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In support of our winged friends in winter

“I value my garden more for being full of blackbirds than of cherries, and very frankly give them fruit for their songs.”

— Joseph Addison, "The Spectator," 1712

My neighbor Clarence would beg to differ with Addison. A suburban orchardist extraordinaire, Clarence diligently protects his cherry trees from birds (and pilfering people) by draping lightweight netting over the branches. I’m glad Clarence safeguards his cherries — it means there are more to share with admiring friends like me!

Still, I do love the birds in my garden, whether they’re melodious warblers, raucous jays or elusive hummingbirds. While the flowers gratify my senses of sight and smell, and the fruit and vegetables delight my taste buds, it is the winged visitors that provide pleasure to my ears, as well as movement in the garden. Indeed, I consider my feathered friends an indispensable part of a multisensory gardening experience.

Of course, birds in my garden do much more than enchant me. They play an important role in balancing the local ecosystem, feeding on insect pests and weed seeds and serving as pollinators.

Several kinds of birds overwinter in the Rogue Valley, making it the perfect time for gardeners to repay their gifts by providing food, water and shelter. Laura Fleming, owner of Wild Birds Unlimited Nature Shop in Medford, says wintertime residents here include chickadees, sparrows, finches, towhees, nuthatches, juncos, woodpeckers and jays, among others. Pine siskins, purple finches, evening grosbeaks, and even snowy owls are also seen during irruptive years, when food scarcity leads them south from their homes in the boreal forests of northern Canada.

During wintertime, birds burn up to 10 percent of their stored fat each night in order to stay warm, so providing supplemental seed is helpful. Fleming says high-energy, high-fat food sources such as peanuts, sunflower seeds and peanut butter-based ‘bark butter’ make effective choices. Also remember to fill the bird bath with fresh water every day or two.

Anna’s hummingbird, named after Anna Messena, Duchess of Rivoli (1802-1887), is the only hummingbird species that overwinters in our area. They survive cold nights by going into a state of deep sleep, called torpor, which lowers their metabolic rate as much as 95 percent. Fleming says hummingbirds are ravenous when they come out of torpor, so having fresh food available to them at first light is beneficial. She recommends bringing in hummingbird feeders on particularly cold nights to prevent the liquid from freezing, also making sure to change the mixture at least once a week.

Homemade and store-bought hummingbird nectars are healthier without adding red food coloring; in fact, red-colored feeders are sufficient to attract the birds. (OSU Extension provides a hummingbird food recipe at http://extension.oregonstate.edu/question-of-the-week/tasty-hummingbird-feeder-recipe.) Besides, territorial males stake out the same feeders consistently, and only the ladies are invited to party at their place. To keep the peace among the men, place hummingbird feeders far apart, such as one in the front yard and one in the back.

Gardeners also support winter birds when using evergreen plants in their landscaping. My laurel hedge, for example, provides ample shelter only a few feet away from the bird feeders and birdbath. Other plants, such as sumac, holly, viburnum and bayberry, provide winter berries for our avian friends.

When not much is going on in my garden, it’s exciting to watch and listen as a foraging guild of birds calls to one another, “Hey, I found some food over here!” And it’s gratifying to know I provided that food for them, even if it wasn’t from Clarence’s cherry trees. It’s probably similar to the way American writer Oliver Herford felt when he wrote, “I heard a bird sing in the dark of December, a magical thing and sweet to remember.”

For more information about local birds or to participate in a Project Feeder Watch, see the Rogue Valley Audubon Society website at www.roguevalleyaudubon.org.

Rhonda Nowak is a member of the Jackson County Master Gardener Association and teaches writing at Rogue Community College. Email her at rnowak39@gmail.com.