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Food for birds

10/30/02 12:00AM By Henry Homeyer
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Commentator Henry Homeyer has some tips on plants that attract birds to your yard.

On a cold, raw day recently I put out the bird feeder. Thick gray clouds were spitting at me as I hung it off the deck. I may be the last in my neighborhood to start feeding the birds, but my plants have been feeding them for weeks.

That's right, although I believe in self sufficiency, I've given the birds a little help by planting bird-friendly trees and shrubs. This year I planted a shrub that is used by many birds for food and cover, and by a few for nesting. It's the American Elder. Elders in the wild tend to grow in wet places, growing 8 to 12 feet tall, forming large clumps that bloom in June and display juicy clusters of deep purple berries in September. It's a scruffy plant, unkempt as an unmade bed, so I put it at some distance from the house, down by my stream. Some 35 species of bird feast on elder berries, including thrashers, thrushes and bluebirds.

White Pines and Canadian Hemlocks are important trees for many birds. They're great protection from the cold north wind, an important factor in bird survival during harsh winters. Hemlock seeds are a favorite food for crossbills, goldfinches and siskins. White pine seeds are the preferred food for 20 species of birds including cardinals, grosbeaks and juncos. Both pines and hemlocks are the first home for many baby birds, and would be worth planting even if they didn't provide food.

I also recognize the wild things birds like, and try not to yank them out, even if they aren't my favorite plants. Wild grapes, for example, are a pest in my mind. They climb up handsome trees, occasionally strangling them as they reach for light. But they're also great bird feeders, with nearly 60 species chowing down on them. I know they like domestic grapes, too, as some wayward birds stripped my vines this year- the day before I was to pick the grapes for jelly. Grapes are a favorite food for piliated woodpeckers, scarlet tanagers and some warblers, among others.

Wild brambles fall in the same category: a pest to people, a boon to birds. In addition to feeding nearly 50 species of birds, they're used as safe nesting sites for indigo buntings, fly catchers and cardinals.

Roses, on the other hand, can please both you and the birds. Some 20 species feed on rose hips, which are good winter food. Rugosa roses are amongst the toughest of roses, even growing on the sandy beaches of Cape Cod. The ruffed grouse, bobwhite and ring-necked pheasants will eat not only the hips, but nip at the buds earlier in the season. And the hips are very high in vitamin C. So if the birds eat them, you can stop worrying about your birds getting scurvy.

This is the gardening guy, Henry Homeyer, in Cornish Flat, New Hampshire.

Henry Homeyer is an author, columnist and gardening consultant.
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