Welcome Nesting Birds!

By Barb Elliot, PhD

It’s spring, and once again I hear the songs of Northern Cardinals, Tufted Titmice, Mourning Doves, and House Finches as well as the drumming of Downy Woodpeckers and Red-bellied Woodpeckers.  These and other local birds are attracting mates and warning rival males to stay out of newly claimed nesting territories.  At least nine bird species have nested in my yard over the years. As I look back, I remember the joy of seeing birds raise and successfully fledge their young, the heartbreak when things don’t work out so well, and the things I learned along the way.

Male Red-bellied Woodpecker at his work, March, 2018. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

In early February, 2018, I noticed a male Red-bellied Woodpecker tapping near the top of a dead Black Cherry tree trunk in my yard.  I had left this snag because dead wood is scarce in our tidy landscapes but sorely needed for nesting, feeding, and resting places of birds and other wildlife. Several other woodpecker species – Downy, Hairy, Pileated, and Northern Flickers peck this tree and look under its peeling bark for grubs and other insects. Carolina Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches, and Brown Creepers also scour the bark for insect morsels. I was happy to see the Red-belly using this tree to start excavating a nesting cavity.

Male Red-belly joined by his mate. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

The Red-bellied Woodpecker worked day after day at this hole in all types of weather, and I was excited to see his progress.  At first he could just fit his head into the hole, but soon got half his body inside, then his tail. Finally he entered the cavity and looked out the hole.  He was joined by a female Red-belly, and they took turns at the work.  One would enter the hole, work inside, and call the mate. The mate then entered the cavity to gather small wood chips and sawdust in its bill and spit them out of the hole. Click here for a 2-minute video of this activity (better viewed on a large screen).

Male expelling sawdust and wood chips from the cavity. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.before flying off.

By early May, after more than three months, excavation stopped. In mid-May I saw the female enter with food in her mouth – the baby birds had hatched.  I could hardly wait for nestling Red-bellied Woodpeckers to peer out from the hole!  But alas, it was not to be.  A few days later, the Red-bellies called repeatedly near the nest, but never entered it again.  I understood their agitation when a pair of European Starlings exited the hole.  These invasive cavity nesters had taken over the hole and removed the baby woodpeckers.  Sadly, the Red-bellies’ nesting season was over.

European Starling peering out after taking over the Red-bellies’ nest cavity. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Other cavity nesters have been more successful in my yard. For species that don’t excavate their own cavities, I chose boxes with the dimensions recommended for Tufted

Tufted Titmouse eggs in one of my nesting boxes. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Titmice, Carolina Chickadee, and House Wren, but with entry holes small enough to exclude House Sparrows and European Starlings.  I monitor the nest boxes no more than once a week to minimize disturbing both nestlings and parents.

Tufted Titmouse nestlings. Notice one unhatched egg. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.




Over the years, I’ve planted a variety of locally native plants, especially trees and shrubs that support lots of leaf-eating insects, caterpillars in particular.  Ninety-six percent of terrestrial birds in North America feed only insects, spiders, and other arthropods to their young. Even hummingbirds add tiny insects and spiders to their babies’ diet.  Packing more protein than beef, caterpillars are the preferred insect food for feeding nestlings.  Since 90% of caterpillars and other leaf-eating insects specialize on one type or family of plants, I

House Wren with small caterpillar eyed by hungry baby. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

planted a diversity of native plants to host a diversity of insects.  According to University of Delaware professor Doug Tallamy, to raise a clutch of baby birds healthy enough to leave the nest, a pair of Carolina Chickadees must feed them between 6,000 and 9,000 caterpillars!



Carolina Chickadee eggs in another of my nestboxes. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.


Thanks to the native plants in my yard (see list of the 20 most valuable woody and perennial native plants) and the insects they support, Chickadees have successfully raised two broods of five to seven young each over the past 12 years. Tufted Titmice raised one set of five nestlings and House Wrens successfully raised at least eight broods of 5-6 birds each from my nesting boxes.  The importance of native plants to birds’ nesting success is emphasized by a recent 3-year

Carolina Chickadees almost ready to fledge. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

study of 200 suburban yards in the Washington, DC area.  Scientists from the University of Delaware and the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center tracked nesting Carolina Chickadees and found that residential yards dominated by nonnative plants did not provide enough insects for birds to raise their young.  Chickadees were successful in raising and fledging young only when at least 70 percent of the plants in a yard were native to the region.  Birds larger than chickadees, such as Red-bellied Woodpeckers, obviously need even more insects and thus a higher percentage of native plants. We should all strive to have more native plants in our yards.

American Robin nest in my Trumpet Honeysuckle vine. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Several cup-nesting bird species – American Robin, Northern Cardinal, Song Sparrow, and Mourning Dove – have also nested in my yard.  Robins nested in a vine, an evergreen tree, on top of a curved downspout, and on top of a wreath hung under my porch overhang.

American Robin nesting in the crook of a downspout. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.




These birds certainly need native plants to find sufficient insects to feed their young. However, they also require native trees, shrubs, and vines with dense branching and leaves to provide good structure for the nests and concealment from predators.

Mourning Dove nest in one of my Eastern Red Cedars (Juniperus virginiana). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

For example, several pairs of Song Sparrows and Mourning Doves have successfully nested in my Eastern Red Cedars (Juniperus virginiana). These evergreens are dense, hide nests well, are difficult for predators like raccoons to climb, and host more than 40 species of caterpillars.

song Sparrow nestlings in another of my Eastern Red Cedars (Juniperus virginiana). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

If you are trying to encourage birds to nest in your yard, here are some tips and lessons I have learned:

1. If you add a nesting box, do a little research to select a box with dimensions for the birds you want, and mount it at the suggested height.

House Wren parent with bug and hungry baby.  I added this hardware cloth predator guard after losing  a full set of nestlings to a predator that reached into the box.  © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

2. Nesting boxes with a predator guard of wood or hardware cloth will make it harder for predators like raccoons and squirrels to reach into the box. A baffle can be added below a box mounted on a pole or wood support.

3. Check a nest no more than once a week. Avoid checking nests when the young are close to fledging.  They may be startled into leaving the nest early and be more subject to predation.



House Wrens found many feathers to add to this nest, but the blue plastic strips on the left might entangle babies. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

4.  It’s better not to put out nesting material, as birds can find natural materials.  If you insist on providing something, do not put out yarn or hair longer than 2” to avoid entanglement.  Dryer lint, human hair or hair from dogs treated with flea/tick medications should not be used.

5. Check your yard for any plastic that birds may use as nesting material. A healthy baby Robin perished in a local nest when a plastic strip used in the nest wrapped around its leg and prevented it from flying from the nest.

Northern Cardinal nest in Barb’s Virginia Creeper on a trellis. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

6. If a baby bird without feathers is on the ground, return it to the nest. However, a baby bird on the ground that has feathers likely has parents nearby. Many newly fledged young spend time on the ground and are fed by parents for several days after leaving the nest.

7.Leave cats indoors year round to prevent killing of babies and adult birds.


8. Don’t use pesticides or herbicides. Birds and other wildlife in a healthy habitat will keep insects in balance.

9. Avoid trimming shrubs and trees during nesting season.

10. At the end of the season, clean out nesting boxes. This allows birds to use the box for roosting and cuts down on blowflies and other insect parasites that may prey on future nestlings.

Above all, enjoy the birds that visit and nest in your yard!  If you have (and keep adding) native plants, you can be assured that there will be enough food for them to successfully raise their young.

Native Vines for Beauty and Wildlife Value

 By Barb Elliot

Vines have a bad rap. Invasive non-native vines like Kudzu, Oriental Bittersweet, Japanese Honeysuckle, Porcelain Berry, and English Ivy grow up and over trees, often smothering whole forest edges.  By making them top-heavy, these vines can damage and pull down entire trees.  However, not all vines are bad actors.  Most locally native vines are attractive and well-behaved.  By providing food, shelter, and nesting places, they add high wildlife value to our habitat gardens.  I have three of these natives and I highly value the roles they play in my garden.

Trumpet Honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens

A female Ruby-throated Hummingbird visits Barb’s Trumpet Honeysuckle. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

With Trumpet (aka Coral) Honeysuckle in your yard, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds will visit – guaranteed!  This native honeysuckle is not at all like its unruly cousin, Japanese Honeysuckle. Handsome and well-behaved, this vine sports blue-green foliage and coral-red trumpet-shaped flowers.  It’s easy to grow in average, well-drained soils with medium moisture. A twining 10-15’ vine that needs a support, it is striking on a fence or trellis with its profusion of flowers.   It grows in shade, but flowers best in full sun.  Trumpet Honeysuckle begins blooming in April or May and blooms intermittently through summer and into the fall.  In autumn, birds eat the red berries.

Trumpet Honeysuckle alongside Barb’s deck. May 18, 2018.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Trumpet Honeysuckle provides food, shelter, and nesting locations.  One year, American Robins built a nest in one of my honeysuckle vines.  A vine growing close to my bird feeders provides shelter for birds escaping hawks and other predators. According to Doug Tallamy, this honeysuckle hosts up to 33 species of butterfly and/or moth caterpillars that eat its leaves.  Among them are two day-flying hummingbird look-alike moths. the Hummingbird Clearwing and Snowberry Clearwing.

The beautiful trumpet-like flowers of Trumpet Honeysuckle, showing their yellow inner parts. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Trumpet Honeysuckle is truly beloved by hummingbirds.  I love to sit on my deck and watch these flying jewels sip nectar from the long tubular flowers and even fight over the blossoms.  George Washington grew this vine at his Mount Vernon estate where it is still grown today.  In a 1785 diary entry, Washington described planting it around columns and along walls.  Perhaps he, too, enjoyed the hummingbirds that visited his Trumpet Honeysuckle.



Virginia Creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia

The handsome leaves of Virigina Creeper with their 5 leaflets each. Poison Ivy, circled on left, with its 3 leaflets per leaf. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Virginia Creeper, not to be confused with Poison Ivy, is a beneficial vine that’s entirely harmless to humans.  To differentiate the two plants, look at the leaves. Poison Ivy always has 3 leaflets per leaf,  but Virginia Creeper has 5 leaflets. Some young Virginia Creeper vines may have a few leaves with just 3 leaflets, but most leaves will have 5 leaflets.  The green leaves are handsome and in full sun turn bright red or purple in October.


A Virginia Creeper Sphinx moth caterpillar Barb found on her vine. Note the pointed “horn”, or tail, on left hind end – typical of caterpillars in the sphinx moth family. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Offering high wildlife value, Virginia Creeper hosts 32 species of caterpillars, including the striking Pandora Sphinx and Abbott’s Sphinx moth caterpillars.  These are my most sought after caterpillars, but I have yet to find either of them.  However, as a consolation, I’ve discovered several Virginia Creeper Sphinx moth caterpillars, which I raised to become beautiful adult moths.


A Gray Catbird eating Virginia Creeper berries. Note the berries’ red stems. Photo courtesy of and © Adrian Binns/WildlsideNatureTours.com. Click to enlarge.

In spring, the wildlife-friendly Virginia Creeper’s inconspicuous flowers attract bees and other small pollinators.  Thirty species of birds, including chickadees, woodpeckers, robins, catbirds, warblers, and bluebirdsrelish the dark blue berries in autumn.  Reddish fall foliage and the bright red stems of the berries lure the birds.  Small animals use this vine for cover, especially when it grows along the ground.  A few years ago, Northern Cardinals built a nest in the Virginia Creeper growing on my arbor.

A deciduous woody vine, Virginia Creeper is easy to grow in full sun to full shade in well-drained soil with average moisture.  It will climb brick or stone walls, trellises, arbors, fences, or large trees. One of my favorite ground covers, it will happily cover a stump or wood pile. Although a vigorous grower, climbing 30’ feet or more, it will not smother trees.  If it becomes unruly, it can easily be pulled down or cut off at the base where it will re-sprout.

Virgin’s Bower, Clematis virginiana

An Ailanthus Moth visiting Barb’s Virgin’s Bower. These moths visit both during the day and night. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Virgin’s Bower, a native clematis, is a superb plant for pollinators.   Its small white flowers have a pleasing, sweet fragrance and cover the foliage from mid-to late-August into September.  The flowers attract many pollinators, including butterflies, bumble and other native bees, plus interesting wasps and flies.  Intent on collecting nectar and pollen from the flowers, they are usually oblivious to my presence.

Virgin’s Bower blooming alongside Barb’s deck. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.


Predators like spiders and centipedes furtively wait to catchthe unsuspecting pollinators. I have spent hours, both day and night, watching the pollinators and dramas of nature play out on Virgin’s Bower.

Virgin’s Bower is very easy to grow in medium to wet well-drained soil in part shade to full sun.   Although I love this vine, it is not for the faint of heart. It is a vigorous grower, and if given support, will climb to 20’.  When growing along the ground. it can spread into a tangled

A nighttime visitor to Virgin’s Bower, Tobacco Budworm Heliothis virescen. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

mass.  The vines can take root where they touch the ground.  Seeds from its attractive seed heads are windblown, so new plants can pop up elsewhere in your yard.  But if you are diligent and keep this vine in check, you and many pollinators will be well-rewarded by your efforts.

Red=spotted Purple butterfly at Barb’s Virgin’s Bower. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.




Now is a good time to add these vines to your landscape.  If you have a small space, Trumpet Honeysuckle will work well.   For larger areas, try Virginia Creeper or Virgin’s Bower.  These vines will add texture and interest to your landscape. Pollinators, birds and other wildlife will thrive in your garden.

Go here for a list of local native plant retailers who are likely to sell these vines,

Prime Plants for Nature: Backyards for Nature 2018 Native Plant Awards


By Edie Parnum

Every year we feature two superior native plant species.  One of the Prime Plants for Nature is a Tree, Shrub, or Vine and the other is a Perennial.  Prime Plants are selected based on these criteria:

  1. Native to southeastern Pennsylvania.
  2. Offer high wildlife value and contribute significantly to your property’s web of life.
  3. Provide food for wildlife by producing nutritious fruits, seeds, nuts, nectar, or pollen. Most host insects that are eaten by birds or other animals.
  4. Offer shelter and places to raise young.
  5. Easy to grow and make an attractive addition to your landscape.
  6. Sold at native plant nurseries and native plant sales.

Our selections for the 2018 Prime Plants for Nature awards are:

Northern Spicebush, Lindera benzoin                                                          

Spicebush berries are relished by migrating birds. Photo credit: Missouri Plants. Click to enlarge.

Wildlife Value: In the fall this shrub produces high-lipid red berries that are valuable formigrating birds including Gray Catbird, American Robin, Hermit Thrush, and other thrushes. The foliage of Spicebush is food for the

Spicebush is the host of this Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly caterpillar.  In fact, this caterpillar species is entirely dependent on Spicebush and its close relative, Sassafras, for its sustenance. Spicebush is also a host plant for Eastern Tiger Swallowtail and Promethea Moth. The flowers are pollinated by small native bees, wasps, beetles, and flies.

Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly nectaring on Cardinal Flower. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Growing Conditions:  This fast-growing, disease-free shrub will thrive in a variety conditions from semi-sun to shade in average to moist soil.  Its natural habitat is the understory of moist woodlands or woodland edge. The leaves, twigs, and other plant parts are spicy when crushed, so deer don’t usually browse this shrub.

Spicebush showing fall foliage Photo: Sally Roth, FineGardening. Click to enlarge.

Appearance: The Spicebush is a multi-stemmed 6-12’ deciduous shrub. Its blossoms appear in early spring before the foliage emerges. Although the flowers are small, they create a nice show of yellow haze when little else is blooming. Because this shrub is dioecious, male and female flowers occur on separate plants, and the berries form from female flowers. The fall foliage is yellow.


Purple Coneflower, Echinacea purpurea 

Painted Lady butterfly nectaring on Purple Coneflower. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Wildlife Value: Purple Coneflower’s pollen and nectar are magnets for many bees and butterflies.  Bumble bees and short and long-tongued bees such as small carpenter, sweat, long-horned, digger, and mining bees plus long-horned beetles visit the flowers. Butterflies such as swallowtails, sulphurs, fritillaries, Red Admiral, American and Painted Ladies, Monarch, and skippers are attracted also.  Crab spiders may lurk in the flowerheads to capture both beneficial and pest insects.   A few moth caterpillars will eat the flowers and leaves including Blackberry Looper, Camouflaged Looper (adorns itself

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail nectaring on Purple Coneflower. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

with flower parts to avoid predators), Common Pug, and Sunflower Moth.  In late summer and fall the coneflowers’ seeds are eaten by American Goldfinch and other finches.

Cultivars of Purple Coneflower are frequently sold. When purchasing plants, if possible, choose straight native species. Some cultivars selected by breeders change the shape or color of the flowers and possibly reduce the amount of pollen and nectar. For instance, Purple Coneflower ‘Pink Double Delight’ with its double flowers is less attractive to pollinators.

Growing Conditions:   This trouble-free perennial grows in moist to average soil with sun or part sun.  It can survive heat and moderate draught drought conditions.  Because it prefers lean, poor soil, fertilizer and other amendments are not recommended. The parent plant produces seedlings that can be easily transplanted.  The roots of 3-4-year-old plants can be divided and transplanted, too. Normally, neither deer nor pests are a problem.

Appearance: Purple Coneflower with its pinkish-purple flowerheads is one of our prettiest native perennials.  It grows 3-4 feet tall on sturdy stems that do not require staking.  This perennial blooms from July-September.  Cutting back the spent flowers can extend the blooming period.

A Note of Caution:  Many retailers sell plants treated with pesticides containing neonicotenoids.  These long-lasting pesticides are absorbed into the entire plant.  Insects eating the pollen, nectar, leaves, or any plant part are poisoned. According to the National Wildlife Federation, neonics are “found in hundreds of products, including sprays, granules, tree injections and soil drenches (pesticides applied to the base of plants).”  To avoid neonics, “carefully read labels. Steer clear of products that contain imidacloprid, acetamiprid, dinotefuran, clothianidin or thiamethoxam.”  If it’s not apparent that plants are neonic-free, before you buy, ask the seller to verify that neither they nor their grower treat plants with neonics in any way, including growing them from neonic-coated seeds.  See https://www.nwf.org/Magazines/National-Wildlife/2018/Feb-Mar/Gardening/Nixing-Neonics


Remembering Nature Discovery Day

By Edie Parnum

For eight years I have been gardening for nature on my ¾-acre suburban property. My yard with its abundance of native plants teems with birds, butterflies, bees, beetles, moths, and other creatures both big and small.  On August 29 my property abounded with people, too.  I had invited nature-loving friends to enjoy my native plants and discover the creatures they support.

Edie explaining the wonders of pollination.  Photo © Mallary Johnson.  Click to enlarge.

Edie explaining the wonders of pollination. Photo © Mallary Johnson. Click to enlarge.

Cardinal Flower, Great Blue Lobelia, and Grass-leaved Goldenrod.  Photo © Mallary Johnson.  Click to enlarge.

Cardinal Flower, Great Blue Lobelia, and Grass-leaved Goldenrod. Photo © Mallary Johnson. Click to enlarge.

Some people came for just an hour, others stayed all day.  Most participated in one of the three guided yard tours.  The insect and pollinator walks were popular, too.  Kids enjoyed their own nature and insect events.  A sizable group drove to Barb Elliot’s nearby property and saw her pond and thriving native plant habitat.  Some truly nature-crazed individuals stayed after dark for moth night.

Unquestionably, the native plants were a hit. All the species were labeled for easy identification. Many of my favorite plants (Short-toothed Mountainmint, Grass-leafed Goldenrod, Upland Ironweed, Cardinal Flower, Great Blue Lobelia, Garden Phlox, Trumpet Vine, Trumpet Honeysuckle, Large-leafed Aster, and Sneezeweed) were in bloom. Berries on woody plants (Nannyberry and Blackhaw Viburnums, Flowering and Silky Dogwoods, Winterberry Holly, Black Chokeberry) and a vine (Virginia Creeper) were ripe and ready for the fall migrants.   (Click here for my complete yard plant list.)

Insects attracted notice and won new converts.  Many admired the Monarch and Black Swallowtail caterpillars.  The pollinators were active on the flowers.  We saw native bees (European Honey bees, too), wasps, flies, beetles, day-flying moths, as well as Ruby-throated Hummingbirds spreading pollen while feeding on the nectar.   Our entomologist, Dan Duran, PhD, identified a large blue-winged wasp (Scolia dubia) nectaring on mountainmint.  This wasp, a parasite on the larvae of Japanese Beetles, is now a favorite of mine.

The kids admire a slug with Debbie Beer.  Photo @ Mallary Johnson.  Click to enlarge.

The kids admire a slug with Debbie Beer. Photo @ Mallary Johnson. Click to enlarge.

The sharp-eyed kids on Debbie Beer’s nature walk saw a migrant American Redstart.  By turning over rocks and logs, they discovered slugs and other creepy-crawlies. They also found spiders (the wolf spider was popular), beetles, and a cicada shell—goodies the adults missed.

Vince Smith gave us a geology lesson.  My property is composed of Precambrian gneiss and schist, one of the oldest soils on the planet.  Because it’s well-drained, the Tulip Poplar, Black Gum, and various oaks I’ve planted will develop deep roots.   They should become massive trees and provide wildlife value for decades, perhaps centuries.

Hummiongbird Clearwing, a day-flying sphinx moth, on Garden Phlox. Photo © Tony Nastase.  Click to enlarge.

Hummingbird Clearwing, a day-flying sphinx moth, on Garden Phlox. Photo © Tony Nastase. Click to enlarge.

Usually I merely write about my yard’s plants and animals and post photos on the Backyards for Nature blog.  However, neither words nor pictures are enough.  Seeing the natural beauty of my yard and discovering the creatures living there is more powerful.

Many people told me they were inspired to create their own backyard ecosystems.  Others vowed a renewed commitment to enhance their developing habitats.

They said Nature Discovery Day was fun. I could see it on their smiling faces.

************************************ Special Note ********************************************** I will be selling my house in the spring of 2016. If you or anyone you know is interested in a property that’s alive with nature, contact me at edie@backyardsfornature.org

See additional Nature Discovery Day photos below.
The Double-banded Scoliid Wasp, Scloia bicincta, parasitizes beetle larvae.  Photo @ Link Davis.

The Double-banded Scoliid Wasp, Scolia bicincta, parasitizes beetle larvae. Photo @ Link Davis.  Click to enlarge.


Debbie Beer and the kids explore nature in the yard.  Photo © Mallary Johnson.  Click to enlarge.

Debbie Beer and the kids explore nature in the yard. Photo © Mallary Johnson. Click to enlarge.

Dan Duran shows a Monarch caterpillar.  © Tony Nastase. Click to enlarge.

Dan Duran shows a Monarch caterpillar. © Tony Nastase. Click to enlarge.

Monarch caterpillar © Tony Nastase.  Click to enlarge.

Monarch caterpillar © Tony Nastase. Click to enlarge.

Edie's shade garden. © Bonnie Witmer.  Click to enlarge.

Edie’s shade garden. © Bonnie Witmer. Click to enlarge.

Bumble bee on Garden Phlox.  © Bonnie Witmer.  Click to enlarge.

Bumble bee on Garden Phlox. © Bonnie Witmer. Click to enlarge.

Barb Elliot describes her pond to visitors.  Photo © Mallary Johnson.  Click to enlarge.

Barb Elliot describes her pond to visitors. Photo © Mallary Johnson. Click to enlarge.

Eastern Redbud seed pods.  © Bonnie Witmer.  Click to enlarge.

Eastern Redbud seed pods. © Bonnie Witmer. Click to enlarge.

Edie talks to guests attending Nature Discovery Day.  Photo © Mallary Johnson.  Click to enlarge.

Edie talks to guests attending Nature Discovery Day. Photo © Mallary Johnson. Click to enlarge.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail.  Photo © Bonnie Witmer.  Click to enlarge.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. Photo © Bonnie Witmer. Click to enlarge.

Vince Smith explains the geology of the property.   Photo © Mallary Johnson.  Click to enlarge.

Vince Smith explains the geology of the property. Photo © Mallary Johnson. Click to enlarge.

Ailanthus Webworm, a day-flying moth.  © Tony Nastase.  Click to enlarge.

Ailanthus Webworm, a day-flying moth. © Tony Nastase. Click to enlarge.

He's found something interesting.  Photo © Mallary Johnson.  click to enlarge.

He’s found something interesting. Photo © Mallary Johnson. Click to enlarge.

Bee carrying the white pollen of Upland Ironweed.  Photo © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Bee carrying the white pollen of Upland Ironweed. Photo © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Peck's Skipper.  Phitii © Tony Nastase.  Click to enlarge.

Peck’s Skipper. Photo © Tony Nastase. Click to enlarge.

Early instar of Black Swallowtail caterpillar.  Photo © Tony Nastase.  Click to enlarge.

Early instar of Black Swallowtail caterpillar. Photo © Tony Nastase. Click to enlarge.

Watching birds in the yard.  Photo © Mallary Johnson.  Click to enlarg.

Watching birds in the yard. Photo © Mallary Johnson. Click to enlarge.

Edie’s Garden—A Place to Discover Nature

By Barb Elliot

Wildlife is abundant in Edie’s yard.  She finds birds, butterflies, moths, dragonflies, bugs,

Monarch newly emerged and ready for release. Raised from eggs laid on Edie’s Butterfly Milkweed.  © Edie Parnum.  Click to enlarge.

Monarch newly emerged and ready for release. Raised from eggs laid on Edie’s Butterfly Milkweed. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

beetles, bees, wasps, flies, and more – creatures she loves – living among her native plants.

It wasn’t always this way.  I saw the yard when Edie moved to this ¾-acre property in 2007. It was mostly turf grass. Except for a few native trees (Black Cherry, Red Maple, White Pine), no native plants grew here. Consequently, we observed few birds—just an occasional robin or starling—no other wildlife.  She knew she could transform her lifeless property into a healthy habitat for wildlife by reducing the lawn and planting native plants. It could become a place where she could discover, learn, and enjoy nature.

To create a healthy ecosystem on her property she wanted to:

  • Plant a diversity and multitude of native plants
  • Offer conditions for birds and other creatures to thrive and reproduce
  • Provide year-round food sources, water, cover, and places to raise young for wildlife
  • Welcome lots of birds—certainly hummingbirds
  • Create a place of beauty where she could be immersed in nature
  • Learn the species of flora and fauna and how they interact and depend on each other
  • Leave a legacy of nature for future generations with long-lived trees and shrubs

Gradually, year by year, she has succeeded in creating this haven for wildlife.  Eight years later I see thousands of native plants.  They include perennials, grasses, vines, ferns, and woody plants, i.e. shrubs and trees.  She planted densely, letting the plants touch each other as they do in the wild.  Her canopy trees are young, but the oaks and others will be massively productive for wildlife for decades.  Eastern Redbud, Flowering Dogwood, and Shadbush are already filling the understory.  The mature shrubs like Spicebush, Elderberry, and several viburnum species are now luxuriant.  At the ground

Red Milkweed Beetles eat plants in the milkweed family.  The beetles are protected by the milkweed's toxins and the black and red colors. © Edie Parnum.  click to enlarge.

Red Milkweed Beetles eat plants in the milkweed family. The beetles are protected by the milkweed’s toxins and the black and red colors. © Edie Parnum. click to enlarge.

level perennials, vines, ferns, sedges, and grasses, are profuse. This diversity of plants offer nuts, seeds, berries, nectar, and pollen.  Even the foliage of the native plants is indirectly a source of food.  Insects eat the leaves and become food for birds and other creatures.

Birds now find what they need to live and thrive. They eat the fruits, nuts, seeds, and nectar produced by the yard’s native plants.  Resident and migrating birds eat the insects hosted by her native plants. For example, Carolina


Chickadees can locate the 6, 000-plus caterpillars required to feed their young.  Of course, no pesticides are ever used.

Edie has added other features for birds.  She installed nest boxes for cavity-nesting House Wrens and Tree Swallows.  She allows fallen leaves to lie in many places. Eastern Towhees and Brown Thrashers rummage in this leaf litter to find insects. Carolina Wrens

 Trumpet Honeysuckle, a well-behaved vine with hummingbird-attracting red tubular flowers.  © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Trumpet Honeysuckle, a well-behaved vine with hummingbird-attracting red tubular flowers. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

often locate their insect delicacies in the brush pile. On a snag (dead tree) woodpeckers, including a Pileated Woodpecker, forage for insects in the decaying wood. A Trumpet Vine grows on this snag and attracts hummingbirds seeking nectar from its flowers. A bird bath and small pond offer birds water. The bird feeders supply a small proportion of food needed by some of the birds. Many, many birds (106 species) love this yard.

Her meadow, in my opinion, is the crown jewel of her property.  It is chock full of colorful perennials and grasses.  Birds forage for seeds in late summer, fall, and winter. Numerous butterflies (30 species so far), bees, beetles, and other pollinators are active on flowers

Edie’s Meadow in late summer.  Flowers attract butterflies, moths, and other insect pollinators.  © Edie Parnum.  Click to enlarge.

Edie’s Meadow in late summer. Flowers attract butterflies, moths, and other insect pollinators. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

blooming from April through October.  Even at night the meadow is alive with moths, beetles, and other insects and spiders.  Aiming a flashlight into the dense meadow plants, she can see the tiny, shining eyes of moths and other insects.  Bumble bees, too, sleep on the flower heads, resting for the next day’s work.

Edie has created a paradise for herself as well as the creatures that call her yard home. With binoculars and camera, she frequently takes nature walks around the yard.  The birds, whether eating, preening, feeding young, are always interesting.  Mating foxes are less expected.  Mating Garter Snakes, too. Even

Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar on Sassafras, one of its host plants.© Edie Parnum.  Click to enlarge.

Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar on Sassafras, one of its host plants.© Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

better, she loves to discover a caterpillar eating leaves. When she locates other tiny creatures—bees, beetles, wasps, and others—she takes their photos.  At night she uses lights to attract moths.  She photographs these creatures, too.

Using the photos of insects, she can usually make identifications and then figure out their role in this ecosystem. What plants do they depend on?  What plants depend on them? What do they eat?  Who eats them?  Are they parasites?  Predators?

The possibilities for discovery are endless.  Mostly, she revels in success of the healthy ecosystem she has created.


Nature Discovery Day, August 29, 2015

Edie enjoys showing her garden with its native plants, birds, butterflies, moths and other creatures to nature-loving friends. On August 29th she will host Nature Discovery Day.  Throughout the day you can explore her yard, discover nature in action, and learn about habitat gardening. Guided walks for children and adults will be offered, too.  In the evening it’ll be Moth Night.

This event will be for a limited audience by invitation only. She’s inviting Backyards for Nature blog readers and their interested family and friends.  Save the date and watch for an invitation coming to you in late July or early August.

Looking for Nests

By Edie Parnum

Nests are hard to find.  Sure, it’s easy to see the House Wrens and Tree Swallows come and go from the nest boxes I have provided.  Most songbirds, however, build and raise

A House Wren about to feed a caterpillar to its young in Edie’s backyard.  Photo by Edie Parnum.

A House Wren about to feed a caterpillar to its young in Edie’s backyard. Photo by Edie Parnum.

their young in well-concealed cup nests.  Paying particular attention to the dense areas, I examine my trees and shrubs. I look, too, for lumps in the crotches of trees. I strain to see high in the canopy.  The breeding season is well underway, but I’ve found only two cup nests on my ¾-acre property.

Early this spring a female Robin built a nest out of grass, sticks, and mud in a dense holly below my raised deck.  I could look down and see her settled in the nest. Once I glimpsed four pale aqua eggs. Here was an opportunity to learn more about the nesting behaviors of the American Robin. From a comfortable but hidden vantage, I planned to observe the mother robin incubate her eggs, then watch both parents feed the nestlings.  Not so. One day the female and the eggs were gone.

Plenty of predators prowl around my yard.  A ravenous jay, crow, raccoon, possum, snake, or even chipmunk might have devoured the eggs and destroyed the nest. Last year Gray Catbirds screeched hysterically when a Blue Jay ate their eggs.

Besides the Robin’s, a Mourning Dove’s nest was high in my in my crabapple tree this spring.  While my nature-loving arborist was removing winter-damaged limbs, he exposed a flimsy nest with two eggs in the crevice of a broken branch.  He left it undisturbed.   From the ground I could glimpse a Mourning Dove’s eye peering at me from above the

My arborist found this Mourning Dove nest while removing winter-damaged limbs. Photo by Mark Masciangelo.

My arborist found this Mourning Dove nest while removing winter-damaged limbs. Photo by Mark Masciangelo.

limb.  Again, I hoped to watch and study the birds’ breeding routine.  After a few days of viewing the brooding dove, however, I could no longer see the bird nor any activity.  Why did the nest fail?  Perhaps the arborist’s intrusive activity caused delayed nest abandonment.  Of course, a predator could easily have seen and raided the exposed nest. Thankfully, both the doves and robins will nest again—successfully, I hope.

Besides searching for nests, I’m also watching for signs of breeding.  Catbirds, cardinals, house finches, song sparrows must be breeding here. Pairs of birds, singing loudly and persistently, cavort in my yard.  Some birds carry nest material.  Others have insects in their beaks. When they don’t eat the food, they’re carrying it to a nest—a sure sign of breeding. I hope to discover the nest where nestlings are being fed.

Though I have not seen it, I believe a pair of Brown Thrashers has a nest on my property.  Most suburban yards don’t host Brown Thrashers, especially not a breeding pair.  Thrashers like dense shrubbery, not the typical manicured landscape. With their bills they sweep and probe the ground searching for insects and spiders in last year’s fallen leaves. I was plenty pleased when a Brown Thrasher spent the winter in my yard.  This reddish-brown, jay-sized bird with a streaked belly stayed silent and sheltered in the arborvitae and other dense vegetation. Every few days I saw it stray from its hiding place and feed on exposed ground.  I assumed it would move on in the spring to breed elsewhere.

A Brown Thrasher feeds on the ground.  Photo by Howard Eskin.  Click to enlarge.

A Brown Thrasher feeds on the ground. Photo by Howard Eskin. Click to enlarge.

In mid-May, a Brown Thrasher, possibly the same bird, sang vociferously from the treetops.  Its loud doubled phrases are different from its close relative, the smaller Northern Mockingbird.  The purpose of the song is to attract a mate and defend a breeding territory.  Even so, I assumed my wintering bird (or new arrival) was just practicing and would not stay to breed here.  When the singing stopped a week later, I concluded it had departed.

To my surprise in late May and June I’ve occasionally glimpsed a soundless thrasher. Males and females are indistinguishable, but sporadically I have seen two birds together.  Could a pair be breeding after all? The thicket of forsythia and blackberries at the back of my property is perfect for thrashers. Every few days I spend a few minutes peering into the undergrowth and listening.   Once I saw it deep, deep inside the dense vegetation.  On another occasion I discerned a barely audible whisper version of the thrasher song. According to my research, thrashers are mostly silent during the nesting season but sing softly in the vicinity of a nest.

Surely thrashers have a nest in my shrubbery.  It is probably just a few feet off the ground, but hidden in the impenetrable thicket. My chances of discovering it are slim.  Because they consider me a potential predator, the birds probably engage in evasive behavior to lead me astray.  Undeterred, I keep looking and listening.

I need a vigilant, alert ornithology student to help find the nest. A sharp-eyed young person could spot the bug in the thrasher’s beak.  Together we could find the nest.  See the baby birds. Watch their parents put insects into gaping mouths.  Observe the naked babies grow pinfeathers followed by juvenile feathers.  We would thrill to witness them fledge and take flight into the world of my backyard.  Alas, without my student, I evidently can’t be a voyeur of birds’ private lives.

By searching for nests, I’ve learned more about helping breeding birds succeed. I’ll plant more dense shrubs where birds can build and protect their nests. These shrubs will be insect-hosting natives instead of the non-native forsythia. Already I do not tidy up the thickets and corners of the yard.  Thrashers and other ground-feeding birds require the leaf litter to feed themselves and their offspring. Next fall I’ll welcome leaves into the perennial beds, too. And, most important, I’ll grow more native plants where birds can find plentiful insects to feed their young.

In some ways I’m unable to help and must trust the birds’ own survival abilities.  Predators abound, but the birds possess skills to protect their nests, eggs, and nestlings.  Vigilant and ingenious, they know how to keep their nest locations secret.  Thankfully, when a nest fails, most are able to produce a second brood.

It’s summer now, and I see lots of baby birds around the yard.  The nests are somewhere nearby. Birds are breeding here successfully.


Prime Plants for Nature: Backyards for Nature 2014 Native Plant Awards

By Edie Parnum

Each year we select two native plants with exceptional ability to support wildlife. These plants will contribute significantly to the web of life in your yard. They host insects, offer nectar and pollen, and produce fruits, seeds, or nuts. Birds, butterflies, and other insects and animals will feed and prosper.  Most provide shelter and nesting places, too.  Our selections, all native to southeastern Pennsylvania, are easy to grow and readily available at native plant nurseries or native plant sales. Our Prime Plants make attractive additions to your landscape.  We offer awards in two categories: Trees and Shrubs and Perennials.

Our selections for the 2014 Prime Plants for Nature Awards are:

Eastern Red Cedar, Juniperus virginiana                                                     

Wildlife Value: This small evergreen tree is a powerhouse for nature.  Yellow-rumped

Cedar Waxwing Eating Cedar Cones.  Photo © Howard Eskin.

Cedar Waxwing Eating Cedar Cones. Photo © Howard Eskin. Click to enlarge.

Warbler, Eastern Bluebird, and Northern Mockingbird are among the 54 species of birds that eat its long-persisting berry-like cones during the cold months.  Cedar Waxwings areso-named because they’re fond of cedar cones. The foliage hosts the Juniper Hairstreak butterfly, a vulnerable species in Pennsylvania, and several species of moths such as the Curve-lined Angle.  Song Sparrows and other

Juniper Hairstreak.  Photo courtesy of  and © Scott Pippen.

Juniper Hairstreak. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Pippen. Click to enlarge.

birds use the dense foliage for nesting places and shelter. Don’t be tempted to buy the similar-looking Leyland Cypress, a non-native that offers little for wildlife.

Growing Conditions: The Eastern Red Cedar tolerates a wide variety of soils and dry to moist growing conditions.  It prefers a sunny spot. These trees are either male or female.  Only the female trees produce fruits, but you’ll also need a male for pollination.

Screech Owl in Barb's Eastern Red Cedar. Photo  © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Screech Owl in Barb’s Eastern Red Cedar. Photo © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

By planting at least three of these trees, you will enhance their wildlife value.    A row of cedars will provide dense shelter for birds. From the human perspective, the cedars can offer privacy. If planted on the north side of your house, they will create a windscreen.

Appearance: This evergreen has a pleasing conical shape.  It grows at a moderate rate (1-2 feet per year) and reaches 15-40 feet at maturity.

Eastern Red Cedar Trees.

Eastern Red Cedar Trees.







Short-toothed Mountain Mint, Pycnanthemum muticum

Wildlife Value: This perennial is a magnet for pollinators.  Butterflies, bees, wasps, and flies are attracted to the copious nectar and pollen this lovely plant produces.  Because it

Red-banded Haristreeak nectaring on Mountain Mint.  Photo © Edie parnum.  Click to enlarge.

Red-banded Hairstreak nectaring on Mountain Mint. Photo © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

flowers over a long period of time, it may host thousands of visits by pollinators each season.  With this plant in your yard, you can introduce children to pollination and teach them not to be afraid of bees and wasps.

Growing Conditions: Mountain Mint is a tough plant and will grow well in dry to moist soil in full to part-sun. Like other members of the mint family, it spreads but can easily be controlled, especially early in the growing season. It’s easy to transplant and share with other native plant gardeners.  This perennial is deer-resistant, too.

Appearance:  Mountain Mint grows to about 3-feet tall.  Although the numerous flowers are small and inconspicuous, the foliage is an attractive silvery grey.  The leaves complement other brightly colored flowers in the garden and in flower arrangements, too. This plant’s attractiveness is enhanced by the beautiful butterflies and other pollinating insects that visit.

Video © Barb Elliot.  Pollinators visiting Short-toothed Mountain Mint.  To see pollinator activity, click on symbol in lower right for full-screen view.   Then click play symbol in lower left.  May take several seconds to load.  Turn on speakers for audio.

Plant these and other Backyards for Nature Prime Plants, and nature will flourish abundantly in your yard.

Resolutions to Bring Nature to Your Yard in 2014

By Edie Parnum

Oh, no, you say.  I never make resolutions—too much self-denial and discipline.

Here are some resolutions that don’t require much work.  And, in fact, they’ll add pleasure to your life. Pick one of these to get started. Birds, butterflies, and other creatures will visit your yard.  Pick three, and you’ll see nature flourish abundantly–guaranteed.

  1. Plant a tree.  Adding a native (historically part of our local ecosystem and food web) tree is the single best contribution you can make to your property’s habitat.  It will offer more food, shelter, and nesting places than any other plant.  Besides providing seeds, fruits, or nuts directly to birds and other animals, the tree’s leaves host native insects.  Birds and other small animals eat native insects in
    White-Marked Tussock Moth caterpillar eats leaves of oaks, birches, cherries, and other trees.  Click to enlarge

    White-Marked Tussock Moth caterpillar eats leaves of oaks, birches, cherries, and other trees.

    large quantities. The small animals are prey to larger ones.  Thus, this native tree and its insects contribute enormously to fuel your yard’s ecosystem.  It’s easy and inexpensive to plant a sapling tree.  It will establish quickly, grow fast, and sustain wildlife for decades.  Surely you have room for one tree (small or large), perhaps several of them.  Native oaks offer the best wildlife value but check our website for other valuable native trees.

  2. Plant shrubs.  Requiring less space than a tree, they offer nearly as much value to a healthy habitat. Besides the nutritious fruits these woody plants produce, insects eat their leaves.  As with trees, these insects sustain birds and the other animals in the web of life.  Also, dense deciduous and evergreen shrubs provide
    Red Chokeberry’s fruits are eaten by thrushes, catbirds, and waxwings.  Click to enlarge.

    Red Chokeberry’s fruits are eaten by thrushes, catbirds, and waxwings.

    cover and places for nesting birds.  Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), Red and Black Chokeberry (Aronia sp.), Northern Bayberry (Morella pensylvanica), and various native dogwoods (Cornus sp.) and viburnums (Viburnum sp.) are excellent choices. Plant three or more of each species.  See our website for recommended shrubs.

  3. Plant perennials, not annuals.  Annual flowers are so much trouble to put in each year, fertilize, and keep watered.  Forget the bothersome begonias, impatiens, marigolds, coleus. petunias, and the like.  Native perennials will grow
    Hummingbirds, bees, butterflies, and other pollinators feed on Wild Bergamot’s nectar.  Click to enlarge.

    Hummingbirds, bees, butterflies, and other pollinators feed on Wild Bergamot’s nectar.

    and bloom beautifully for years without any extra care. My favorites are Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Summer Phlox (Phlox paniculata), New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angelae), Bee Balm (Monarda didyma), and Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum muticum), but there are many other beautiful native perennials. All provide nectar and pollen for bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. Like other native plants, they host native insects, too.

  4. Plant a vine.  If you want hummingbirds in your yard, plant a Trumpet Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) (not the invasive Japanese Honeysuckle, of course) or Trumpet Vine (Campsis radicans).  Virgin’s Bower (Clematis virginiana) is a magnet for bees, moths, and other pollinators.
  5. Plant groundcovers.  Minimize weeding.  Instead, cover the ground with native groundcovers like Allegheny Pachysandra (Pachysandra procumbens), Green and Gold (Chrysogonum virginianum), and Golden Ragwort (Packera aurea).
  6. Take out a patch of lawn.   It’s the most biologically deficient part of your yard—not much better than your driveway.  Every year decrease the size of your lawn
    Great-spangled Fritillary nectaring on False Sunflower.  Click to enlarge.

    Great-spangled Fritillary nectaring on False Sunflower.

    and keep only what you use for family activities, dog play, and other outdoor activities.  Instead of turf grass, plant any and all of the above: trees, shrubs, perennials, vines, groundcovers.

  7. Take out invasives.  Invasive plants spread aggressively and crowd out desirable native vegetation.  Yes, whether you cut, pull, or smother the invasives, it can be a lot of work.  Plus, if you leave the ground bare afterward, of course they’ll come back.  Immediately fill in the cleared area with native plants.
  8. Learn native plants.  You can attend botany walks at Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, and Tyler Arboretum.  Visit a botanical preserve where native plants are labeled such as Bowman’s Hill and Jenkins Arboretum. When buying plants at native plant nurseries like Redbud Nursery and Yellow Springs Farm, you’ll see labelled plants and learn growing tips from their knowledgeable staffs.  Use the internet photos and gardening information, too.
  9. Read a book.  I recommend Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants.  The author, Douglas Tallamy, professor and chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware, will inspire you to plant native plants and increase your determination to host native insects, birds, and butterflies in your yard.

    White-throated Sparrow, a common visitor in winter. Click to enlarge.

    White-throated Sparrow, a common visitor in winter.

  10. Walk around and enjoy nature in your yard frequently.  Take your binoculars to better see and learn about the birds, butterflies, and other creatures that live in your garden.  With a camera you can take photos of your plants and wildlife sightings.   You’ll be inspired to become more familiar with your own wildlife preserve. Spread your enthusiasm: take a child with you on your backyard adventures.

Personally I will do all ten of these—with pleasure.

If you’re a beginner to habitat gardening, pick one of these ideas to get started.  Perhaps you can tackle two or three this year, but don’t get overly ambitious.  Start planning now in the dead of winter. Time and money may be limited, but you can start small and keep improving your habitat each year.  Before long you’ll notice more insects including butterflies and moths, more birds, and, indeed, much more wildlife activity in your yard.

Do something for nature in 2014.


Native Berries for Fall Migrants

By Edie Parnum

Birds were dropping out of the sky into the trees and shrubs around me. It was daybreak on a fall morning in my backyard.  Though I could see only silhouettes, I recognized the chips of robins and Swainson’s Thrushes.  In the dim light I couldn’t identify the other numerous birds but knew these were migrants that had flown non-stop from the north during the night.

After their nighttime exertion, they were exhausted and ravenously hungry. They needed to find high-energy food and to revive in a habitat offering shelter from predators.  With most of the surrounding area covered with buildings, roads, parking

Cedar Waxwing eating Crabapple berries.  Courtesy of and © Howard Eskin.  Click to enlarge.

Cedar Waxwing eating Crabapple berries. Courtesy of and © Howard Eskin. Click to enlarge.

lots, and sterile lawns, they were desperate for sustenance.  From above, the migrants probably see the local parks as deceptively inviting, but the grass and other non-native vegetation provide little nutritious food.  Their energy depleted, these migrants need familiar and nourishing native plant food.  Otherwise they are in trouble.

Watching these migrants, I imagine myself on a road trip, one I’ve done many times.  After hours of driving, I’m hungry, tired, and low on gas.  I’m looking forward to Rosie’s Restaurant, a favorite stop for good food, gas, and a respite from the journey.  To my dismay, the restaurant and adjacent gas station are gone.  Wasting time and energy, I must drive around randomly to locate what I need before resuming my trip.

Migrants often find my yard and use it to rest and refuel.  During fall migration, especially after a cold front, I search for recent arrivals.  Sometimes I find thrushes, tanagers, grosbeaks, and warblers eating berries on the Virginia Creeper, Arrowwood Viburnum, Winterberry Holly, Spicebush, Black Chokeberry, Flowering Dogwood, Crabapple, and Northern Bayberry I’ve planted for them. One winter a southbound Hermit Thrush stayed in my yard all winter eating American Holly berries.

This fall I’ve been watching a Gray Catbird eating berries on the Virginia Creeper

Cape may Warbler eating Virginia Creeper berries.  Courtesy of and © G. Dewaghe.  Click to enlarge.

Cape may Warbler eating Virginia Creeper berries. Courtesy of and © G. Dewaghe. Click to enlarge.

hanging above my deck railing.  Because the bird is just a few feet away, I don’t really need my binoculars.  It lands on a branch, leans forward, grabs one of the blue-black berries, then quickly swallows—again and again, all day long.  Either a resident breeder soon to migrate or a recent arrival using my yard as a stopover, this bird needs these berries. Besides Gray Catbird I’ve seen Red-bellied Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Brown Thrasher, Cedar Waxwing, Eastern Bluebird, Swainson’s Thrush, American Robin, Cape May Warbler, and Yellow-rumped Warbler eating Virginia Creeper berries.

Prior to migration, songbirds must increase their weight by 50-100%.  Thrushes, grosbeaks, waxwings, orioles, tanagers, and other songbirds switch from a diet of insects to mostly berries.  Finding berries consumes less energy than pursuing insects.  Scott McWilliams and Navindra Seeram, researchers at the University of Rhode Island, are studying the diet of birds preparing for migration on Block Island.  According to this new research, birds select deeply-pigmented berries

Highly nutritious Arrowwood Viburnum berries were most preferred by migrants preparing for fall migration in the Block Island study.  Photo © Edie Parnum.  Click to enlarge.

Highly nutritious Arrowwood Viburnum berries were most preferred by migrants preparing for fall migration in the Block Island study. Photo © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

that are high in antioxidants and fat prior to migration.  Antioxidants help birds(as well as humans) handle stress.  Because migration is certainly stressful, birds need to find nutrient-rich berries at stopovers along their migratory routes.

Migration is hazardous for birds.  On their southward journey they fly at night for four to six hours without a break. They must stop and refuel several times before reaching their wintering grounds, especially if their final destination is the tropics.  They spend four to five days at each stopover where most consume nutrient-rich berries.  If they fail to find sufficient fuel for the next leg of their journey, they become weak and vulnerable to hawks, owls, and other predators.

Scientists tell us even small patches of native plants can provide food and shelter for migrating birds.  On my three quarter acre property, I’ve planted scores of fruit-bearing native shrubs, trees, and vines.  Besides the shrubs mentioned, I’ve recently planted Black Gum, Hackberry, Sassafras, and Spicebush that will offer fruits in future autumns.  Also, in a few spots I allow Pokeweed (regrettably considered a weed by most gardeners) to grow and produce beautiful dark purple berries irresistible to birds.

Since many ornamental and invasive non-native plants produce berries, why are native plants so important for migrating birds?  With their high fat content and extra antioxidants, native berries are highly nutritious.  Because the natives usually have

Birds do eat non-native berries.  This Gray Catbird is eating invasive Porcelainberry and, regrettably, spreading the seeds. Photo courtesy of and © Adrian Binns/Wildside Nature Tours.  Click to enlarge.

Birds do eat non-native berries. This Gray Catbird is eating invasive Porcelainberry and, regrettably, spreading the seeds. Photo courtesy of and © Adrian Binns/Wildside Nature Tours.com. Click to enlarge.

strongly-colored berries, either black or red, or have leaves or stems that are bright red, birds can easily find them.  Also, the native berries ripen at the right time.  Many migrants, especially warblers, continue to eat insects as well—found primarily on native plants.  If necessary, of course, birds will also eat the less nutritious fruits of non-native plants.

Most yards have room for shrubs.  You can plant native fruit-bearing shrubs and small trees around your property’s perimeter to create a hedgerow laden with nutritious fall fruits.  You can also group them around isolated trees.  By reducing your lawn, you’ll find room for more shrubs and other fruiting plants.

Birds, especially those that migrate to the tropics, are in trouble.  On average, the populations of long-distance migrant species drop 1% each year. We assume we can do little except give money to organizations that preserve land.  However, we can help migrating birds survive their perilous and crucial journeys by growing the plants they need and love.




 Top Native Berry Plants for Fall Migrants
Latin Name Common Name
Celtis occidentalis Hackberry
Cornus florida Flowering Dogwood
Ilex opaca American Holly
Malus coronaria Crabapple
Nyssa sylvatica Black Gum/ Tupelo
Sassafras albidum Sassafras
Aronia arbutifolia, A. melanocarpa  Red Chokeberry, Black Chokeberry
Cornus racemosa, C. amonum Gray Dogwood, Silky Dogwood
Ilex verticillata Winterberry Holly
Lindera benzoin Spicebush
Myrica pensylvanica Bayberry
Viburnum   acerfolium, V. dentatum, V. lentago,V. nudum, V. prunifolium Mapleleaf Viburnum, Arrowwood   Viburnum, Nannyberry, Possumhaw,  Black   Haw
Vines and   Herbaceous Plants
Parthenocissus quinquefolia Virginia Creeper Vine
Phytolacca americana Pokeweed

Fall: Time for Planting Trees and Shrubs

By Edie Parnum

I thrust my spade into a patch of my lawn.  It’s fall, and I’m planting a 4-foot Chestnut Oak.  As I dig, I imagine this young tree next spring with its new green leaves.  Even as a young sapling, it will host insects and birds.  Looking into the future, I imagine this stately native tree a century from now.  It has given life to thousands of birds and other animals.

Edie planting a Chestnut Oak (Quercus prinus) sapling. Photo © Barb Elliot

My neighbors, I’ve noticed, aren’t thinking about spring.  They are clearing their yards of leaves and the dead vegetation from last year’s ornamental plants.  They are putting this unwanted garden debris out on the curb along with the cocoons and eggs of next year’s insects. They are getting ready for winter. Fall is the best time for planting trees and shrubs, any time before the ground freezes. During the autumn rains, the new plants aren’t asleep. They’re putting energy into their roots for a spurt of growth next spring.This fall, as usual, I will plant several trees and shrubs.  When I bought this ¾-acre property five years ago, it was mostly grass with just a few trees, mostly non-natives.  Since then I’ve planted 39 native trees and 45 native shrubs. It’s still not enough.

I keep planting native woody plants because they support wildlife.  Certainly non-native woodies offer fruits birds will eat—witness the bird-spread proliferation of invasives like Multiflora Rose, Burning Bush, and Japanese Barberry.  Natives, however, offer fruits of optimum size and superior nutrition. The fruits of the dogwoods, blueberries, winterberries, viburnums, spicebush, and sassafras I’ve planted ripen just in time to nourish hungry migrating birds in fall. Now in late October most of the berries are gone—consumed by thrushes, catbirds, mockingbirds, waxwings, and warblers.

The main reason I plant native woodies, however, is for the caterpillars and other insects these plants support.  I’m inspired by Doug Tallamy, Professor and Chair of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware.  His research shows

The caterpillar of the Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly uses Spicebush or Sassafras as its host plant. USFWS Photo by Ryan Hagerty.

that native plants host 29 times more of the native insects essential for our birds. After all, 96% of terrestrial birds feed their young exclusively insect food.

This year to augment what I’m already growing, I’ll plant ten small trees and shrubs.  I’m planting the Chestnut Oak, Quercus prinus (according to Tallamy, oaks host 534 species of caterpillars); American Elm, Ulmus Americana (hosts 213); and Pawpaw, Asimina triloba (host plant for Zebra Swallowtail butterfly, a species I covet for my yard butterfly list).

Planting a tree or shrub is easy.  For my Chestnut Oak and the other trees and shrubs, I don’t need to dig a huge hole.  I make my hole only as deep as the soil in the plant container and twice as wide.  After putting the plant into the hole, I make sure the soil line of the plant is level with the ground. Then I use the soil that was removed from the hole to fill in around the plant.  Because my oak is a local native adapted to our soil, I am not tempted to add special topsoil, fertilizer, or any other enrichment.  That would stimulate fast but weak growth.   A hole filled with artificially enriched soil encourages the roots to stay confined rather than to reach into the ground below for nourishment.  Next, I push down on the loose dirt with my hands, but avoid stomping on it with my feet.   I spread a one-inch layer of my compost (last year’s leaves and garden debris) on top to provide some extra humus not available in the turf grass.  Then I give my oak a good watering.  That’s it for this tree.  I’m ready to plant more.

Three-year-old Black Gum (Nyssa sylvatica) with cage to prevent deer browse. Photo © Edie Parnum

Newly planted trees and shrubs may need extra water.  During any week without significant rain, I put a leaky watering can next to each plant and let the water drip slowly into the soil.  A 1-2” layer of mulch will help retain the moisture, but I never let the mulch touch the trunk.  Once established, these woody plants, situated appropriately for light and moisture, should thrive without any additional help from me.

The trees and shrubs I plant are usually small.  They are cheaper and suffer less transplant shock than a big tree or shrub.  These smaller saplings start to grow more quickly and in a few years usually out-compete larger nursery stock.  To save money, I also frequently transplant volunteer trees and shrubs in my yard to more appropriate locations.  Some of my shrubs—virburnums, for instance—send out shoots that I dig up and plant elsewhere.  I also accept gifts from my native plant gardening friends.  As I say, there’s always room for more.  Anyway, I’m not growing ornamental specimens.  The plants can touch each other and offer extra shelter, just as they do in the wild.

Nannyberry (Viburnum lentago) – flagged shoots are ready to transplant. Photo © Barb Elliot

My trees and shrubs are still small, but they already support birds and other wildlife.   Next spring I’ll see warblers and other hungry migrants eating caterpillars on the leaves of my native woody plants.  The remaining areas of grass are begging to be planted with additional native trees and shrubs.  Next fall I won’t resist planting more.


For Doug Tallamy’s list of woody plants supporting butterfly and moth caterpillars, click here.

 Trees and Shrubs on  Edie’s Property
Botanical Name Common Name Wildlife Value
Acer rubrum Red Maple L, F
Aesculus pavia Red Buckeye L, N
Amelanchier canadensis Serviceberry/ Juneberry L. F
Asimina triloba Pawpaw L, F
Betula lenta, B. nigra Sweet Birch, River Birch L, F
Celtis occidentalis Hackberry L, F
Cercis canadensis Eastern Redbud L, N
Cornus alternifolia, C.florida Pagoda Dogwood, Flowering Dogwood L, F
Ilex opaca American Holly L, F
Juniperus virginiana Eastern Red Cedar L, F
Liriodendron tulipifera Tulip Poplar L, N, F
Magnolia virginiana Sweetbay Magnolia L
Nyssa sylvatica Black Gum/ Tupelo L, F
Pinus strobus Eastern White Pine L, F
Prunus serotina Black Cherry L, F
Quercus   alba,Q. coccinea, Q. pinus, Q. rubra White Oak, Scarlet Oak, Chestnut Oak, Red Oak L, F
Sassafras albidum Sassafras L, F
Tsuga canadensis Eastern Hemlock L,F
Aronia melanocarpa. Black Chokeberry L, F
Clethra alnifolia Sweet Pepperbush N
Cornus racemosa, C. amonum Gray Dogwood, Silky Dogwood L, N, F
Hydrangea arborescens, H.   quercifolia Wild Hydrangea, Oakleaf   Hydrangea N
Ilex verticillata Winterberry Holly F
Myrica pensylvanica Bayberry L, F
Rosa virginiana Wild or Pasture Rose L, F
Sambucus canadensis American Elder L, F, N
Vaccinium corymbosum Highbush Blueberry L, F, N
Viburnum   dentatum, V. lentago,V. nudum, V. prunifolium Arrowwood Viburnum, Nannyberry,   Possumhaw,  Black Haw L, F
L   = Leaves support moth and butterfly caterpillars and other leaf-eating   insects that are eaten by birds
N   = Nectar for hummingbirds, butterflies, and other pollinators
F   = Food products such as berries, seeds, nuts, buds, and pollen for birds,   mammals, and pollinators

Places to buy native plants: