A Weston For the Birds

By Nancy Fleming From the Weston Land Trust Newsletter
February, 2000
On morning in late December I had a soul-satisfying experience when I observed the beauty of a number of crows in acrobatic flight near the top of the highest white pine in the woods behind our house. "Our" Eastern goshawk was back. As he perched on top of the white pine, the crows were doing a dive-bombing dance, souring 20 feet above him and then free-falling. The goshawk is about two feet in height, quite king-sized compared to the largest of our blackbirds, the ubiquitous crow. With an old growth forest behind our house, we're fortunate to have hollow trees with rotted heartwood, irregular stumps of trees felled by nature's storms, half-rotted logs of all sizes, and many living trees with holes serving as homes and shelter for birds, squirrels, and other mammals living in an interconnected ecological pyramid.
Winter Tree Without Leaves
At Ogilvies just before the holidays, bags of birdseed were "flying" out of the store, clear evidence that Weston residents value little winged creatures. Many of the birds that stick around for the winter are basically insectivores who will eat seeds, fruits, and suet in the fall and winter because they cannot find a meal of insects. By providing water, shelter from rain, sun, and wind, and nesting places with thick cover from enemies, we can attract birds to our properties to keep insect populations in balance.

Native Americans used to hollow out gourds to provide homes for purple martins, which today, as then, devour hoards of mosquitoes (although now they prefer those little white birdhouses). Swallows and purple martins not only eat flying insects but also ants, spiders, and caterpillars. Mockingbirds eat weed seeds and ground pests, including cinch bug. Fickers eat large quantities of insects, especially ants. About two-thirds of the diet of the tufted titmouse is caterpillars and wasps. Nuthatches and woodpeckers locate and extract insects, egg cases, and moths in considerable numbers from the bark of trees. Chickadees are always busy eating insects and insect eggs that escape the search of larger birds.

In Weston, manicured lawns have become increasingly common. In our era of affluent "neat-niks," the norm is to have a perfect lawn, achievable only with pesticide and herbicide applications. Young children, dogs, and cats play on these lawns, and robins and other ground feeding birds are exposed to dangerous chemicals. Please spend some time reading about effects of pesticides on our environment.

Even though birds seem to like old decayed trees better because of worms, insects, and holes for nesting places, birds have some favorite trees and shrubs. Many have "berry" in the name: hackberry, mulberry, chokeberry, blueberry, barberry, bayberry, red-berried and black-berried elder. In late February or March when pruning crabapple trees, I am often joined by a flock of robins, who companionably eat the soggy old fruit while I'm working right there in their territory. Mountain ash, birch, black cherry, plum, crab apple, spruce, pine, willow, spiraea, lilac, sumac, and honeysuckle also attract birds, as do vines such as grape and ivy. There are many viburnums, both native and introduced, that serve as food for birds as well as having ornamental value in all seasons. Our natives, dogwood, spicebush, sassafras, and black tupelo develop fruit during the time when birds are migrating southward. Nature provides brilliant fall foliage coloring just as the fruit matures. In addition, the fruits are rich in lipids (fat), utilized as fuel by the birds. Amazing!

Growing sunflowers in a sunny spot is a wonderful learning experience for children. Birds also love cosmos, marigold, aster, zinnia, and columbine.

Another trend in new Weston landscapes is extensive use of mulch in roadside planting beds. At the same time that we are worrying about the wooly adelgid attacking our native hemlocks, we are spending a fortune to apply hemlock mulch, our new status symbol. How many hemlock trees are destroyed to manufacture the mulch? Are we importing wooly adelgid larvae in hemlock mulch? Why not plant a native groundcover? Low bush blueberry, box huckleberry, bearberry, partridgeberry, pasture juniper, trailing arbutus, wintergreen, and many others are easy to establish. Match your sun/shade conditions to their requirements.

What fate has a bird who needs to make a quick get-away, seeking cover from an enemy, when the only available shrub is a tightly sheared yew. Another new trend in Weston landscapes is formal topiary instead of natural forms for evergreens. If a shrub is sheared, all new growth forms on the tips of sharp, still branches. Try running your hand over a sheared shrub. Ouch! The topiary is impenetrable to a bird in flight. In defense of landscaping personnel, many workers are forced by tight scheduling to prune by the fastest method, which is shearing by powered machine. Sometimes conifers are limbed-up to make lawn mowing easier. Have you ever watched ground feeding birds such as juncos? They need loose, low branches for a quick escape from danger. How lucky we are to live near the Arnold Arboretum, Mount Auburn Cemetery, Garden in the Woods, Elm Bank, Tower Hill Botanical Garden, and Massachusetts Audubon Society, where we can learn from observation as well as use the resources of their libraries and web sites. Let's made Weston "for the birds."