Monday, March 24, 2014

Gardening Green: The Birds and the Bees Want In



            Nature is more interested in us than ever. As we take more and more of the natural environment for our own use, the birds and the bees and the butterflies (or at least their human advocates) are trying to persuade us to share our space with them.
            This is the message from one of those advocates, Mass Audubon, who made the case for "Bird Gardening" at the Gardening Green Expos held in Scituate, Mass., last weekend.


           Birds, it seems to me, can make a good case for our sharing the world with them. Long ago our relative positions were reversed, and while I'm not sure birds made a conscious decision not to eliminate all our ancestors, I'm still grateful they didn't.
            Birds descended from dinosaurs during in the Age of Reptiles. According to the PBS website on the evolution of birds, "several hundred million years ago, huge and often terrifying new life forms, Pterosaurs, or flying dinosaurs, took the ascendancy.".... Around 150 million years ago, these flying dinosaurs converted into the much more aerodynamic, feathered creature humans know as the bird.
            While mammal ancestry goes back to roughly the same period, our antecedents were less dramatic. The first mammals began to appear during the Triassic Period, good times for dinosaurs, which began some 250 million years ago. But these first mammals were tiny, shrew-like mammals, probably seeking to hide underfoot.
            To sum up the comparative relation between our ancestries: birds big and scary. Mammals small and mousey. When big scary birds were ruling the roost, little furry mammals were meat. Human beings didn't emerge in their present form until -- depending on where you draw the line -- about a couple hundred thousand years ago. Increasing size, erect posture, bigger brains, tool use, and ultimately firearms changed the relationship. Now we're the hunter and the duck is dinner.
            Ask the passenger pigeon how dangerous we can be. Their North American number went from virtually uncountable (estimated in the billions) to nothing in less than a century after human beings began thinking of them as a food resource and a sporting option.
            Today when we observe birds at our feeders, shrubs and trees we notice them move their heads continually side to side. Brother Hawk may be at the top of their watch list, but we're there too.
            According to the Mass Audubon, what we need to build a "bird garden" in our yards is food, water, and shelter. As for food, their instructional pamphlet advises, "consider native plants that birds have been feeding on for hundreds of years." Certain bird and plant species have grown up together in a given niche, so the birds know how to get their "best" nutrition from these.
            The native species they recommend for us to grow include the Eastern Red Cedar (a branch of the juniper family) tree and shrubs such as the red dogwood, a viburnum called the High Bush Cranberry, Red Chokeberry, Highbush Blueberry, Sweet Pepperbush, American Elderberry, Winterberry and Inkberry (two Ilex varieties), the Sweespire (Itea), and spicebush.
            Some of these are unfamiliar to me and I wish we had the space to try grow them. We have dogwood, several varieties of viburnum (one of which produces a a dark purple berry that attracts birds in winter), a few tall blueberry plants the birds get more from than we do, and a small Itea still having growing pains. While we don't have an elderberry, we have a mulberry tree that produces lots of berries and draws a lot of bird activity in June. Elderberries have more calories than mulberries, which is probably why they get the nutrition nod for birds.
            Audubon also recommends honeysuckle and trumpet vine. We don't have them and I didn't know they were native.
            Recommended perennials include coneflower (Echinacea), bee balm, lobelia, tickseed (Coreopsis), goldenrod, butterfly weed, joe pye weed and blazing star (Liatris).
            We've got the coneflower, bee balm, lobelia, tickseed coreopsis, and liatris.
            I'm putting the others on my list; all good late season bloomers. I looked for butterfly weed (Asclepias) last year without success.
            Birds also need a water source, for which I have no plans whatsoever (I'm hoping a neighbor's swimming pool will do), and shelter from elements and predators, for which they recommend small trees and shrubs. I think ours like most yards does better on the shelter department. For winter, at least, the combination of an overgrown rhododendron and a nearby bird feeder seems to do the trick.
            As for butterflies, they're welcome too but their needs are even more complicated. I'm still thinking them over.