The Summer "horn of plenty"


In walking around our farm in this late Summer period I am struck by the exuberant production of Nature including flowers, fruits, seeds, green vegetation, etc. I especially notice the fruits of the hackberry (likely Celtis occidentalis), which grows along one of our fence lines. This is not a species I see often although it is touted as a bird-friendly plant because of its fruits. We have tried planting it and its more southern relative the sugarberry, without a great deal of success. I think it requires a richer soil and more moisture than our sites generally provide.

Another beautiful and bird-friendly plant is the relatively rare cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) which is highly specialized for pollination by hummingbirds. It has a very interesting ecology since it is a poor competitor with grasses and thus is found most often along streams, disturbed by occasional floods, or in wet areas of pastures where competition is reduced by grazing. It appears to be poisonous, as is ironweed, and is thus not eaten by horses. Ironweed is also one of our favorites due to its wonderful flowers and attraction to butterflies, and later to seed eating sparrows, such as the white crowned which spends Winters here on the farm.

Of course we should not ignore the growth of grasses and their abundant seeds which provide food for many animals. Indeed some herbaceous plants that farmers may consider weedy and less than desirable can be highly beneficial for wildlife. For example consider the foxtail (various Setaria species), grasses that flourish in Summer if the competition from cold-season grasses such as fescue is removed by cutting in mid-June. If you allow this to grow (we have a patch next to our garden) it will attract resident indigo buntings and even migrating bobolinks to harvest its seeds.

In contrast to this late Summer explosion of plant growth, most birds are past their breeding periods and are relatively quiet, many have begun migration, or are filling their bellies with the "horn of plenty" available all around them from the natural foods that have sustained them for eons. Given the luxury of such natural foods, it is very hard to justify artificial feeding of birds in the Summer. Let's try to balance our desire to enjoy birds in a backyard setting at feeders, with the best interests of the birds themselves. There is an alternative that can serve both the best interests of birds and their human watchers, namely the planting of appropriate native and exotic plants around our houses that provide foods in a manner consistent with natural patterns of behavior.

Bill Dunson
Galax, Va & Englewood, FL