When my family moved to a new house 20 years ago, we placed a bird feeder filled with black-oil sunflower seeds in the backyard. We’ve seen a surprising variety of birds since then. Even a small yard with the right plants can be welcoming to birds.
Mockingbirds and cardinals raise a brood of young every year in our yard. The mockingbirds tend to build their nests in smaller trees, like river birch and Savannah holly. Mockingbirds will reuse a nest, so nests should not be removed at the end of the season.
Both mockingbirds and cardinals are attentive parents that hover nervously around new fledglings when they leave the nest. Several young birds have spent their first day out of the nest huddled in a potted woody Chinese hibiscus on our back porch, with the parents stopping by regularly to check on the youngster. By midsummer we often see a whole family of cardinals taking turns at the feeder.
Several berry-producing trees and shrubs feed the mockingbirds and cardinal pairs that inhabit the yard. Native yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) has translucent scarlet berries that ripen in early winter. These hollies develop into open stand of interconnected plants that also provides shelter and screening for birds.
Leatherleaf holly (Mahonia bealei) blooms in January, and jade green, oval berries soon follow the small, pale yellow flowers. This fruit seems to be a favorite of mockingbirds. As soon as the berries turn blue, hungry mockingbirds devour them, unless a passing flock of cedar waxwings arrives first.
Pyracanthus or firethorn (Pyracanthus species) blooms in April with clusters of ivory flowers that produce orange-red berries by Thanksgiving. The berries usually remain on the plant until early spring, when mockingbirds strip the plants bare.
Savannah holly (Ilex x attenuata 'Savannah') berries ripen to a dull carmine red by Christmas. They often are the last berries eaten by birds each spring, so perhaps they aren’t that tasty. Again, cedar waxwings or mockingbirds tend to be the ones that finish them off.
Other birds, like Carolina wrens, also enjoy our plants but in their own unique way. Carolina wrens, like many wrens, build covered nests that look more like a ball of grass and fine roots than a typical bird’s nest. Carolina wrens built nests in a hanging basket, a potted yesterday-today-tomorrow plant (Brunfelsia pauciflora 'Floribunda'), and in the newspaper slot below our mailbox, but I don’t believe any of them were occupied.
Two summers ago, a mallard duck built a nest under a sprawling ‘Tuscan Blue’ rosemary planted behind the mailbox. She laid four eggs that apparently hatched while we were out of town, as the nest was empty when we returned. The duck did not return the next summer, perhaps because I pruned the rosemary, which then didn’t offer enough protection.
Dead trees or dead limbs on trees attract woodpeckers and owls. The two most common woodpeckers we’ve seen in our yard are the small red-bellied woodpecker and the large pileated woodpecker. Both have a distinctive swooping flight pattern and unique calls.
Several owls have taken up residence in our section of West Ashley within the last few years. Perhaps they are using abandoned pileated woodpecker nesting cavities, as the sightings of woodpeckers have decreased over the years. I hear the owls calling to establish their territory almost every evening. Based on the hooting, they sound like barred owls (http://bit.ly/2GoBmGW).
A bird that was new to me when I moved to Charleston is the brown thrasher, the state bird of Georgia. Although brown thrashers are permanent residents of the Southeastern U.S., I’ve not seen them during winter. One of their most striking characteristics is the vigorous “thrashing” they do along the edges of my pine straw-mulched raised beds. These songbirds use their downward-curved beaks to scatter leaves and mulch away to find insects hiding underneath.
No list of garden-inhabiting birds would be complete without the ruby-throated hummingbird. The perennial plants in my yard that most consistently attract hummingbirds are bog sage (Salvia uliginosa), ‘Hot Lips’ sage, and bottlebrush (Callistemon citrinus). Hummingbirds will fly up to plants right outside our breakfast nook, which allows for easy viewing.
Planting berry-bearing plants is an easy way to attract birds to a garden.