Up at the Tree House: Plant Your Bird Food

Nature // October 13, 2021

By Christina Moresi, Wissahickon Environmental Center

As we continue to learn about COVID-19’s effects on humans, a new mystery illness has surfaced, which is baffling biologists and being called an “emerging wildlife health event.” First observed in 12 songbird species, primarily blue jays, gray catbirds, northern cardinals, and American robins in Pennsylvania (and 10 other states), this illness presents symptoms that include crusting around the eyes, eye lesions or swelling, and/or neurological signs, such as stumbling and twitching, that are unrelated to any known illness.

Wildlife health experts from the Wildlife Futures Program (WFP) at Penn Vet and officials from the Pennsylvania Game Commission have been investigating this illness, testing for various toxins, parasites (canker), bacterial diseases (house finch eye disease), and viral infections (West Nile Virus or bird flu). Earlier this summer, experts instructed bird lovers to take in all bird feeders and baths to stop the gathering of multiple birds and species in close quarters. This is best way to support social distancing in the bird world while researchers work to solve this mystery. At the time of this writing, bird feeders are not considered to be the source of the illness; however, no cause or transmission method have yet been confirmed.

Social media platforms have been instrumental in spreading the word about this illness and how people can help. Unfortunately, there was a lot of misinformation shared; most common was that the birds were starving without the feeders.

Perhaps in a sterile, lawn-dominated landscape, birds (and other wildlife) may have a more difficult time finding what they need, so they flock to feeders for easy snacks. But they will not starve without them. They will move to a more diverse landscape with nutrient-rich soil, water sources, and native plants of various colors, shapes, and bloom times, where there is everything they need.

Selecting and planting native plants is the best way to naturally feed the birds to support their health and enjoy their presence at home. Native plants provide a healthy, balanced diet for birds by supporting pollinators, which pollinate the flowers to support fruit and seed growth, and decomposers, which nourish the soil. It is important to cultivate plants, shrubs, and trees that have different bloom and fruiting times, and flower shapes and colors. This ensures that the diversity of food options supports insect-, seed-, and fruit-eating birds.

Some of my favorite plants include cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), which is irresistible to hummingbirds. Milkweeds (Asclepias spp.) host a wide variety of pollinators, as does Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), which also has a plethora of seeds. Birds also love coneflower seeds, berries, and grass seeds. Early blooming eastern red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) and the late blooming goldenrod are perfect bookends. Add some sunflowers for the finches and you are not only feeding the birds but also providing shelter and nesting materials.

Fall is the perfect season to plant. There is enough time for the new plants to establish roots, overwinter strong, and emerge in the spring ready to provide food and shelter for birds and all backyard wildlife.

Christina Moresi, M.Ed., is an Environmental Education Planner at the Wissahickon Environmental Center.