When I was a boy and saw robins hopping around on the lawn when it was still frozen and partially snow-covered, my first impulse was to go buy some fishing worms and put them out. We feed the chickadees sunflower seeds, don’t we, I asked my mom? Why not feed the robins?

Sixty years later, I am feeding the robins — but not worms. The robins this year came back early, and in great numbers. They have been feasting on crabapples lingering on a tree I planted outside my kitchen window. We gardeners can do much to provide the biological diversity needed in our environment to feed the birds — robins included. And earlier this winter that same tree fed the wild turkeys for a day or two. Fortunately, it produces plenty of fruit and there was some left for those early birds from the south.

STAGHORN SUMAC.

STAGHORN SUMAC.

Many years ago, I attended a talk by naturalist Ted Levin of Norwich, Vermont. He explained that not all fruit is created equal. Birds need calories, and thus go first to any food source that has a high fat content, particularly in winter. Birds are a bit like teenagers: pepperoni berries would suit them fine. Some fruits have high sugar content, which also makes them attractive. Think of blueberries, and how quickly the birds can clean off a bush if it’s not covered in netting.

ROBIN FOOD ... crabapples.

ROBIN FOOD … crabapples.

Loved by birds

Of the crabapples, some are liked by birds and others ignored. According to Kevin Brown of E.C. Brown Nursery of Thetford, the following are good crabapples loved by birds: Snowdrift, sugar time, sargent, red jewel, prairie fire and golden rainbow.

In many places, staghorn sumac (Rhus hirta) are still loaded with dry red fruit, their seeds are clustered in “bobs” that are displayed at the tips of the top branches. Sumac is not generally planted by gardeners — unless you consider birds gardeners. They eat the seeds at this time of year and some seeds pass through their digestive systems unharmed. But sumac seeds have very little fat content, so, according to Levin, they have remained largely uneaten until now — the hungry time. I have seen starlings and bluejays eating them, and read that another 20 or so species do, too.

If you are interested in learning more about trees that feed birds, or provide them with shelter or nesting sites, there is a wonderful book available in paperback by Richard M. DeGraaf called “Trees, Shrubs, and Vines for Attracting Birds.” It is in a second edition published by University of New England Press for $24.95. So if you want to attract a specific bird, you can find plants that will attract it.

Other good woody plants for bird food include elderberries, grapes, shadbush (Amelanchier spp.) and pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia). Elderberries like moist soil — I have them growing right up next to my stream. They are not long-loved plants, generally surviving under 10 years. Planting two or more varieties together will help to get better pollination.

Grapes produce their fruit on new canes. So prune them heavily each winter, before they set blossoms or leaves. A good structure to support the vines is important, too.

Shadbush is one of the first trees to bloom each spring. Its blossoms are similar to apples, but the fruit is small and dark, almost like a blueberry. Birds are ready to eat the fruit a few days before it is fully ripe, so although I have several bushes, it was many years before I got to eat any.

Pagoda dogwood is a wonderful native shrub that grows willy-nilly on my property. Like elderberries, it is not a plant with a long lifetime. It’s an understory tree that can do well even in shade. The blossoms, unlike those on its cousin the flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), are small and understated. In late summer, its fruit — dark blue drupes (fruit with one large seed, like a cherry) — are prominently displayed on red upward-facing stems. And the birds love them, stripping them off as soon as they are ripe.

All evergreens are important to birds, too, including white pine, hemlock, balsam fir and spruces of all kinds. Birds not only eat the seeds, they nestle in their branches to be out of the winter winds.

So don’t worry about feeding those early-arriving robins. No need to buy fishing worms for them. But do think about planting some nice trees or shrubs for them this year. They’ll appreciate your efforts and reward you by eating some of the bugs in your yard.

HENRY HOMEYER lives in Cornish Flat, N.H., and is the author of four gardening books. His website is www.GardeningGuy.com. Henry is now blogging twice a week. Read his blogs at https://dailyuv.com/henryhomeyer.


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