A beautiful hedge to attract birds

The highbush cranberry, one of many native shrubs which will bring birds flocking to your yard, looks spectacular when in flower. Pollinators also love the blossom, which usually appears in May.

The highbush cranberry, one of many native shrubs which will bring birds flocking to your yard, looks spectacular when in flower. Pollinators also love the blossom, which usually appears in May.

One of the first signs of spring are the melodious liquid notes of bird song. Open your door just before dawn and, even blindfolded, you’d know from the bird voices filling the air that cold, quiet winter had given way to the season when all living things grow and reproduce. A long time ago, I thought birds sang for joy. Joy at the bright fragrant daffodils that pop up, as if by magic, in gardens and at the edge of woods in spring. Joy at the sight of fruit trees decked out in fluffy, pastel-colored blossom. Joy at the worms and grubs stirring in the thawed-out soil.

Ornithologists tell us birds sing and call for eminently practical reasons: To warn would-be trespassers off their territory — a musical “No Trespassing” sign– and to attract females — a sung announcement, “healthy, fun-loving male looking for pretty female to start a family.” Once mated, some bird couples even sing duets, according to Nathan Pieplow, editor of “Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds of Eastern North America.” Duet-singers include birds commonly seen in Dorchester’s gardens and wild places, such as red-winged blackbirds and Carolina wrens.

One of our less common birds, the brown thrasher, has the largest vocabulary of any bird worldwide, he said at a recent lecture. Scientists in 1977 recorded one who sang 4,654 songs in 113 minutes! Almost half the songs, each a few seconds long, were not repeated. As a gardener, one has the power to encourage the presence of such feathery and entertaining musicians in and around a garden.

As a side benefit, birds eat some of the creatures that damage our crops and flowers, such as slugs. Consider planting a hedge made up of shrubs attractive and useful to birds, or even individual bushes here and there. Keep in mind the three priorities of birds: Food, water and shelter. Whether you have a large, sprawling yard or a pocket-sized one, what you plant can make a huge difference in the bird population. And remember to include a bird bath or two or three.

Once I had a tiny yard, with a stone wall on one side and a hedge, shared with mostly absent neighbors, on the other. A thorny pyracantha bush grew as tall as a small tree along one outer wall of my cottage. The shrub offered ideal nesting places for birds.

What cat would risk an encounter with those dangerous thorns to attack the baby birds? In fall, its orange berries set against dark evergreen foliage fed the birds and lit up the neighborhood with color. Dainty, old-fashioned climbing roses grew around the front gate and provided convenient perches for blackbirds.

Those birds ate the snails that otherwise would have made green lace out of my daylilies’ leaves and sometimes managed to get into the mailbox, where they made white lace out of envelopes. In fall, rose hips gave the birds a change of diet. Morning glory vines, which some gardeners consider a pest (not me), draped themselves in garlands from the pyracantha to the pink-flowered rose bushes and a bushy viburnum with purple blossom.

The trumpet-shaped morning glory flowers added touches of blue here and there, as if dabbed by an artist. Definitely not a tidy and well-organized garden, but the birds loved it and so did I. In addition to the plants mentioned above, Dorchester County gardeners have a host of native plants to pick from, when creating a hedge designed to attract birds.

Native shrubs and trees, incidentally, draw more birds than non-native ones. Dense evergreens offer great advantages both for birds and for the gardener seeking privacy, particularly in winter when deciduous trees and shrubs have dropped their leaves. Eastern red cedar, American holly and two sorts of bayberry make excellent choices.

Think of red cedar’s smoky blue berries in fall and winter and holly’s bright red ones. Both feed birds. In summer, holly’s tiny white flowers attract an enormous amount of attention from pollinators and birds alike. Red cedar draws more than 50 species of bird, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s book “Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping, Chesapeake Bay Watershed.”

Wax myrtle, or southern bayberry, and northern bayberry, also called candleberry, produce pale blue berries consumed by birds. Both have fragrant leaves and tolerate some salinity – particularly useful if you live near a salt marsh – but wax myrtle grows taller (6 to 15 feet) and fixes nitrogen in the soil, meaning it acts like a fertilizer.

Northern bayberry, however, puts up with a higher amount of salt in the ground and water and will form colonies. If you worry these plants may shade the garden unduly, remember: What grows can be pruned. In the non-evergreen category, two of my favorite shrubs, planted in my own yard, are highbush cranberry and red osier dogwood.

These natives appeal tremendously to birds, for food and perches. Red osier’s bright red branches look particularly lovely in winter, while the cranberry, also called American bush cranberry, produces spectacular fragrant, showy white flowers the size of small saucers in May. Elderberry or American elder, which I have two of, has similar blossom followed by large, flat bunches of small purple berries which the birds adore.

If you can get them before the birds do, elderberry flowers and fruit are extremely nutritious, have many culinary uses and are said to boost ones immunity to flu and colds. The flowers dried can be made into tea. Other native plants well-suited for a bird hedge include common spicebush, sweet pepperbush, buttonbush, black chokeberry and red chokeberry.

Certainly, I would include a vine which, usefully, is semi-evergreen in addition to a bird and pollinator magnet: Trumpet or coral honeysuckle. In the meantime, happy gardening!

Editor’s Note: Laetitia Sands is a master gardener in Dorchester County.

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