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Sapsucker Woods Treman Bird Feeding Garden, Ithaca, NY

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Home of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology: A small native plants garden outside the Cornell Lab’s visitor center that serves as a living exhibit about “birdscaping”, or the idea that areas can be landscaped to improve habitat for birds and other creatures.

What work has been done to improve this site for birds and other wildlife? How long did it take?

As long as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has had its home in Sapsucker Woods, there has been a bird feeding garden. When the new building was erected in 2003, a new garden was created that consisted of a series of feeders, a large arbor where trumpet vines were replanted to attract hummingbirds, and several native shrubs were planted (e.g. serviceberry, winterberry) and the central area was mulched 1-2 times/year with wood chips. The seed bank provided the bulk of the vegetation surrounding the mulched shrubs and feeders, consisting primarily of goldenrod and teasel.

In 2007 we planned an overhaul of the existing garden to transform it into a living exhibit of “birdscaping”, or the idea that with the right approach, any space could be landscaped into important and useful habitat for birds and biodiversity. Working with a local landscaper and a landscape architect, we developed a list of bird- and insect-friendly plants that would balance both a yardowner’s aesthetic and would be less palatable to the biggest herbivore we have —the white-tailed deer. We categorized plants as having value as food, cover, and aesthetic pleasure, then went to work!

The first couple of years were difficult in that we had severe impacts from rabbits and deer, which necessitated the construction of a rustic deer fence with coated rabbit fencing along the bottom. Following the installation of this hard edge we were able to replant and now the garden is thriving.

What are some successes that you've seen since the improvements were made? (alternatively, "What are you most proud of, or excited to share about this site?")

Red and Blue

A Blue Jay and Northern Cardinal enjoy a winter's meal in the Treman Bird Feeding Garden.

Photo © David Feavearyear

I’ve always been a big fan of bird feeders because they allow you to see the birds up close; however, the downside is that the kinds of behavior you see around feeders is fairly limited to watching a bird fly up to a feeder, grab a seed, and if you’re lucky, fly somewhere with the seed and do something interesting with it. What I found following the renovation of the Treman Garden is that, thanks to all of the natural sources of food, you could also begin to watch birds be birds—to see a chickadee probing in the ends of curled up leaves, or a goldfinch perch on a seedy weed-head and make it bend all the way over to the ground. To me that makes birdwatching much more interesting, and the natural food sources seem a better match for the skills and talents of the birds.

The second thing I was excited to see happen happened in our second year. We had planted a large number of small white spruce to form a bank of cover for sparrows and finches to take refuge while foraging, and to eventually provide food. During that second winter we had a tremendous number of small finches in the garden, including Pine Siskins & Common Redpolls, and I attribute their arrival in large part to the beefed up presence of the bank of conifers.

Are there any tough decisions that had to be made regarding its management? How were they handled?

The toughest decisions we had to make in the garden had to do with trying to keep mammalian herbivores at bay. We tried using deer-resistant plants but when deer are truly hungry, they seem able to eat just about anything!