Don Torino’s Life In The Meadowlands: Butterfly Gardens Are Now For The Birds!

White-throated Sparrows

One of the first things I learned about restoring native butterfly habitat is that birds don’t read signs very well. Despite all the plaques proclaiming a garden to be for butterflies, Monarch way stations or even a pollinator garden our birds know a good thing when they see one. They utilize our native gardens just as much as our butterflies do whether they are in places like DeKorte Park or our very own backyard.

At a time of year when we think we are putting our butterfly gardens to bed and focusing our attentions elsewhere migratory birds are taking over our gardens occupied only a few weeks ago by Swallowtails, skippers and Monarchs.

The nectar in our butterfly gardens for the most is long gone now. Our butterflies now prepare their life cycle for the far off coming Spring. Now the fall browns, reds and golds substitute the brilliant colors of the summer. But make no mistake: those hues of the fall butterfly garden signal survival to many migratory birds that will now depend on them through the coming hard winter.

Golden-crowned Kinglet

Native wild flowers like Joe-pye, Ironweed and Goldenrod now provide seeds and insects to many sparrow species like White-throats, Towhees and Juncos. The Asters, Sunflowers and Milkweeds that gave life to Monarchs and Swallowtails now pass on that gift to Golden-crowned Kinglets, Yellow-rumped Warblers and even woodpeckers to find sustenance in the garden that once was warm and full of color. And yet life still abounds among the native plant stems as wintering insects, dried seeds and berries now take the place of the brilliant flowers and buzzing bees.

These gardens are now even more important as the “Winter Finch Irruption” is filling our gardens with Purple Finch and Pine Siskins, and even the Redpolls that cannot be far behind.

Fox Sparrow

And let’s not forget about our resident birds. Though more common they are no less glorious and still very dependent on our gardens. The Chickadees, Tufted Titmouse and yes, even our cardinals, will be searching for food among the sunflowers, hyssop and cardinal flowers. Birds like Song Sparrows, Fox Sparrows and Hermit Thrush will be scrapping through the leaf litter for life-giving insects and seeds.

A Good Example of a bird that is most likely flitting through your garden as we speak is the Ruby-crowned Kinglet. This tiny bird is one of the smallest in North America and spends its summers in spruce-fir forests in the northwestern United States and across Canada to Alaska.

The Ruby-crowned weighs about 0.2 to 0.4 oz. – incredible when you think of how far it travels to get to your backyard. If it is successful and is able to make it to your garden it will be looking for insects, including aphids, wasps, ants, and bark beetles.

They also eat a small amount of seeds and fruit. Unfortunately if you are a neat and clean gardener and prune and rake your garden in the fall you are removing the food that the Kinglets and many other species need to survive.

The answer ? leave your garden alone! It is best to be a lazy gardener in the fall to help protect our migratory birds. In fact, if we are to save our migratory birds we need to change the way we garden

Here are some tips to keep you garden more bird friendly this winter.

  1. DON’T CLEAN UP! – I can’t stress this enough. Not only are you eliminating the food birds need so much but you are also killing off next year’s butterflies, moths lightning bugs and pollinators that are overwintering on your plants and in the leaf litter.
  2. Don’t cut the old seed heads! – There are still many seeds that the birds need and love in the dried flower heads of Purple Cone Flower, Agastache and Rudbeckia. So again: Please don’t clean up!
  3. Make a brush pile – Instead of throwing out all those old tree branches pile them up in a corner of the garden. It will provide much need cover from predators and make a place to stay out of the winter winds.
  4. Provide some water – You can provide water in something as simple as a plant tray or an old garbage can lid. Of course you can also go hi-tech and use a heated birdbath. But whatever you choose, keep the water clean and fresh. The birds will love you for it.
  5. Leave your birdhouses up – If you had birdhouses in your garden this spring don’t take them down. Birds like Chickadees and Downey woodpeckers will use them to stay warm this winter and maybe even use them to nest come spring.
  6. Work on a plan for next spring – Plan on having less lawn and more native plants in your backyard. The more natives the more we can restore the balance of nature in suburbia.

We need to do all we can to help our birds and butterflies everywhere we can. From our backyards to our nature centers we can help by finding ways to provide and protect the precious wildlife habitat we have left here in the Garden State. Future generations are depending on us.



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