Feathered beauties are Christmas presents for all seasons

BRAINERD, MINN. – For more than two decades I’ve worked to attract wildlife to 70 acres of land I own not far from town. Each project I’ve implemented has been successful. It’s very gratifying work.

Equally rewarding has been landscaping my yard with fruit-bearing trees and shrubs meant to attract and hold birds year-round. Now, during winter, many species of birds rely on fruit as fuel for their internal furnaces because insect and other foods are nonexistent in winter. I’ve also planted a variety of evergreen trees. Birds seek shelter from the wind and cold among their thick branches. The trees also provide nesting sites in spring and provide protection from birds of prey and other predators.

We can and do, of course, attract birds to our yards by placing a variety of well-stocked feeders. Techniques outlined below are perhaps somewhat less traditional and can be more labor intensive at the outset. But they are also longer-lasting and ultimately, I believe, more satisfying — to people as well as birds.

You don’t have to live in the country to successfully lure birds with your plantings. Nor do you need to own a lot of land. Our feathered friends will respond to your habitat improvements even if you reside in the heart of a metropolitan area. And there’s no better time than now to start planning your bird-friendly backyard improvement project. All the better to be ready when nurseries open in spring.

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

In more confined areas of your yard where trees might be too large, fruit-bearing shrubs will not only attract birds, but will add beauty to any landscape project. Shrubs can be placed singularly next to homes 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 trees and shrub species that will provide food for wildlife throughout the year. For example, scarlet elder produces fruit in early summer, red-osier dogwood and serviceberry in mid-summer, grey dogwood, American elderberry, arrowwood and chokecherry in late summer. Most fruit from summer bearing species will be gone by now, but why limit your landscaping efforts to just winter varieties. Highbush cranberry, mountain ash and crabapple ripen in fall and hold their colorful bird-attracting fruit through winter, or until hungry birds devour the delicacies.

When choosing plant varieties, native species always grow best and with the least amount of effort. By talking with nursery staff, and by reading books and doing internet research, you will be able to find an assortment of trees and shrubs that grow well in your location and still provide birds and other wildlife the benefits of food and cover.

If you are looking for instant gratification, the addition of a heated bird bath is a great idea. Wildlife, even during the cold season, prefer to drink water rather than eat snow for their daily fluid intake because they don’t need to burn up extra energy melting the snow. And yes, some birds bathe during winter, especially when temperatures are above freezing.

An unforeseen problem I didn’t count on is that white-tailed deer also prefer drinking liquid to eating snow. So, some mornings I must fill the bird bath because deer — under the cover of darkness — drink it dry overnight.

Gray, fox and red squirrels also find the open water to their liking, and drink every day from my bird bath. I don’t mind sharing my projects with various species of wildlife.

Your entire landscape plan need not be accomplished in one season. However, the sooner you get started, the quicker you’ll 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 day, or when cedar waxwings gather to feed on mountain ash or highbush cranberries, you’ll know your labors were well worth it.

Keep this in mind, too: A bird friendly backyard not only provides treasured food and habitat for our feathered friends, it also increases the aesthetics and value of your property.

A win-win.