Create a Nursery Filled with Bugs for Baby Birds

By Mary Benton and Michael Faisal Green

In collaboration with Pelican Harbor Seabird Station

 

Greetings, South Floridians!  Imagine turning your garden into a nursery for baby birds, a place of beauty that attracts creatures great and small; aerial and terrestrial;  colorful, silent or singing, shy or gregarious. You can create a playground and dining hall for generations of birds who will delight you with their beauty and birdsong. You can make new friends without leaving your garden!

The message could not be more clear: FEED ME!!  Baby birds need lots of bugs.  Dev Steffen encountered these Mockingbird babies when she was out pruning her porterweed.  Mockingbirds are very protective of their young and they dive bombed her, screeching until she backed away, managing to snap a quick photo.  Other bird parents might try distracting you, hopping some distance away from the nest and doing the bird equivalent of “hey, look at me, I’m over here!  Nothing to see over there!!”.

Unlike humans, these creatures have specific breeding seasons and for birds, it is spring and early summer in South Florida (December to June). Birds pick this time to reproduce as the combination of moderate heat and dryness means the height of food availability.  Mild temperatures reduce heat-induced fatigue and stress; trees are blooming, attracting insects and producing fruits and seeds; and the dry season means their primary source of food – insects – are less likely to be grounded by rain. Plus, their breeding season aligns perfectly with the time of year when we want to be outside in the garden due to the lovely weather, so we have a wonderful opportunity to observe these beautiful and vulnerable creatures.  How cool is that?  Read on to see the easy steps we can take to attract, nurture, and enjoy the company of our feathered friends in our very own gardens. 

The single most important thing you can do to when creating a nursery is to stop using toxic chemicals.  We can’t stress enough how important this is.  If you use toxic chemicals in your garden to kill mosquitoes or rats, or to control weeds, you will be killing the insects that birds — especially baby birds — rely on for protein, and poisoning the berries and seeds the adult birds eat (and don’t forget that humans need insects — particularly pollinators — to survive).  You wouldn’t think of using toxic chemicals around a human baby, and baby birds are even more vulnerable. There are many organic practices and products that you can use in place of toxic chemicals so no excuses, right? 

 

The second most important thing you can do is to plant native plants.  Why natives?  Native plants attract more insects.  Who needs insects?  That’s right: birds need insects, especially the babies who need protein to grow into healthy adults.  Need help deciding which to plant? You can check out this cool tool of a Native Plant Finder, enter your zip code, and get a list of native flowers, grasses, trees and shrubs that attract the most insects in your area.  It is a work in progress, but there are lots of great suggestions and it is continuously being improved.  The Florida Native Plant Society‘s website, along with the Institute for Regional Conservation’s Natives for your Neighborhood are full of helpful information on what native plants will work best in your garden.  You can start small, but you’ll soon become addicted, especially if a number of those plants also attract butterflies.  Beautiful plants attracting butterflies and birds: what’s not to love? 

Mockingbirds will gobble up the berries of the native Lantana involucrata, as well as encounter insects drawn to its flowers.
Solanum americanum, or American nightshade, pops up in the garden this time of year. Please consider keeping it as the berries are beloved by Mockingbirds when they ripen. The plant also attracts caterpillars to its leaves, so it serves a double duty. Hmmm….it is almost like nature is looking out for the birds during baby bird season.

You can supplement the bird food supply by setting up bird feeders close to tree or shrub cover, using white millet or black sunflower seeds.  Bird feeders can take many forms.  They also allow you to get a better view of your feathered friends, so set them up and sit back and enjoy!

Birds can dart in and out of the surrounding shrubbery, making them feel safer.  This feeder contains white millet seeds that attract Cardinals, Painted Buntings, Blue Jays, and the like.
This flat bird feeder is filled with black sunflower seeds.
Putting mealworms out during the day is a great way to ensure that birds can get extra protein.
Instead of composting your eggshells during baby bird season, you can crush them and leave them somewhere safe for the mama birds. Ingesting calcium helps strengthen the eggshells developing inside.

 

Leave a supply of bird nest building materials.

Don’t be finicky about trimming all your dead twigs; let the birds use them for nest building material. While you’re at it, a few little bits of cotton string make handy nest material as well.
Spanish moss is a wonderful material for nest building.

Install a water feature.  You get extra points for having running water that the birds can hear.

The sound of trickling water is particularly attractive to some bird species. It is also a very calming and soothing sound to the human ear, and we need all the calming and soothing we can get these days. If you can invest in something like this, go for it.
Birds probably don’t much care how a bird bath is decorated, but this sure makes a nice ornament for human eyes.

 

Although this can be a touchy subject given the fact that feral cats, many of which have been neutered, abound in our community, cats and birds don’t mix.  Cats are the single biggest killer of birds and their babies. Please keep domestic cats indoors, particularly during baby bird season.

Please keep domestic cats indoors to keep birds safe outdoors.  This photo was taken by Neil de la Flor

Refrain from trimming shrubs, trees, or hedges until the rainy season commences in June.  Trimming reduces cover, stresses the birds and can damage or destroy nests and kill the babies.  And try to find an arborist who is sensitive to such issues.

The northern mockingbird is part of the thrush family – all of which are proficient in mimicking the songs of dozens of other species and common sounds. They do this using phrases and mockingbirds, as a general rule, repeat these phrases three or more times. So often they will mimic a blue jay by repeating their calls a minimum of three times and then immediately succeed that with imitating another bird/sound three or more times. Mockingbirds have an astounding musical repertoire, and seldom will you find them singing the same song, so whilst every song can be varied, it is easily recognisable by the number of repetitions.  If you’re not sure what they sound like, you can check out their song here.

Did you know that the Northern Mockingbird is Florida’s state bird? We can do a lot to ensure these cuties thrive in our gardens here in South Florida by providing a safe environment full of insects and berries.  Neil de la Flor captured this adorable tufted creature in his garden.
This graphic can help you determine what to do if you find a baby bird on the ground.  Remember always to contact Pelican Harbor Seabird Station before bringing a bird in.  They can only accept native species and will help you determine whether the bird in fact needs rescuing.  You can learn more by watching these videos:  video 1 and video 2. 
At the end of the day, the message is the same: FEED ME!! This beautiful shot of two fledgling Mockingbirds was caught by Luis Forte. You can follow him on Instagram @lgfortem

We hope this post helps you understand how you can work with nature to create a safe space full of tasty food for baby birds and their parents right in your very own garden.  Knowing that you are playing a role in ensuring that the babies reach adulthood and take to the skies is a wonderful feeling!

 

Attract Butterflies, Birds, and Bees to Your Garden with a Hedgepodge

When people think of a hedge, they typically envision a green wall that offers privacy and a windbreak. It probably doesn’t occur to many that such manicured green walls are actually harmful for the environment as they require upkeep in the form of noisy, polluting hedge trimmers and, particularly in the case of Ficus hedges, toxic chemical insecticides. What if you could create a hedge that actually benefited the environment, while bringing beauty and birdsong to your garden? 

“Benefiting the environment sounds like a good plan to us”, say these Red-masked Parakeets.  “We’d give it two thumbs up if we had thumbs!  Heck, we’d give it four thumbs up, but then we wouldn’t have a leg to stand on.”   Photo by Michael Faisal Green

We invite you to ponder the concept of a ‘hedgepodge’, a biodiverse vertical food forest for butterflies, bees, and birds created from a myriad of beautiful native wildflowers, shrubs, vines, and small trees. You will still get your privacy and a windbreak. More importantly in this era of climate change, you will be creating something that actually helps conserve the ecosystems upon which our lives depend. What will you have to give up? The polluting noise of hedge trimmers, toxic chemicals poisoning your landscape, and a bit of your manicured mindset. What will you gain in return? Beauty in the form of clouds of floating butterflies, happy bees, migrating jewels with wings, and the satisfaction that comes with knowing that you are helping make their lives — and thus your own — possible.

A migrating jewel with wings called a Painted Bunting. If you have the right plants, they might spend the winter in your garden, hunting for insects and seeds in your hedgepodge. Photo by Michael Faisal Green

So, how do I get started, you ask?  If you have an existing hedge, consider planting some native Corkystem passion vines every few yards along the length of it.  The mere act of doing so will bring three different butterfly species to your garden, attract birds to the tiny purple berries, and give buzzy bees some sweet nectar.  Corkystem is a gentle vine with tendrils that won’t strangle your existing plants.  And it grows just fine in sun or shade.  Just make sure you put a barrier around it to keep the lawn guy from weed wacking the vine.

Zebra butterflies getting ready to roost for the night in a hedgepodge.  Yes, roosting Zebras are a thing.  They lay their eggs on Corkystem.
Julia butterfly chilling in a garden that provides plenty of nectar and host plants.  She just finished laying her eggs on Corkystem.  Note the thicket in the back.  Birds like to hunt insects there.
A pair of Gulf fritillary butterflies mating next to a future butterfly consuming the leaves of a Corkystem passionvine.

Will it be messy, you ask?  Well, there is poop involved, from both the caterpillars and the birds.  But the former creates compost and the latter produces seedlings.  

“We do produce a lot of caterpillar frass, but it enriches the soil”, say the Zebra caterpillars.
Corkystem passionvine berries make a yummy snack for birds.  They digest the pulp and poop out the seeds, creating lots of new Corkystem seedlings.  If they pop up where you don’t want them, you can easily dig them up and re-plant them near your hedge.  Don’t forget to water them until they recover from the transplant.
Last but not least with this remarkable native vine, the diminutive flowers attract bees.  Photo from Wild South Florida.

If your existing hedge has holes in it, or if you are starting with a clean slate, there are lots of wonderful Florida natives that will delight you by bringing more beauty to the garden.  Take Wild Coffees, for instance.  There are two Florida natives: Bahama wild-coffee and Shiny-leaf wild coffee.  These attractive plants do well in a variety of growing conditions, attract butterflies and other pollinators, as well as birds who eat the fruit.  You can click on their names to do a little research to see if they’re a good fit for your garden.

Bees and butterflies like Zebras and Atalas love the sweet nectar of Wild coffee flowers. When they are in bloom, the garden smells like honey.
Wild coffee fruit is devoured by birds like cardinals, mockingbirds, and catbirds.  I know, the berries look delicious, but the taste to a human palate is rather bland.  I’d leave them for the birds.  And, no, they don’t contain caffeine either.

And then there are the Stoppers: Red stopper, which has white flowers and orange fruit; Red-berry stopper, with white flowers and red fruit; Spanish stopper, with white flowers and brown and black fruit; White stopper, with white flowers and red and black fruit (and, some say, it smells a bit like skunk); and last but not least, the Simpson stopper, with white flowers and orange fruit.  All of these shrubs attract birds and pollinators.

These make a very merry birdie feast.
The flowers attract lots of pollinators.

Another plant to consider —  the Pineland strongback  or Little strongback (or strongbark as it is frequently called) — is one of my favorites, so much so that I have it as a stand-alone shrub that has delicate, cascading branches that are covered year-round with white flowers and orange fruit.  I once watched a female Black-throated blue warbler pop one in her mouth, even though it was nearly as big as her head.  It would make a fine addition to a hedgepodge.

Hummingbirds and others sip nectar from the flowers, and birds eat the delectable fruit.
Here’s the beautiful little female Black-throated Blue Warbler. In addition to eating the fruit of the Little strongback, she likes bathing a lot, so you might want to consider installing a bird bath or other water feature.  Photo by Michael Faisal Green.
Here is her mate who. when he’s not hunting insects, likes berries and baths too.  Photo also by Michael Faisal Green.

The White indigoberry is another shrub to consider adding to your hedgepodge.  Birds eat the white fruit and butterflies flock to its nectar.

These white flowers have nectar that attracts a number of butterflies, including the imperiled Schaus’ swallowtail.

Another good hedgepodge plant for wildlife is the Wax myrtle.  It has white and green fruit that gives cover and food to birds and feeds two kinds of butterfly caterpillars.

Also known as Bayberry, Birds love the seeds and find cover among the leaves.

Myrsine is another good choice, especially if your soil is very sandy and you live near the coast. 

Also known as colicwood, Florida myrsine has white flowers, black fruit, and attractive leaves.

Last but not least, is the Florida privet, a lovely, salt-tolerant shrub with yellow and green flowers, and blue, purple and black fruit that attracts birds.

Kirsten Hines photographed this sweet little Prairie Warbler looking for food in a Florida privet.

There are numerous other plants that would make a fine addition to a hedgepodge, but I’ve given you a lot to go on.  In between doing research into which plants make most sense in your garden, why don’t you order Kirsten Hines’ book, which will tell you all you need to know about attracting birds to your garden in South Florida.  And while you’re at it, why not daydream about your neighbors converting their hedges to hedgepodges, thereby providing thriving and beautiful wildlife corridors throughout the community.

To read more about the importance of native plants and insects, order this book:

Each one of us who owns a bit of land can make a huge difference in conserving our ecosystem by planting native plants and stopping the use of toxic chemicals in the landscape, thereby creating a more resilient and sustainable world.  You too can be part of the solution!