Food for birds and other wildlife at the Fletcher Wildlife Garden

by Christine Hanrahan

I thought it might be interesting to compile a list of all the natural food sources around the Fletcher Wildlife Garden, used by wildlife. I include only plants on which I have actually seen birds or other wildlife feed.

Many are obvious, of course, the crabapples, mountain ash, wild grape, sumac, and cones of various conifers. What I find interesting, and hope you do too, is the number of weedy plants that are used by wildlife, mostly birds, and mostly sparrows, finches and chickadees. Plants such as lamb’s quarters, cow vetch, brome grass, and so on, many with tiny seeds. Unfortunately, while I have many photos of birds and squirrels feeding on the big stuff… the cones and tree fruits, for example, it has been difficult to photograph birds on the weedy plants. They fly away the moment I come withing photographic distance.

The list given below can surely be added to, and surely I have forgotten some plants too! Please let me know if you have seen wildlife feeding on a species not listed below. By leaving the weedy plants standing over the winter, we are providing a wide and varied food source for our local wildlife.

The asterisk * indicates a non-native species.

*Amaranthus (Amaranthus sp.)
*Amur corktree (Phellodendron amurense)
*Amur maple (Acer ginnala)
Ash seeds (Fraxinus)
Birch catkins (Betula)
*Brome grass (Bromus inermis)
*Buckthorn, both species (Rhamnus cathartica, R. frangula)
*Bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare)
Canada elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)
Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis)
*Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense)
*Chicory (Cichorium intybus)
*Common burdock (Arctium minus)
Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
*Common plantain (Plantago major)
*Cow vetch (Vicia cracca)
*Crabapples (Malus spp.)
Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum)
*Curly dock (Rumex crispus)
*Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
Eastern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis)
Evening primrose (Oenothera biennis)
Juniper (Juniperus)
*Lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album)
*Mallow (Malva moschata)
*Manitoba maple (Acer negundo)
*Mullein (Verbascum thapsis)
New england aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)
*Peppergrass (Lepidium densiflorum)
Ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia)
*Red clover (Trifolium pretense)
Red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa)
Red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea)
*Sow thistle (Sonchus)
Speckled alder (Alnus incana)
*Spotted lady-thumb (Persicaria maculosa)
Spruce spp. (Picea)
Staghorn sumac (Rhus hirta)
Tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima)
*Tartarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica)
*Timothy (Phleum pratense)
Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus vitacea)
*White clover (Trifolium repens)
*White sweet clover (Melilotus alba)
Wild grape (Vitis riparia)
Wild lettuce, Canada and prickly (Lactuca canadensis, L. scariola)
Wild raspberry (Rubus strigosus)



A Wild Banquet for Birds and Mammals

A well stocked wild banquet for wildlife can be found in woods and meadows, roadsides and shorelines, gardens and parklands, in fact, wherever plants grow. Of course, there is more to the diet of many birds and animals than plant-based foods, but that is what we’ll be looking at here, as the variety is fascinating and, in winter, many birds seek out seeds and fruit from the plants below.

Apart from the obvious such as acorns and walnuts, fruit trees and wild grapes, there are many unremarkable looking little plants that most of us never pay much heed to, that also feed birds. And there are nutrients to be found in plant sources that come from neither seed or fruit. Below is a list of the plants I’ve observed birds and small mammals (squirrels, chipmunks, cottontail rabbits, meadow voles and mice) feeding on. This is by no means complete. Sometimes I forget to write down what I have observed, and sometimes I forget who has been feeding on what. There are many plants that, I am certain, feed birds and animals, but I’ve not yet seen feeding activity on them. This list should be considered very preliminary and is based only on my own observations, not those of others. It is also restricted to the Fletcher Wildlife Garden, including the Backyard Garden. Expanding beyond the boundaries of the garden would introduce other food sources to the list. Why not start your own list and observe who eats what this winter?

Plants also harbour insects and spiders, either eggs, larvae or adults, and birds with a taste for invertebrates are frequently found gleaning treats from leaves, twigs, stems, branches, flowers, of grasses, shrubs and trees. But that is a topic for another day.

Also for another day, is the use of so many of these plants, by insects, including of course, butterflies.

Plants are listed alphabetically by common name. An asterisk next to the name indicates the plant is not a native. Many (not all) of these non-indigenous plants have been around for well over a hundred years, or two, thus it is no surprise that wildlife has adapted to feed on them.

*Amur corktree (Phellodenron amurense) fruit
*Amur maple (Acer ginnala) seeds
Bee balm (Monarda) nectar
Birch (Betula) seeds
*Black walnut (Juglans nigra) nuts
Bottle gentian (Gentiana andrewsii) nectar
*Brome grass (Bromus inermis) seeds
*Buckthorn, both species (Rhanmnus cathartica, R. frangula) fruit
*Bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare) seeds
Canada elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) fruit
Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) seeds
*Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense) seeds
Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) nectar
*Chickory (Cichorium intybus) seeds
Choke cherry (Prunus virginiana) fruit
*Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) flowers
*Common burdock (Arctium minus) seeds
*Common plantain (Plantago major) seeds
*Cosmos daisies (Cosmos) seeds
*Crabapples (Malus) fruit
*Curly dock (Rumex crispus) seeds
*Dandelion (Taraxacum officinalis) seeds
Evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) seeds
*Garden phlox (Phlox) nectar
*Goldflame honeysuckle (Lonicera) nectar
*Green amaranth (Amaranthus retroflexus) seeds
Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) nectar
*Lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album) seeds
Large-toothed aspen (Populus grandidentata) buds, seeds
*Lilac (Syringa vulgaris) seeds
*Mallow (Malva moschata) seeds
*Manitoba maple (Acer negundo) seeds, tree sap, bark, buds
*Mountain ash (Sorbaria) fruit
*Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) seeds
New england aster (Symphyotrichum novae-anglia) seeds
*Norway spruce (Picea abies) seeds
*Orache (Atriplex prostrata) seeds
*Peppergrass (Lepidum) seeds
Pin cherry (Prunus pensylvanica) fruit
*Prickly lettuce (Lactuca scariola) seeds
*Prostrate knotweed (Polygonum aviculare) seeds
Ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia) seeds
Red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) fruit
Red juniper (Red cedar) (Juniperus virginiana) fruit
Red oak (Quercus rubra ) acorns
Red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea) fruit
*Scotch pine (Pinus sylvestris) seeds
Serviceberry (Amelanchie) fruit
*Sow thistle (Sonchus arvensis) seeds
Sugar maple (Acer saccharum) seeds, tree sap, bark, buds
*Sunflowers (Helianthus species) seeds
Staghorn sumac (Rhus hirta) seeds, bark
Tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima) seeds
*Tartarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica) fruit
*Timothy (Phleum pratense) seeds
Trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides) buds, seeds
Turtlehead (Chelone glabra) nectar
Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus vitacea) fruit
White ash (Fraxinus americana) seeds
White cedar (Thuja occidentalis) seeds
White spruce (Picea glauca) seeds, buds
*White sweet clover (Melilotus alba) seeds
Wild grape (Vitis riparia) fruit
Wild lettuce/Canada lettuce (Lactuca canadensis) seeds
Wild raspberry (Rubus strigosus) fruit
Wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) fruit

Growing native plants from seed : cold stratification

A damp vermiculite-filled baggie awaiting seed.

In late October, although we’re still waiting for some seeds to mature before we can collect them, others are ready for their winter treatment.

So what is cold stratification? Essentially, it’s a temperature and moisture treatment used to break a seed’s dormancy and encourage germination. In nature, seeds fall to the ground, where they are covered by leaves and other pieces of decomposing vegetation. Snow falls, covering the seeds with a blanket and insulating them from extreme temperatures and drying wind. In spring, as the snow melts and the sun gradually warms the soil, the seeds germinate and begin to grow!

The need for this cold period to break dormancy is an adaptation to winter. Imagine if seeds germinated almost as soon as they fell off a plant; most plants would die as soon as the cold hit, as they would be too small to have sufficient root mass to survive.

Because we start plants for our annual June sale early, we need to be able to control when they go to sleep and wake up. This is surprisingly easy. All you need are small sealable baggies (we use the snack size), a bowl, a spoon, vermiculite, tepid water, and labels.

Note: The following instructions are for cold, moist stratification, needed by most seeds in our area. However, please check a suitable reference, such as the New England Wildflower Society’s  Growing and Propagating Wildflowers, to find out which species need moisture, which should be stored dry, and which need no treatment at all.

1. Prepare damp vermiculite
Pour some vermiculite into the bowl and add just enough water to wet it. Wait a few minutes as the water is absorbed, then add more water until the vermiculite is damp to the touch. There should not be any standing water in the bottom of your bowl, but the flakes of vermiculite should look and feel moist. Stir with the spoon to distribute the moisture. Vermiculite is a mineral that holds a lot of water, making it ideal to keep the seed environment moist over a long period.

Removing fluff from a milkweed species. Fluff gets everywhere!

Removing fluff from a milkweed species. Fluff gets everywhere!

2. Prepare seeds
Remove seed cases and as much debris from the seeds as possible to reduce the likelihood of rot. Some casings contain germination inhibitors, so making sure the seeds are “clean” can be important.

We remove the silk parachutes from milkweed and open all seed pods to release the actual seeds. But we don’t try to pull the fluff off clematis, prairie smoke, goldenrod, or aster seeds.

3. Prepare baggies
Put about three spoonfuls of damp vermiculite into a baggie. Add just enough seeds that every one has lots of contact with the vermiculite. As a rough guide, the volume of vermiculite should be about twice that of the seeds.

We like to shake and then pat down the baggie to maximize contact. Gently push out most of the air, and seal the baggie. You now have a fairly flat, cool to the touch, and moist seed baggie ready for placing in the refrigerator. Don’t forget to label it! We use business labels, because they can be peeled off in spring and attached to our germination containers.

4. Store in a cold place
We have a mini-fridge dedicated to seeds, so moisture levels and temperature are constant (unless someone accidentally knocks the dial). However, your home refrigerator should be just fine, if you place your seeds near the back and away from where moisture tends to collect.

Labeling seed properly is essential. Here you can see our box full of seed baggies!

Now you can forget about your horde until late January or early February!

In early February, remove the baggies from the refrigerator and dump the entire contents into clear sandwich containers. Anything with a clear lid and no holes will work. Label each container so you know what is inside. Again, consult a good reference book to find out which species need light to germinate and which germinate in the dark.

Some seeds germinate almost immediately; others require considerable patience. Keep an eye on moisture levels – keep the vermiculite moist, but not wet. Once the sprouts have at least a couple of mini leaves (they look just like the edible sprouts you buy in stores at this stage) you can begin the next phase which is planting them into a seed starting soil mixture. But that is the subject for another post!