How to Look at Your Garden Through the Eyes of Wildlife Visitors

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How to Look at Your Garden Through the Eyes of Wildlife Visitors

By Susan Tweit, Houzz

Depending on the time of year, you might see in your yard a symphony of flowers in different colors and shapes (spring and summer), a splash of leaves changing (fall) or an accent of seedpods and berries (winter). What the wildlife visitors who use your yard see is very different. Pollinators, for instance, see some flowers that welcome them to dine and others that let them know there is nothing to eat.

Let’s explore what we see and what your yard looks like to birds, bees, butterflies and other wildlife when it comes to food.

Susan J Tweit, original photo on Houzz

What we see. A lovely white peony in full fragrant bloom with a volunteer wildflower next to it that should probably be weeded out of the peony bed.

What they see. A food desert. The peony is a double flower (bred to have more petals and a fuller-looking bloom) that has no markings on its petals, a sign to pollinators to not bother: The flower offers no nectar or pollen for them.

Double or triple flowers usually sacrifice sexual parts for increased petals. With no or few sexual parts, plants don’t spend the energy to produce nectar or pollen to attract pollinators. These may be beautiful flowers, but they don’t contribute any food to the garden’s living community.

Susan J Tweit, original photo on Houzz

What we see. Spikes of pale purple flowers with wide throats and protruding lower lips characteristic of Rocky Mountain penstemon (Penstemon strictus), a June-blooming wildflower.

What they see. The combination of color, shape, and markings pointing into the throat of these flowers acts as a “food here” sign for pollinators, especially native bumblebees. Bee vision is optimized to hone in on the blue end of the light spectrum, from pinks and true blues to purple and ultraviolet rays.

The flower’s lower lip acts as a landing pad for incoming bees, and the wide floral tube accommodates chubby bumblebee bodies. The lines leading into the floral tube look bright to bees as well, signaling them to enter the flower for the pollen and nectar hidden inside. (Notice the orange “butt” of the Hunt’s bumblebee sticking out of one of the flowers in this photo. Its head is entirely inside the flower.)

Susan J Tweit, original photo on Houzz

What we see. Hot pink tubular flowers of Agastache ‘Desert Sunrise’, a lovely and long-blooming late-summer and early-fall flower.

What they see. The narrow floral tube of the Agastache is optimized for pollinators like hummingbirds, with their long, brush-tipped tongue. The tiny calypso hummingbird in this photo spotted these bright pink Agastache flowers and interpreted their color and shapes as a sign of a meal.

Like bees, hummingbirds’ vision is optimized for certain parts of the color spectrum. Only, where bees are especially sensitive to colors in the blue range of the spectrum, hummingbirds’ vision is particularly sensitive to red light wavelengths (from orange to pink, with true red between). That doesn’t mean they don’t see other colors; the red wavelengths simply “pop out” more.

Flowers offer more complete nutrition than the sugar-water in hummingbird feeders. Flower nectar is made of more concentrated natural sugars and comes with a side dose of fat-rich pollen, plus protein from the flower mites and other tiny insects the hummingbird swabs up with the nectar.

Susan J Tweit, original photo on Houzz

What we see. A hollyhock flower full of “messy” pollen that could stain clothes and table linens if brought inside as a cut flower.

What they see. Food. Pollen is rich in fats and lipids as well as antioxidants and vitamins that help the immune system. It’s a long-lasting food that is gathered by many pollinators to feed their young and to sustain overwintering adults as well.

The native bumblebee in the photo is buzz-pollinating the hollyhock flower, wrapping her abdomen around the flower and vibrating her body in the key of middle C to shake loose pollen. She will collect the pollen grains, pack them into “baskets” on her hind legs and then carry the fat-rich food to her nest to feed the colony’s young.

Like double or triple horticultural varieties, “pollenless” varieties of flowers are pretty but provide no food for pollinators such as beetles, bees, butterflies and other insects.

Susan J Tweit, original photo on Houzz

What we see. Blue berries on a woodbine vine (Parthenocissus vitacea) in fall. For some, the berries may be seen as a potential problem when they drop to the ground, their blue pigment staining sidewalks or pavers.

What they see. Important food for migration and winter. The dark blue color of the berries signals their nutritional content to birds and small mammals. Dark blue or purple means plenty of antioxidants, the natural vitamins that fight cancer and boost immune system health. Antioxidants are especially important for birds in migration and those going into the stressful winter months.

Feeding birds and other wildlife means more than hanging out a bird feeder. Just as with humans, eating a balanced diet means eating a wide variety of foods, especially those high in healthy compounds like antioxidants. Planting berry-producing shrubs, vines, and trees will attract more birds to your yard by adding healthy food.

Susan J Tweit, original photo on Houzz

What we see. An annual sunflower (Helianthus annuus) that has finished blooming. Those browned-off flower heads could be trimmed off and tidied up.

What they see. A natural seed feeder, jammed with high-fat, nutritious seeds. The trick is prying those seeds out and crunching the seed coat without losing the succulent seed inside.

The siskin in the photo has a sharp, awl-shaped bill, which is just the right tool to pry out the tightly packed sunflower seeds. These small songbirds and their sweet-singing goldfinch relatives are light enough to clamber over sunflower seed heads and dangle upside down like little parrots as they pull out the seeds and eat them. They’re messy eaters, so they always drop some seeds, thus planting next year’s sunflower crop.

Sunflowers are superfood and habitat for wildlife. The disc-like center of the flower head absorbs solar radiation during the day and provides a warm place for bees and other small pollinators to sleep at night. Their pollen feeds native bees; their seeds feed songbirds. They’re also easy to grow.

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