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Gardening That Draws In The Birds

While leading a bird watching tour in northern India the famed British ornithologist, David Bassil Hunt, was killed by a Bengal tiger. This fate is highly unlikely to befall those “birding” along the Connecticut coast, but why risk it? In fact, it’s not absolutely necessary to leave the safety and comfort of your own property to enjoy the benefits of bird watching. Backyard birding is meditative, inexpensive, and best of all—no tigers.

Some enthusiasts go to great pains creating gardens that attract the most coveted bird species. But gardening for birds requires considerable work, planting and maintaining vegetation that provides them food and shelter. It can also be expensive.

There is another approach: non-gardening for birds.

Non-gardening has a wealth of benefits. It cuts down on pollution from sprays and fertilizer, while reducing noise and air pollution from motorized equipment. It also saves money. Perhaps its greatest benefit is more time to sit on the patio—and watch birds.

The basic skill to learn is how is to do nothing. Let a patch of lawn grow wild, into a wildflower and weed field. The dandelions, clover, plantains, goldenrod and Joe-Pye weed that take root in this part of the state will soon bring birds in droves. Birds that scour the ground for food will love the security of extra cover. You may have to whack down the field once a year, ideally in early spring before flowering. If you live in a community that favors obsessively-groomed lawns, simply choose a patch that the landscape police and snooty neighbors can’t see.

A patch of lawn allowed to grow wild starting in April or May will be prime bird-cover by midsummer. If you have trees that bear small fruits such as cherries or berry bushes, forego picking. Also, forget also the spraying and pruning required to produce an edible crop. Let the tree grow naturally, and the birds will have at it. Just beware drunken birds; it is a fact that fermenting bacciferous plants can get birds boozed up. There’s a local story of birds lying on the ground under a mulberry tree, looking zonked. Unripe mulberries, it is said, are mildly hallucinogenic.

If non-gardening for bird watching interests you, don’t be too quick to remove a dead tree from your property. To birds, they’re like condos with a café in the lobby. “Dead trees are a really important part of any wildlife habitat,” says Glenn Dreyer, director of the Connecticut College Arboretum in New London. They crawl with insects that provide protein for birds. Wood ducks, woodpeckers and other species use holes and cavities in dead trees for nests. If you want to preserve wildlife habitat, there are only two reasons for cutting down a dead tree:

—It may fall on your house.
—It may fall on your neighbor’s house (which can be even worse)

Dreyer puts such importance on dead trees that he even has a couple on his own property. In life, they shaded his vegetable garden. But nature took its course, and both eventually died. Dreyer chose to have the dead trees lying down instead of standing, and two deep parallel cuts around the circumference with a chain saw did the trick. Of course, in doing even minimal work, he strayed somewhat from the tenets of non-gardening.

Those willing to do minimal non-gardening work can improve the bird friendliness of the backyard, no end. For example, a brush pile will bring in squadrons of birds naturally. Some people consider brush piles eyesores, but birds and other wildlife see heaps of tops from downed trees and trimmed branches as the best of cover. If you are a titmouse on the run from a Cooper’s hawk, the brush pile is the ultimate safe house. However, when it comes to brush piles, safety is relative. In this region, they occasionally attract unwelcome wildlife, including venomous snakes. Along Coastal Connecticut, the only venomous species one is likely to encounter is the northern copperhead. The endangered timber rattlesnake has a stronghold in Glastonbury and Marlborough—not far off, but isn’t likely to show up along the shore.

Whether or not a brush pile harbors anything unpleasant, it’s never a good idea to heedlessly poke one’s hand or foot into the tangle. If you happen to have wild brush, pile the heaviest branches, perhaps weighted by a log or two, on the bottom. Toss on a few rocks as well, to anchor the pile. Stack branches with cut ends towards the ground. Throw a few larger branches on top to keep the pile in place. Then, throw a handful of weed plants on the pile. Chances are they will sprout in the spring, and dress up the mess with additional cover and bird chow.

Though I am a UCONN-certified master gardener, I generally opt for non-gardening when it comes to birds. True, I planted a flowerbed with stuff in it that qualifies as “bird friendly.” But formal, it is not—better to call it “eclectic.” It’s just a hodge-podge of plants that I like, and that were available at the time. Disorderly, perhaps, but it draws birds (and butterflies) in droves.

If I were allowed only one flower in a non-garden garden, it would be red bee balm. There is no better plant, to my mind, for attracting hummingbirds (and those lovely butterflies). The main reason I favor red bee balm is that it practically transplants itself, and virtually the only maintenance required is pruning to prevent it from taking over the entire landscape. It is marvelously tough, although difficult to dislodge once it takes root. It favors acidic soil, which is abundant in Coastal Connecticut. Most garden shops sell it too.

Along with its purplish, wild native relative, red bee balm is also naturalized and grows in moist woods along the coast. If you take bee balm from the forest, don’t bother carefully extracting it from the soil and protecting the roots. You do not have to prepare the ground for transplanting. Simply dig you fingers into the ground around a patch, yank it out, and stick it in a shallow hole where you want it to grow. Tamp it down and soak the plant (and the ground around it) with water. Keep it moist for a few days. If you transplant in spring, it will flower opulently by summer.

For non-gardening inspiration, a good collection of native wildflowers, shrubs and trees can be seen at the main entrance of the Connecticut College Arboretum, west of the Williams Street gate in New London. Then, just let a patch of your backyard go wild, and wait for the birds.

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