Birds, bees and butterflies

Tue, 01/05/2010 - 2:03pm
By: The Citizen

By Jane King
Master Gardener, Fayette County

Do your friends talk about the number of hummingbirds they have in their yards? Do you love the colors of the butterflies in your own yard and want to see more? Do your tomatoes and pepper plants not produce as much as you would like? It may be because you do not have enough pollinators--birds, bees, and butterflies-- in your garden.

According to National Wildlife, three-quarters of the world’s flowering plant species depend on animal pollinators to reproduce. The way pollination works is that the feathery body hairs of birds, bees, and butterflies pick up pollen in one flower as they feed. As they go from plant to plant, some pollen drops off. In order to attract these essential pollinators, you need to have four main conditions: water, cover, places for nesting, and food.

If you have a water feature of some kind—pond, waterfall or birdbath, you are on your way to attracting birds and butterflies. Birdbaths should have a wide enough edge so birds can land before entering the water. If your birdbath is metal or has a narrow lip, add flat smooth rocks to give the birds a perch. Adding sand to the bottom of a deeper birdbath also helps the birds balance as they drink and bathe. Butterflies “puddle” at certain times to absorb salts and minerals from the soil, and this also requires a little water. It could be as simple as a low place in the yard or a decorative dish placed in the sun.

Different birds prefer different kinds of cover. Various types of birds prefer either tall, medium, or small trees or perhaps a full bush. Native trees like yaupon holly, oak and hickory, and bushes such as elderberry and bottlebrush buckeye, are favorites of birds because they provide a natural habitat. Too much neatness discourages wildlife, so feel free to let plants merge together. For example, try grouping different colors of butterfly bushes and adding bee balm, Joe Pye weed and cypress vine to the mix. Voila! A butterfly haven!

Birds are creative in their choice of nesting materials. They use pine needles, dead leaves, grasses, twigs, and even vines. Hummingbirds utilize spider webs, weaving the silky strands into other material. Because some birds like to nest in dead trees, you should leave at least one per acre for bluebirds and woodpeckers. Carolina wrens like to nest in hanging plants such as Boston fern while house wrens will nest in anything—old boots, cans, baskets. Last year one built a nest in an empty ceramic pot near my house and raised 5 babies.

Birds and butterflies need food of different kinds in spring, summer, fall, and especially winter. For birds, there should be plants with flowers, berries, or seeds in all months of the year. For instance, maple trees provide buds and flowers in the spring and sap and seeds in the fall. Butterflies need plants for nectar and sustenance as adults, but they also need their host plant for egg-laying and for the larvae to eat, such as fennel, passion fruit vine, milkweed, and parsley

. Plant coneflower, sunflowers, and rubeckia for nectar early and seeds later. The yellow and gold of marigolds and coreopsis merge with the yellow, pink and orange of coral (native) honeysuckle and trumpet vines and the blue and purple berries of mahonia and beautyberry. Both native (Cornus florida) and Korean (Cornus kousa) dogwood have wonderful flowers in April and May followed by delicious, fat-filled berries in late summer and fall. In my garden this year, the Kousa dogwood was literally covered with thumb-sized berries, which the birds devoured in two weeks. A great December flower is camellia Sasanqua ‘Yuletide.’

Some birds that are easily seen in Fayetteville are the acrobatic American goldfinch, the secretive scarlet tanager, the backwards-jumping Eastern towhee, and the cardinals which neither migrate nor molt, allowing you to see their flash of red all year long.

The best time to observe birds is dawn and the next two hours. On the other hand, butterflies are cold-bloodied and have to have their wings warm before they can fly, so they are better seen in the middle of the day.

The good news is that anyone whether he or she lives in an apartment or a house can help plant for pollinators. You just have to do two things. Plant the sources of their food and avoid using pesticides. They do need cover and water as well, but water is easily provided and in Fayette County cover is abundant in almost everyone’s yard.

Here’s a shocking fact: “…more pesticides are used in urban areas today than in agricultural regions of the United States” National Wildlife, June/July, 2009.

As we enter late fall and early winter, you might join other gardeners in planning your 2010 garden with an eye to hosting those pollinators—birds, bees, and butterflies.

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