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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Birder Urges Going Native to Restore Songbird Sanctuaries

Birder Urges Going Native to 
Restore Songbird Sanctuaries:
Michael Corcoran gives talk at 
Birdcraft Museum
(Posted to 3/24)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – Aggressively removing invasive plants. Offering ground water resources. Integrating berry producing weeds and shrubs.

These are some of the strategies birder Michael Corcoran recommended to provide sanctuary to our native songbirds and help restore native plants in his “Birdscaping: Native Plants for our Native Birds” presentation Tuesday evening at Birdcraft Museum, Unquowa Road. About 25 people attended, enjoying a wine and cheese reception afterward.

Over the past 20 years, Corcoran has participated in numerous citizen-based bird population studies and has helped maintain the bird banding station at the Birdcraft Sanctuary, the oldest privately-owned space of its kind in the country. He described the facility as a second home, to which he was first introduced by Henrietta Lachman, an Audubon staffer that got him involved in a summer breeding birds survey. In order to participate, he had to undergo training under the guidance of the sanctuary’s master bander Judy Richardson.

As his knowledge of and interest in birds evolved, he began thinking about their sanctuaries. “You watch your feeder, go out and pursue birds, then get to wondering how the birds, insects and habitats all work in a system.”

Corcoran said that native bird sanctuaries have gradually been in decline since Europeans settled here in the 1600s and upset natural biospheres. “Plants and birds were interrelated before then,” he said. “Since, in suburban landscapes, we’ve introduced non-native and invasive plants that out-compete native flora. The lack of diversity among the plants has created a lack of diversity among insects, which affects bird populations and where they choose to make their homes.”

With a practical-minded approach, Corcoran used his own property in Glastonbury as a site to create a bird-friendly habitat utilizing native plants, trees and shrubs. The property, which he described as a greenway located between two patches of forest, now attracts over 125 different species of songbirds. The plants and birds have a symbiotic relationship wherein the plants provide nesting material, while the birds help spread plant seeds.

In his presentation, Corcoran showed many of the native birds that call Connecticut home, including the Eastern Tufted Titmouse, Yellow Shafted Flicker and Eastern Bluebird. He said that they depend on native plantlife for survival and that a number of invasive plant types are posing threats. Among these, he named Garlic Mustard, one of the most invasive species; Honeysuckle, that can strangle trees and bring them down; Japanese Knotweed; Mile-A-Minute Weed that grows as quickly as its name implies; and the Japanese Barberry, which has a very high seed count and decimates forests.

Corcoran recommended removal of these invasive plants by any means necessary and replacement with a mix of native flora. In the herbaceous plants category, he suggested Butterfly Weed, Black-eyed Susans and Peones. He also offered weeds like Pokeberry and Common Milkweed to attract insects upon which native birds like to feed. With regard to trees, Corcoran said the Eastern Red Cedar provides good cover and high-fat berries while the Dogwood produces berries that offer songbirds proper nutrition.

The self-described “bird geek” suggested berry-producing shrubs as well. Varieties included Silky Dogwood, Gray Dogwood, the American Cranberrybush, Elderberry and Witch Hazel, which provide nutrition July through December.

Corcoran admitted that deer, which can be devastating to native plants, are a huge problem in Fairfield County. “I could recommend a good dog and a rifle, though there are tonics and fences that you can try,” he joked.

Nelson North, director of operations for the Audubon Society in Fairfield, said Corcoran’s program, which is part of an ongoing community education effort, was timely for spring. “Hopefully people will think about indigenous plants when they plan their gardens,” he said.

Corcoran echoed North, hoping that presentation attendees would go to their local nursery and ask what they have in the way of native plants. “I also hope town ordinances are introduced that require the use of native species,” he said.

For reference works pertaining to birdscaping, invasive plant species to be avoided and native plants to be cultivated, visit