A long-time summer resident recently asked by writing to me via the High Timber Times if I would write an article on how she could attract birds to the yard of her summer cabin near Hangen Ranch.
This is a subject that can’t be properly covered in an article of the usual length for it must cover feeding supplemental food, and planting native shrubs and non-native shrubs that will bear food that attracts birds. She does not say what her property is like: open, forested or creekside, or whether she has a flower or vegetable garden.
When we moved to Evergreen, the first thing we did was put up feeders to offer birds food. I have black-oil sunflower seeds and white proso millet out regularly. They come in 40-pound bags and are much cheaper than buying the mixed food. They also are the primary ingredients in wild bird mix. Other than these two basic seeds, I use chunks of beef suet and/or bird pudding, especially in cold weather when they need the extra fat to keep warm. I also have one peanut feeder, which has a heavy outer cage to keep the jays from wasting the peanuts.
If this reader is planning major landscaping of her whole yard, she will want to plant shrubs and/or trees and flowers that will attract birds. Native shrubs are far better than most horticultural varieties that often can become problems in some way. I refrain from introducing anything, either plant or animal, because they frequently become serious problems, and many even are banned by law in various states.
The trouble is that native shrubs are hard to find because few nurseries grow them. Most of the ones I have, I dug on private land with permission from the owner. My favorite one is a red-stemmed hawthorn, Crataegus erythropoda. This shrub or small tree produces blackish-red fruit that birds like and has white aphids on it all summer. It also has forked stems that produce good nesting sites.
The one I have, I salvaged from the blade of a road scraper. I was out birding early one morning. There had been a real gully-washer of a rainstorm during the night, and the road crew was shoving washed out mud, grasses and shrubs off the road into a pile where most of it would die.
I noticed a twig of hawthorn on one of the scraper blade, and asked the driver if I could have it. I think he thought I was a bit crazy, but he agreed. I first planted it where I thought a hawthorn would look go, but it was beyond the reach of my hose and it nearly died.
So then I dug it up and moved it where the downspout from the carport roof would water it whenever it rained. It is a forked small tree now, maybe 10 feet high and has many red berries and white aphids on it in summer. This attracts so many birds that the berries seldom stay on the tree long enough to turn the deep blackish color they eventually reach. The leaves turn red, orange and yellow in late summer, and usually fall with the first snow.
My second choice of a good shrub for birds is the chokecherry, Padus virginiana. The common chokecherry produces clusters of sweet-scented white flowers in early summer and eventually dark, almost black berries in late summer. However, they are so popular with the birds that I practically never see a ripe berry.
The evening grosbeaks bring their young to eat the green berries, and many other birds follow them. The trouble with chokecherries is they are not a particularly graceful shrub. It grows from 3 to 8 feet high and sends up new shoots from underground runners. Due to this, it soon forms the thickety cluster of shrubs that birds like. Pruning helps to make it send up more shoots, and it grows easily here on my dry hillside with no supplemental water.
Severiceberry or shadbush, also blooms in early spring and has deep red, almost black berries. It can grow into a big shrub about 15 feet high. It usually grows along creek banks and would probably do better with a bit of water. Our native serviceberry is Amelanchier utaensis and a much better shaped shrub than the eastern species.
There are other honeysuckles, snowberries, viburnums and elderberries that are native and produce berries for birds, but beware of Tartarian honeysuckle, which is non-native and listed on the Colorado weed list. I have one that I planted years ago before it was illegal, and I suppose I will have to take it out now for they have become troublesome weeds. They come up wherever the birds drop the seeds and grow remarkably well without much water, but do not supply forked branches to hold bird nests.
Our Boulder raspberry and thimbleberry are almost a must for any landscaping here. They both have lovely white flowers borne on arching branches and are a beautiful edition to any landscaping. The Boulder raspberry has the larger flowers of the two, and it also has dry seedy fruit, which humans find inedible but birds love. Many are planted around the Hiwan Homestead that are worth a trip in early summer to see.
There are many other plants I could recommend, but I am out of time and space. So, Judy, when you come to Evergreen for the summer, please call me, and I’ll be able to give you some more help.
You must plant some columbine and other flowers for the hummingbirds. Have fun reshaping your yard and be sure to watch for short-eared owls at dusk in your area. I have seen them several times over the big meadows there.
Just of word of warning. Food also attracts bears and other animals, and anything you plant will be different and eaten by the elk and deer. It is almost impossible to grow anything here without fencing to protect it. Good luck, and thank you for your letter.