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By Laurie Cleveland | 

When my kids were little, I always looked for craft projects to keep us busy on cold winter evenings. On a visit to Longwood Gardens, we discovered a bird-friendly holiday tree, and a family tradition was born. Crafting ornaments to decorate the “wildlife tree” and admiring its colorful visitors extends our holiday season nicely.

This year, the Sourland Conservancy partnered with the Hopewell Borough Economic Development Committee to “spruce up” the borough’s planters with 30 native red cedar trees. The community was invited to participate in a decorating contest. In the spring, Conservancy staff and volunteers will replant the trees in the Sourland forest in conjunction with our Forest Restoration Project.

The Conservancy chose a bird-friendly theme for our Hopewell Borough tree, and our staff had fun adorning it with berries, fruit, popcorn, suet, and seeds. We’ve been augmenting the decorations occasionally to ensure there’s always a healthy variety on the menu. 

Sourland Conservancy’s bird-friendly holiday trees. 

Following are a few tips and helpful links you can use to create a bird-friendly tree at home to provide a safe and inviting space for birds – and a clear view for birdwatching.

Choose a Real Tree:
Start by selecting a real, sustainably sourced Christmas tree. Real trees are biodegradable and support local ecosystems when recycled or disposed of responsibly. If possible, choose a live native tree to plant in your yard after the holidays – or donate to the Conservancy – to provide important habitat all year long! We chose native Eastern red cedars for the Hopewell Borough trees.

Natural Ornaments:
Consider incorporating natural elements into your decorations. They’re free and naturally biodegradable. Native pinecones, twigs, acorns, and dried flowers add a touch of rustic charm and provide food and nesting material for birds.

Edible Decorations:
Stringing popcorn, cranberries, or unsalted peanuts creates a festive, bird-friendly garland that’s a delightful snack. Be sure to avoid using salt or artificial flavorings.

Choose safe string:
Thin-gauge thread or butcher’s twine are good choices if made of an organic material like cotton. Avoid synthetic materials and threads or yarn made of several strands wound together.

Birdseed Ornaments:
Craft birdseed ornaments using a mixture of birdseed, gelatin, and water. Press the mixture into cookie cutters, let it set, and then hang these edible ornaments on your tree. Here’s a link to instructions from the National Audubon Society.

Fruit Feeders:
Hang slices of dried fruit, such as apples or oranges, from your tree. These natural bird feeders can brighten your tree and provide a feast for wildlife.

Suet Ornaments:
Craft suet ornaments by mixing suet with seeds, nuts, or dried fruit. Mold the mixture into festive shapes using cookie cutters or spread on pinecones and roll in birdseed. I heated store-bought suet to make it more pliable. Suet provides a high-energy food source for birds during the winter months.

*Suet: any animal suet used for birds must be rendered suet (like the solid blocks you get at the bird supply store). Use of plain animal fat (also called suet) which starts to get soft even at slightly warmer temperatures is potentially hazardous to birds. It can stick to their feathers and be impossible for them to remove with normal preening. That is not a problem when it is properly rendered as it is in commercial bird suet, because the chemical bonds in the fat are changed. You can also use peanut butter as a base instead of fat suet.

Avoid Tinsel and Artificial Snow:
Tinsel and artificial snow can be harmful if ingested by birds. Opt for environmentally friendly alternatives like paper garlands or fabric ribbons. These choices reduce the risk to wildlife and add a touch of elegance.

Safe Lighting:
When it comes to tree lights, choose LED options. LED lights consume less energy, reducing your environmental footprint. Additionally, these lights produce less heat, making them safer for birds that may perch on or near the tree. Set a timer to turn the lights off at bedtime and reduce disturbance for nocturnal animals.

Spread the Word:
Share your bird-friendly tree on social media to inspire friends and family!

Wishing you and yours a warm and safe holiday season!