Roots and Shoots: My Yard From a Bird’s Eye View

By Pamela Doan

In theory, the website YardMap.org is an insightful and useful tool for inventorying and evaluating a defined area like your home yard for bird-friendliness. I had a frustrating time trying to make it work for my yard, though. It uses Google map views, and when you live in the woods, the Google view is mainly treetops. While that effort didn’t pan out, the site still makes for an insightful experience into what birds need and how to create a bird-friendly habitat.

Stephen Kress, the author of The Audubon Society Guide to Attracting Birds, opened a presentation at a conference I attended last spring by saying, “Since when did we create a welfare society for birds?” His point was that the common approach to taking care of birds is putting up a bird feeder in the lawn. The same lawn that takes up an average of 60 percent of the space of American homes and is essentially a sterile environment for birds, wildlife and insects. The bird feeder doesn’t make up for the loss of habitat and natural sources of food.

Birds are diverse and so are their needs. In addition to food, birds need areas to nest and breed and a water source. Food can come from berries, seeds, nuts and insects. Nests and shelter can be in the ground, in tree cavities, on branches and also those cute little houses for sale in specialty shops or built in your garage.

Seed and nut feeders in winter can help birds survive when food is scarce. (Photo by P. Doan)

Seed and nut feeders in winter can help birds survive when food is scarce. (Photo by P. Doan)

When I inventoried my yard using YardMap’s outline, I was pleasantly surprised to find that there are a lot of features that are working and can be enhanced with a few easy steps. I could identify 11 features that serve birds, including a snag, forest, a pond, a stream, a garden, fields, rock walls and a compost pile. Some of the areas that I thought were messes that needed to be cleaned up, like a huge pile of logs and brush that the former owners threw into the woods, are actually good for birds and wildlife.

Downed trees left to rot provide nesting areas and forage for birds. According to YardMap, the male ruffed grouse uses hollow logs to drum and impress a potential mate. Brush piles attract insects for birds and make perfect nesting and hangout spaces for cardinals and other birds. A rock wall, and we have miles and miles of these around Philipstown, has nooks and crannies for birds, wildlife and snakes. Not only is a compost pile good for the environment in many ways, it’s also a source of worms for birds. Each of these features can be put together using materials that are readily available in the landscape. Voilà! A new perspective on the yard.

I haven’t conscientiously set out to landscape for birds, but I do try to choose native plants. When I inventoried the plant life in my yard, I discovered the trees and plants were more diverse than I realized. Although the woods are predominately sugar maples, I made a not-so-bad list with oaks, black birch, hazelnut, ash trees, several white pines and seven other types of evergreens. The white pines shed cones with seeds that birds love.

On the flowering and fruit-bearing list, there are pear, crabapple, blueberry, shadbush, and wild raspberry, among others. Birds will find meals from all of these. Shadbush, or downy serviceberry, is a native understory tree that is hard to find in our local forests these days. It’s been crowded out by invasive species, including Japanese barberry, and browsed by deer that wouldn’t normally eat it but forage on whatever they can find. It’s worth planting and can take imperfect conditions and some shade. It flowers in spring and can be planted closer to a house since it doesn’t get as tall as hardwoods.

Virginia creeper grows wild everywhere around here and can be invasive, crowding out other plants. It looks great at this time of year, though, with red foliage, and 35 species of birds will eat its blue berries through the winter. I battle to keep it out of some areas, but let it grow freely along the roadside.

Another vine, wild grapes, makes thick nesting sites for birds and are eaten by more than 50 birds. While it can be a nuisance when the thick, woody vines swing from tall trees, letting a thicket remain is good for both birds and wildlife.

Even though my experience with YardMap wasn’t successful in drawing an actual map, the resources on the site are valuable to any home gardener. The Native Plant Center in Valhalla maintains a list of bird-friendly plants on their website, too, for a more comprehensive overview.


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