Feathered beauties are Christmas gifts for all seasons

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BRAINERD, MINN. – For more than two decades I have worked to attract wildlife to 70 acres of land I own just outside of town. Every project I have set up has been a success. It is very rewarding work.

Equally rewarding was the landscaping of my yard with fruit trees and shrubs to attract and retain birds year-round. Now, during the winter, many species of birds depend on fruit as fuel for their internal furnaces, since insects and other foods are non-existent in the winter. I also planted a variety of evergreen trees. The birds seek shelter from the wind and the cold among their thick branches. Trees also provide spring nesting sites and provide protection from birds of prey and other predators.

Of course, we can and do attract birds to our yards by placing a variety of well-stocked bird feeders. The techniques described below are perhaps a little less traditional and may require more labor to start with. But they also last longer and ultimately, I believe, more satisfying – for humans and birds alike.

You don’t have to live in the countryside to successfully attract birds with your plantings. You also don’t need to own a lot of land. Our feathered friends will respond to your habitat improvements even if you live in the heart of a city. And there’s no better time than now to start planning your bird-friendly backyard improvement project. To better be ready for the opening of nurseries in the spring.

Of course, for plants to grow here in Minnesota, they must be cold hardy. Fruit tree species to consider are crabapple (red splendor is my favorite), mountain ash, and highbush cranberry.

In more confined areas of your yard where the trees might be too tall, fruiting shrubs will not only attract birds, but add beauty to any landscape project. Shrubs can be placed individually beside houses or garages, or can be planted close together and trimmed to form hedges and boundaries.

It’s a good idea to plant a variety of tree and shrub species that will provide food for wildlife throughout the year. For example, scarlet elderberry bears fruit in early summer, red osier and saskatoon in mid-summer, gray dogwood, American elderberry, arrowwood, and chokecherry in late the summer. Most fruit from the summer species will now be gone, but why limit your landscaping efforts to just the winter varieties. Highbush cranberry, mountain ash and crabapple ripen in the fall and retain their colorful, bird-appealing fruit all winter long, or until hungry birds devour the treats.

When choosing plant varieties, native species always grow best and with the least effort. By talking to nursery staff, reading books, and researching the Internet, you may be able to find an assortment of trees and shrubs that grow well in your area while providing birds and other wildlife with the benefits of food and shelter.

If you’re looking for instant gratification, adding a heated birdbath is a great idea. Wildlife, even in the cold season, prefer to drink water rather than eat snow for their daily fluid intake because they do not need to burn extra energy to melt the snow. And yes, some birds do bathe in winter, especially when temperatures are above freezing.

An unforeseen issue that I hadn’t anticipated is that white tailed deer also prefer to drink liquids rather than eat snow. So some mornings I have to refill the birdbath because the deer – under cover of darkness – drink it dry overnight.

Gray, fox and red squirrels also find the open water to their liking and drink daily at my birdbath. I don’t mind sharing my projects with various species of wild animals.

Your entire landscaping plan doesn’t need to be completed in one season. However, the sooner you start, the sooner you will realize the rewards. When you gaze in awe at a flock of pine grosbeaks as they descend upon your crabapple tree on a cold winter’s day, or when cedar waxwings gather to feed on mountain ash or cranberries in corymbe, you will know that your work was worth it.

Also keep this in mind: a bird-friendly backyard not only provides valuable food and habitat for our feathered friends, but it also increases the aesthetics and value of your property.

A win-win.

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