Bird City, Milwaukee County is a monthly column celebrating the 11 cities, towns, and villages that have achieved Bird City status within Milwaukee County. Citizens of these locations have made bird conservation a priority, protecting land, writing ordinances, and educating the public on issues concerning our avian neighbors. You can learn more about the Bird City Network by visiting its website. This month: the Village of River Hills.

I‘m really excited about this month’s article because it’s a bit different than the rest. We’re covering the Village of River Hills, which became a Bird City in 2019. River Hills is the only Bird City and Milwaukee County community that’s zoned 100% residential, giving it a unique spot on this list. To fulfill its Bird City designation, River Hills adopted ordinances that allow residents to control invasive species and shape their properties to promote natural lawn care practices friendly to wildlife. There are a few properties like Indian Hill Elementary School, the Milwaukee Country Club, and some religious institutions that the public can enjoy, but even those spaces are technically residential. I figured none of them would want me lurking around the premises with a pair of binoculars and a camo-coated telephoto lens, so I had to get creative when highlighting this Bird City. In this month’s Q&A, we’re going to celebrate birding in River Hills by celebrating the main kind of residential birding… backyard birding. Last month’s Q&A on No Mow May introduced the concept of planting natives. This month’s guest, Jennifer Lazewski of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, will dive deeper into this concept, taking us through strategies that can help transform your yard into a natural paradise for birds.

Before we get into that I want to take a little more time discussing this month’s Bird City… because I left something out. There is ONE place that the public can go birding in River Hills. In fact, they host a bird walk (led by poet Chuck Stebelton) on the second Sunday of every month. It’s one of Milwaukee County’s most cherished art institutions: Lynden Sculpture Garden (2145 W. Brown Deer Rd.)

Forty acres. Fifty sculptures. Tons of birds. Let’s jump in and talk about a one-of-a-kind birding experience that I encourage you to check out too!

Lynden Sculpture Garden opened to the public in 2009, but the space has a long conservation and artistic ethos. The property was the estate of Harry Lynde and Peg Blankey Bradley, one-half of the historic Allen-Bradley Company and therefore one-half of Milwaukee Record‘s favorite clock tower (it’s a very nice tower some days). Long before the sculpture garden became public, the Bradleys replaced the property’s corn fields with more than 4,000 trees. In the ’60s, they started adding sculptures outside while expanding the interiors to fit even more artwork, which continued after the Bradleys passed. Before opening to the public, the site went through a series of renovations. These renovations were chock full of environmental priorities, from re-introducing native plant species to adding rain gardens and ensuring demolition waste was reused and recycled. It’s an impressive feat that gives the community a serene place to appreciate art and nature.

As mentioned above, for birders I highly recommend attending one of Chuck Stebelton’s bird walks. The one I attended was a delight, in part due to Chuck’s calming enthusiasm. Among other things, Mr. Stebelton is a Wisconsin Master Naturalist, and he has mastered the art of the bird walk, pacing out facts and stories at the right moments, all while leading a group of 16. We saw roughly 50 birds within two hours and had a lot of fun doing it.

The walk was 3/4 mile, some of it gravel but mostly unpaved. Chuck immediately had us on some white-crowned sparrows, one of our most distinct summer sparrow species. We then headed toward the property’s dual lagoon, which was flush with wildlife. The space was filled with painted turtles and green herons all wading next to watery reflections of Quartet, a vibrantly painted steel sculpture from American artist Forrest Myers. Seeing all of our classic birds like the eastern phoebe and mourning dove sharing space with these towering artistic achievements was a real treat.

White-Crowned Sparrow

Painted Turtle

Green Heron

Eastern Phoebe

Mourning Dove

There’s a harmony here, which continues the further you trek into the garden. The 4,000 trees are home to nesting chestnut-sided warblers and red-breasted nuthatches (the less common of Milwaukee’s two nuthatch species). Multiple house finch species and barn swallows found crevices in an old barn. I didn’t see a lick of poop on a single statue. I’m sure it occurs, but not a single bird was interested in using a statue as a perch on the day I went. The birds’ attention was all on their daily needs. Building nests. Feeding young. Staying wary of the lingering red-tailed hawk. During our walk it was clear to me that this place is a sanctuary of sorts for wildlife.

Red-Breasted Nuthatch

Of course, it makes sense. Not only was it renovated with nature in mind, but the sculpture garden advocates for birds in a few different ways. They’re involved with Project Feederwatch, a citizen science program through the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. A dedicated volunteer, Barb Kellermann, supervises Lynden’s eastern bluebird nesting project. Bluebird nesting is one of Wisconsin’s longest-standing and most successful conservation projects to date, and it’s exciting to see one of the county’s Bird Cities as a part of the project. At first glance, it’s easy to picture Lynden as an art-first institution, and while it certainly has that in spades, it’s clear to me that they are just as much a champion of nature as they are art.

I‘m ecstatic for this month’s Q&A because it’s full of advice anyone with some yard space can utilize. From Wisconsin Master Naturalist to Wisconsin Master Gardener, to the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Society of Ornithology, Jennifer Lazewski is a powerhouse in Milwaukee’s conservation scene.

Q&A with Jennifer Lazewski, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Society of Ornithology

Milwaukee Record: Let’s talk about gardening with native plants in mind. Why has this become such a “buzzy” practice in recent years, and why is it a practice both you and countless nature-based communities advocate for?

Jennifer Lazewski: The biggest reason is to provide for birds, insects, and other wildlife that are disappearing due to habitat loss and fragmentation, pesticide use, and other reasons that usually originate with humans. Doug Tallamy has raised public awareness about these issues, but he and others are also motivating people to make personal commitments that make a difference for wildlife. Of course, people also get the added benefits of more productive gardens and bringing nature into our everyday spaces. The plants, wildlife, and interactions bring wonder, beauty, and mindfulness into our daily lives.

MR: This column is all about the birds. How does planting natives benefit bird life, and what are some of the plants or planting strategies that benefit birds most?

JL: Native plants give birds direct food with seeds, nectar, berries, fruits, and nuts. These plants also benefit (and bring in for viewing) insect-eating birds by providing food for those insects. Non-native plants generally do not do that because native insects have not adapted to be able to eat them. Put away the spray bottles and keep your yard free of pesticides (which include insecticides, herbicides and fungicides). They not only kill insects outright in some cases, but they also have cumulative effects on bugs, birds, and the rest of nature as they become part of the ecosystem you are building in your yard.

Most people start with perennial herbaceous plants, which include pollinator plants that generate lots of seed and need lots of sun. These include coneflowers, gayfeather (liatris), bee balm, black and brown-eyed susans, and sunflowers. However, grasses and sedges provide seeds and nesting materials, and they grow in both sun and shade. Many of the shrubs that produce berries and nuts grow in part-shade or shade and fit in great with woodland areas that many yards have. The blooms of those shrubs also benefit pollinators in the early spring when their opportunities to find food are more limited in urban environments. This provides a much better solution to pollinator and bird needs than No Mow May.

Expand your thinking and be willing to pay more for a native shrub that covers more ground and provides great bird food. Better yet, do both—add plants and shrubs. Pump up the volume! That’s an easy phrase to remember to keep birds happy and coming back. Go up and out with more native plants of different types that create a more natural environment for birds, from native grasses (which are much easier to care for than lawn) to trees (which provide abundant insects as well as nesting and perching space).

MR: How much care do people need to have when deciding what type of native plants they should add back into their yards? Can you just pick a few that seem fun and make them work, or is planting natives complex?

JL: Native plants can be very simple or very complex depending on your level of interest and willingness to do some research before planting. Most are going to spread and won’t necessarily be neat and orderly unless you put a fair amount of work into keeping them that way. You can identify a limited palette of plants that work for your sun and soil combination, as well as your desired level of care and neatness, and repeat them to fill the space. Nothing is maintenance free, however, and some degree of watering and other care is necessary, especially when native plants are first getting established.

Native plants fill lots of niches in nature, and there are some that are meant to blanket an area quickly (often called “pioneer plants”), cover lots of area (typically described as “suckering” or “spread by rhizomes”), or root deeply to survive fires or stabilize soil. Do some reading to try and avoid plants that don’t fit in with your plans or don’t put them right next to the property line. Technically native plants cannot be “invasive,” but they may have some of the same aggressive characteristics when in perfect sites without some of the limiting factors they would have in nature.

Ideally, you want to have a combination of bloom times that span early spring to fall, including trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals, vegetables, and herbs. This provides food for pollinators and beauty for humans throughout the gardening season. Then it also provides staggered types of food for birds since pollination of those blooms produces that food. Early berries provide more carbohydrates and sugar for quick energy while later berries, fruits, and nuts provide more fat to help birds bulk up for migration and winter.

For those who have more space or become native plant nerds, you can learn and plant in native plant communities that match your sun and soil conditions. In nature, plants grow together in certain associations to fill an area characterized by a particular combination of sun, water, and soil conditions. Planting them in these groups gets them as close to nature as possible and they tend to work together to support and limit each other. Prairie (which is full sun) can be dry, medium, or wet prairie. Savannah is prairie with some shady areas and comes closer to matching many of our yard spaces. Shrub-carr is a favored wetland community for birds. Southern mesic (medium) forests are mostly maple and basswood with a relatively open shrub layer and spring ephemerals. The UW Arboretum native gardens and the Forked Aster trails in Milwaukee County Parks provide some great examples of these types of communities.

MR: Kind of riffing off of that last question, if someone is interested in planting natives, what is a good place for them to start, and what are some things they have to take into consideration?

JL: “Right plant, right place” is always the starting point for any type of gardening. Understand the sun, soil, and moisture conditions of a particular area in your yard. Then match the plant to those conditions. Plant labels, plant catalogs, and other resources provide you with that information. Putting a plant in the right place results in a healthier plant with fewer pest and disease issues and usually more blooms. The great thing about native plants is that there are plants to match every combination of conditions as is—no soil amendments or water condition changes needed just to accommodate the plants, make them bloom, or get them through the winter.

A local native plant sale or garden center is your best source for plants. They are providing plants that match your local conditions and are known to grow well there. All the local nature centers and the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District have limited-time native plant sales.

Join Wild Ones native plant association or attend chapter winter educational meetings (which are usually open to the public). This group originated in Wisconsin with Laurie Otto and other native plant pioneers, and the local chapters have long-time native gardeners full of practical advice as well as those just starting out. The national organization offers landscape design plans and free webinars from experts at They also get a discount on native plants, shrubs and trees at Johnson’s Nursery every June.

MR: A lot of people are tied to bright and colorful yards. Can you still achieve color and beauty with Wisconsin’s plants and flowers?

JL: Absolutely! Native plants are not bred to be unnatural super bloomers as horticulture industry plants are, but there are still some spectacular flowering natives and combinations that can fill your yard with color. Native St. John’s Wort shrubs (not the short European herb) have big yellow flower balls that bumble bees love and are especially attractive to the endangered Rusty-patched bumble bee. Native serviceberry, viburnum, and dogwood fill the same spring role as non-native magnolia and crabapple trees. Orange Butterfly Milkweed attracts everyone’s attention as well as bringing in monarchs. Purple Coneflower brings in bright yellow goldfinches and survives Wisconsin winters, unlike many of those fancy colored and double-flowering coneflowers. Vertical wands of purple Liatris and Agastache provide the perfect contrast to all the yellow summer daisy-type flowers. The also season ends with bright yellow goldenrods and purple asters.

You can also still add annuals. Sprinkle some zinnia seeds into a new native planting to cover otherwise open ground, provide color, and bring in butterflies while the native plants grow. I include annual salvias for hummingbirds (such as Black and Blue, “Hot Lips” and “Lady in Red”) and for bees (“Mystic Salvia”). Beneficial insects that feed off bad bugs are attracted by smaller-flowered plentiful blooming plants such as Sweet Alyssum, cilantro, coreopsis, cosmos, and dill (which also feeds black swallowtail caterpillars).

MR: I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up the Wisconsin Society of Ornithology (WSO), which you lead. It’s one of my absolute favorite state organizations. Tell me about the work WSO does throughout the state and why people should become a member of this fantastic organization.

JL: WSO is a statewide organization that focuses on birds, birders and birding. Our mission is to promote the enjoyment, study, and conservation of Wisconsin’s birds. We are a community of birders who gather and volunteer in various WSO and public programs, projects, and activities. We have fun, learn about migratory and resident birds, educate others about birds and their habitats, and advocate for Wisconsin’s birds. WSO has a long history of participation and leadership in bird conservation efforts throughout the state, and we encourage people to become engaged in bird conservation as well as bird watching. Mostly, however, it’s just great to be outside or talking with people who love birds so much.

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About The Author

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Kyle Arpke is a freelance filmmaker, wildlife & conservation photojournalist, and naturalist from the Milwaukee area. Through the Wisconsin Master Naturalist Program Kyle volunteers for a slew of organizations including Humboldt Park Friends, Schlitz Audubon, Glacial Lakes Conservatory, eBird, and more. Follow Kyle’s photo work on Instagram @thekarp14.