Thumbnail image: Susan Disher/Macaulay Library
[Chelsea Benson] We’re going to get started. Welcome to today’s webinar from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. We’re going to be discussing how to make your green spaces bird friendly. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is home to a community of researchers, supporters from around the world who appreciate birds and the integral roles that they play in our ecosystems.
Our mission is to advance leading-edge research, education, and citizen science that help solve pressing conservation challenges. This work, including today’s webinar is funded primarily by people like you who choose to become a member. And if you enjoyed today’s webinar, I hope you’ll consider becoming a member too by visiting birds.cornell.edu.
My name is Chelsea Benson. I’m on the visitor center team at the Cornell Lab. And I’m going to be facilitating today’s conversation. And with are three experts on Plants for Birds. So I’m super excited to have our conversation today. First off, we have John Roden. John’s joining us from the National Audubon Society and is the Senior Director for Bird-Friendly Communities. So thanks for joining us John.
[John Roden] My pleasure Chelsea. Thanks for inviting me. Happy to be here.
[Chelsea Benson] And where are you joining us from, since I said we’re all in Ithaca?
[John Roden] Yes, I am in sunny Southern California in Venice Beach.
[Chelsea Benson] Wonderful. All right. And next we have Becca Radomsky-Bish. Becca is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology project leader for the Great Backyard Bird Count and also Nest Quest Go! Hey Becca!
[Becca Radomsky-Bish] Hey Chelsea. Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here today.
[Chelsea Benson] I know this is a topic you’re super excited about. So you had to be here. All right. And our final panelist is Marla Coppolino. Marla is the course developer for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Bird Academy Program. Hey Marla!
[Marla Coppolino] Hi, it’s great to be here and great to have so many with us today.
[Chelsea Benson] I know the numbers keep climbing. So welcome to everybody who’s still tuning in. If you can believe it, I have a couple more announcements and then we’re going to jump to our questions. So here’s our announcements. Are you ready? For our Zoom audience live captioning is provided. Select the Live Transcript button at the bottom of the Zoom window to turn them on or turn them off.
I’ll ask our panelists a few questions to get us started and then we want to answer questions from you. So for those of you on Zoom, click the Q&A button at the bottom of your screen and type your questions into that window. We’re going to be answering some questions verbally. But for others, we’ll be typing in our answers which you can see in the Answered column in that.
If you’re using the chat, please put your questions into the Q&A. We’re only going to be using the chat for technical support and also to share links and resources with you. And I’m super lucky because I have two support team with me today, we have Laura Helft and Leo Sack from the Cornell Lab, and they are in there busy away answering your chat and your Q&A. I can see there they’re already providing great information for all of you.
And the last one is, we are also streaming live to Facebook. So welcome to our Facebook audience. We’re very excited that you could join us today. If you’re watching on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology or the Audubon Facebook pages, you can add your questions to the comments. And I also have two people who are with Audubon and the Lab answering those questions and directing your questions to us on that page.
If you see any links that aren’t from us, please don’t click them. We have some had some spam attempts. So don’t click anything that’s not from the Lab or from Audubon. That’ll make your life much easier. OK, so all that said, let’s get started. I’d love to hear more about the three of you. So let’s start with John. Can you introduce yourself and share more about your work?
[John Roden] Sure. Thanks Chelsea hey everybody. So as Chelsea mentioned, I work for the National Audubon Society. At Audubon, we work to protect birds and the places they need, today and tomorrow. And I lead our Bird-Friendly Community efforts, which seeks to meet birds’ needs in the communities that we share with them. With the knowledge that if we actually make our places better for birds, we’re also making them better for people.
So Audubon works with partners across the hemisphere, like Cornell, in this work. And we also have a network of over 450 chapters across the country, as well as 40 nature centers and sanctuaries. And so the team that I lead works to create tools and trainings like this one, that help people understand and build their awareness and ability to actually improve conditions for birds in their communities.
And so the Plants for Birds program, which is the focus of the talks the webinar today is one of our bird-friendly communities programs that seeks to advance the use of native plants at every level, from the federal level down to the local level, and to get native plants in every windowsill and backyard across the country.
And so we have a whole suite of resources that we produce that support that, which I’m going to drill into a little bit more as we get into the webinar. And so we work to share those with our network, but also much more broadly across the country. And I will say that a lot of the resources are, even though we work across the hemisphere, are targeted toward the United States. And I’ll talk a little bit more about that as well. So that’s the general overview and I’ll drill into more of this. But maybe pass it over to Becca to introduce herself.
[Becca Radomsky-Bish] Sure. Thanks John. Lovely to have people from all over the world here today. I’m really enjoying watching all the locations pop in. So I work at the Lab of Ornithology as the project leader for the Great Backyard Bird Count. And obviously, we love to engage people from all over the world in understanding how they can, not only just watch and admire and celebrate and count birds in their yards, but how they can also really encourage those birds to stay and use their properties or communities as viable habitat.
So it’s a subject I’m really passionate about. Previous to my current position, I used to work on a project at the Lab that we really focused on how to teach people to do this work in and around their homes. So it’s a topic I’ve been studying for a long time. And as you can see, this is a picture from my property. I do this work, I’m very devoted to this work. And I spend many hours outside of my professional life trying to do this work. So I can walk in my own footsteps in terms of practicing what I preach.
[Chelsea Benson] Marla, I would love if you could share about what you do at the Lab and how it connects to today’s topic.
[Marla Coppolino] Sure. I’m an online course developer with a Bird Academy unit at the Lab of Ornithology. And just completed recently our newest course, which is called Growing Wild: Gardening for Birds and Nature. And the like Becca, I practice what I preach. I love to plant native plants and keep a natural habitat on my own property. And it just really increases the joy when you see the interactions between birds and plants and elements that you’ve gotten outside, and it’s something you can constantly learn about.
I’m always learning more about ecology and how organisms support one another. And I’m really happy to share that here. Our other Bird Academy courses range from identification types of courses to more in-depth ornithology courses. There’s a course for every level. Our Bird Academy course about gardening for birds is at the beginner level. So we have a great entry point if you are interested in birds and supporting them. And if you’re interested in growing native habitat in your backyard. This is the course for you.
[Chelsea Benson] You’ve only spent a year working on it. So just a little bit of time, right?
[Marla Coppolino] It was a very full year. It was a lot of learning. My background is in– my degrees are in biology and zoology and I have a lot of ecology here and there. But I learned so much through researching this course and that makes me particularly happy that I can share this with other people.
[Chelsea Benson] Great. So I want to ask you my life because we are talking about gardening for birds. It’s a notion that we all have a notion about what that phrase means. But I love if you could be really explicit. When we say that, what do we mean and how can what we do support birds?
[Marla Coppolino] Well, it’s really all about mimicking what the natural habitat is. You can do this whether you live in an urban area and have just a balcony with some container plants, or you could do this if you have acreage. We’re all part of the solution. Habitat loss is one of the major reasons for the decline of birds all over, and we want to support them and bring them back.
Birds are not drawn typically to lawn or what we call a monoculture, just a plain lawn. So what we encourage in this course, and what we encourage as part of my own lifestyle, is to bring in as many native plants locally, native plants as you can, as much biodiversity. And learning about what the birds need in nature. That’s particularly important. Looking at it from a bird’s point of view.
We may look at our yards from our point of view and what we think is aesthetically pleasing or what has curb appeal, as a lot of people say. But those are not what bring in the birds. Even if you have bird feeders, you might be bringing in some seed eaters. But if you want to support birds year round, if you want to give them what they need at different stages and phases of their life, when they’re raising their young? That involves a lot more in-depth look at what they really need.
And the goal with gardening for birds and gardening for nature is to address what they seek in their natural habitat. It also requires learning about your own local native plants, your own local habitat. So it’s a great way to educate yourself and broaden your horizons and get involved with your native plant communities, your native plant societies, and learn what’s native, learn what’s there, and see how you can recreate that in your backyard.
Embrace nature. It’s not going to look like your standard green lawn that’s mowed and things are neatly organized in there. It might be a little messy. But we all love birds, we all love bringing them in close. And I think we can all admit that. We want to see them up close. If we’re out of birding walk with binoculars, but bringing them right into our yard, that’s special. We want to look at our windows and see them.
And you can draw in a much greater variety of birds if you’re using native plants and greater biodiversity and some of the other elements that we like to talk about. So again, from a bird’s perspective, knowing what they need in their natural habitat and then recreating that habitat at home, no matter how much or how little land you have.
[Chelsea Benson] One of the things that you touched on is that it does require a little bit of work, you have to educate yourself about what is native to your area and dive in and learn about your local plants. And so what I want to do is I want to turn to John because you work with the Plants for Bird program.
And if you can walk us through how our audience might go about selecting plants that will thrive where they live, that would be great. Because I can see people are putting, like they’re in the desert, they’re up in the Pacific Northwest, they’re from all over. So we can’t get into each person’s specific ecoregion. But the beautiful thing about Audubon is you have the tools that they can use to find out that information.
[John Roden] Yes. Absolutely and happy to walk through that. Yeah, Marla’s right on that plants are providing resources for birds, and we have to think about the full lifecycle of our birds, to think about how do we actually focus and deliberately plant plants that are locally native, locally adapted so that they can actually support those birds.
And I think that Becca’s going to talk a little bit more about why that’s so critical. But maybe what it makes sense is just for me to walk through the resource. Because one of the barriers is– so it’s fantastic that the Bird Academy has this course where people can learn more. And learning is really critical, but then how do you actually access and influence? How do you know what’s local to your area and where you can find them? Because all of those can be barriers.
So what we did at Audubon was produce a tool that can help people identify what plants are native to their local area. So I’m going to share my screen. And hopefully can you see that. Are we good? OK. So this is our native plants database that we’ve developed, which is a simple zip code based tool that can help you identify what plants are native to your local area.
Now there are other resources out there. This is not a unique resource and there’s some really good ones. Our focus, of course is birds, being Audubon. So we really use that as the lens for this. And I’m going to put a zip code in. Chelsea, do you have a zip code that you’d like me to use or–
[Chelsea Benson] Yeah, anybody want to pop a zip code into the chat and we’ll look it up. All right. 07405.
[John Roden] OK. And where is that, I wonder?
[Chelsea Benson] New Jersey.
[John Roden] Got you. OK. So as you saw, when I was putting the zip code in, you can put your email address in as well. You don’t have to do that to use the tool. If you actually put your email address in, then you can create a native plant list, which will be emailed to you and we will be in touch. And we’ll actually offer more resources. But you don’t have to do that.
If you just want to dig into the native plants, you just enter your zip code and away we go. So you can see here in New Jersey, at the top, we have what is your closest Audubon entity, whether it’s a chapter or center that may be able to provide you with more support. As Marla mentioned there’s a lot of great partners. Native plant societies are fantastic resources, extensions. There’s lots of ways you can get information. But being Audubon, we want to also connect you through to our network if they can be helpful.
And then the way that the information is organized is we have, the first tab here is the Best Results tab. And that is our plants that are helpful for birds, but also are generally available in the commercial retail trade, and can actually set people up for success if they’re looking to plant for our native bird species.
So what you can see is there the list of plants, there’s a brief description, and then the types of birds that they could support based on the resources they provide. This does not mean, I cannot guarantee that if you put an Allegheny Serviceberry in that you’re going to start getting Cedar Waxwings in your yard. I cannot guarantee that. But the resources they provide are the types of resources that those families of birds here actually need to thrive and survive.
And these live links here connect through to our North American bird guide. There’s a whole variety of ways. You can actually select filters if you’re particularly interested in particular types of plants or the resources that plants provide, either directly or indirectly by hosting caterpillars or butterflies. You can select that.
If you’re particularly interested in types of birds, you can select that. If you’re really jonesing for hummingbirds, for example, I know people love their hummingbirds, then it will just filter for that. And these are the plants that would support hummingbirds. So again, you can add plants to your list by selecting this box.
And once you do create a list, if you want to have that emailed to you, you just select here. And again, it will ask you for an email address. It will send it to you. You can print that out, you can take it to your local nursery, et cetera. And speaking of local nurseries, again, one of the things that people can have trouble with is actually, where do I buy native plants?
And so on the Local Resources tab of the database, you can find– again, it will point out where your local Audubon’s may be, the closest ones and the services they provide. And then if you scroll down, it will show you where you can potentially buy native plants in your local area.
I lead a very small team who has to cover the whole country. So a lot of this information initially especially when we started the database was crowd sourced. We asked for information. And I would say that this is still a dynamic process. If you actually see nurseries on here that have gone out of business, certainly let us know. And if you see ones that actually should be included, let us know as well.
So this is hopefully helping people to understand where they can get native plants. I would suggest that you contact them before you go just to ensure that they’re open post pandemic, if I may use those words. We’re moving more back into how do we actually interact with retail spaces. But it’s, of course, best to be sure.
And then this gives you just a map, which has information on the native plant nurseries across the country. So you can Zoom in, you can click on them. It will tell you more information about that. So again, this is dynamic. I work with our digital team at Audubon to keep this all updated. But it is, as you can imagine, there’s a lot of data that goes into this.
And I can probably talk on and on, but that’s an overview of how we use this tool. And I really encourage to people who haven’t used this to dig into it. Give us feedback because it is a process of understanding how we can best meet people’s needs across the country who are trying to dig into native plants. And I think I’ll pass it back to you, Chelsea.
[Chelsea Benson] Yeah. Thank you so much. I could tell people were really excited to dive into that tool because I was looking, there was like hundreds of results just for that single zip code. You could spend hours going through that. And I love the nurseries that you can find what nurseries are available, because that’s a question that often comes up. I know I should get this plant, but I have no idea where to find it.
And we do have some people that are out of the country. And I know that the pollinator– what is it Becca? The plant pollinator?
[Becca Radomsky-Bish] Pollinator Partnership.
[Chelsea Benson] Pollinator Partnership also covers Canada. And it isn’t quite the same tool that Plants for Birds from Audubon has. But you can at least get some resources about native plants in Canada. And if you’re outside of the US or Canada, do some research, some googling. I am sure that there’s got to be some resources out there.
These are just the ones that we’re familiar with across North America. So thank you John for walking us through that tool. I didn’t even know all those things were in there. So I’m really wanting to after the webinar dive in and see what plants I should be putting in my yard. It’s never too late to add plants. Right, Becca?
[Becca Radomsky-Bish] Never. Never too late.
[John Roden] Yes, I should have mentioned that this tool only operates with US zip codes and that there’s a variety of reasons for that. One of the most important ones right is that, again, we want to connect people through to our local Audubon chapters, or centers, sanctuaries, and we only operate in the United States. So yes, there are other tools outside the US, but unfortunately, and I know we have a broad international audience and apologies that we can’t provide more of that support for you. But you should be able to find local support as well.
[Chelsea Benson] And we’re also covering concepts that are beyond just what that website provided. And I would love it, Becca, you could talk about why native plants are so important. I know when I go to the nursery, I’m drawn to these big vibrant non-natives. And I would love for you to tell me more about why natives are so important to adding around, either your deck or your property, whatever your space might be.
[Becca Radomsky-Bish] Sure. I’d love to answer that. And I also wanted to just add with John. And I think John and Marla would both agree with me that we would really encourage all of our listeners to go to nurseries in and around your community and ask the question, do you have native plants? What can I get to support birds?
These kinds of questions, we as consumers, can drive action and change. And if they’re getting a lot of people asking for that, they’re going to try and source them. So be a part of the solution and really push your local nurseries to get on board with this topic. Because native plants are critically important.
I hope that many of your viewers today love birds. And if you love birds, if you love seeing them, if you love supporting them, then you have a really active vibrant role you can play in to make food webs and food resources for birds. And that’s really ultimately why native plants are so important, because they are creating ecological systems that have evolved over thousands and thousands of years in your regions and communities to have biodiversity thrive.
And when we talk about supporting birds, we’re really talking about all levels of the food web, because I’m sure many of the listeners realize that birds, especially in North America, all eat insects at some point in their life cycle. And insects are very intimately coevolved with plants.
Many insects — the monarch is the hallmark that everybody knows — need specific types of plants in order to lay their eggs and to produce caterpillars. And then more than 90%, most of the number is based on Doug Tallamy and Desiree Narango’s research is close to 96% of North American songbirds feed their offspring insects.
And those insects can only exist if they have the plants that they need to be able to rear caterpillars that the birds are then feeding to their offspring. So really, native plants are important because they support food webs. And as Chelsea mentioned, I love annuals. I have annuals that are not native. Many of us do.
The real goal is to get towards 70% natives if you can in and around your properties and planters and porches, and then have some of that color and that beautiful pop. I actually use annuals a lot when I’m established in a native garden because it’s very expensive to get as many perennials as you need to get a dense native garden.
So I often will put annuals in places and that provide some color and then the next year, the perennials fill in and I move on and I don’t need those annuals for color anymore. So really important to support birds by creating food ecosystems using native plants.
[Chelsea Benson] I like having that goal of the 70% native because it is fine to put annuals around, but we should also try our best to add some natives here and there for all the reasons that you just listed. So thanks Becca. And we already mentioned this phrase, messy is beautiful. It’s a phrase that when I think about it I think that, oh, great. I’m not going to rake my lawn as much, or I’m not going to deadhead my flowers. But I would love to learn more about what that phrase means. And Marla, could you share a little bit about that?
[Marla Coppolino] Yeah. This is probably one of my favorite topics. It’s what you don’t do can be just as much as important as what you do do. So this is where we can really challenge ourselves though and challenge that idea of what the quote unquote “ideal yard” looks like. So if a bird, now we’re talking from a bird’s perspective, were to fly over nicely cultivated yard that has the green sod and maybe a few trees, might not be native, they may be pretty. The bird’s not going to find things that support its life phases there.
So we want to ask ourselves, how do the birds view this? So the answer is they’re not going to find habitat, they’re not going to find the natural food, even if you put up bird feeders. But if you want to really challenge yourself and make a bigger transformation, that is to me one of the most rewarding things, is to support native plants and a great deal of diversity in your native plants in your property.
You are going to have lots of things of that you leave. So for example, when you have your native plants bloom, and then in the autumn season, the flower heads dry. They’re full of seeds. Don’t cut those. Don’t do the deadheading activity that so many people do to neaten things up. No.
If you leave those there, you’ll see the birds come and pick out the seeds. And what fun is that? You will see that in your garden, you’ll see the birds, like little goldfinches especially, love to land on these flower heads when they’re dried up and dead and they’ll pick out seeds for a long time. So that’s one of the great ways that is easy.
Not raking your leaves. Oh, boy. That saves you lots of labor and it’s all the good for the birds. The dead leaf litter, mulch, whatever you want to call it is good for so many reasons. It’s cooling to the ground. It helps protect it. It helps protect your soil and enrich it and break down over time. But I’m a huge proponent of insects and invertebrates that are native. And this is what supports them.
A lot of insects over the months that they’re inactive, so during winter months, are in their larval stages within the leaf litter, curled up. And maybe not obvious to us, but birds know they’re there. And they’re in larva stages and pupae stages, and generally don’t emerge until the temperatures warm up in the spring.
But meanwhile, you’ve got yourself some bird food that’s right there. So you see this in my background, there’s a Chestnut-sided Warbler with a caterpillar. The caterpillars are a result, oftentimes of just leaving your yard messy and not cleaning up too much. And they need this food to thrive.
Brush piles is another great way. I have several brush piles on my property. Thankfully mine is big enough to have these. But the birds love them! I get lots of friends. It’s their hangout space. Other wildlife, chipmunks and things like to run under them. And depending on what region you live in, brush piles can attract everything from quail, Gambel’s Quail if you’re in the Southwest, and all kinds of other birds. Because that feels natural when they fly over and see that, they’re like, yes, that’s habitat. That is habitat that I want. So that’s how these things help.
Also leaving fallen limbs is helpful. It can harbor all the non-insect invertebrates. So you’ve got centipedes, you’ve got woodlice, creepy crawlies like that, spiders, and they thrive in those types of little ecosystems that are right there in your yard. So I highly recommend leaving some things messy.
Now if you are part of a neighborhood that has a homeowners association, that’s something that you may encounter. And what to do? Some of them are actually joining this movement of embracing natural gardens, native plants, and messy yards. So little by little, we can get there. And sometimes you have to make a case to the people in your neighborhood and explain why.
In some cases, you can hide, you can keep sequestered all your messy stuff in the backyard and not in the front. So you can keep the backyard tidier and have bird habitat in your back. So there are things you can do. But when you embrace the messiness, you’re, as Becca was saying, this is part of the food web and you’re supporting your backyard birds including the ones that you would not see at your bird feeders.
[Chelsea Benson] Yeah, it’s so important, because as you said, the insects are the main food source. So “messy is beautiful,” as this year round concept. You can leave things in place year round. And John, I’d love if you could talk about how we can plant for birds for year round abundance in all different types of ecoregions that our audience might be from.
[John Roden] Sure. So I think it is really important to keep in mind that birds are around us all the time, but it might not necessarily be the same suite of birds. And so birds may be transiting through during migratory periods. There may be birds that are resident year round, there are some that they only spend time during particular seasons.
So to think about what the mix of birds are and what their specific needs are is important. And so, for example, in the Northeast where rumor has it, it can be cold and snowy in the winter, thinking about the birds that are there during those particular times of the year and what their needs are.
And so in the summer, you have Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and providing nectar for them is great. That’s a really critical resource. And those plants that are native that can support insects, as well because hummingbirds do eat insects as well and they certainly will feed them to their chicks. But then thinking about through the rest of the year, what are the other things that the plants that would provide berries in the fall when birds are bulking up for migration or through the lean winter months, seeds and berries that can support them.
So I’m not going to get into specifics about the plants, because there’s tools to find out what those might be. But just thinking really holistically about what the species are that are present and what their needs are throughout the year. And so those needs may be related to breeding, they may be related to migration, they may be related to, again, just overwintering.
Here in California, we have hummingbirds year round. And so we have to think more deliberately about providing sources of nectar throughout the year. And so there is some homework involved, but it’s fantastic homework. It’s really fascinating to think about what other species that are here, what are their needs?
And when I think about– and appreciate that both Becca and Marla mentioned that they live this as well. I as well have a yard full of native plants. And when the sages, which are blooming now, the hummingbirds are feeding on the nectar in the sages, then they’ll go to produce their seed heads.
And to Marla’s point, we leave the seed heads on because the finches then will take advantage of them. So again, thinking then holistically through the year what the birds are that are here and what their needs are is really critical. And you can set yourself up to really provide that year-round support for this species.
[Chelsea Benson] Something that I love about what you all are touching on is, it’s about also getting to know your place and making observations about what lives around us; the birds, the insects, the plants, and how they’re all interwoven and support each other in this really complicated and beautiful way. So that’s one thing that I’m drawing out of our conversation, that’s just a really cool thing to think about.
So we’re going to shift gears a little bit and talk about how we can make homes and communities more bird-friendly, because it does go beyond just providing plants that are native. So Becca, I would love if you could talk about what we can do in our own homes and then John could follow up what we might do on a larger community scale.
[Becca Radomsky-Bish] Yeah, absolutely. If you don’t mind connecting to what John was just talking about, before talking about things besides plants, for those that are watching that are along this trail a little further, maybe you’re already doing some native planting for birds. And I put myself in this bucket, I did this last year and it helped me a lot. I did a plant inventory and a resource inventory in my property. And I realized that I didn’t have much blooming right now or even in May.
And so this last year I really rectified that and got more things in the ground. And my garden, and Chelsea can attest to this because I give her flowers as a part of her CSA share, she’s getting beautiful flowers this year. She didn’t get those last year. And part of the reason is because I’m constantly trying to assess when do I have seeds? When do I not have seeds? When do I have flowers? When do I not, et cetera, so I can really expand to John’s point. So I’m supporting birds year-round as much as possible and insects year-round.
And then adding on to that, besides the plants, there’s so many things that people can do. Those that are tuning in, I’ve seen a lot of people speaking to desert areas, which I know is another one that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle with these conversations. But desert communities are so diverse and they’re so beautiful.
And one of the things that we really all need to be doing in a desert habitat is providing water, and not just in deserts, everywhere. Birds will be drawn into water. And somebody asked, I think, is moving water more important? Moving water will pull in sometimes different birds. Birds will use any kind of water, standing water, moving water. They usually like it to be quite shallow. They don’t like to get in too deep into rivers and so forth.
But moving water does bring in more diversity of birds. And sometimes it helps to deter mosquito larvae. So if the water is moving, mosquitoes won’t use it as much as a resource for laying their eggs. So water is critical. Another thing that all of us can do in and around our homes is protect our windows. And this can be very inexpensive from having your kids do an art project with tempera paint– that’s always fun, to putting sticks or strips of tape on your windows, to more expensive elaborate designs that involve shades and so forth.
But screens are a great way. If you have screens on your windows, you will notice that birds generally don’t collide into them. So something that protects your windows, so birds are not making impact. This is particularly important during migration season when there is just that much more movement happening with bird populations, and birds that aren’t familiar moving through an area. So protecting those windows is critical.
And then a third one, I’ll speak to two more. But a third one that I saw in the chat is removing plants that are toxic to birds. So many of these are not native. Nandina is a very popular one that’s getting more attention lately. It produces a poisonous berry that’s bright red and birds will mistake it for something that they’re used to eating, and it can kill birds. So being mindful of plants that are in and around your community that could be dangerous to birds is incredibly important.
And then sprays and herbicides. Refrain from using them. I know that this is very hard. It’s a very big behavioral cultural change shift. But really if we’re creating and wanting to create habitats for birds, we should not be applying any kind of chemicals to our properties. In fact, the less you do that, the more you’re going to be drawing birds in to help take care of those pests.
So for example, I have, I just noticed today that I have an invasion happening on my American cranberry and it’s producing these little caterpillars. And I kid you not, on the way here, I saw a bird swoop in and start taking those. It’s an invasive viburnum beetle caterpillar. So that kind of dynamic, allowing it to play out on your property instead of spraying and applying and trying to over-manage really will be more beneficial in the long run for birds. So that’s at home. And I think John’s going to speak more to other efforts in the community.
[John Roden] Yes. That was great. Thanks Becca. So yeah, there’s a couple of ways to think about this one. So Becca talked about windows and that’s certainly a huge issue. We understand that’s a really direct mortality threat to birds. Another aspect, and so within the Bird-Friendly Community’s framework, we have a Bird-Friendly Buildings effort which focuses on reducing collisions.
But also there’s an issue around light, because artificial light at night can be very distracting, for lack of a better word, to birds particularly during migration. The vast majority of North American bird species migrate at night and they use light cues in the sky. And so the overabundance of artificial light at night can be very problematic for them.
And Cornell has worked a lot on this. And we work across the country in communities on Lights Out programs which actually seek to diminish the amount of light that is broadcast, particularly during the sensitive phases of migration because that can be so problematic for birds.
But I will say that light, overall, and the massive amounts of light that are being put into the sky can be problematic for insects, for the prey base as well, can disrupt life cycles and can interrupt breeding. And so thinking holistically even about light. And we work with the International Dark Sky Association to think about even home audits, looking at the amount of light that you’re broadcasting into your local area can have an impact on your own patch. So thinking about that. That’s back down to the home level.
And then the other thing I wanted to mention is that we are working at municipalities across the landscape from the very local, like homeowners associations like Marla mentioned, up to the federal level through legislative or executive action, to encourage or mandate practices that are more bird-friendly.
So those could be homeowners associations regulations that either expand so that you can be a little more messy or actually encourage the use of things like native plants, on up to the federal level. And on the bird-friendly buildings front, there’s a Federal Bird Safe Buildings Act, which would focus on federal buildings and making them more bird-friendly both from a window and a light perspective.
And so that’s one thing that we’re trying to do across that whole landscape. Beyond raising awareness, how we might actually — in communities and states and the federal level — actually make sure that we’re incorporating more bird-friendly practices into our daily activities. So that’s something, and you can certainly reach out to our team if you’re interested in, or your local Audubon, to get engaged in that as well.
[Chelsea Benson] And I feel like we were having a conversation earlier and you are also saying that Audubon is starting to do more demonstration gardens? Is that right?
[John Roden] Yes. Thanks for that Chelsea. Yes. So one of the things that we are trying to do is show on a community level the benefits of native plants. And so we have at a number, the majority of our nature centers and sanctuaries, there are demonstration gardens.
And we work with community partners across the country to have demonstration gardens. We have them at governor’s mansions, for example, in North Carolina and South Carolina. So that people can see the benefits of native plants, and use those as living laboratories and demonstration places. So yeah, thank you for reminding me that.
[Chelsea Benson] Yeah, I just think it’s so cool to be able to go and see how other people use native plants and how they set up their gardens. And so taking tours of other spaces can really give you great ideas about how to enact that in your own space. But also be an inspiration to the community. So that’s really cool that they’re starting to do that.
We’re going to have one more question for Marla and then we’re going to jump into our audience questions. We have a very active and passionate audience on this topic. So I’m excited to look through their questions and see if we can answer some in our last couple of minutes. But I wanted to ask Marla about the course that you are working on, Growing Wild, because I know people are curious about it and I’d love for you to walk us through what’s included in the course, so they can look forward to what they might learn.
[Marla Coppolino] Absolutely. I’ll share my screen in a moment here, so you can see a preview page. Well, this should do it. There, can you all see that?
[Chelsea Benson] Yes, you’re set.
[Marla Coppolino] Great. So for those of you who are not familiar with the Bird Academy courses from the Lab of Ornithology, it’s an entirely self-paced course. Once you purchase the course, it’s yours forever. You can start and stop lessons whenever you want. You could back and watch them, review them again. It’s entirely at your own pace.
No previous birding or gardening experience is necessary for this new course. We are just enthusiastic about getting people to learn more about bird and natural element interactions and echo that in their own space. And it doesn’t matter, if you have, as we’ve said before, if you have nothing more than a balcony in an urban area with a few pots on it or if you have acreage, this course can work for you.
Most important thing is, we talk about native plants and we talk about what birds need, but the magic of it is seeing that together and really gaining a deeper understanding of ecology. The course, geographically speaking, it covers the 48 contiguous United States and also Canada.
And the course contains 17 videos, including really fun animations I hope you’ll enjoy. Lots of photos. It’s packed with content and information and guides to help you understand more about your natural native habitat. And then obviously because we’re covering such a broad geographical area, we can’t provide you the specifics for each one, but we actually do have a section in it where we walk you through your ecoregions. And once you know your ecoregion, we provide recommendations for plants that have benefits to birds, that birds are going to be using.
We could take a lot, I don’t want to make you dizzy, but we can scroll down. And if you could share this link in the chat, one of our moderators, it would be great. This gives you the course overview. It’s divided into six lessons. The first one, we’re talking about how you feel about your outdoor space and some inspirations to get you excited about your own nature scaping goals.
The second one, we focus on bird’s eye view. A bird’s eye understanding of what they need in nature. And you might be surprised at a few of these things. As Becca said, we all love this fact that about 96% of all non-shorebird species eat insects at some point in their life. So this is covered there, and how important insects. Are and not just insects, spiders, and centipedes, and snails, these are all bird food.
So enhancing your concept of bird food to be not just commercially bought birdseed, but all these other things are important for bird diet. In the Keys to Gardening for Birds in lesson 3, we found what we believe are the most central aspects for making the changes in your backyard.
And in lesson 4, this is all about learning your natural local area through native plant societies, through nature centers, through groups that help you show you what is a native plant, what does it look like here in your area. So that’s covers that. In dig in, then we finally get you actually in the soil and we provide some basic tips on what you need to get started in gardening and how to choose your plants and how to get them in the ground.
And then we provide a list by ecoregion of plants that are ideal for each of those ecoregions. Enjoy and Share, the last one, is so you can sit back and say, wow, I have actually attracted new bird species that I haven’t seen before. And we have inspirational testimonial videos from people who do actively gardening for birds, and they’re terrific. They’re tremendously inspirational and these are real stories about what people did to make changes.
And also how to– with the share part, we want to encourage this movement. So once you have done some changes for your own backyard, we hope that the trend can follow and your neighbors might be curious about what you’re doing, and they might see, hey, wow, they’re getting a lot of interesting birds I’ve never seen.
So it’s about spreading the word and getting it out to your neighbors in your neighborhood, that the more habitats that you have in backyards, the more connected that habitat will be. And we talk about habitat connectivity that birds are going to be drawn to areas where you have a few backyards that are in the game together.
[Chelsea Benson] Great.
[Marla Coppolino] Yeah.
[Chelsea Benson] Thank you so much Marla for walking us through that. I think that Bird Academy has provided a discount to everybody attending the webinar. So the code is growingwild20 — 2, 0, all one word. If you’re on Zoom, you’re going to get emailed that code. It’s 20% off the course. And then if you’re watching on Facebook, they’ll be putting that information into the comments. So thanks to Bird Academy for treating our webinar attendees, so they can take the course.
I see a lot of themes coming up in the questions. And one of the themes that’s coming up is related to the bird safety theme. So people are asking if we could touch on windows again, be more specific about feeder placement near windows, what we recommend. And also about cats. And what was the last one? Diseases at feeders and birdbaths. Those are all really important things. And what we do at home impacts bird health. So I don’t know if anybody here wants to jump on those three things about bird safety?
[Marla Coppolino] I don’t mind jumping in, but I also welcome Becca and John’s comments too. We actually do address those, and of course, it’s one of our six keys to gardening for birds, and the last one is all about bird safety. You’re drawing birds in, we want to keep them safe in our environment that we created.
So yes, we provide recommendations about window safety. There is a number of things you can do. And cats should be kept indoors. A tremendous number of birds, I can’t remember the figure, but it has a lot of zeros on it, birds are killed by cats every year. I have two house cats. They never go outside, but they get to enjoy birds through the windows.
And washing your feeders, disinfecting, sanitizing them regularly once a week, once every other week. It makes all the difference because there are viruses and bacterial pathogens that are out there that are infecting birds, and some of them can infect humans too. So that’s very important to take care of and keep them safe and ourselves. Anything else John or Becca?
[John Roden] I think you covered it really well, Marla. I would say I think that on the waterfront, so Becca talked about running water and that’s helpful. If you have like standing water, if you, again, just the ability to dump and refill and clean it out so it’s not just sitting there and then might collect feces or things like that.
So just cleanliness I think is really important when we’re talking about food and water. Think about it from your perspective, cleanliness is really critical for health when we’re talking about what we’re putting in our bodies. So with birds, we have to be very careful about what we allow them or what we provide for them to put in their own bodies.
[Chelsea Benson] Exactly. And I think that with the feeder placement, I think it should be three feet or closer. Right, Marla? Or farther away. So if you’re in an in-between zone, it can get just enough speed to have a window strike that harm them or kill them. But if they’re closer, they can’t get enough speed or if the feeder is really far away, they’re not drawn into that reflectance, they see the tree reflection and they don’t know a window is there.
So there are some guidelines about the distance that feeder should be placed away from windows. And also having that protective covering over your windows helps too. Another thing that’s coming up in the questions, a theme, is about protecting our plants from pests. I know where I am, everything gets munched on by deer. So deer is my pest. Other people have rodents or insects. Do you have any general advice for picking plants that are hardy and protecting them from being munched by different critters? Or maybe that’s OK to be munched? I don’t know.
[Becca Radomsky-Bish] I’d love to answer that one and then, please, others jump in. I live with acreage and we have lots of deer. And the two things that have helped me the most with my property and deer — I will just say, yes, you can go towards plants that are deer resistant. However, sometimes you want to plant something that deer like.
So I don’t generally just plant to resist deer, I try to plant things that I want to enjoy and provide habitat and so forth. And deer are our habitat. They’re part of the natural ecosystem too. So I don’t mind them having some nibbles here and there. The two things that work really well for me, is I plant a lot and I plant dense.
So a lot of times you can’t even see the deer damage, though I do have it. For instance my nine bark gets hit almost every year. And quite frankly, I think their pruning might be helping it because it is gorgeous this year. So plant them big and plant enough of them so that the deer could have a little nibble and they’re not going to destroy what you plant.
It’s these one plants in islands of nothing that deer love. They’re like, oh, look that tasty ice cream cone sitting there in the middle of the mulch pile. So really make it dense, make it complex, and plant enough of it so you don’t even notice the deer damage and you let them have a little snack.
And quite frankly, the other thing that helps me the most is my dog. My dog barks and runs if and when there is a bunny or something in the yard. So we can’t do that obviously in all places where there’s roads and so forth. But letting your dog be outside and going pee and I scatter its fur in and around some things that I really don’t want deer going after, all of those kinds of things. Using what you have around you is a helpful deer deterrent. If you have a dog or an animal, then you can utilize them a little bit to help.
[Chelsea Benson] One other topic that we haven’t talked about at all and I see coming up a lot, is the difference between native, non-native, and invasive. And what we should do about invasive plants. John, do you to walk us through those things and do you have any suggestions?
[John Roden] Sure. And happy again to have collaborators on that. And there can certainly be different definitions, I think, around these. What we think about as native is, if I’m speaking about the area that we work in North America, plants that existed in that space before European colonization. So those are native here.
Non-native species could have come in or they could be transferred from portions of the country to other ones, where they’re just not native. That doesn’t mean that they’re invasive. Invasive actually are species that take advantage of the fact that there are no predators, there’s no things that can actually keep them in check, and will expand and displace native species.
So there are distinctions between them and there may be plants that while not native are not invasive. Still they won’t necessarily support our wildlife that we want as well as our native plants will. So there are those distinctions. What was the second part of the question I think?
[Chelsea Benson] People are wanting to know how to manage invasive species? Which is a really specific question depending on what plant it is and where you live. But I know there are general strategies that people can use. Obviously, we don’t encourage spraying chemicals or herbicide.
[John Roden] Yes, exactly. And I think we have two minutes to cover this.
[Chelsea Benson] I know. Sorry, this could be its own webinar.
[John Roden] Yeah, I would certainly encourage Becca and Marla as well. Yeah, so there are different strategies. Again, like the reduction of pesticides and herbicides, that’s something we 100% we want to encourage. I think that there are managed use of those, and that’s, again, a topic that’s probably a little too complex to dig into right now. But it does depend on the species of plants, what may be most effective to actually reduce it. It could be covering so that they’re actually not able to actually receive sunlight, or water, or anything like that.
You may actually have to dig them out. And so I guess that I would suggest that you think about what’s the very specific needs, what’s the plants are in your local area. You connect with things like, extension offices can be very helpful in this thing. And there’s obviously fantastic resources that Cornell has produced. So those would be my high level things, if we have time for the others to contribute too, it would be great.
[Chelsea Benson] Yeah. Becca and Kamala, if you have anything to add and then we’re going to do some wrap up.
[Becca Radomsky-Bish] Yeah, dig the up and take the seeds off. Take the seeds and fruit off. That is garlic, mustard, lots of those things that produce little seed heads, get them off and dig them up.
[Marla Coppolino] Sometimes burn them because you can’t even compost some of these things without their seeds coming up again. I just want to give one more last plug for insects. It’s a big mindshift for people when they see they’ve planted a new native plant and they say, oh, no! There’s caterpillars on it! But when I see caterpillars, native local, those green caterpillars that are nice soft bird food I say, oh, boy! There are caterpillars eating my native plant!
And in my experience, they’ve not defoliated it, they’ve just been there and then what joy to see a bird come and land on that and pick them off and eat them or bring them to their nest for their young birds. Yeah, it’s a different approach and different way of thinking.
[John Roden] Yeah. And back to Becca’s point, that co-evolutionary process, those plants and insects have evolved together. That herbivory, that feeding on it, that’s a part of the natural life cycle. So it’s not going to harm the plant. So it’s all good.
[Chelsea Benson] Sometimes it’s hard to relax and be like, it’s OK. But telling everyone it’s OK, let nature take its course. I want to thank you all for spending the last hour with us. This was really fun. I feel like I learned a lot and I’m going to go out and look at my yard with fresh eyes. So thank you all.
And I really want to thank our audience. They’re really engaged and asking great questions. For all of you on Zoom, I’m going to be sending an email tomorrow that has this recording. It will have the resources that we talked about and it will have that coupon code for the Growing Wild course. So look for that email tomorrow. It’s going to be packed full of great information for you all.
In this webinar, as part of our series, we’ve been spotlighting programs and research from across the Cornell Lab, helping you learn about backyard birds, gardening for birds, and even more, issues facing birds worldwide. So if you enjoyed today’s program, please consider becoming a member of the Lab. And that’s all I have for us today. Thanks again to our panelists.
[Becca Radomsky-Bish] Thank you for your hard work, Chelsea.
[John Roden] Yes, thank you.
[Marla Coppolino] It was fun. Thanks.
[Chelsea Benson] Yeah, of course. Thank you all. And thanks again to our audience and have a great afternoon, everyone. Bye.
[John Roden] Bye.
[Marla Coppolino] Bye.End of transcript
Transform your outdoor space into a place birds will flock to! Join experts from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon’s Plants for Birds program for a discussion on how to choose native plants that will thrive, why messy is beautiful, and get tips on creating gardens that meet the needs of birds. No matter how large or small your growing space, you’ll be inspired to put on your gardening gloves and get busy creating a bird-friendly environment.
- Audubon’s Plants for Birds: Explore articles about creating bird-friendly habitat, the importance of natives, and more!
- Audubon’s Native Plant Database: Enter your US zip code for a customized list of plants and local resources including nurseries. Filter by plant type, plant resources, or the bird species you want to attract. Build out your own plant list.
- The Pollinator Partnership provides an in-depth look at native plants for all ecoregions in the United States and Canada. Enter your zip code to download your PDF guide.
- To learn more about the plants themselves, explore the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower website.