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Margaret Hartley's Greenpoint
by Margaret Hartley


A Daily Gazette community blog
Ideas on greener living

Trees for birds

In the Faroe islands, there are no native trees. A series of volcano tops sticking out of the North Atlantic about halfway between Scotland and Iceland, the Faroes are naturally home to grasses and some shrubby plants — good sheep country.

But over the past century, people have been planting trees there, in areas sheltered enough from the winds that they can take root and grow, albeit slowly. These trees offer shelter to the sheep, but also something else: a comfortable hangout for migrating birds.

Like other islands in the North Atlantic — the Shetlands, the Hebrides, Iceland — the Faroes are a natural landing zone for all kinds of migrating birds. Faroese birder and blogger Silas Olofson says those migrations can make the islands loaded with birds sometimes, and almost empty at others. The tree plantations (the U.N. estimates them at about a total of 200 acres) offer an added incentive for touring birds to land on the Faroes, and to hang out for a while.

In Iceland there also are efforts under way to plant more trees. Originally forested, Iceland lost almost all of its native trees centuries ago to construction, burning and land clearing. With the strong winds that run over a small island in the ocean, reforestation is not a natural process. And replanted trees take a long time to grow. In fact, there’s a joke about it: What do you do if you’re lost in the forest in Iceland? The answer: Just stand up.

I guess the trees there are still very short.

In our part of the world, we are blessed with trees, tall and stately, offering shade, beauty and plenty of nesting opportunities for big and little birds. If you leave a field fallow, it will fill with trees in a matter of years, with no effort from us.

Walking up a mountain, you can chart the effect of wind on a tree’s height. You might start your hike through stands of trees 40 feet tall or more. They get shorter and shorter as you climb and, if your mountain is tall enough, there will be no trees at all on top. You’ll be standing on an island in the middle of a sea of trees, like the top of a volcano sticking out of the ocean.

Back off the mountains, there are trees in full flower this time of year: the orchard fruit trees, and the native and ornamental flowering trees. My son keeps noticing them in landscaped areas — the library, his sister’s school campus. “Did they just plant these?” he keeps asking. “I never saw these trees before.”

“You probably just didn’t notice them flowering last spring,” I tell him.

Some of the ornamentals are so full of birds they seem to be singing themselves. A lot of birds love trees, and if you want more birds to land near your house, adding a tree helps. Even a faux tree.

My friend built a bird feeder — a wooden tray with a dowel for a landing rod — onto the side of his house so he could watch birds through the kitchen window. To encourage the birds to land, every year he cuts a sapling with multiple branches and screws it to the side of the house. The birds don’t care that it’s not a real tree, rooted in the ground. They just like the multi-level landing pad.

Last week we watched goldfinches and juncos through the window, diving in and sitting on the branches, then hopping over to the bird feeder, then going back to the branches. It was a simple trick to make the birds comfortable.

You can use tricks in your own yard or garden to attract birds. Plant a little tree or a flowering bush if you have room for one. Or make a bower out of tree branches, and plant climbing vines on it. Plant sunflowers, which offer height and recesses for bird perching all summer, and food for them in the fall.

Little birds like landing on tall, sturdy flowers — bee balm, zinnias, golden glow — and they like eating the seeds, too, after the flowers die off.

In my son’s garden last year, we made an arch out of branches and planted morning glories to climb in it. Between the birds and the flowers, it was a delight — until the vines got so heavy they pulled down the whole arch.

We’ll try again this year, with a more sturdy design. The morning glories have reseeded themselves and are already coming up. Maybe we’ll put a few bird houses into the arch and attract even more birds.

We have all the trees they need to nest in.

Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.

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