Sunday, January 1, 2012

Birds Love a Thicket

I walked past a grassy strip the other day and a flock of small birds rose up from where they had been feeding on small seeds and insects.  Anxious to escape whatever harm might befall them, they headed for a nearby thicket of dense shrubs.  The twiggy growth of the thicket was the perfect protection from any dog, cat or large bird that might have been chasing them.  Nature has always created such thickets - perhaps it is time that we consider how they might be part of our own landscape plan.

Cardinal in shrubbery - looks like he feels safe!

R K Young at Native Backyard recently shared an article from Audubon magazine about supporting birds that migrate. One point the author makes is how the different migrating birds rely on various vertical layers in the wild.  However, one layer is often missing in suburban landscapes:  the layer composed of shrubs and small trees.  The article recommends that we: "Fill in the gaps with shrubs, the more different types the better. Many migrants are attracted to thickets, dense masses of fruiting shrubs, vines, briers, and brambles."

Sparkleberry (Vaccinium arboreum) with grape vine and fence
makes for a good hedge
A hedge (or hedgerow) might be another way to consider the concept of a thicket.  Hedges are typically a densely grouped area of medium to large-sized shrubs.  While many people use them for privacy or to define a property boundary, they can also be used to create rooms within a large garden space or, in this case, provide a place for shelter for small birds.  I have some evergreen shrubs near my birdbath and the birds often land there first to make sure the area is clear of predators before flying in to get a drink or a bath.

Once you decide on a purpose for your thicket (privacy, boundary, or just for wildlife?) and a location for it in your yard, it’s time to consider what plants could be used to construct it.  Consider the following points:

-          Height: Does the planting need to be kept to a certain height or can you accommodate a variety of heights in the group?  If there is a certain height, be sure to consider the mature height of the chosen plants so that you are not required to prune to stay within that height.  Well, unless you LIKE to prune, of course.

-          Light exposure: How much sun does the area receive?  If more than 6 hours per day or if it is in the hot afternoon summer sun, then full sun plants should be chosen.

-          Appearance: What is the desired overall look?  Use all one type of plant for a more formal look, or use a mixture of plants for an informal look (or especially if you have a hard time choosing just one type of plant!). Evergreen or deciduous?  Personally, I prefer a mixture – deciduous plants tend to give you more blooms but evergreen plants will give you some year-round greenery.

Once you’ve answered those questions for yourself, you can make your choices. Dense, twiggy shrubs are the best - if the limbs have small thorns, all the better. Such plants allow small birds to fly in while making it more difficult for large predators to follow. You can improve the denseness by selective pruning. You may have noticed before that when you prune a twig, new growth is often produced in multiple shoots. That is, for each cut, 2 or 3 new shoots appear.

Here are some ideas for evergreen plants that might be used for hedges/thickets in north Georgia:

Hobblebush (Agarista populifolia, used to be Leucothoe populifolia), 8-12 feet
Doghobble (Leucothoe fontanesiana), up to 5 feet (L. axillaris is similar)
Inkberry (Ilex glabra) - can handle moist conditions
Florida Anise (Illicium floridanum) – part shade; I. parviflorum is bigger and more sun tolerant.
Rhododendron maximum or R. catawbiense - need afternoon shade
Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) - afternoon shade
Eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana), over 30 feet
Wax myrtle (Morella cerifera, used to be Myrica cerifera), 15-20 feet
Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria), 15-20 feet

Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) mixed with small trees

Dwarf forms of some of the above:

Agarista populifolia ‘Leprechaun’
Ilex glabra ‘Compacta’ up to 6 feet
Ilex glabra ‘Shamrock’, slowly growing to 5 feet
Morella cerifera ‘Don’s Dwarf’, ‘Fairfax’, both up to 6 feet
Morella cerifera ‘Suwanee Elf’,  up to 4 feet
Kalmia latifolia ‘Elf’, ‘Minuet’ and others
Ilex vomitoria ‘Nana’ (male plant, no berries)
Ilex vomitoria ‘Schillings Dwarf’ or ‘Stokes dwarf’

Here are some ideas for deciduous plants that might be used:

Hawthorns (Crataegus spp.) - small to medium tree to anchor the hedge
Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.) - small to medium tree, 15-30 feet if A. arborea
Sparkleberry (Vaccinium arboreum)  – large shrub, small tree, up to 12 feet (slowly)
Viburnums (especially V. prunifolium and V. rufidulum), up to 12 feet (slowly)
Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) - good in a moist area
Fothergilla (Fothergilla major or F. gardenii)
Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia) - good in a moist area, use cultivar 'Hummingbird' for low growth

Passiflora incarnata

Remember that a variety of plants will support more wildlife through diversity.  Also, consider adding a vine or two to increase the complexity of the thicket: a fast and showy grower would be Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata); the native Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) would add some bright color in a sunny hedge; one of the leatherflower Clematis (Clematis viorna perhaps) would have unusual blooms and seedheads.

Remember that many of these plants are host plants for certain insects (which the birds eat) and many of these plants have berries or seeds that the birds eat.  You can't help but benefit the birds in several ways with most of these choices.


  1. Was this a joint project with Tom? Nicely done!

  2. LOVE IT! Now I have to re-do that particular post and add this link, too! I particularly appreciate your list of smaller cultivars and the native vines. The lonicera is a personal favorite of mine--I also like crossvine!

  3. The Cardinals in our area are much less blurry.

  4. Zing! But you have to admit that he is loving that twiggy goodness!

  5. Indeed, indeed. Cardinals especially appreciate the twiggy goodness. Nothing like being red as Santa's suit on a grey flat winter's day."Hey Mr. Cooper's Hawk, here I am".

  6. Great article Ellen, and great choices on the shrubs recommended. Birds everywhere will thank you!

  7. A great list! I have been scouring the web for a list like this, as I am trying to decide what evergreen shrubs to put against my fence and want something very bird friendly. Great idea to plant a vine with it!

  8. Birds love thickets...and *I* love thickets too--especially when they attract birds!

    Great post, Ellen. :)

    I've been adding various shrubs and smaller trees--with vertical layers in mind--for the past three years (since we bought the place). It is a slow process where many additions seem lost in the expanse, but they are beginning to fill in nicely. The spicebushes should really take off this year...that should mean more spicebush caterpillars (and butterflies).

    Every year I plan to add more varieties this year I want to focus on Viburnums. My latest additions were highbush blueberry bushes...but I also want to establish the lowbush blueberries as well. Probably 20 years ago, I saw a diagram in a book about "edge habitat", and I want to take the "vertical layers" to the extreme...from bare rock with low growers like pussytoes (Antenaria) giving way to lowbush blueberries, short grasses, tall grasses and wildflowers, shrubs and so on. Also, I'll not forget to create vertical layers in the woodland, but you've got me really excited about my hedgerow projects. Thanks. :)