Considering climate change, adaptation is key. In the final webinar of the Wild Farm Alliance’s series “The Role of Birds on Farms,” we learn not only about the feeding habits of birds but what plants and trees are best suited to survive warming temperatures and therefore continue to help birds to thrive.

According to Jo Ann Baumgartner, director of the Wild Farm Alliance, it’s important to understand where different types of birds forage and why.

Baumgartner pointed out that when it comes time to forage, small birds, such as chickadees and titmice, tend to stick to areas nearer to their nests, moving out only 100 feet in any given direction. This is because chickadees need to be fed about 150 times a day, which limits how far their parents can go to find food. She compared this to barn owls, whose feeding range is around two miles. “They can forge larger distances because they bring about six rodents a day back to their nests,” she said.

Baumgartner then presented the “Beneficial Bird Native Plant Chart,” which shows three categories – the characteristics of plants, bird species’ use of plant genera and climate benefits as they relate to certain trees and shrubs. She focused on the climate benefits.

Using elderberry as an example, she said it’s very likely that this plant is going to stick around because it’s so adaptable. It can grow in cool, hot and high elevation regions. It can also handle drought conditions and cases with too much water.

The ability of certain plants to store carbon is another benefit cited by Baumgartner. As an oak tree ages, the amount of carbon it can store increases. She added that although not on the same level as trees, shrubs (like elderberry) also do a decent job of storing carbon. She shared the results of a study done on one farm which showed 18% of the carbon was stored in 6% of the land, with most of it being stored in the riparian habitat. The hedgerow was a close second.

Sam Shaw, who also works with the Wild Farm Alliance, then discussed the next category listed on the chart: the different plant characteristics. According to Shaw, “Riparian areas are very productive. Right now, they provide food, nesting and cover for about 75 bird species in the United States. They function as wildlife movement corridors for birds and other wildlife and are great areas to do some farm-scaping.”

According to Shaw, hedgerows provide a lot of canopy and different sites for birds and food, as do windbreaks. “If windbreaks are planted on a really busy road, it provides a nice quiet area and has a lot of habitat possibilities,” he said. It allows the birds to hear songs and warning signals, which are important considerations.

According to Shaw, “When non-native plants are in brought in specifically because they don’t have insects, well, they’re great on the lawn because there are no insects, but if there are no insects, there are no birds, so it’s really important to try to stay with the native plants.”

He pointed out that one of the functions of these habitat plantings is to increase water infiltration. Regarding hedgerows, he said, “It’s important to know that when we set up a system, say near a field, we’ll put in a drip system, and it just needs enough water to get it going and moist for about two or three years. After that, they don’t need any water at all.”

The final category, presented by Brian Fagundas, who hosted each of the Wild Farm Alliance webinars, was bird species use of plant genera.

According to Fagundas, this category can be broken down into three habitat types: general, food and nesting. General habitats are where birds forage, nest and breed. Food habitats refer to the parts of the plants consumed for food, such as the seeds or the berries. Nesting habitats encapsulate where on a plant a bird builds its nest and with what materials.

Within the general habitat, Fagundas listed the top four genera of plants in the large shrub and tree categories, which he referred to as “rock stars.” They were Pinus (pine trees), Quercus (oak trees), Populus (cottonwood trees) and Salix (willow trees).

“These were the ones that had the most bird associations,” Fagundas said. Other plants in the general category are also notable for their ability to provide food and nesting materials.

The top plants in the food habitat category are the Sambucus (elderberries), Rhus (sugarbush and lemonbush), Prunus and Quercus – all of which support over 20 species of birds.

Lastly, Fagundas noted that as far as the nesting category, “The best trees and plants for the general and nesting habitat are the same, so that’s again our oaks, pines, willows and the Populus – the aspens.”

If you want to dig deeper to find out more, Fagundas directed us to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which has an online resource called “Birds of the World.” This program stores tons of data about almost every single bird species in the world.

by Jessica Bern