Gardening for Birds

September 1, 2017

Birds are great visitors to any garden. The greater the diversity of plants, the more successful you will be in attracting a variety of birds. Include as many native plants as possible as they have evolved along with the birds providing food and shelter in a timely fashion. The closer you can create a native landscape, the more birds will be attracted. Include evergreens around your property borders to provide cover and nesting areas, especially berry producers for winter food.

Hollies (Ilex) are one of the most valuable and versatile resources for birds. There are hundreds of fruit-bearing species, serving as shelter sites and nesting areas in their densely covered branches. The brightly colored berries come in a variety of colors; red, yellow, orange, white and black. The fruit is enjoyed by robins, cardinals, waxwings, jays, woodpeckers, chickadees and others.

Amelanchier laevis (serviceberry), roses, Mahonia and other thorny shrubs create good protection. Aronia (chokeberries) after flowering, provide berries in a variety of sizes and colors. Callicarpa americana (beautyberry) provide purple or white berries in fall through winter, attracting cardinals, mockingbirds, thrushes, woodpeckers and sparrows. Viburnum, blueberries, crab apples, hawthorn (Crataegus) feed cedar waxwings and cardinals during winter months.

Seed forming perennials are appreciated by a variety of birds. Goldfinches especially since they remain in our area year-round. Sedum spp develop seedheads from late autumn to winter, attracting many birds, especially finches and chickadees. Rudbeckia spp also provide seedheads enjoyed by birds. Hold off cutting back faded blooms of perennials, such as coneflower (Echinacea purpurea). The goldfinches love the seeds. Also, the seedheads on many ornamental grasses are appreciated.

Bird diets usually change throughout the seasons. During spring and summer many songbirds prefer insects as their primary food source. Later, during migration, birds are looking for seeds and berries. In our area, insects are not available in winter so residents like chickadees and cardinals need the seeds and berries.

When cleaning up yard waste, hide some piles of debris under shrubs and trees. It will attract pill-bugs, worms and insects that ground-feeding birds such as brown thrashers will be attracted to.

None of us want insects eating our veggies but please, refrain from the use of pesticides. Not only will you ruin the food source for phoebes, nuthatches and warblers but you will poison the birds that eat any insects that contain the insecticide.

Besides planting for birds, it’s nice to have a feeder for them when food is scarce, especially in winter. By the way, it is not true that if you discontinue placing seed in your feeders, birds will go hungry. Locate your feeders close to a naturally sheltered area like evergreen trees, shrubs or brush piles. These kinds of areas provide protection from predators and a place for the birds to retreat to and enjoy a seed once “plucked” from the feeder.

Here are some popular bird seeds and some varieties that they attract:

  • Black-Oil Sunflower – Chickadees, finches, cardinals, nuthatches, grosbeaks and titmice (along with many other birds) also like them. The seed tends to create a mess under your feeder as the shells are dropped once cracked open. You can buy shelled pieces if you don’t want the debris created from the shells, at an additional expense.
  • White Millet – A popular seed for many mixes. The seeds are small and many are kicked off onto the ground. It is not wasted as ground-feeding birds enjoy it. Juncos, buntings, mourning doves and towhees are attracted to it.
  • Safflower Seed – Use this seed in any elevated feeder. It is reported that squirrels and sparrows don’t like it as they do other seeds. The same birds that like black-oil sunflower seeds are attracted to it.
  • Nyjer – These tiny, black seeds called “thistle” are actually not able to sprout and create weeds. If you use a nyjer feeder with special small holes for the seed there will not be much waste. This seed will attract pine siskins, redpolls and finches, among others.
  • Peanuts – Due to the high fat content, peanuts are good for birds in winter. It will attract jays, titmice and woodpeckers.
  • Corn – Eaten by mainly ground-feeding species, also attracting mourning doves, jays, grosbeaks and cardinals.
  • Suet – Suet is rendered beef fat and enjoyed by many birds, especially in the winter due to the high calorie content. There are many available varieties, both plain and loaded with seeds, insects, fruits, nuts, etc. There is even a variety made with hot pepper that deters squirrels but not the birds. Suet attracts woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees, titmice and others.


Many birds also enjoy pieces of fruit. A slice of orange, apple or grapes can attract robins, tanagers, woodpeckers, mockingbirds and the less common thrushes and orioles.

Hummingbirds are attracted to numerous flowering plants, especially Agastache spp. These plants can be planted throughout your borders and beds, require no fertilizer and no watering (other than in extreme draught). There are many varieties in all sizes and colors. I have them growing around my deck and the hummingbirds are at the spiked blossoms all summer long. Other hummingbird attractors include Salvia (sage), Kniphofia (torchlily), Penstemon (beardtongue) and Achillea (yarrow).

Make sure you have a water source like a bird bath. Birds need water all of the time, even during winter months. Shallow is better, about 2″ deep. If you keep the water moving, it tends to attract more birds. A device such as a battery operated “Water Wiggler” does the trick. There are heaters available for winter use to prevent freezing.

For more detailed information about the birds in your garden, visit The Cornell Lab, All About Birds

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