Upland Birds: Preparing for Proteins – Opting-In to Perennial Native Legumes
Updated: Feb 26
All upland birds and songbirds need a blend of carbohydrates and proteins – much like you and I. Yet, during the winter months, important proteins can become a bit too scarce for birds to maintain peak health. Corn feeders are easy. But for all birds, corn is a carbohydrate with a handful of not incredibly useful calories – much like popcorn for you and me. We could live for a while on popcorn, but would we be truly healthy? We need to think more seriously about proteins for the health of our feathered friends to further mature as conservationists.
Lots of outdoorspeople spend a great deal of money on annual food plots for deer, turkey, pheasants, quail, etc. But, these annual plots take a lot of money and effort to replenish and they aren’t as effective as they could be. In my humble opinion, any habitat project focused on food sources should include about 20-25% annual plants and 75-80% native perennials – with “native” being the key word.
Soybeans are fine food sources, but readily loose their seeds and are often covered with snow by Christmas. Corn will hold its seeds well, provides some helpful carbs through to March, but really takes too much nutrition from the soil for the benefit it creates for wildlife. Corn is a solution that requires too much effort to keep the food availability high and the soil health where it needs to be. Clovers are great for several animal species, but become easily covered in snow. Buckwheat is one of the few annual crops for which I have a great deal of respect. But, all these crop species come at a cost. And, often that cost is the balance of your time and availability to replenish what is lost after each winter. Will you always have time to replenish? Do you really have no surprises in your life that hit in spring??
Instead, I like to focus on native plants. Native flowers and grasses are great for the pollinators, and the variety of insects (attracted to native wildflowers/forbs) creates an incredibly important food source for your upland birds from the day they hatch until early October. Native animal and bird species seek our native plants because they can easily digest and receive solid nutrition from these food sources their bodies have been designed to utilize.
Insects are hands-down the best protein source for birds from May through September. But, a sound plan for native plants can keep these birds well-feed from October through March. And because most native plants are perennial, you don’t have any new costs or labor to plant every spring.
Many native warm-season grass-seeds (e.g. bluestem, Indian grass, switchgrass, dropseed) and native forbs (e.g. coneflower, bergamot) provide a great perennial seed source that are higher in carbs and can be used as food. Don’t forget that much of these get covered up by snow and become mostly unavailable after the first 6 inches of snow.
I’d like to focus on the native legumes. Here’s why:
Many are perennial or prolific self-seeders
As a legume, they keep the soil healthy by fixing nitrogen from the air
Legume seeds are high in protein
Native legume seeds are readily digestible, and nutrients are more bio-available than crops engineered by man
Native legumes are loved by pollinators and insects through the summer (feeding the birds), then provide protein-rich seed through the fall and winter
Several legume species will hold onto their seeds during the most difficult parts of the winter, then drop them atop the snow when birds need them most. THIS IS KEY!!!!!
Legumes may not be as gorgeous as lobelias, but they are much less expensive that the pretty forbs.
Keep your pretty forbs/wildflowers near to the edges of your prairies so you can hike the edges and see them through the summer months. But, load the centers of your prairie plots with any, or all, of these native legumes:
Native Lespedezas (aka Bushclover)
There are three native bushclovers to Minnesota, but only two of them are available as a seed source and the third species is dangerously threatened. Round-headed Bushclover and Slender Bushclover are incredibly food sources for protein-rich seeds. Undisturbed by large mammals, they will hold at least a few of their seeds through to the end of December. The Round-headed Bushclover is less expensive than the Slender, yet the Slender has no distinct advantages over the Round-headed. I believe that 10-15% of your native legumes should be Round-headed Bushclover. The volume of seeds created is impressive.
This legume is well-known by most quail conservationists. It’s a good plant and really helps draw in the pollinators early. The seeds are nutritious, but this low-growing plant loses its seeds early (by mid-October) and is easily covered by snow. Sure, high-protein seeds are important in October, but they are really needed January through March. Therefore, I’m not a big fan. Certainly not as big as those state agencies that require such a large percentage in the CP-33 (CRP) seed mix. I just see this legume as of little value after Thanksgiving. So, I recommend keeping Partridge Pea to no more than 10% of your legume mix – 5-7% is more logical.
American Senna & Maryland Senna
American (or “common”) Senna and Maryland Senna are awesome! They have a very nutritious seed that’s LOVED by pheasants, turkey and quail. They grow and flower rather prolifically and the pollinators and insects seem to adore the readily available nectar. American Senna will hold about half of its seeds into January then drop them atop the snow. However, Maryland Senna will hold the seeds in its seed pods until early February, dropping them throughout the month. Think about that! It’s just as important to plan for the distribution of seeds throughout the winter as it is to have flowers blooming each month of the summer. I’d have 25-30% of your native legume mix be American Senna and 25-30% of your native legume mix be Maryland Senna. This Senna “infusion” will keep those birds healthy through most of the harshest months of winter.
SPECIAL NOTE: According to current USDA data, both Senna species are not native to Minnesota; however, they are native to all of Iowa and Wisconsin (even the northernmost counties of our neighbor to the east). Both species are rated to grow well in zone 4, especially within those bobwhite counties of southeast Minnesota. Although not a native, these two species are well-respected for their attraction to pollinators and have no aggressive reproduction characteristics. Perhaps the existence of this important legume is one of the keys to quail flourishing in the Southeast.
Great plant, lots of protein-rich seeds! Easy to grow. The bundleflower also holds a portion of its seeds through January, a few more through
February and will usually disperse all seeds by the end of the first week of March. I’d have bundleflower be about 15% of your native legume mix – and MORE important than partridge pea – especially in Minnesota where snow cover can be problematic for bobwhite quail and pheasants!!!
Good, but Less Desirable Legumes
Illinois Tick Trefoil and Showy Tick Trefoil are incredible food sources for quail – even great for the pollinators. But, you walk near them or have your dog run through them even one time, and you will hate tick trefoil the rest of your life. All those seeds that stick to your coat sleeves and blue jeans (or get matted into the coat of even a short-haired dog) are a bit too miserable for my liking. But, they will hold their seeds through to the end of March. My past dogs and I aren’t fans. I cannot recommend. But, it wouldn’t be fair to not point them out. If you absolutely do NOT want these species, be sure to check the mixes created/sold by state agencies or Pheasants Forever. If you don’t want them, be sure to look for their names.
Other Legumes that Are Desirable – But, Not Cheap
Any of the following are wonderful legumes, often very beautiful, but they are expensive and could be used sparingly in your native legume mix. These include: native lupine, blue indigo, yellow indigo, white indigo, cream indigo, prairie clover (white and purple). These latter two native clovers aren’t incredibly expensive, but their seeds are small and lost to the ground by mid-October. They are pretty, but not a great investment for a winter-long birdseed source.
Especially during this crazy winter of 2019, you can begin to see the importance of food sources and their availability throughout the traditionally difficult winter months. I hope this article helps you think differently about your food plot investments and has increased your interest in native perennial legumes! For native legume seed sources, I really like local native seed source providers: Prairie Moon Nursery (https://www.prairiemoon.com/) and Shooting Star Native Seeds (https://www.shootingstarnativeseed.com/).
If you’d like to learn more about bobwhite quail, or chat with folks knowledgeable about native plants species, you could consider attending our Southeast Minnesota Quail Forever banquet in Caledonia on March 30. Click the link below for additional details: