Last week, on one of those sub-zero days, a lone chickadee sat bravely on a tree branch eating berries from my flowering crab apple tree, while around him a few dozen European starlings zoomed in and out -- in unison, of course -- going after their share of the treats.
My brave little chickadee friend puffed out his feathers, shook his tail feathers, and in general worked really hard to make the starlings think he was bigger than he was. That chickadee was determined not to be muscled out of the tree.
And, maybe because there were plenty of berries for everyone, he wasn't.
From the warmth of my living room, I watched the birds for a while, glad they were able to "fuel up" to keep warm in the six-below cold. Then, from the warmth of the nature centers at Deer Haven and Hogback Ridge preserves, I watched some more. (Yes, my "walk in the park" was pretty much held indoors last week. It was that cold.)
Of course, the feeders were busy, and why not? They are an easy source of food in the winter, when the owners keep them full. But there are food sources out in nature, too, both in my yard and in the parks: seed heads from long-since-faded summer flowers, and berries from shrubs and trees.
Remnants of black-eyed Susans, coneflowers and more still stand in the prairie areas in several of the Preservation Parks preserves and in my yard. While many of their seeds have been stripped away by migrating birds, some remain for winter foragers. Even some of the tall grasses -- in the parks and in my yard -- retain seeds that help the birds make it through the winter.
My point is, as bird lovers, we don't need to rely only on feeders and purchased seed to supply winter birds with a food source. We also can replicate what is going on in nature and let bird-friendly plants do some of the work for us.
Besides coneflowers and black-eyed Susans, some of the plants that produce banquets of tasty seeds include asters, coreopsis, cosmos, marigolds, poppies, sunflowers and zinnias. As a bonus for the gardener, many of these are native plants and none of them requires much TLC.
Several of these plants are perennials and don't need to be replanted each year. Additionally, many are prairie plants and put down deep roots that allow them to draw in water when other plants around them are suffering from heat and drought. They don't mind our heavy, clay-central Ohio soil, either.
The end result is that they come back year after year and need less watering than other landscape plants.
Turning your yard into a buffet for winter birds does required a modicum of planning, however, and this is where an upcoming Preservation Parks program can help.
Naturalists Kim Banks and Liz Neroni will help you design you yard to include some of these plants. Drawing on their knowledge of native plants and wildlife habitat, they'll provide information on what plants to choose based on soil type, wet and dry areas, and amount of sunlight or shade. You should bring a drawing or blueprint of your yard, and you'll leave with garden plans.
Then, after adding some new plants to your gardens this spring, you can look forward to a winter of birds that come to your yard to enjoy a natural feast.
The Native Gardens program will take place from 9 to 11 a.m. Feb. 1 at Deer Haven Preserve, 4183 Liberty Road. Cost is $5 for materials; breakfast is included. While the program is for adults, parents are invited to bring their children.
Those interested must register by Jan. 24 by calling 740-524-8600, ext. 3, or by sending an email message to register@preservationparks. com.
Sue Hagan is marketing and communications manager for Preservation Parks of Delaware County.