WSJ: Save the Songbirds: Plant These Shrubs and Bushes

By Bart Ziegler — Sept. 13, 2017 2:03 p.m. ET — This autumn, cardinals and blue jays will snatch orange crab apples from twisted branches. Robins and catbirds will compete for plump, vermilion winterberries. And warblers will make entrees of waxy blue berries hanging from feathery junipers.

These are the lucky birds—those that find forage as temperatures drop. In recent decades, as development and agricultural clearing have eaten up fields and forests, the populations of some common songbirds have fallen dramatically. Purple finches, a dusky-rose habitué of backyard bird feeders, have declined by half over the past 50 years, while wood thrushes, famed for their flutelike tunes, are down by more than 60%, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey.

Conservationists, who once focused on preserving lands on which wildlife depends, have recently been advocating for residential yard plantings, too, said Tod Winston, manager of the Plants for Birds program at the National Audubon Society. “People have the power in suburban or urban areas to really have an impact on birds,’’ he said.

If you plant trees and shrubs now—when many are on sale, and cool wet weather helps them establish—even Northerners can enjoy fruits and berries this autumn, and help migrating birds as well as those that tough out the winter in place.

A chickadee, which doesn’t migrate, can lose up to 60% of its body fat during a moderately cold winter night as its metabolism works to stay warm, said Rhiannon Crain of the habitat network at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Some evergreens, such as dense, bushy cedars and thorny-leaved hollies, offer birds a twofer: berries as well as protection from weather and predators. And for us humans, evergreens give otherwise bare winter gardens aesthetic oomph.

Southerners have a role to play, too. Though temperatures stay mild in their states, their yards can give birds en route to Central or South America both shelter and berry buffets. “Many migratory birds go through areas that are developed,” Mr. Winston said, so their ability to find food can be compromised. The outcome can be grim. “A huge percentage don’t make it through migration,” Ms. Crain said.

‘‘A huge percentage of birds don’t make it through migration.’’

Bird-friendly plants that grow well in the South include American beautyberry, whose clusters of bright lavender-pink berries attract colorfully plumed finches, mellifluous thrashers and sparrow-like towhees; flowering dogwoods, whose delicate springtime blooms lead to fire-engine-red fruit favored by mockingbirds, bluebirds and others; and a viburnum called rusty blackhaw, whose dark blue berries satisfy many kinds of songbirds.

Wildlife groups advise growing native trees and shrubs that have evolved with the birds in a region. Mr. Winston called non-native species “junk food for birds” because their seeds or berries often deliver less nutritional value than native plants.

The websites of the Audubon Society, Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Wildlife Federation provide searchable databases of native plants suitable for each region to make avian guests feel at home.

The brilliant red, yellow or orange fruit of the winterberry—a deciduous holly at home in a wide range of climates—stands out against the bush’s bare branches. To ensure berries, plant male and female plants in proximity; the fruit feeds robins, bluebirds and mockingbirds well into winter.



Crabapple trees, famed for their spring display of pink or white blooms, bear colorful autumn fruit that woodpeckers, pine grosbeaks, cardinals and others feast on. Experts advise planting a variety with smallish fruit, such as Adirondack or Prairifire, to attract birds. Large apples won’t fit in their beaks.

Gray catbirds, towhees and bobwhite quails flock to the clusters of vibrant amethyst fruits on the American beautyberry bush. Though hardy throughout the Southeast, Texas and lower Midwest, these native shrubs can’t tolerate the Northern winters that Asian varieties can withstand.

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