Gardening for Birds with Linnea Rowse

May 15, 2020

MSU Extension Cabin Fever Conversations featuring Gardening for Birds with Linnea Rowse.

Cabin Fever Conversations help connect you to your garden and fellow gardeners, even when we are stuck inside during the long Michigan winters. Each weekly session featured a conversation to help get your mind outside and into the garden, highlighting the passion and wisdom of featured speakers.

More resources and recordings to other sessions are available on the Cabin Fever Conversations website.

Video Transcript

Hi everybody. My name is Isabel and I am the consumer horticulture educator with MSU Extension and Ingham County. And today we have Linnea Rowse with us to talk about gardening for birds or to support birds. And Linnea is the Conservation Program Coordinator with Michigan Audubon and Linnea, We're really excited to have you here today to talk about birds. I know we've all been saying that a lot of the spring migrating birds are back, and so we're really happy to have you here. So yeah, I want to start off by asking, so when did your enthusiasm for birds start? [Linnea] Yeah, so I think my endeavour for birds really got going when I was a kid. My mom and dad are both into birds and my mom would take my sister and I birding as part of our local Audubon chapter fundraiser (...) We did that a few times when I was a kid. That kind of got my general interest going on birds. And I think what really kind of got me into birds even more so was when I was an undergraduate in college I studied abroad in New Zealand and I really developed an appreciation for the local birds there for their uniqueness and their place in the different ecological niches in New Zealand. And then I came back and got into the North American birds as well. [Isabel} that's really cool. And So yesterday we talked a little bit about with you, we wanted you to answer the question about "what is your favorite bird?" and you suggested asking you, "what is your spark bird?" I think the interpretation of "a spark bird" is something that kind of like ignited your passion for birds. So what is your spark bird? [Linnea] Yeah, yeah, thing for offering and a hard, very hard for me to pick favorites. So I think spark bird is another question. I think my spark bird is the Chestnut-sided warbler, because in one of my earliest fieldwork jobs after college I was doing bird related work, but the chestnut-sided warbler, I was able to identify by its song alone, without seeing it for the first time. And so it really kind of got me going and made me very excited about birds and bird education. [Abby] I think it's always that one where you like realized that you finally learned something and you're like " oh, I can't do this". It's just sometimes takes that first moment of realization to encourage further study. So, so could you tell us a little bit about why you think birds are important, particularly in the context home gardeners and things like that. And I know you have a PowerPoint to share with us, [Linnea] yeah, let me go ahead and do that. Okay. Yeah. So I think birds are really important because they're an indicator of environmental health. Birds are an indicator of how well ecosystems are functioning. And they're also a very visible set of animals. So anyone can see birds , anyone can listen to them. And that really contributes to our knowledge about what's going on in the world. And I think right now it's, it's more important than ever to help birds because since 1970, we lost nearly 3 billion birds, which is a huge loss. That's a loss of almost one in four birds, about 29%. And most populations aren't in a steady decline, which is something that we should all be very concerned about. The number one threat to those birds. And a big reason why they're declining is habitat loss or degradation. So whether that's on the breeding grounds or on the wintering grounds during the migratory journey, bird's are losing habitat throughout their life cycle. So oftentimes we think about habitat conservation happening at preserves or set aside natural areas, but birds are really using the same spaces that we as people are using in our communities. So we really need and should do what we can to preserve and enhance what we have left. But also create more habitat when and where we can, and a lot of that can actually happen in our own yards, and gardens. [Isabel] So for home gardeners, or gardeners of any type, what is one way.. What is a way that they can support birds? And I think I'm kind of curious if you could kind of dive in a little bit into bird biology. And so what sort of things they need and when and how us as gardeners can kind of think about those things and try and support them in our landscapes. Yeah, so I think I'll start with habitat, [Linnea] because habitat is so important for birds. It is the space that they live in And in our urban areas, and even in our rural areas, we've taken most of the landscape. We've taken most of the habitat and we really need to find ways for birth to use it. So mowed lawns, even if your's isn't as large as this one, they can really act as deserts in terms of habitat and food resources. Luckily, it doesn't have to be that way. And even just the corner of your yard can make a difference. Birds are especially vulnerable, as I mentioned before, during their spring and fall migration. Many birds fly south for the winter from Michigan and other northern climates. They need warmer areas to survive the winter. They need food resources. Some of them eat insects, which as you might know, we don't really have so many insects here in Michigan in the winter. And so when they're returning from that long heading south for the winter, returning the spring from Central or South America, that's when they really need some habitat especially. Habitat, it really consists of three main things for a safe and healthy habitat. And those three things are water, structure, and food. So water can be as simple as a bird that maybe a small landscape pond in your yard. For structure, trees are really the most important for migratory birds. Especially native trees like oaks, shrubs, and perennials are really great for covered and berries, seeds, nectar, and all of those are components of a complete habitat. So when we talk about food for birds, insects are one of the most important food sources, whether it's caterpillars, spiders, beetles, etc. and I just want to point out that 96% of North American song birds feed their young insects, especially caterpillars. Caterpillars and insects are very high in protein, very easy for baby birds to eat, and pretty astounding to me. But one pair of chickadee needs 5000 to 9000 caterpillars to raise one brood or one set of nestlings over just a few weeks when they're in that nesting period. So that's important to think about, like where are those chickadees going to find that many caterpillars? [Abby] That's a lot of caterpillars. I know caterpillars and different insects have becomes a food source for humans to in recent years, but 5 thousand to 9 thousand, I can't even imagine. So knowing this, what can gardeners do to support our bird populations? And one of the things that was interesting from your previous slide has, I think it's reiterative of things we've talked about in previous weeks. And interesting how these habitats can double for supporting a lot of different types of biology and wildlife and other players in our ecosystem. But what can, what could like an individual gardener I do to support a bird population? [Linnea] Yeah, definitely to start, We do have a couple of booklets available but are free to download from our website, And these can help you select which native plants you might want to plant. We can also the second book and also helps you lay out a pleasing and effective design for a native garden in your yard. So those are available just for reference. And really the most important place to start with gardening, something that you can do to help birds is using native plants. And going back to the idea with insects. Those chickadees needing 5 thousand to 9 thousand caterpillars to feed their babies. Many insects have specialized relationships with the host plant and they're unable to survive on non-native plants. So for example, we can think about monarchs needing milkweed, zebra Swallowtail butterflies needing a pawpaw tree. And as shown on my slide here, compare native and non-native plant a tree to common street trees, oaks and ginkos. Native plants have been here for a very long time, long enough to develop those very close specialized relationships with our caterpillars and other insects. And studies have shown, that on the native oak trees, many, many species of caterpillars are found there. And that's where those, those chickadees are going to find their food versus on an ornamental from Asia, not native to North America, not adapted over many thousands of years with our native caterpillars and insects. It's not supporting very many. Most of our insects can't consume non-native plants. That's why those native plants are so important. and if birds eat insects, let's think about this here, plants are really the foundation of the ecosystem. They're the only organisms that can capture the sun's energy and turn it into food for animals. Vast majority of those animals eating enough plants are insects which are then eaten by many other animals like birds. So a world without insects really is a world without birds. [Isabel] So are there any sort of specific supportive plant types that are your favorite or that you would like to suggest or just to talk about today? [Linnea] Yeah. Yeah. I'll talk about just a few different suggestions to provide sort of an array of different foods for birds. And it's important to provide that array because different species like humming birds and butterflies (which aren't birds...), they used the nectar moreso And other birds like sparrows maybe feeding on seed. Fruit eaters like cat birds are red eyed vireos are eating berries. And so different plants produce flowers, fruit, and seed also at different times during the season. So some suggestions for berry producing plants in the summer could be service very maybe late summer. Talking about blueberries, raspberries, elderberries... some species that you might think are weeds, they're great for the birds during the fall and winter, some berry producing species that produce their fruit at that time year.. spicebush, dogwood species and viburnums are great in the fall and in the winter, those trees or shrubs that have fruits that hold onto their fruits are really important for species like cedar wax wings So you need those that stay over winter here. Some flowers that I like to suggest, you know, any kind of native wildflower that has either, is seed producing like purple coneflower, gold finches love that, monarda, goldenrod, different asters coreopsis. Lots of birds will eat the seeds directly from the flowers. And then of course, many of the flowers also produce nectar or pollen, which our insects are eating. Grasses... Some of the ones I like are the little or big bluestem, maybe not so much for a small yard patch but prairie dropseed is a great plant kind of grows and small bunches. Indian grass is another tall one. Sometimes there are some great sedges as well for yard gardens and for species like hummingbirds that really need nectar, think about bell shape and size too. So hummingbirds have this long, narrow bill that fits into these tubular flowers. So for hummingbirds, things like cardinal flower are great, Columbine, penstemon, phlox, butterfly milkweed, bergamot, lupine and the key here and with any of the plants that you're thinking about using is again, it's really important to use native plants. Avoid cultivars if possible many of those cultivars may not produce nectar and definitely do not use plants or scenes that had been treated with insecticide, like neonicotinoid. Those are very harmful to insects and to birds indirectly. Thinking about hummingbirds too they're drinking a lot of nectar. But hummingbirds actually eat insects as well. They feed insects to their young. [Isabel] Hey, Linnea, I have a question sort of about bird biology and maybe it'll relate to this. So there are these specific associations between some birds and flowers shape. Same thing with like some insects and flower shapes. Could you dive into that a little bit more because I'm curious about bird beaks. [Linnea] Well, I think we can think about the hummingbird, its a great example because have the long bill. It's great for drinking nectar from flowers that have a long structure. The flower developed that over time as a way to kind of specialize with either a nectar drinking insect or a bird. Other birds like sparrows and grosbeaks have more conical shaped bills. And so those are really great for cracking feeds. And if you think about a woodpecker there bill is really shaped for pecking into wood, into trees to find insects in the trees. And the woodpeckers have a very long time for once they get into a tree, they can seek out those insects which is really cool. [Abby] I kind of love that vision of plants developing in cohesion with other species, right? It's kind of that like side-by-side evolution of, of both of them developing in ways to support the other populations. That inevitably helps, helps up, continue as well. [Linnea] I think part of that too, with pollinator going to seek out nectar or pollen from a plant. That plant is really trying to reproduce and spread its pollen to other plants in the same species versus some of the insect and plant specializations that I mentioned earlier. Like with monarchs and milkweed... milkweed plant is toxic to many other, many other insects. But the Monarch caterpillar has developed in concert with that plant. The plants producing the chemicals of defense because the plant doesn't want to get eaten. And the Monarch caterpillar was able to develop right alongside it and continue to eat that plant. but that means that those monarch caterpillars can't eat other plants because they are so specialized. [Abby] Very interesting. Yeah, so I think right before you left we were trying to tease out what are some "no-no"s in the garden or practices gardeners may currently be using that are not supportive to (birds). [Linnea] I think I might have mentioned this before, but I think one of the biggest things is to make sure that when you purchase plants seedlings even if they're new... when you purchase plants evenings your seeds to make sure that they're not treated with a pesticide. neonicotinoids is one that I mentioned and that's a systemic pesticide. So it's going to be in that plant impacting insects and birds indirectly, who maybe eating the seeds or eating the insects later on. So that's, that's a really key thing. And I think I had up on my PowerPoint as well about leaving your garden at the end of the season. So leave your leaves and save the seeds. And that's really important because some of those insects, which are really important bird food as we talked about before. They might overwinter in hollow stems or they might be in the leaf litter. And so those are both important for the insects themselves, for overwinter survival, but also as bird food. [Abby] You missed a really fun couple of minutes where I tried to pronounce that word. [Isabel] So then we chose our favorite birds. [Linnea] We can call them "neo nics" for short. [Abby] Neo nics. I can say that. Okay, I have your PowerPoint up here. I know we just have a couple slides left, but when it's in a little bit of a different format, but I think it should work. Okay, so let me just share my screen real quick. Alright! So you were talking about saving your seeds and leaving your leaves. We lost your video, but I think you're so, [Linnea] whoops, hang on, I'm still here. A thank you to all the participants because technology issues are something that we just cannot predict. And I really appreciate you all hanging there waiting for me to come back. [Isabel] Yeah. Thank you, everybody. [Abby] Okay. So just let me know when you want to go to the next slide. [Linnea] Yeah, let's, let's I think I think that's it for what I wanted to say there. So I think maybe we're on the next question. Yeah. So kind of to wrap up what I was saying, too is that our birds are, are birds are really facing many threats. As I mentioned at the beginning, we've lost nearly 1 in 4 for birds in the past 50 years or so, since 1970. But we can really help in our own backyards, especially if we re-imagine those yards, backyards, front yards to provide safe, healthy, native habitat for birds throughout the year, including all of those components of food, water, shelter, and I think we can do a lot with our own yards. We just need to all work together as part of building this overall ecosystem within our communities. [Abby] Yeah, so I think the next question that we wanted to follow that up with was, What are some birds that folks can be looking for right now? Particularly, I know we have a little bit of a wider audience than Michigan, but a Michigan specifically the exciting parts we could be looking for. [Linnea] Yes. So right now we're in the peak of spring migration. So many of our birds that were gone for the winter or the South, they're returning. And that's really exciting. Just this morning. A lot of birds fly with weather fronts. So if there's a south wind overnight, many parts are coming north. So this morning I heard an indigo bunting outside. I heard an ovenbird singing. And I'm really excited about the spring migrants that are coming back because many of them have beautiful songs, they're bright, there's flashy colors. I get very excited about Warblers went they're coming back and some of the other birds that you can see right now too would be grosbeaks, tanagers, verios, Lots of hawks have been moving through, shore birds. So lots of exciting things just to kinda get outside and listen. And it can be in your own backyard, especially during this time period. [Isabel] So are we ready to go into some questions from the audience? [Linnea] I think so, yeah. All right. [Isabel] So there's been a few that came in. I'm just wondering about maybe the benefits of if there are any benefits to bird feeders and bird houses? [Linnea] Yeah, there definitely are. Bird feeders are excellent, So long as you take care of them. it's important to clean them regularly because there can be a buildup of bacteria or different diseases over time, so it's important to keep them clean and dry. And bird seed is It's helpful for birds, especially during the winter time, but it can also be a great supplement the rest of the time of year. It's a great time of year right now to put up hummingbird feeders with the sugar water mix. And the ratio should be one to four sugar to water. And without any dyes. the red dye in hummingbird nectar that sometimes the solvus or it is not necessary and it's actually harmful to the birds. And it's important to consider too, with bird feeder placement. Collisions with windows in homes and buildings is really a big issue for bird populations causing bird deaths. And if you are able to place your bird feeder is at least 30 feet away from windows. That's really great. And bird houses, since most people think of bird houses like bluebird boxes or a wren box, which may have a smaller, smaller hole. Those are really important because a lot of our cavity nesting birds, like bluebirds, they may not have enough natural cavities to find out there. So having those houses is really helpful. [Abby] I feel like I'm going to go upstairs and move my bird feeder. We have a really nice one in front of our window that's lovely for viewing, but definitely have had a couple collisions. The other thing that you mentioned was bird baths. When you are talking about kind of the multiple types of support that birds need in your yard. Wondering if you can make some suggestions on how to incorporate bird baths. [Linnea] Yeah, I think that could be as flexible as getting a bird bath you might find in a store and just putting in your garden space. Sometimes it's helpful to have a rock or a different perch across it so the birds can access the water a little bit easier, maybe not through slippery slide down the slope of the edge of the bird bath. Ponds are a great way. When I was a kid, my parents put in a, a pond in our yard. It's probably about four foot across. Landscapes it with native plants around the edges and some rocks and sticks so that the birds could get right down to the water. Interestingly enough, there were several years where a pair of mallards would come and float in the pond for a day. And then they will go and find some actually other habitat to use. The pond was, a little too small for them. So there's lots of different people can do with bird feeders or bird baths. [Abby] There were a couple questions that came in particularly related to the pesticides on plant seeds. Wondering how to know if the seeds that folks are using are coated in that pesticide. If you could provide some ideas on how to read labels for that and whether or not it's a it's included on seed labels. [Linnea] Yeah, that's a really tough question. The best thing that people can do is to ask where they're purchasing it. And even if an employee, for example, at a large, larger store, larger nursery, may not know. It's always important to ask. And to communicate to the store and to the employees that you only want to purchase plants that are not treated with a pesticide or an insecticide. I think some plant labels have it on there that they are pesticide free, but it's not, it's not standardized, it's not universal. Another thing people can do in Michigan, Audibon does have a list of some local native plant nurseries in the nearby area. We have it on our website so you can find a local native plant nursery or seed producer. And then you can feel a lot more confident about what you're purchasing. [Isabel} Great. And yeah, we will include those resources in the follow-up email. So another question we got was about the the relationship between birds and windows and let people can do about that. So birds, I think, often run into windows. So what people can do to help prevent that? [Linnea] Yeah, collisions with window, it's up there in one of the top five reasons that bird populations are declining, because impacts with wndows is a major issue. Every household in North America on average kills one to two birds per year, which doesn't sound like a lot, but think about the millions of households that we have in, in the US. And it's an issue worldwide as well. So some of the things that you can do at home, To prevent collisions... Births are essentially seeing reflections and they might try to fly into what they perceive as open space. They don't perceive windows the same way that people do. So they can't see the edges and think there's a window there, I shouldn't five-year their window tape or bird friendly window tape is a great solution. It's sort of semi-clear tape that can be placed some windows two to four inches apart so that birds aren't flying through a gap they perceived was too small for them. There's many other ideas about preventing window collisions, again, on our website too, and for feeding birds, again, putting your feeder as far away from the windows is very helpful. [Abby] Yeah, I think that's a great tip. I was hoping you would tell me that I don't have to clean my windows, saying that the dirty windows would be some sort of prevention. That would be my excuse. [Linnea] There's actually been a lot of creative solutions that people have done to using the, the chalk marker is you can do that. All of this should be done on the outside of the window too. Because if you do the inside, that reflection still there on the outside. So there's lots of different solutions that people have done. [Abby] Cool! I think we might do one more question. Do you have one Isabel? [Isabel} Yeah, I think we're probably going to ask to same one, What about sort of problem birds? Are there any sort of birds around that aren't super beneficial, and what to do about them or how to identify them or who they are. [Abby] I would just add, maybe add something to that question of like this. Sometimes birds can be good birds, but maybe like an problematic areas, you know, they're in the eaves of your house... So maybe like how to navigate that human/bird relationship in beneficial ways. [Linnea] Yeah, that's, that's a good question. So there are two birds that come to mind immediately, and those are the European starling and the house sparrow, which is also from Europe. To identify those I suggest that people visit a birding resource like all about, so you can really learn what they look like. Both those species are very common in cities, in towns, and in agricultural areas. They hang out in at farms as well. So they're kind of widespread, both starlings and house sparrows are cavity nesters. So they will use boxes like bluebird boxes. And they can be a really big issue because they're very aggressive towards other bird species. They can actually kill adult tree swallows, adult blue birds, purple martens. So a lot of our bird species that are struggling, they are really impacted by these non-native invasive species that are not from North America. So some of the things that can be done for those. They can be trapped and removed because they are not a protected species. They're harmful to our native species here in the US. They can be excluded in some cases. So for example, with purple martin colony housing or gourds and entrance could be modified to prevent starlings from entering because they're a little bit larger of a bird. And I guess to answer the other part of your question too, where there might be conflicts with birds nesting on house eaves are beams. Sometimes maybe Phoebe or Robin will nest where you don't want them to. And unfortunately, that's where we kind of have to give the bird a little bit of slack because those native species, they are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. We want to protect them because our bird populations are in decline. And the good news is that those nests, once they're there, there'll be out there in just a couple of weeks. Birds are very quick with their nesting process. And, and so if you are able to share those spaces, that's really wonderful. If you're unable to I suggest putting up something that would prevent the birds from wanting to nest there in the first place. [Abby}Preventative measures rather than removing. That was a nice, friendly two-week roommate. A house guest, if you will. Well, I think we're running short on time, but we do like to end every session asking the speaker what is bringing you joy and hope and inspiration and relation to birds. And I know you've thought about this, so yeah, [Linnea] so I think what brings me the most inspiration is that birds really are resilient. So the resiliency of bird brings me hope, brings me joy. Seeing birds come back on migration brings me joy of course too. But really that resiliency and knowing that people and our communities, we can have a positive impact on birds, both in our yards on a local scale, but also broad scale. So some of the couple of examples that come to mind back in the 19 fifties to 19 seventies, roughly, DDT was an insecticide that was widely used and it really, really harmed Bald Eagle populations. and other raptors like Osprey. But because of legislation and conservation actions, those species recovered and they're doing really well. Now another example that comes to mind is a lot of waterfowl species were in decline, mostly because of habitat loss. And we've really turned that around through wetland protections and restoration of wetlands and those ducks and geese and herons, and egrets, and all the other sorts of water birds that use those habitats are doing much better. So we can do a lot of conservation action that has really good positive impacts because birds are resilient. [Linnea] [Linnea] [Abby] That's awesome. I think one of the things, when we see big numbers like 2.9 million. I can feel a little bit like overwhelming and hopeless. Doomed... So what did you say? [Linnea] 2.9 BILLION. Sorry. Yeah. Yeah. And that's a net loss too. That is taking into account, you know, birds reproduce, they produce more young every year. Some birds die every year. But that net loss, sort of like at the bottom of your bank statement where he had some income and you have some expenses. Net loss of 2.9 billion birds. It's just astounding, [Abby] Yeah, but at the same time, some of the things that you were highlighting of just the power of some of these both small and big changes to the way we manage environments in our yards have the ability to have a big impact there. And so it's, it's nice to think of some of the things you can do on an individual basis can help that collective number? [Linnea] Yes, definitely. And it's really wonderful this time of year, maybe in the past month or so, if you can go for a walk in the woods at your local park, it's spring, ephemeral time, while it's little wildflowers to just so beautiful. And I love walking to neighborhoods and seeing native plants where people have set aside a corner of the yard, in some cases the whole yard, but doesn't have to be the whole thing. [Isabel] I think just do what you can, right? Be mindful of it. Yeah. So we're going to end our conversation today. Linea. Thank you so much for being a guest. Thanks for powering through the technical issues. Thanks everyone out there with us yet again, always hard to predict and I'm glad it worked out. So everybody joining us here today, please join us next week we're going to have Abby Palmer, one of our colleagues from MSU Extension up in the UP, she's going to be with us talking about engaging youth in the garden. So maybe some families out there with some children who are wanting to get out in the garden and get everybody involved. I think this'll be a great one for you and for anybody else. So please join us next week. Thank you so much. Again, it's been learned about birds. [Linnea} Thanks for having me today.

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