Gardening for the Birds

Liz Miller
Adams County Master Gardener

Why even bother to garden for birds, you might ask? Well, for one thing, many bird species are dwindling in numbers. By establishing a bird sanctuary in your backyard, you and your family will attract a variety of birds. In addition, it is fun to garden for the birds. The joy of attracting birds to your backyard is open to everyone, and creating a garden that welcomes birds is a relatively simple task. You can attract birds by planting a variety of trees, shrubs, and flowers that provide good nesting sites, winter shelter, places to hide from predators, and natural, year-round food supplies.

Here are the types of plants that are important for creating a good bird habitat.


Conifers are evergreen trees and shrubs that include pines, spruces, firs, arborvitae, junipers, cedars, and yews. They bear leaves throughout the year and offer a good source of berries, seed-filled cones, sap and buds. These plants are important as escape cover, winter shelter, and summer nesting and breeding sites. Birds need cover to hide from their enemies and from weather extremes. In the very cold regions, dense evergreens shelter birds and actually insulate them from frigid temperatures and icy winds. In hot areas, birds get protection from the sun and heat. In the spring, the same cover provides nesting places for them.

Grasses and Legumes

Grasses and legumes can provide cover for ground nesting birds--especially if the area is not mowed during the nesting season. Some grasses and legumes provide seeds as well. Use native grasses as accent plants and in wildlife meadows as native grasses provide seeds for the birds to eat. If youíre not worried about a few weeds, leave a patch of ground somewhere out of the way where you donít mow, and native sparrows will line up to eat the weed seeds. Are you tired of raking all those leaves up in the fall? Then leave some on the ground for a change. Insects are attracted to leaf litter, and youíll be feeding lots pf birds by leaving the leaves right where they are.

Nectar-Producing Plants

Nectar-producing plants are very popular for attracting hummingbirds and orioles. Flowers with tubular red corollas are especially attractive to hummingbirds. Other trees, shrubs, vines and flowers can also provide nectar for hummingbirds. Examples of North America native nectar-producing plants include coral-bells, trumpet creeper, red yucca and scarlet sage.

Summer-Fruiting Plants

This category includes plants that produce fruits or berries from May through August. Among birds that can be attracted to these types of plants in the summer are brown thrashers, catbirds, robins, thrushes, waxwings, woodpeckers, orioles, cardinals, towhees, and grosbeaks. Examples of summer-fruiting plants are various species of cherry, chokecherry, honeysuckle, raspberry, serviceberry, blackberry, blueberry, grape, mulberry, plum, and elderberry.

Fall-Fruiting Plants

This landscape component includes shrubs and vines whose fruits are ripe in the fall. These foods are important both for migratory birds which build up fat reserves prior to migration and as a food source for non-migratory species that need to enter the winter season in good physical condition. Fall-fruiting plants include dogwoods, mountain ash, winter-berries, cotoneasters, and buffalo-berries.

Winter-Fruiting Plants

Winter-fruiting plants are those whose fruits remain attached to the plants long after they ripen in the fall. Many are not palatable until they have frozen and thawed numerous times. Examples are glossy black chokecherry, Siberian and "red splendor" crabapple, snowberry, bittersweet, sumacs, American high bush cranberry, eastern and European Wahoo, Virginia creeper, and Chinaberry.

Nut and Acorn Plants

These include oaks, hickories, buckeyes, chestnuts, butternuts, walnuts, and hazels. The meats of broken nuts and acorns are eaten by a variety of birds. These plants also provide good nesting habitat.

Perennials and Annuals Plants

A yard or garden filled with a wide selection of perennials and annual flowers will also provide essential food for birds. Perennials that can be counted on as food sources for birds include asters, chrysanthemums, cone flowers, coreopsis, goldenrod, milkweed, penstemon, salvia, sedum and verbena. All-purpose annuals that are good food sources consist of bachelorís buttons, cleome, cosmos, flowering tobacco, marigolds, sunflowers and zinnias.

And what if you have only a small yard without many well established trees and shrubs? You can still attract birds by planting a few containers of flowers or by adding a few hanging baskets on your deck or patio. Whether tiny, huge, or somewhere in between, the haven you create will entice and welcome birds. They will come to your garden month by month, season by season, all year round.

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