Consider birds before pruning back landscape

When analyzing the situation in our landscapes and gardens, it is stressful if you are assessing the food and water situation for birds.

In terms of the opportunity to observe a diverse selection of seed-eating, insect-eating, and fruit-eating species and individuals, however, the dry, freeze-damaged settings seem to mean our efforts to provide water, seeds, fruit and cover to attract birds are successful.  

One of the most prevalent questions from gardeners after drought and freeze damage is when should they prune back the damaged stems and foliage. The answer lies in weighing several considerations.

First, consider whether the dead foliage is so unattractive that it makes you want to remove it.

The second consideration is that the frozen stems provide the birds in your landscape with cover from predators, and places to hunt for insects and seeds to eat. The longer you can leave it in place the better it is for wildlife.

The third factor to consider is the state of the new growth on the plants. If you can leave some of the existing stems and foliage, it will often help protect the new growth from further damage.

A female black-chinned hummingbird eats at a hummingbird feeder in Bandera, Texas. San Antonio's resident species is preparing for winter migration.

A female black-chinned hummingbird eats at a hummingbird feeder in Bandera, Texas. San Antonio's resident species is preparing for winter migration.

Wild Horizon/Universal Images Group via Getty

The sugar water from our hummingbird feeders is attracting a few rufous hummingbirds this winter. But with the lack of cape honeysuckle, Turks cap and Mexican honeysuckle blooms due to the freezes, the nutritious sugar water  also is attracting large numbers of golden-fronted woodpeckers, house sparrows, English sparrows, and even orange-crowned warblers and kinglets. Earlier in the fall, tanagers, orioles and towhees made regular visits.

Golden-fronted woodpeckers enjoy sugar water as much as hummingbirds do.

Golden-fronted woodpeckers enjoy sugar water as much as hummingbirds do.

Diana Robinson Photography, Contributor / Getty Images

It was great to get some rain last week. The half-inch will encourage some of our wildflowers to bloom and provide a small reserve in the soil, but it won't make up for our 20-inch deficit over the last year.

Keep your watering program on schedule, including for the birdbath and circulating water program function. Birdbaths need to be refilled each day.

The most noticeable bird species in my birdbaths are lesser goldfinches. They become even more prevalent when the sunflowers have started to bloom, but the goldfinches are showy all year. The water attracts all the feeding birds, but some are especially attractive.

The lesser goldfinches can also be attracted to your landscape by thistle seed fed through a tube feeder accessed through slits on the tube. Next to the lesser goldfinches, I enjoy the Cooper's hawks that hang out on the birdbaths layered on the patio. Birds, including white-winged doves, are frightened of them but not the squirrels.

To keep squirrels from consuming your whole bird-feeding budget, consider discouraging their feasting by using pepper-flavored seed in addition to metal feeders with weight-sensitive perches. White-winged doves can also be denied access to the seed inside a feeder with weight-sensitive perches.

This week in the garden
  • Begin spraying backyard fruit trees with an insecticide and a fungicide labeled for the task when the petals of the blooms first begin to fall off. Spraying in the evening protects the trees well and has a reduced negative impact on the bees.
  • If you want to plant the Rodeo Tomato because the supply is limited, but you know it is too early to plant them in the garden, pot the plants in a 1-gallon container and set it in the sun out of the wind until about April 1. Fertilize with Osmocote. Move the plant into shelter if temperatures are forecast to fall below 40 degrees.
  • Plant Bermuda grass by seed for a new lawn after April 1 after applying 19-5-9 slow release lawn fertilizer two to four weeks before seeding at the rate of 1 pound of nitrogen per 100 square feet. Water the new seed twice per day for one week and then every day for two weeks. Bermuda grass should germinate in two weeks after planting.
  • Kill grassy weeds in broadleaf setting with Grass b Gon  or Poast, and kill broadleaf weeds in the lawn with a contact herbicide such as Weed Free Zone.

Cardinals, chickadees, titmice, white-crowned sparrows, blue jays and other seed-eating birds readily eat pepper-flavored seeds such as sunflower and mixed seeds, but squirrels pass them up.

Another option is safflower seed. It is not a squirrel favorite even if it is not flavored with pepper.

To open your feeders to insect-eating birds, offer suet. Again, use the pepper-flavored versions to attract birds but not squirrels. Mockingbirds and at least three species of wrens will visit the pepper-flavored suet, along with downy woodpeckers, ladder-backed woodpeckers, orange-crowned warblers,  myrtle warblers and kinglets.

Any of the bird seeds and suet that spill onto the ground become food for thrashers, white-throated sparrows, Lincoln sparrows and Inca doves.

Calvin Finch is a retired Texas A&M horticulturist.