nestlings. Yum.

Planning: for the birds

So if I want my little domain to function better as an ecosystem, I need to rethink my planting choices, and go for the caterpillars. Granted, I’ll do my best to protect the two raised beds designated for food plants (human-food plants), but for the other beds, I will be choosing any new plants with a thought to going native.

Which takes some care. As Tallamy points out, “native” for flora means not specific to a region like, say, the northeastern US, but specific even at a level as local as a county. Fortunately, his research assistant Kimberley Shropshire put together a database that the National Wildlife Federation has turned into a Native Plant Finder. You can use that site to search for the yummiest plants for the caterpillars local to your own zipcode.

screenshot of front page of website, with a header photo, unfocused, depicting clusters of bright pink flowers and bright green stems and foliage; under the header (labeled Native Plant Finder [BETA]), a heading for Native Plants (By Zip Code), a subheading "Flowers and grasses," under which are boxes for goldenrod, strawberry, sunflower, and deer vetch; two of them have photos showing the flowers, and all show how many species of butterflies and moths feed on the plant

The Native Plant Finder

I gave this a spin, and it reassured me. Turns out that a lot of what I’ve already planted is native, and others that I’ve been considering landed on my list. The nifty thing is that the database also tells you approximately how many different species’ caterpillars might want to feed on each species of plant, and the list is organized by the number of feeding species, with the most numerous first. From this I conclude that if I want to plant strawberries, I’d better include lots of extras for the bugs. Because it’s for the birds!

Not that my little 1/3 acre is going to change the world. But early February is a good time to start thinking. If we all stop to consider why we’re doing what we’re doing in our own patches and educate ourselves about the implications, we might make our spring garden plans a bit differently. Maybe we’ll be able to help arrest the decline and then, gradually, roll it back.

And I can’t help thinking that the birds we will see are a glorious indication of how we’re doing at restoring the environment as a whole.

Where to start learning more?

I’m not going to say a lot more here, because there’s already plenty for you to digest. Just a little on where you might want to start, to find out how big the problem is for our birds, and what you can do.

  • The Audubon Society offers a Bird and Climate Visualizer. Audubon offers specific suggestions about what you can do, and you can also contact your local Audubon chapter by using the Audubon Near You page.
  • The North American Bird Conservation Initiative combines the efforts of government agencies, nonprofits, and others working on bird conservation; its 2019 State of the Birds report is well worth a look, although I do wish it provided a lot more detail, especially on what we can do at the state and local level.
  • If you’d like to start thinking a little more like those smart birds, take a look at the gorgeous new book by David Allen Sibley, What It’s Like to Be a Bird. This seems to be selling like hotcakes, so maybe I’m not the only one to stumble on the program of planning for the birds.

That’s probably enough for now, and the post really must go up—before you get too far into your garden planning for 2021. Stay tuned for more resource leads in future posts.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch (house)

If you’ve been watching, you know that Punxsutawney Phil (Tamerlane-the-woodchuck’s distant cousin) has predicted six more weeks of winter, as of yesterday. I was appalled to see the poor sleepy creature being terrified by the yelling crowd, but I have to say that for western Massachusetts, six weeks is way optimistic. Fine with me; I am in no hurry for Tamerlane to make his reappearance. The crowd is welcome to come here and yell him out of town when he does.

The paperwhites and the amaryllis have bloomed. Did you want pix? Maybe I’ll post them next time, if you insist.

Either the peppermint oil installations are working, or the mice have gotten extremely clever, avoiding all the mousetraps and leaving no droppings. If you’re using the peppermint oil method, though, remember to refresh your little containers about every four weeks.

And now, your turn:

Please post your comments below. (If others post comments before you, the Reply box for your comment will appear under their posts.) I try to reply to every comment, but please feel free to answer others’ comments yourself, too. Here are a few questions to get you started, but go for any topic this post or gardening in general inspires you to.

  1. How good do you think your garden and yard are, from a bird’s perspective?

2.  Do you have any ideas about what you will do in the coming year to attract more birds?

3. Whether you’re tending a garden or not, what do you think you can do to improve birds’ survival chances? Anything you’re already doing that you’d like to share with us?

If you’re commenting for the first time with a particular email address, your comment has to wait for my clearance (spam-thwarting at work there). After your first approved comment using that address, your next should go up automatically. If you’re concerned about privacy, you don’t need to include your surname. I am the only one who sees your email address.

Remember I’m running a contest for 2021: the reader who sends me (kateriffoley at gmail dot com) the weirdest garden-related snippet of news or information between now and December 31, 2021, will win some kind of cool prize. Might be a hori hori: might be a gorgeous gardening book. I promise it won’t be a woodchuck. I’ll offer a few choices when the time comes. So please, keep your antennae up for choice tidbits, and send them on!

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12 Responses to For the birds

  1. Dori Ostermiller says:

    Loving your blog, Kate 🙂

    • Kateri says:

      Thanks, Dori! Love hearing that, and I hope the blog brightens some days for readers, whether they garden or not.

  2. Vilmarie says:

    I have been thinking about the squirrels in my yard. Not sure if they are sorta of like the caterpillars for the hawks learning to hunt. They need to be around serving a purpose in the food chain. And I do enjoy photographing the cute ones eating berries off the trees. I did have mixed feeling about photographing the juvenile red-talked hawk tearing away at the squirrel it had swooped down and caught with its talons. Admiration for the Hawk learning to hunt and sadness for the squirrel that became Chill’s dinner that evening. But I am usually annoyed by squirrels. I gave up on bird feeders in part because the squirrels are so aggressive. But then the trail camera caught a bear in our yard one summer and across our street a bear keeps destroying the neighbors’ bird feeders this winter. So no to bird feeders for us – for now at least.

    I am now even more appreciating my pictures of the cardinals with the wormy things and caterpillars they brought to the nest to feed the babes outside our bathroom window.

    So you also reminded me of my brief writing and photography about a red-bellied woodpecker last March. I was fascinated and calmed, grateful it not drumming so I could admire its feathers. The Audubon website taught me how climate change is bringing them up further north. When the wood pecker flew away after those 15 minutes of silence, I remembered that everything in life is in constant motion. His or her not drumming was most likely a way go avoid being preyed upon by hawks.

    What neat observations and reminders your blog provoked! Thank you!

    And on the subject of mice: no more activity since December when we found two behind the stove. We called in the experts to seal off EVERYTHING.

    • Kateri says:

      Thanks for providing such rich detail, Vilmarie! It is sometimes alarming to see the predation going on among our wild neighbors (even if you’re not a vegetarian, says this somewhat-carnivore). I have to keep reminding myself that without the predators, other populations would go way out of balance and a lot of habitat destruction would result. (As an ecologist friend described to me happening in forests around the Great Lakes, due to explosions of deer population.) At least, as far as I know, wild predators don’t kill for fun.

      Glad you’ve fended off the mice! I know somebody with a mouse-infested old house who would like to know the sealing-off secret.

      • Vilmarie says:

        The pest control fella used aluminum paper to seal under the siding/corners of the house on the outside and inside around the edges of the stove area.

  3. helen snively says:

    thanks for this. I heard Doug Tallamy on line the other night and he’ll be on again in a couple weeks.. He’s FUN and wise. I can find the link if you think readers would want it.

    This is exactly what we have to be doing: plant the plants that support the caterpillars that feed the birds. Last season I brought in all I could of goldenrods, monarda, milkweeds, Joe Pye, etc… will be looking for them once the snow clears.

    And for extra credit: get our neighbors to do it and thus create a pollinator pathway.. apparently ye in Western Mass are right on it.. Yay.

    So.. thanks for the story.

    • Kateri says:

      Good for you and your efforts to spread the joy for birds, Helen!
      And yes, please do share the link for Doug Tallamy if you can find it without too much trouble. You can post it as a reply to your comment here, but I’ll be sure to alert readers to it in my next post.

  4. All great info, just in time! And everything is slow arriving, because USPS, because (probably) all the shopping-by-mail. I think I am starting to notice a bit of birdsong in the morning these days.

    • Kateri says:

      Urgh! a little bit of a cautionary tale there, Irene–because if the seed catalogs are slow because of USPS, what about the seeds we order? I’ve seen a few indications on some seed sites that they’re already sold out of some of the most popular seeds, but maybe that’s a leftover from the onslaught of panic buying last year. In any case, maybe the next post should talk a little about seeds.

      Nice that you’re getting birdsong already. A clear indication that you’re well north of blizzard territory in the northeastern US! Happy almost spring.

  5. Teresa Woodland says:

    Kaishang is doing a report on Rachel Carson. He will be doing an exercise to get his classmates to think about how to protect birds, which they studied last year.

    • Kateri says:

      Glad the schools are getting kids thinking about this, Teresa! You make me realize that I should try including some special resource for kids in most of my posts. I’m going to start hunting for bird-related ones; there should be lots of those. But if you know of some good ones already, please do post links here! (Might be a little tedious, since to prevent spamming the Comments section is set up to allow only one link per post. But every little bit helps.)

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