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Gardening For The Birds
by Lorraine Flanigan
by Lorraine Flanigan


Lorraine Flanigan is a freelance garden writer living in Toronto.

She is contributing editor for's Gardening in Southern Ontario web site and her City Gardening column appears in Toronto's Town Crier newspaper.

May 13, 2001

For a second year, southern Ontario has experienced a long and mild fall and early winter. Not until nearly Christmas did the frosty gusts of winter howl through our gardens. Now the earth is too solid to plant even a last, diehard batch of tulips bulbs. Still, I can't bring myself to turn my back on the garden and open the pages of this year's seed catalogues. Instead, I wonder how the blue jays, cardinals and finches that sang in the garden over the summer will fare over the winter. Should I listen to our two cats, Pouncer and Smudge, and add a feeder or two, or is there enough growing in the garden to feed and shelter the birds that visit our backyard during the winter?
To survive, birds need three things: natural shelter, food and water, and protection from predators. The best natural shelter is a stand of evergreen trees and shrubs. It's a bird's best protection against wintry winds and temperatures. As for food and water, a wide variety of fruits, seeds and nuts will fuel a bird's requirement for energy and warmth. An unfrozen source of drinking water as well as bathing water also keeps them happy. Predators are a little more challenging to contend with, especially in our yard with two mighty feline hunters. Luckily, Smudge is content to explore the garden at the end of a leash, foiling most attempts at bird- napping. On the other hand, Pouncer is a menace to the ornithological world. One of the best tips I've heard is to keep household cats indoors early in the morning--the height of bird feeding time. Once the birds have finished breakfast, they head for shelter, much to Pouncer's dismay. 
When I look at the garden, I see plenty of places for birds to shelter. The three large junipers that edge the eastern side of the yard are favourites of robins and grosbeaks. The branches of these trees also make safe take-off and landing platforms for forays to my neighbour's feeders which hang a few feet away. 
One of the best evergreen trees for food, shelter and nesting, though, is nowhere to be found on either my yard or in neighbourhood gardens: that's the pine. Home to chickadees, robins, woodpeckers, blue jays and numerous songbirds, both white and red pines make great nesting and roosting sites. If you have a pine or two in your backyard, yours will be a popular haunt for these birds. If you don't, instead of putting your pine Christmas tree out at the roadside, place it in the garden where it can shelter both birds and tender shrubs like rhododendrons. 
Water is a scarce element in my garden. It's too much of an attraction for local racoons, so I keep water features to a minimum. But a heated birdbath or pan of water would keep birds flocking to the garden throughout the winter. As in the summer months, though, it's important to keep the water fresh with frequent cleaning.
Food is what keeps a bird's energy levels high, and high energy levels mean heat, and heat means warmth. Luckily, providing sources of food for birds is easy for a lazy gardener like me. Instead of tidying up the yard at the end of the fall season, I leave the seed heads of purple coneflowers for finches to munch, I tie back the climbing roses, but refrain from pruning or deadheading the last of the flowers, leaving the Vitamin-C rich rose hips for the birds, and I let the berry-laden porcelain vine ramble over the railings of the back porch. 
A wide variety of shrubs and vines provide lots of nourishment for wintering birds. Over 100 species of birds love to chow down on the white berries of the red-osier dogwood, a shrub that looks wonderful against white snow banks of winter. They also savour the flavour of the blue- black berries of Virginia creeper which last well into the winter, as well as the red fruits of cotoneaster. The berries of high-bush cranberry, pyracantha, privet, serviceberry, viburnum, and bayberry also provide a feast for hungry birds. 
Now, there's no reason why birds shouldn't usher in the new Millennium just as we do, by imbibing some finely fermented fruit. Apples are the fruit of choice for the discriminating bird. Luckily, rotting apples are usually plentiful, and as the cold winter nights advance, the juices of frozen windfall apples reach alcoholic proportions. This New Year's Eve, if you hear a raucous chorus of tipsy tweets, you may have unwittingly provided a source of entertainment for the feathered friends in your garden. 

Lorraine Flanigan
Freelance Garden Writer
Suite101 Contributing Editor, Gardening in Southern Ontario

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