Landscapes can provide the perfect habitat for wildlife, especially birds. Even a small quarter-acre lot can be designed to provide a healthy habitat to support an assortment of birds. The three keys to success are providing food, water and shelter. Most of our landscapes meet some of the basic requirements already, so your job might be easier than you think.
North Florida landscapes provide a wide assortment of food for migrating species as well as year-round residents. When choosing landscape plants, select a diverse palate that will provide food throughout the year. For example, some of the prized winter foods are produced by oak, pine, holly, cherry laurel, cypress, sweetgum, sycamore and wax myrtle. In fall and winter, dogwood, holly and red cedar berries provide food for cedar waxwings and other songbirds. Hawthorne, red mulberry, red buckeye, coral bean and coral honeysuckle provide food in the spring. Summer foods include black cherry, Southern crabapple, hackberry, maple, saw palmetto, blackberry and blueberry. American beautyberry tops the list of fall foods but options also include pine, fringe tree, hickory and Southern magnolia.
Many birds feed on insects in addition to plant food. Woodpeckers help control many forest pests such as grubs, ants and beetles. Insects are the main diet for purple martins, Carolina wrens, house wrens and warblers. Avoid using unnecessary pesticide applications so these insect eaters will have an untainted and ready food source.
Bird feeding, especially during the winter, is a great recreational activity. Place feeders in locations so you can view them from your home. You don’t have to spend a lot of money on feeders but make sure that feeders have drainage so the seeds won’t get moldy from sitting in water. Arrange the feeders at different levels and locations throughout the landscape. Stock the feeders with seeds such as black-oil sunflower, thistle or niger. Birds that typically feed on insects will benefit from a protein-rich food like suet, especially now that cold weather has reduced their food source. Melted suet can be placed in shallow cans or mixed with peanut butter and spread onto pine cones. Based on your selection of food and feeder, you can somewhat control the birds you want to attract. For more information on bird feeders and food types, go to edis.ifas.ufl.edu/uw192.
Providing water is perhaps the easiest thing to add. Water is needed for drinking and bathing. It can be as simple as a shallow bird bath or clay saucer or something as elaborate as an in-ground pool. If possible, include a small pump to circulate water and create the sound of dripping water which is a great attractant.
Birds need areas to breed, nest, sleep, feed and hide from their predators. Often, food plants can also serve as cover and shelter for birds. Create a landscape that forms layers. For the backdrop, plant a mix of tall to medium evergreen and deciduous trees that will double as a food source. Next, plant a cluster of smaller flowering trees near the tall trees. These trees should vary in height and density. Then surround the area of trees with an assortment of shrubs and groundcovers.
If you have a dead tree in your landscape that doesn’t pose a threat to your home, leave it in place as a snag. Over one third of all birds and mammals in the forest need a hole or cavity in a tree for shelter or nesting. Most of the cavity-nesting birds are insect eaters like woodpeckers, screech owls, and bluebirds. A new UF/IFAS publication was just released that provides information on the habitat requirements of some of the birds that breed or stopover in residential areas. See it at edis.ifas.ufl.edu/uw418.
Bird houses are always another option in providing nesting sites. House dimensions, entrance holes and location are fairly specific for each species, so do your homework before you make a purchase or construct your own. For detailed information on birdhouses, go to edis.ifas.ufl.edu/uw058.
Birds common to north Florida are divided into three basic groups: year-round residents, summer breeders and winter residents. Year-round residents include cardinal, Eastern bluebird, blue jay, Carolina wren, mocking bird, brown thrasher, Carolina chickadee, tufted titmouse, screech owl, barred owl, American kestrel, blue-gray gnatcatcher and chipping sparrow. Summer breeders that move on to warmer climates in winter include blue grosbeak, indigo and painted bunting, purple martin, ruby-throated hummingbird, yellow-billed cuckoo, yellow-throated vireo and great crested flycatcher. Winter residents or visitors are house wren, catbird, goldfinch, purple finch, pine siskin and ruby-crowned kinglet.
These are just some of the more common birds in our area. If you really enjoy bird watching, consider purchasing resource books to aid in identification. The Audubon Society has an assortment of small books with color photos of birds divided into habitats which makes them easy to use.
Terry Brite DelValle is a horticulture extension agent with the Duval County Extension Service and the University of Florida/IFAS.