The real source of 'winter interest'

In the name of creating "winter interest," I've grown plenty of sedum, blue fescue, and little bluestem, and, to an extent, their textures and movement do perk up an otherwise barren January landscape. Still, if you ask me, leaving intact the dried seed heads of my purple coneflower, black-eyed Susans, tickseed, and other perennial flowers has paid even bigger winter interest dividends. That's because they offer food and good cover for all sorts of birds including cardinals, black-capped chickadees, and the occasional tufted titmouse.

Gardening has long been more than just a means to fresh, local food and a riot of color. It's my personal expression of a change I'd like to see in the rest of the world -- less gray and more green, fewer parking lots and more parks. I like to think that I and all the other gardeners working hard to attract wildlife are giving formerly displaced creatures -- especially birds -- a boost. Thanks to at least one on-line birding program, now we may know for sure.

Coordinated by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, offers a year-round picture of the numbers of birds from North America, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. What started in 2002 as an on-line spot for anyone to post bird sightings has flourished, with about 30,000 "citizen scientists" turning in thousands of birding checklists monthly. "All that information makes it much easier to see patterns of bird distribution across the Western Hemisphere so that scientists can track how those patterns may be changing over time," eBird Project Co-leader Chris Wood noted in a recent news release.

Gardeners like me can sift through eBird's database to track patterns of bird distribution in our own states and counties. We can map and graph our bird sightings, too. Call it a winter interest experiment if you like, but I'm planning to add even more bird-friendly shrubs and flowers --  think viburnums, sunflowers, and zinnias -- in hopes that I'll see an increase in the numbers of rare birds flitting from stem to stem over the coming years.


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