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Master Naturalists: Christmas presents for the critters in your yard

By By Paul and Mary Meredith
Dec. 26, 2013 at 6:26 a.m.

Fall mistflower, Eupatorium odoratum, makes prodigious numbers of small, white flower heads, producing nectar for feeding fall butterflies and insects.  Feeding pollinates the native plant's flowers which mature as dry, fluffy seed-heads.  Those have dual-purposes.  Winter winds distribute seeds attached to the fluff for plant reproduction.  And survival of small migratory birds wintering here in the Coastal Bend is improved; seed-heads are a source of both food and soft fluff for insulating nests.

Pop was right - the best Christmas presents last all year. What should your gifts be for your yard/habitat? You can help wildlife by caring for them when the weather's cold and food sources are scarce and also by preparing for their needs for next year.

Simple things to do that are fun

First, look to critters' - mostly wintering avians - needs right now. Make sure fresh water is available. Keep two or more hummingbird feeders out full of fresh sugar water. Next, observe what birds are around and provide high-energy foods for those species as they finish off the existing fruit and seeds available naturally.

Right now, mockingbirds are shaking our bushes eating Turk's cap, lantana, yaupon holly and Barbados cherry fruit. What you might not have noticed if you have sweet gum trees is the goldfinches hanging onto the seed balls, picking out each little seed in the ball.

If you haven't deadheaded (removed) native annuals' and perennials' flower heads, you're providing a winter-songbird Christmas feast for various finches, including goldfinches, cardinals, chickadees, indigo buntings, nuthatches, native sparrows, titmice, wrens and towhees.

Marie Annotti, former Cornell Cooperative Extension Horticulture Educator and Master Gardener coordinator, says seed-heads not to cut (or shouldn't cut next year) include the following: asters, black-eyed susans (Rudbeckia), coneflowers, coreopsis, Globe thistle, goldenrod (Soladago), Joe pye weed (Eupatoriums), sedums, sunflowers, daisies and zinnias.

Composite flowers like zinnias have produced massive numbers of seeds for small seed-eaters. And it is almost comical to see the birds hanging, sometimes upside down, on a dry flower head, peacefully plucking out one seed after another. Goldenrod and eupatoriums like fall mistflower (Eupatorium odoratum) are particularly valuable.

Goldenrod, among other plants, harbors wintering insects that small critters can eat, along with seeds. Our mistflower bushes are covered with fluffy seed-heads now. That fluff will disappear along with the seeds. Much fluff will blow away; some will be found in titmice, wren and finch nests as soft insulation for colder nights.

Supplement

Don't have all that in place? Supplement with black sunflower and thistle (nyjer, or niger) seed, from stores. Don't have a thistle seed feeder? Use an old knee-high stocking or half a panty hose.

Cut either to 18 inches long, fill it with seeds, tie it off and hang it under your eaves. Then watch the fun. Finches in particular will hang on it and pull seeds through the stocking's mesh.

Plan ahead to keep on giving, prepare for next year

While outside, plan beautiful-tasty-all-season native plantings for next year. If seed-heads are there, collect seeds for spring planting. Or, if you wish, just scrape spots in your beds bare, hoe the soil a bit, smooth it and sprinkle collected seeds where you want plants later.

Press seeds lightly into the soil and do not mulch them, so spring sun and warmth will germinate them. Remember to mark your nurseries so you won't "weed" them come spring.

Colorful bird and insect host plants will come up on time, strong and sturdy, ready for next year's human and animal needs.

Don't forget; leave full-sun spots for milkweed plants. Declining Monarch butterflies will need all the help they can get next year.

Sources:

gardening.about.com/od/flowergardening/tp/Plants-for-Birds.htm, "Plants for Feeding Birds: Garden Plants with Seeds that Birds Love", Marie Annotti hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/ncnu02/v5-174.html?, Nyjer (Niger) Seed Production

Paul and Mary Meredith are master naturalists. Contact them at paulmary0211@sbcglobal.net.

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