Two Trees Your Birds Need

Submitted 2 years ago
Created by
Henry Homeyer

Serving Birds Isn't Just About Black Oil Seeds

Recently a blue jay turned to me and said, “Thanks, Henry, for planting those hemlocks and white pines back in 1972!” Well, perhaps I’m presenting alternative facts here, but I know that the birds really do appreciate those trees. Particularly now, in the cold of winter.

Hemlocks can provide great screening

Most of us feed the birds– not only to help them, but also to enjoy watching them all winter. The food we provide is helpful, but most would survive just fine without out it. But helping birds by providing shelter out of the wind and safety (away from cats and other predators), and nesting places is equally important. Forty-five years ago I planted a row of evergreens as screening for my back yard and it has been a real haven for birds.

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According to a wonderful book called, Trees, Shrubs and Vines for Attracting Birds by Richard M. DeGraaf (University Press of New England, $24.95 in paper), 46 species of birds use the eastern white pine for either food, cover or nesting – and is one of the most beneficial trees for birds.  

I dug up half a dozen small evergreens including a 5-foot tall white pine seedling in the summer of 1972. All were “volunteers” growing in a meadow near my house. They have done well, growing to mature size and blocking the view of my back yard from the road.

According to the list of birds using white pine, the seeds are the favorite food of the northern bobwhite, red-bellied woodpecker, and spruce grouse – none of which I have seen in it. But it is also a favorite for some of my good bird buddies - black-capped chickadee, nuthatches, northern cardinal and juncoes. They go from the bird feeder on my deck to the pine and back, and enjoy resting out of the wind and away from Winnie and Sammy, my two resident cats.

White pine

Here are a few tips for growing white pines. First, don’t plant them near a paved road, as road salt is very injurious for them. I’d guess that if you are 20 feet or more back from the road with your planting, you should be all right, though even farther away would be better, especially if downhill from the road.

Next, remember that white pine trees get to be big, particularly if they are planted away from competing trees. They will grow 10 feet in 10 years, though under ideal conditions they will grow twice that or more. A mature white pine can reach 100 feet in size, though mine are about half that; their width can reach 20 to 40 feet. They have long needles, 5 to a cluster.

In recent years I’ve had many questions about white pine trees with needles that brown and drop off. It is normal for the trees to replace some needles every year, and every 4 to 6 years to lose quite a few in the autumn. But if you are seeing widespread needle browning at other times of the year, you may have a problem.

Pines grow best in rich soil that drains well and is not generally soggy. Soils that are compacted by cars parked near them will suffer root damage. White pines prefer acidic soils with a pH of around 5.2. So you may be able to help your pine trees by applying some agricultural sulfur around them, just as you do your blueberries.

Leaving the dropped needles under the trees will help, too. The needles will serve as a mulch, preventing the soil from drying out too much in dry times and will help to acidify the soil as they decompose.

Eastern or Canadian hemlock is another great plant for birds. De Graf lists 26 birds that use hemlock on a regular basis. It is an easy tree to grow as it will do so in full sun or full shade, and everything in between. It is fast growing, in most conditions other than heavy clay. It can grow a foot or more per year. It is easy to identify as it has soft, short needles –just half an inch long.

Canadian hemlock has soft, flat needles that are shorter than other common evergreens

One worry I’d have about buying a Canadian hemlock is an insect pest that can devastate them: the wooly adelgid. This mite is an aphid-like insect that can kill a mature hemlock in 4 to 10 years. A native of Asia, it has no native controls. It covers itself with waxy filaments, the wool, which tends to keep off predators. They are being monitored closely throughout New England, and few outbreaks have been recorded in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine – though it is working its way north.

If planting hemlocks, choose well-drained acid soils. It is susceptible to drought, particularly in the first few years after planting. But generally it is an easy tree to grow.

Obviously now is not the time to plant trees, but it’s a good time to imagine what they might add to your landscape after 10 or 20 years. Don’t make the mistake of planting either of these trees too close to the house – 25 feet from the house would be a minimum for either. And if you want a hedge, hemlocks can be pruned into a hedge quite nicely – though if you miss a few years of pruning they will get too tall. And that almost always happens!

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