By Coggin Heeringa, Director, Crossroads at Big Creek
Attracting birds is near and dear to Crossroads at Big Creek. One reason is that we have been working on a Bird and Butterfly Garden around our Collins Learning Center for the last few years. Visitors to the learning center can’t help but notice the bird feeding stations outside our entrances. Now that the breeding season is over and colder weather is setting in, our seed-eating birds are showing up in increasing numbers.
Most of our feeders are stocked with black oil sunflower seeds. According to Cornell University’s “All About Birds” website: “The black oil seeds (“oilers”) have very thin shells, easy for virtually all seed-eating birds to crack open, and the kernels within have a high fat content, extremely valuable for most winter birds.”
Because we enjoy flocks of winter finches — American Goldfinches, Pine Siskins, Common Redpolls (which aren’t common, but do show up on the Door Peninsula some years) — we hang several special feeders with tiny openings to dispense the tiny black Niger seeds these small birds crave. We also put out (rendered) suet blocks for the woodpeckers and nuthatches.
But we consider our native wildflowers garden just as, or maybe more, important for attracting winter birds. We believe in “messy gardens.” Arguably, the garden has looked a little rough after the growing season ended. But since the first snow, we have winter “bloomings.” After each snow, the seed heads gorgeous, sparkling white, the perfect backdrop for our cardinals.
To birds, those spent blossoms are an “all you can eat banquet”. It’s fun to watch the acrobatics as birds cling to the dried flower stalks, gleaning the nutrient- rich seeds from every seedhead. The dead stalks also serve as cover when birds seek shelter from the wind or need to quickly disappear avoid capture by predators. Near our gardens we have several arborvitae trees and dense shrubs which shelter birds on cold winter nights.
In the summer, our birdfeeders get far fewer visitors because during breeding season, almost all songbirds (even the birds we think of as seed or fruit eating species) switch to caterpillars in order to get the protein they and their offspring need.
And, as the Wild Ones organization endeavors to help people understand, native moths and butterflies lay their eggs on native plants. If a landscape does not offer host plants for moths and butterfly caterpillars, there will not be nests or baby birds.
Most moths and butterflies are specialist, laying their eggs exclusively on one or two species of trees. Not all natives were created equal. Some tree species are far more productive than others. So when we completed our parking lot expansion, we decided to select native trees which were known to be host plants to the greatest number of moths and butterflies.
To make our selections, we went to an amazing website sponsored by the National Wildlife Federation. Just enter Native Plant Finder on any search engine. Then enter your zip code and a filter will list only plants that are native to our area.
Spoiler alert: oak trees will be at the top of every list! According to the National Wildlife Federation: “An oak tree can support the caterpillars of more than 500 species of butterflies and moths. Those caterpillars are a critical food source for 96% of the songbirds. For example, a pair of chickadees requires between 6,000 and 9,000 caterpillars to raise just one brood of young. That’s the power and importance of planting native trees when it comes to supporting wildlife.”
Crossroads is a learning center made up of three preserves. The Collins Learning Center, located at 2041 Michigan in Sturgeon Bay, is open 10:00-4:00 week days, 1:00-4:00 weekends and during scheduled activities. Trails are open and free to the public. Here are our immediately upcoming events in late November:
Thursday, November 14
Wild Ones of the Door Peninsula will bring Charlotte Lukes to Crossroads to present a lecture about many of the native birds in Northeast Wisconsin and the native wildflowers, shrubs and trees they prefer. She will also show bird nest boxes, and platforms and an assortment of feeders and water baths. Included will be how to prevent bird-window collisions and shows how to keep unwanted critters off the feeders. Refreshments at intermission.
Friday, November 15
3:00 pm – Friday Film: “Cosmic Collisions”
This Friday, the film will feature astronomy. This production, created by the American Museum of Natural History and NASA and narrated by Robert Redford, explains the many collisions which have resulted in the solar system as we know it. Free and open to the public at Collins Learning Center.
Sunday, November 17
2:00 pm – Family Program: Sun on Sunday
As part of our astronomy outreach program underwritten by the Wisconsin Space Grant, Sunday’s program will begin with a stunning video called 3-D Sun, followed by activities and ice cream sundae cones. Free and open to the public, meet at Collins Learning Center.