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Green & Growing: Colorful winter birds love messy backyards

The flowers of 2021 are brown. Grey sticks and leaves seem like crumpled paper on the ground. From the kitchen window, it may look like a messy yard. But for robins, chickadees, finches, cardinals, juncos, and nuthatches, your yard may look like survival.

If you want to see first-hand how well birds love a dormant garden, visit the Meigs Point Nature Center at Hammonasset State Park in Madison. The Nature Center maintains extensive gardens for birds and pollinators, including a purple martin sanctuary. It is a major birding destination.

“We leave almost everything standing throughout the winter,” says Ranger Russ, manager of the center. “Some people say it looks messy and ask why we don’t clean it up. But to me, it looks like nature’s bird feeder.”

This approach to bird attraction, he explains, is closer to what nature intended.

“People find it easier to visualize a simple food chain, but birds are really part of a food web.”

Ranger Russ leads winter birding programs where, he says, visitors often observe more birds feeding on the ground than on the plants.

“People ask why they don’t see many birds landing on and eating from the seed heads,” he says, noting that finches and chickadees are exceptions. “It’s probably because more seeds are on the ground.”

Some may find birds’ hunt-and-peck food searches less attractive than the frenetic, colorful activity surrounding winter bird feeders. But in terms of food quality and diversity, bird feeders don’t take the place of native trees, shrubs, dead-head flowers, sticks, or logs.

Many birds need the protein they get from insect eggs, larvae, and chrysalises, all found in leaf litter, fallen sticks, and rotting logs. Birds also forage deep inside the branches of shrubs and trees, out of human sight. They seek weather protection among inner branches of evergreens such as white pines, arborvitae and spruce trees.

In a bird’s world, the backyard birdfeeder is only one element of the bigger picture. Some birds decide to overwinter here only if they find suitable winter habitats.

“There are many different factors that go into birds’ decision to overwinter over or not, but the availability of food is essential,” says Colchester resident Robert Tougias, author of “Birder on Berry Lane” (Charlesbridge, 2020) and a birding columnist for The Day. Tougias’ book explores bird habits month by month on his three-acre property.

Seeds are only part of the equation, he says.

“Abundant seed heads are key for species wintering here from the north, such as juncos. Seed heads are also important sustenance for the birds we enjoy seeing all winter long such as our non-migratory American goldfinch.”

But Tougias adds, “Homeowners are more likely to attract and retain birds if they have fruit-bearing trees and shrubs on their land.”

Tougias says that robins and northern mockingbirds often establish themselves around fruit sources.

“Less common species, such as the hermit thrush and even less frequently, the yellow-rump warbler, may linger on into the cold days of December when fruit, particularly bayberry, is available,” he suggests.

He lists the nomadic cedar waxwing, eastern bluebird, and the robin among birds that convert to a diet that includes fruit each winter.

According to a 2011 study by Susan Smith and Scott McWilliams at the University of Rhode Island, some of the best fruiting shrubs for migratory songbirds are arrowwood viburnum, pokeweed, Virginia creeper, highbush blueberry, bayberry and shadbush.

Also, see the National Audubon’s native plant finder for birds’ attraction by ZIP code:

As for those standing stalks that some people hesitate to leave, Tougias points out that when snow begins to accumulate, and the ground is covered, brown seed heads can be a lifeline for some species.

Don’t forget that the stalks of dormant plants have value to other wildlife. Some of next year’s bees and other pollinators are already overwintering inside hollow stems. They include elderberries, blackberries, raspberries, coneflowers, rattlesnake master, purple hyssop, Indiangrass, Joe Pye weed, bee balm and many others.

If you’re wondering whether to allow some dead-head flowers and grasses to stand, or some leaf litter, sticks, and logs to lay, remember the birds, and think of the bees. Go beyond the birdfeeder.

Kathy Connolly, a landscape designer from Old Saybrook, lets dead flowers and grasses stand through winter and spring at her home.



See the Xerces Society’s campaign by entering #LeavetheLeaves in a browser.

See the Leave Leaves Alone campaign:

Books about composting: Let it Rot by Stu Campbell, and The Complete Compost Gardening Guide by Barbara Pleasant and Deborah L. Martin.

For a wide selection of compost containers:

Consumer Reports mulching mower ratings:

“Leaves Are a Feast for Stream Life,” Dr. David Strayer, freshwater ecologist,

Tick protection with permethrin-treated clothing at The Day:

Rutgers University Fact Sheet on Nutrients in leaves:



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