Give birds, bees, and butterflies a splendid send-off this autumn
Fall is upon us and there’s plenty to observe and enjoy. Monarch butterflies are looking for nectar—a rich source of energy during their long commute to Mexico. And thousands of birds are migrating south—stopping daily here at the Garden as well as in local gardens, forest preserves, and parks for a bite to eat or a drink of water. Bees are still buzzing about and there’s an assortment of insects—including praying mantids and other beneficial bugs that are active until the first fall frost, usually in mid-October. And colorful dragonflies—some of which migrate like monarch butterflies—are gobbling up mosquitoes, gnats, moths, and other airborne creatures.
Birds of a Feather
Many migrating birds fly at night. At dawn, they stop in any green space they can find to eat and rest. Tiny warblers search trees and shrubs for 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. Birdbaths are typically elevated on a pedestal, but some birds prefer a shallow basin placed on the ground. Either type of bath allows them to drink, bathe, splash about, and preen their feathers. If you are shopping for a birdbath, choose one that’s not more than 2 inches deep, as birds prefer shallow water.
Dark-eyed juncos are small gray and white birds that are returning from the boreal forests of Canada. Some will overwinter in the area while others travel further south. They are easily attracted to feeders filled with sunflower seeds or millet. Cardinals, nuthatches, blue jays, and red-winged blackbirds also enjoy sunflower seeds and unsalted peanuts, while goldfinches prefer thistle seeds and shelled sunflower pieces. Clean seed feeders regularly with soap and water. Goldfinches also eat the seeds of cosmos, coneflowers, and rudbeckia, so don’t be in a big hurry to clean up your flower beds. Leave those seedheads standing for food and winter interest.
Suet cakes (compressed blocks of melted suet with peanuts or other birdseed) can be placed in hanging cages to attract woodpeckers, nuthatches, titmice, and black-capped chickadees. If you have mountain ash, chokecherry, 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 River. Although they are regular summer residents in the Chicago area, many more come from Canada, stopping in gardens in search of nectar. Hummingbirds are typically attracted to red flowers, but one of their favorite plants is the blue-flowered Salvia guaranitica. They’ll also grab spiders and other small insects—a source of needed protein.
Annuals and late-flowering perennials provide nectar for many of the smaller common butterflies that are still active in late summer and early fall. Asters, zinnias, salvia, marigolds, sunflowers, calamint, chrysanthemums, 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 remove old nests. Once the birdhouses have been cleaned, put them back in place. When the weather turns cold, many birds use them for protection at night.
Sit Back and Enjoy the Show
In spring, gardeners are faced with a frenzy of tasks—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 temperatures will soon be dropping. The sun is setting lower in the sky, making the quality of afternoon light soft and pleasant. It’s something to savor and enjoy.
Nina Koziol is a garden writer and horticulturist who lives and gardens in Palos Park, Illinois.