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Monday, January 18, 2016

For the birds

     I heard a wonderful talk last week by Claudia Thompson, founder and president of Grow Native Massachusetts. Claudia spoke at a meeting of the Temple Shalom Garden Club in Newton.

    Claudia’s topic was the importance of growing native plants in home gardens. She illustrated how she created a lovely native plant garden in her yard in Cambridge.

    By planting native trees, shrubs and perennials, Claudia created habitat for many native animals, from soil organisms to insects to an amazing number of bird species. Photos from her yard captured birds I never expected would frequent a city garden.

    After hearing Claudia’s talk, I’m fired with enthusiasm to provide habitat for native birds in my own yard. I walked around the garden considering what I’d done for the birds and what else I could be doing.

    Claudia listed basic bird needs: food, in the form of insects, seeds and fruits, water, shelter, and cover for nesting and foraging (more information is available on the group’s website, She provides all of these necessities in a small garden, for example she attracts flocks of beautiful cedar waxwings who feast on the spring fruit of a grove of amelanchier, a small tree commonly known as serviceberry, juneberry, shadblow or shadbush. I’ve seen cedar waxwings farther north in the Adirondacks, never in my garden.    

      Looking at my own yard through the lens of Claudia’s talk, I recognized that I do have trees and shrubs of varying heights, including evergreens, that allow birds to flit safely from perch to perch. Two birdbaths are located near cover so that birds can feel safe. 

Birdbath beneath a thistle seed feeder

I’ve got quite a few native plants that provide food for birds, from towering conifers to low-growing native perennials. I even have two amelanchiers that produce the garden’s first tree fruit of the year in June.

     A knowledgeable birder, Claudia recognizes the call of the cedar waxwings when they arrive to check out her trees. I can’t identify them by ear, and I don’t spend enough time in that corner of the garden to spot them if they did come. The amelanchier berries disappear quickly. It’s possible that flocks of hungry waxwings are swooping in undetected. That’s not a completely satisfying thought. I wish I’d planted the trees within view of the house, as Claudia did.

      An area where I need improvement is my leaf litter management. Claudia reported that fall leaves lying on the ground, which I’ve been chopping in my leaf shredder for mulch, harbor insects and snails that play important roles in the garden ecosystem, including providing food for birds. She recommended letting the leaves alone to decompose in place.

      Whole leaves blow around, and in front of the house that’s a problem for my neighbors, who work to keep their lawns leaf-free in winter. To meet the neighborhood standard, I’ll need to keep raking and chopping leaves that drop in the front yard.

Leaves blow around if left on ground cover beds in front of the house

In back, though, I’m convinced I should try Claudia’s system, raking leaves off the lawn but letting them lie unchopped on the beds, even near the house.

Coral bells (Heuchera 'Montrose Ruby') under fallen leaves this winter
Then I want to find out more about native plant communities—and learn some bird calls.

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