Fall is upon us but there’s no reason to put your garden to bed just yet. That’s because the show goes on with birds, thousands of which are migrating and stopping daily in local gardens for a bite to eat or a drink of water. And the activity doesn’t stop there. Monarch butterflies will be looking for nectar – a rich source of energy during their long commute to Mexico. Bees remain active and there’s an assortment of insects – praying mantis and other “beneficials” – that are present until the first fall frost about mid-October. There’s plenty to observe and enjoy.
Birds of a Feather
Many migrating birds fly at night. At dawn, they will stop in any green space they can find to feed and rest. Warblers search trees and shrubs for tiny insects, spiders and caterpillars, while other birds scratch the ground looking for food.
A source of water is critical, especially during dry autumn weather. Water can attract a crowd of winged wonders. In her garden in Downers Grove, landscape designer Vicki Nowicki places several shallow basins on the ground and others on pedestals. While visiting her garden one September, I was delighted to see large numbers of different types of birds drinking, bathing, splashing about and preening their feathers. (If you don’t have a birdbath, choose one that’s not more than two inches deep – birds prefer shallow water.)
Now is a good time to get out your bird feeders, too. Dark-eyed juncos are small gray-and-white birds that are returning from the boreal forests of the northern United States and Canada. Some will overwinter in the area while others travel farther south. They are easily attracted to feeders filled with sunflower seeds, millet or unsalted peanuts. Cardinals, nuthatches, blue jays and red-winged blackbirds also enjoy sunflower seeds while goldfinches prefer thistle and shelled sunflower pieces. But goldfinches will also eat the seeds of cosmos, coneflower, sunflowers and rudbeckia, so don’t be in a big hurry to clean up your flower beds.
Suet cakes, compressed blocks of melted suet with peanuts or other bird seed, can be placed in hanging cages to attract woodpeckers, nuthatches and black-capped chickadees. If you have mountain ash (Sorbus Americana), chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) or sumac in your garden, cedar waxwings and robins will enjoy the fruits.
Another migrant – the ruby-throated hummingbird – comes through the Chicago area in great numbers during September and early October. It’s the only common hummingbird east of the Mississippi. Although they are regular summer visitors, many more are coming from Canada, stopping in our gardens in search of nectar. Hummingbirds are typically attracted to red flowers, but one of their favorite plants is the blue-flowered Salvia guarantica, especially the cultivar ‘Indigo Spires’. They’ll also grab spiders and other small insects. (For information on sugar-water feeders that hummers are known to like, see sidebar on the oppposite page.)
Annuals and late-flowering perennials provide nectar for many of the smaller common butterflies that are still active in early fall. Asters, zinnias, salvia, marigolds, sunflowers, chrysanthemums, cosmos, lantana, ageratum and helenium and are just a few of the flowers that attract the last of the swallowtails, skippers, checkerspots and other butterflies.
If you have a birdhouse or two in your garden, now is the time to wash them and remove the nests. Once they’re cleaned, I like to put them back in place. When the weather turns cold, many birds use the houses for protection at night.
In spring, gardeners typically are faced with a frenzy of activity: soil preparation, planting, weeding, watering and so on. We rarely take time to sit and enjoy our handiwork. Now is that time. Pull up a chair, pour some lemonade and watch the activity unfold. The quality of the air and the light is changing, and it’s something to enjoy. One of my favorite writings sums it up. It was penned by the American naturalist John Burroughs in his book, A Year in the Fields (1876).
“Spring is the inspiration, fall the expiration. Both seasons have their equinoxes, both their filmy, hazy air, their ruddy forest tints, their cold rains, their drenching fogs, their mystic moons; both have the same solar light and warmth, the same rays of the sun; yet, after all, how different the feelings they inspire! One is the morning, the other the evening; one is youth, the other is age.”
Make hummingbird “food” with a mixture of sugar and water. The ratio is 4 parts of water to 1 part of sugar. For every cup of water, you need ¼ cup of sugar. Boil the sugar-water mixture for a few minutes and let it cool. Fill the feeders with just a few inches of the mixture. Refrigerate the rest for up to two weeks. Clean and refill the feeders every 4 days or so, more often if it’s 80 degrees or higher. Hummingbirds typically are gone from the Chicago area by about the second week in October.
Expand your Garden Experience
Good Reads: Get a field guide to learn more about birds or butterflies. There’s Kaufman’s Field Guide to Butterflies of North America (Houghton Mifflin), and The Life Cycles of Butterflies by Judy Burris and Wayne Richards (Storey Books). Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Birds by Roger Tory Peterson (Houghton Mifflin) can help you identify winged visitors.
Get Certified: The Illinois Audubon Society website at illinoisaudubon.org has information on field trips and events and explains how to have your garden certified as an Illinois Audubon Society Bird and Butterfly Sanctuary.
Take a Class: Check the websites of the Chicago Botanic Garden (chicagobotanic.org) and The Morton Arboretum (mortonarb.org) for classes on fall gardening and birding.
A Note About the Photography
Ellen Hodges was an extraordinary photographer. For the past seven years, she spent many mornings in my garden from spring through fall, taking photos of birds, butterflies, flowers, fawns, foxes and insects. She was not a gardener, but captured the garden experience through her lens. Whether it was the first daffodil in bloom or frost on a marigold, Ellen marveled at what nature has to offer. She died unexpectedly this past April and is sorely missed by her family and friends and especially by me.
Nina A. Koziol teaches horticulture and garden design classes at The Chicago Botanic Garden and The Morton Arboretum. She is a horticulturist with a degree in education and environmental science.