Q&A with Julie Zickefoose, Author of Natural Gardening For Birds

By Shelley Pierce | November 13, 2016
by Shelley Pierce
November 13, 2016

Writer/artist Julie Zickefoose, author of Letters from Eden, The Bluebird Effect, and Baby Birds: An Artist Looks Into the Nest is a Contributing Editor to Bird Watcher’s Digest, a long-running and well- respected birding magazine. Julie loves to introduce people to birdwatching, speaking at a number of festivals around the country, and now leads natural history excursions abroad. Natural Gardening for Birds is an outgrowth of her work with the magazine and around her own yard, whose bird list has reached 194 species. Seventy-eight butterfly species have graced the property as well. She lives with her family at Indigo Hill, their 80-acre wildlife sanctuary in Appalachian Ohio.  Read on to learn more about her latest release, Natural Gardening for Birds, and enter to win one of three copies from Skyhorse Publishing!

1. How did gardening for the birds become your passion?

I am addicted to beauty. I like to have birds, butterflies and flowers around me as much as possible. So planting gardens that attract birds and butterflies is an obvious way to get that accomplished. When I first started gardening, I planted flowers that I thought were pretty. Now I ask myself whether they’re also functional, giving something back to the native wildlife. The best plants are the ones with nectar for pollinators and later, edible seeds for birds.

2. Why is it important that we garden for the birds?

All across the country, there are sterile, unimaginative landscapes that consist of unbroken, often chemical-soaked lawns and evergreen shrubbery. There is little of interest or value to wildlife or people in them. I like gardens that mimic nature: highly diverse with a mix of species, each offering something different to pollinators and birds. If we’re going to replace woods and meadows with housing developments, the least we can do is try to mimic the diversity we removed, and welcome some of that displaced wildlife back into our yards.

3. What are some of your favorite ways to garden for the birds?

I think the all-star of all-stars in my yard is the gray birch, which I’ve planted and replanted in clumps in my yard for the past 24 years. Birch is the Swiss Army knife of trees, mostly because it’s attractive to so many insects! In the spring, new leaves are full of small green caterpillars, which are manna to migrating warblers, vireos, and tanagers, not to mention all the resident insectivores. In summer, the caterpillars persist, and in fall, aphid infestations can attract warblers who pick each tiny insect from the underleaf surfaces. More than that, birches make seed cones in mid-summer that come ripe by late summer, and feed finches, siskins and even redpolls well into the next spring. The seed production is tremendous. They’re beautiful, too. So if we can rethink a bit, to welcome a tree that attracts a lot of insect “pests,” we can create a banquet for small insectivorous birds we might not otherwise spot in our yards.

4. How does this book help create a bird-friendly habitat in our backyards?  What are some features in your book that aspiring bird gardeners will find most helpful?

The book is a mixture of anecdote and advice, with helpful tables and plant lists interspersed. It also treats each section of the country, East, Midwest, Mountain West and West Coast, so that no one is left wondering whether a plant will grow in their region.

5. Your book is very in-depth as it offers multitudes of ways to garden for the birds.  For the first time bird gardener, how do you recommend they get started?

Well, to dip your toe, you could try planting some hummingbird-attracting flowers in hanging baskets or planters, and place them near your hummingbird feeders. See how much more fun it is to observe hummingbirds coming to flowers than to plastic feeders! Look around your yard and ask yourself if the basics””food, water and shelter””are there for birds. Then look in the book for plants that will supply those things. If your yard is without trees or shrubs for shelter, pick out a few that look interesting, and Google images of them or visit a garden center to see them in real life. Try to select plants that do double duty, like the birches described above. Shrubs that flower and bear fruit are the ticket; plants that provide nectar and tasty seeds, too work well. Purple coneflower is a highly useful plant for sunny spots. After the nectar-producing flowers fade, seed cones form that will be cleaned up by goldfinches.

6. Any advice for the aspiring bird gardeners out there?

One of the first and best things you can do to attract birds is to provide water, preferably moving, in the form of a bubbling fountain with a shallow reservoir. Combining bird-friendly plants with a clean, reliable water source is a potent way to attract great birds to your yard.

WIN ONE OF THREE COPIES OF “Natural Gardening For Birds”!

To enter, simply leave a comment on this blog post by midnight on Saturday, November 20, 2016 (be sure to provide a valid e-mail address) in answer to the following question:

Which birds do you hope to attract to your backyard?

Be sure to include a valid e-mail address. The winner will be drawn at random from all qualified entrants, and notified via e-mail. (See rules for more information.)

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