Becoming a Bird-Friendly Habitat

Martha Keehner Engelke, EMGV

The Durham County Extension Master Gardener Volunteer Demonstration Garden is a unique space that welcomes and inspires visitors with innovative displays of research-based gardening techniques. Visitors can relax on one of the benches and share a conversation with a friend while they admire plants that are suited for heavy shade, partial shade, partial sun, and full sun. Adults and children are entertained as they walk along the paths and learn the actual name of a plant they have admired.

On August 30, 2023, the Demonstration Garden was recognized as a haven for another creature besides humans: Birds. The New Hope Audubon Society certified the Demonstration Garden as a ‘Bird Friendly Habitat’.  (

Joan Barber EMGV, Chair Demonstration Garden Committee
Photo taken by Martha Engelke

The process of certification recognizes spaces where birds and wildlife can thrive, but it is also a learning opportunity. The main criteria are using native plants from the tree canopy to perennials and ground covers; removing invasive plants; and adopting practices that support wildlife.  

Although the Demonstration Garden contains many native plants, we learned that some native plants are particularly important when it comes to fostering a healthy bird environment. Doug Tallamy, Professor and Chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware has developed the concept of Keystone Plants. This term describes native plants that support the most caterpillars and thus are the best food source for baby birds. We were pleased to learn that our Willow Oak (Quercus phellos) was at the top of the list for Keystone plants in the tree category. The top Keystone plant in the shrub category is blueberry (rabbiteye varieties do particularly well here). We didn’t have this plant in the Demonstration Garden, but three have recently been added.  A list of  Keystone plants for each group can be found at:

Photo: Ailanthus altissima NC Plant Toolbox Andreas Rockstein CC-BY-SA 2.0

Another criteria is the removal of plants that are invasive or harmful to birds. Although we thought this was not a problem since EMGVs don’t intentionally plant invasive species, a Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) sapling was found. Not only is this plant invasive, but it is also the main host for the Spotted Lanternfly. It was immediately removed.

We knew that we were including many bird friendly practices at the Demonstration Garden such as providing water sources and nest boxes. The demonstration garden includes a birdbath sculpted by stone artist Bob Simchock. Watch the video below and you can see that it is an attractive play area for not only the birds but for people enjoying the birds.

Photo and video contributed by Joan Barber, EMGV

We also do not rake the leaves and leave plants that die back to be enjoyed by the birds in fall and winter. We used organic matter and electric rather than gas power tools.

Photo by Martha Engelke, EMGV

However, one area of concern that can only partially be remedied relates to minimizing lights at night and reducing the danger of bird collisions with windows. As a public building, the Extension Office must include good lighting for safety reasons since meetings occur there in the evening. We spent some time educating employees in the building about how to make it less likely that birds will fly into windows.  The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has developed an excellent article which can be used as a guide to prevent bird collisions with windows.

As development increases in our area, the native habitat of birds and other wildlife are being destroyed. Using native plants, eliminating invasive plants, and using bird friendly gardening practices can help to reduce this alarming trend. Obtaining certification as a Bird Friendly Habitat was not only rewarding but informative. It is a process that is open to all gardeners. To learn more about the certification process, visit:

Resources and Additional Information

New Hope Audubon

NC Cooperative Extension (2022) Managing backyards and other urban habitats for birds.

NC Cooperative Extension (2021) Preparing your yard for winter birds.

Tallamy, D. (2020). Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard. ISBN: 978-1604699005


Award Winning Projects from Durham County Master Gardener Volunteers

Two projects led by Durham County Extension Master Gardener volunteers were recognized for excellence during the 2023 International Master Gardener Conference, hosted by the Kansas State University Extension Master Gardeners of Johnson County, held in Overland Park, Kansas, June 18 – 22, 2023. The awards were presented during the conference, which was attended by 1,130 Extension Master Gardeners and Extension professionals from 44 states, Canada, and England.

The David Gibby International Search for Excellence Awards, named in honor of the founder of the Extension Master Gardener program, recognize exemplary group projects that show significant learning by the Master Gardeners or the public. The award-winning projects showcase the efforts and talents of Master Gardener volunteers, often providing economic, environmental, educational, and health impacts. These innovative projects frequently serve as models, influencing the development of Extension Master Gardener-led programs worldwide.

The awards are divided into seven categories:

  • Community Service
  • Demonstration Gardens
  • Innovative Projects
  • Research (Applied Scientific Methodology)
  • Special Needs Audiences (Senior, Disabled Audiences or Horticultural Therapy)
  • Workshops or Presentations
  • Youth Programs

Durham Master Gardeners placed in the following categories:

Demonstration Gardens, 3rd place for “Cocoa Cinnamon Container Garden Project.”

Cocoa Cinnamon, a coffee shop located near the Cooperative Extension office, is a small business in a busy urban area. The business’s outdoor seating area is defined by many container plantings. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Extension Master Gardeners approached the business owners and asked if they would be interested in a partnership to provide educational opportunities by revitalizing the containers. Volunteers improved drainage in the containers, added a custom planting mix, chose plants suited for the location, and added irrigation to the planters, creating a beautiful and educational space on a bustling corner.

Their goals for the project included:

  • Designing and implementing a container demonstration garden in an exposed urban location, which Master Gardener volunteers could then use as an educational tool for urban residents, a previously underserved audience.
  • Providing Master Gardener volunteers an opportunity to dive deep into university-based research while also bringing creativity to bear in problem-solving a real-world horticultural challenge.
  • Experimenting with soil mixes and using tools such as a soil thermometer and a moisture meter to gather data to test research-based practices in urban conditions specific to downtown Durham.
  • Creating low-maintenance plantings that provide screening from traffic and construction, as well as noise amelioration, for the outdoor sitting area.
  • Engaging the community in the project to improve the quality of people’s lives, a core-component of Extension’s mission.

While many volunteers came together to make the project a success, a core team was responsible for organizing the project. This team included Deborah Pilkington (Leader), Beth Austin, Cathy Halloran, Peter Gilmer, Mary Knierim, and Jackie MacLeod.

Read more:

Innovative Projects, 3rd place for “Creating Connection: Education through Social Media & Blog Outreach During the Pandemic & Beyond.”

Based on lessons learned during the pandemic and a desire to further increase their reach and impact, Extension Master Gardeners in Durham County created a united communications team that expands and coordinates the efforts of their individual social media and blog committees. By uniting these committees they are able to produce timely, high-quality, and scientifically-based content for a readership that includes gardeners of all experience levels. 

Together, their online content reaches a diversity of audiences with different but complementary content. Through social media, they engage broader and often younger audiences with easy-to-digest pictures and stories, while the blog allows them to share more in-depth content via longer articles. Posting links to their blog content on social media resulted in their online outreach reaching new heights in 2022, including: 

  • a record 1,796 followers and 19,353 unique viewers on Facebook, 
  • a record 1,416 followers and 5,904 unique viewers on Instagram,  and
  • unprecedented engagement on their blog, with weekly posts hitting 105,590 views and 81,693 unique viewers. This is a 42% increase in overall views compared to 2021.

With contributions from many volunteers, the 2022 blog leadership (including Melinda Heigel and Ann Barnes) and Social Media team (including Ariyah April, Lalitree Darnielle, and Logan Seay) did an amazing job streamlining communication to reach more people.

Read more:


NC State Extension Annual Report: