In the May 15, 1964, issue of American Nurseryman, E. Sam Hemming focused his column, “This Business of Ours,” on the relationship of birds and nurserymen. As we look ahead to a much-anticipated spring, we could all use a little birdsong.


One might wonder how an interest in birds concerns the nursery business, yet birds do touch the trade in a number of ways. I am not a bird watcher nor an amateur ornithologist, but my wife is, and some of her interest rubs off on me.

I find that a surprising number of my customers are interested in attracting birds, either just for the pleasure of looking at them or for actually studying them. I am frequently asked to do landscaping with birds I mind, and once I landscaped around a bird bath that had an automatic water heater. It is well to work up a list for one’s own use of a number of berry-bearing shrubs and evergreens that will attract birds, as well as afford them shelter. The list is broad, for birds will eat almost any berry, those that are least tasty usually being left till last; but when winter snows come, these, too, are invariably consumed. Berries on the many viburnums, loniceras, beautyberry, chokeberries, hollies, nandinas, barberries, pyracanthas, all are eaten. Birds are attracted not only to berries but to many dried seeds, and I find that the jays are fond of eating Chinese chestnuts.

A Mixed Blessing

Birds, of course, eat many weed seeds and many insects, so that they are beneficial to gardeners and nurserymen, but even though they are mostly helpful and are agreeable to look at, it is unrealistic to say they do no harm, whether one does anything about it or not. Birds may inconvenience man in several ways: For instance, sapsuckers may peck so many holes in the bark of such plans as leatherleaf viburnum and Himalayan pine that a plant will die. Berries attract birds, and that also means strawberries, raspberries or fruits like cherries (or seeds like tender green peas in the pod, which will attract many a brown thrasher). This can be a considerable disadvantage. As jays love chestnuts, so certain other birds will eat the green pods of English walnuts and other nuts.

Birds also work to nurserymen’s disadvantage in holly orchards, where their excrement may damage the foliage intended for cutting, and they may eat the berries needed for decorations.

As a plantsman I am naturally interested in conservation. In fact, nurserymen are usually in the forefront because they both preach it and practice it. With this interest an acknowledged fact, we can honestly express ourselves in modifying some of the extremes advocated by conservationists who get hysterical on the subject.

As an instance, bird lovers are often fanatical about cats and do not extend their “live and let live” philosophy to include them. Just about a year ago I was talking to a lady customer who is an avid bird watcher. She had a bird feeder near her picture window, and, as we walked around the house (a very fine one), there at the base of the feeder was a big old rat. Then I told her of my experience. When I had no cats on the nursery my barns, sheds, etc., soon were overrun with rats; so I hastened to get some cats back.

Man is blamed, too often, for actions that destroy birds, and whenever any species approaches extinction, man is blamed, regardless, whether he is at fault or whether some natural chance is the cause. Similarly, man sometimes is responsible for things that act to increase useful or interesting birds; no comment is then made.

Return of the Canada Geese

About 40 years ago, when my family moved to the Chesapeake bay country, ducks were plentiful, but Canada geese were very rare. When the corn picker came into use in place of the shock method of harvesting, this was changed. The corn picker was inefficient and left 2 to 5 per cent of the corn crop in the field; the geese soon took advantage of this. Now, it is not at all uncommon to see 5,000 Canada geese in one flock. Not only that, but it is often possible to walk within 100 feet of them, and I have seen these large flocks within half a mile of a town. As beautiful a sight as it is, it is not an unmixed blessing, for the geese stay around until early spring, often damaging whole fields of newly sprouted wheat when the fields are close to the water.

Birds are an interesting part of our natural surroundings and are neither all good nor, certainly, all bad, and are a lot tougher and more durable than many seem to think.