Wednesday, July 18, 2012


While the yard has become more birdy over the past week, there is still relatively little going on.  Thankfully, I've kept myself busy for the past month by "birdscaping" our yard.  As the name implies, birdscaping is landscaping for birds.  Feeders are nice and all, but not all birds eat seed, suet, or peanuts.  Providing natural food (especially berries) can help attract species such as waxwings, thrushes, thrashers, and some warblers and finches.

Part 1: Inherited Vegetation

When we purchased our home last summer, we inherited some bird-friendly trees and shrubs.  The most prominent is the mature Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) in our front yard (above).  In addition to providing shade to our home, this large tree produces walnuts each summer/fall that are eaten by both birds and mammals.  The neighborhood crows literally neglect our feeders in the late fall and focus their attention on the fallen walnuts.  (I've heard that other species, such as Flickers, are fans as well, though I've not witnessed it here.)  The local Douglas and Western Gray Squirrels also eschew the feeders (yay!) in the fall and focus their attention on the sticky green nuts.  Works for me.

Unfortunately, Black Walnuts present some major drawbacks.  The first is maintenance.  They grow very quickly and the walnuts are a pain in the ass to sweep/rake up.  The large specimen in the front yard requires professional trimming every other year, the walnuts crash down onto the roof in the middle of the night, and it seems that we are constantly cleaning up under the canopy of this tree in October and November.  Moreover, Black Walnuts secrete an aromatic quinone compound called juglone.  Juglone is toxic to several species of plants and trees (this helps the tree establish dominance), which of course restricts what one can plant around it.  (The grass under our tree tends to look rather sickly by November.)  Surprisingly, though, our rhododendrons and our magnolia tree - both of which are sensitive to juglone - seem to not be adversely affected by this tree and our neighbor's smaller specimen.  (Knock on wood!)

Our backyard features a cherry tree on our property, and an apple tree on the other side of the fence (above right and left, respectively).  I don't know which species of cherry this is (Black is my best guess), but can report that its berries are currently being eaten by Western Scrub-Jays and Chestnut-backed Chickadees.  I have yet to see it yet, but the neighbor's apple tree should be a good food source for Cedar Waxwings.  However, the unknown species of ivy that encases the trunk of this tree proved to be a good source of food for a migrating Swainson's Thrush earlier this year.

A migrating Swainson's Thrush enjoys berries from an unknown species of ivy.

Our backyard contains two California Wax Myrtle shrubs (Myrica californica).  These are the West Coast cousin of the better-known Southern Wax Myrtle (Myrica cerifera).  I've read that the berries attract several species of birds, including flickers, robins and finches, but have not noticed any of those snacking on the waxy berries.  However, many Yellow-rumped Warblers ate the berries on our shrubs last October and November, and they even appeared to prefer them over the suet that I put out.  (Incidentally, this is where the name for the "Myrtle" subspecies of Yellow-rumped Warbler originated.  They are the warblers that eat wax myrtle berries.)

One of our two California Wax-myrtle shrubs (Myrica californica)

A "Myrtle" Yellow-rumped Warbler enjoys the berries of its namesake.

We also have a couple clusters of daylilies around the yard.  They attract Anna's and Rufous Hummingbirds when they flower in July and August.  However, they also tend to get a bit overgrown.  The cluster above will likely be pulled out this fall and replaced with something more manageable like currant.

Part 2: Recent Plantings

So while all of what we inherited is nice, I thought that we could do much better.  I had previously purchased and plated a young Sitka Mountain-ash (Sorbus sitchensis) in the backyard of our previous home.  Despite an August transplant into the new yard, it not only survived but has grown a good 10" since April.  Sitka Mountain-ash is a large shrub that is native to the Pacific Northwest.  Its berries are enjoyed by thrushes, grosbeaks, and waxwings, among others.

Sitka Mountain-ash (Sorbus sitchensis)

American Mountain-ash (Sorbus americana)

While I prefer to plant native species, I recently decided that I wanted a small tree (something larger than the Sitka) that produces berries.  I decided on an American Mountain-ash (S. americana), which are native to Eastern Canada, New England, and the upper extreme of the Midwest.  Their berries support most of the same birds as its western cousin (moose also enjoy their leaves, though I doubt we'll be seeing those any time soon).

We inherited two large photonia shrubs that were both diseased, way overgrown, and shaded our lawn way too much.  I was initially reluctant to get rid of them because they provided good cover and perching space for the birds.  But they were so freaking ugly and I was getting sick of the far end of our yard resembling a swamp during the rainy months.  Many of their branches were also broken during our late-March snowstorm as well.  So we had them taken out back in early June.  Not only did their removal eliminate the aforementioned problems, but they also freed up more space for useful and ornamental plantings, and made the yard a lot brighter to boot.

A shot of our backyard during the Great Snowstorm of 2012.  The offending photinias are the large shrubs that are leaning halfway over.  The one on the left didn't fully recover.

June, 2012: The photinia-free yard looks a heck of a lot nicer.

Oregon Grape (Mahonia aquifolium)

Since our yard is relatively small, I only have room for so many large shrubs and small trees. So the rest of my birdscaping was limited to small shrubs and ground cover.  I purchased and planted several Oregon Grapes (Mahonia aquifolium) - two larger specimens (5+ years old) and six three-year transplants.  As their name implies, Oregon Grapes produce purple berries that have a (very) vague similarity to grapes.  Cedar Waxwings and other species enjoy these fruits.  One of the nice things about plants of the Mahonia genus is that they'll grow in shade and partial shade.  And when you have 40' x 40' walnut tree in your yard, a large percentage of your lot will be shaded for at least part of the day.

The blueish-purple grapes of M. aquifolium

There is a smaller version of the Oregon Grape that grows natively out here, often referred to as "Cascades Mahonia" (Mahonia nervosa).  I transplanted three of these from our previous residence.  Cascades Mahonia only grows to 1-2' in height and produces berries that are similar to its larger cousin.  Unlike M. aquifolium, M. nervosa does not do well in appreciable amounts of direct sunlight.  I discovered that more than 4 hours of direct sunlight per day will fry them.

Cascades Mahonia (M. nervosa)

M. nervosa in a location that received a little too much direct sunlight

Since we have a ton of open space around the perimeter of our yard, I figured that groundcover (whether it served as a food source or not) would be helpful to birds that like to stay hidden, such as towhees and sparrows.  M. nervosa serves this purpose to an extent, and I also added another native ground cover known as Salal (Gaultheria shallon).  Since one of the plants is already exhibiting new growth, I may add more this fall.  Salal spread via wandering roots, so I foresee a lot of pruning in my future.  They also produce berries that some species of birds enjoy.

Salal (Gaultheria shallon)

With room left over, I figured that a couple of rhododendrons would provide additional cover and perching space for my ground-dwelling birds.  They don't produce anything edible, but they're hardy, they're evergreen, and their flowers look really nice in the spring.

"Anna Rose Whitney" Rhododendron

"Clipinense" Rhododendron.  Because it was planted in an area that contains shallow tree roots and sprinkler system piping, I actually planted this one (mostly) above ground.  After digging down 2" and filling the hole with soil-forming compost, I surrounded the root ball with compost and then covered the entire thing in mulch.  This individual is also near the canopy of the neighbor's Black Walnut, so it should be interesting to see how this one does over the next year.

For the hummingbirds, we typically hang at least one potted fuchsia.  Like the daylilies, fuchsia is a good way to feed the hummers without having to clean out sugar-water feeders twice a week.

Hummingbirds love fuchsia.

Last but certainly not least, I decided to plan an ornamental tree.  There is a corner just beyond the backyard fence that contained nothing and was literally screaming for a tree.  But it had to be something that (1) could grow in partial shade, (2) could survive living under a Black Walnut, and (3) would be thin enough at mature height to still fit in that corner.  I settled on Mountain Hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana).  These are the dominant species around the rim of Crater Lake and I've always loved their blueish-green needles and drooping "curlicue" crowns.  Mountain Hemlock are (broadly) native to this region, but they typically grow at 5000' and higher in the Cascades.  They are also notoriusly-slow growers, averaging less than an inch per year up to 15'.  For this reason, they are typically harvested from the mountains, rather than grown from seed in nurseries.  Thus, specimens of appreciable height can be difficult to find.  I got lucky and found a nursery in town with a few in the 3' range.  I'm sure that mine will not seed for several years and may just reach my height several years afterwards, but I'm happy with my purchase.  It's such a nice, picturesque little tree.

Mountain Hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana)

Well, that's about it for now.  I may plant some more this fall and will definitely provide an update on the status of these plantings next spring.


Paul Fitzpatrick said...

Wow! This is someone that knows their yard! Thank you for the advice and the main thing I took out of your blog is I am going to identify what is already in the yard, before I add to it.

You have beautiful space there and for me I am trying to get an early start on "birdscaping" for the rest of the winter here in Mass. and ramp up for spring. Thanks again for the sound advice.


BJG said...


Thanks for the kind words, and I'm sorry to be replying lately. Been very busy over the past 6 weeks.

I've done A LOT more planting this winter and will be posting more on this soon.

Lisa W said...

Enjoyed reading about your birdscaping.

Just wondering if those "daylilies" are actually crocosmia--that's what they appear to be in the photo.

Crocosmia would bring in hummingbirds; daylilies, not so much.