Michelle Reynolds is a native plant enthusiast on a mission to teach people how to put nature back into the urban landscape. She lectures, writes and consults on gardens.

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Gardening for the Birds
by Michelle Reynolds    


Cedar waxwings show up in the early spring to devour every berry in sight, often getting drunk from the fermented fruit. These birds act like canaries when they show up in groups, hanging upside down and snatching fruit from the hackberry tree.


It is a sad fact — habitat for birds and other wildlife is becoming more fragmented and wildlife populations are suffering due to the harm we as humans cause by moving our home and business developments farther and farther out from city centers. Ultimately, we are throwing the balance of nature out of whack. If we turn this alarming trend around and work toward becoming more ecologically responsible land stewards, would our personal actions help to restore the balance of nature? I want to be optimistic and say yes. As we cultivate our own yards and those of our communities, we should take responsibility upon ourselves to put nature back into the landscape and then encourage others to do the same. If we do what it takes to restore nature in our own yards, then we will be rewarded by the joy and wonder of nature on a daily basis, making us happier, healthier and wiser. I think the birds would be happier as well!

Creating a bird-friendly yard is a good way to start the process of becoming a “Conscientious Gardener.” If you consider your yard an extension of the nearest wild space or bird flyway, and provide some of the same essential elements of natural habitat, then you will be helping to bridge the gaps of the forest caused by sprawl, you’ll gain a better understanding of the needs of migrating and resident birds, and you will be rewarded by the nature that comes to your back door.


A bluebird gobbles up berries from the hackberry tree. Other favorite foods for bluebirds are berries from various sumac shrubs (species include smooth, winged and fragrant).


To create a bird-friendly environment, you must provide food, water, shelter and places for birds to rear their young. Birdhouses, birdbaths and brush piles are the easy ones to check off the list, but to provide a fine-dining smorgasbord for your feathered friends, you need to consider building several types of habitats by creating variety in plant groups in the areas you cultivate.

A meadow of native grasses, purple coneflower, evening primrose, standing cypress and tickseed will surely bring in the goldfinches.


Meadows – made up of native grasses and flowers – will attract pollinating insects, insects that feed on the plants and will give space for the birds to flutter about. Flowers and grasses will provide many seeds for species of finches, sparrows, buntings, grosbeaks and warblers. You may also plant nectar-producing plants for hummingbirds to share the space. Meadows do not have to be large or messy. Border a meadow with a neatly cut lawn, fence or a formal border to balance the look.

If you are starting from scratch, or underneath existing large trees, a woodland habitat should be built from the ground up and start at the forest floor. A good layer of leaf litter, compost and pine straw combined will invite microorganisms, worms, grubs and insects. Robins, towhees, flickers and juncos will scratch and poke about to find the food. Above the floor should be seasonal wildflowers and small plants, then shrubs, and understory trees – all planted in layers underneath the taller trees. Native plants and trees will attract the right insects and produce safer fruit for birds to eat. An increasing number of studies show that fruit produced by non-native plant species isn’t as healthy for the birds as fruit produced by native plants and they may sometimes actually be harmful. Plant plenty of plants that produce nectar, seeds and fruit, and don’t be so quick to deadhead or prune the birds’ food source. Add a brush pile amongst the bases of thicket-forming shrubs for brown thrashers, wrens, catbirds and sparrows.



Chances are you will have several woodpeckers show up if you leave a snag or two for the birds. This red-headed woodpecker hopped from branch to branch searching for the perfect hiding spot for the acorn.

Leave low-hanging limbs on the trees for birds to perch on as they search for food. Rose-breasted grosbeaks are fun to watch as they migrate through in
late spring.

Cooper’s hawks will nest in tall pine or oak trees in suburban neighborhoods as long as there are stands of larger trees. Songbirds are on the menu for these babies but the parent hawks also bring them snakes, rabbits and mice.


A diversity of tall trees in groups will mimic the forest and will provide nesting sites, elevated views and protection from predators. Food sources abound from trees. Nectar from the flowers of tulip poplar attracts orioles. Tiny seeds from pinecones attract warblers, kinglets, pine siskins, titmice and crossbills. Oak leaves are larval host to many butterflies and moths, which are important food sources for breeding birds especially. Hackberry trees provide fruit for bluebirds, cedar waxwings and robins. Tall trees are also excellent structures for species such as nuthatches, robins and warblers. If there are enough tall trees in your neighborhood to form a good canopy, species of owls and Cooper’s, sharp-shinned and red-shouldered hawks will take up residence and build nests, or will use the trees for roosting.

Don’t forget to leave a few snags, or dead trees. If there’s no danger of the dead or dying tree falling on your house, leave it for the birds. Woodpeckers and nuthatches will excavate cavities for nesting and will forage for beetles and ants in the bark. Brown creepers, wrens, titmice, chickadees and small owls will also use cavities in dead wood to nest.


Plant, discover, watch, observe, map out your yard and report your findings to Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Yard Map (content.yardmap.org).

Count the birds and participate in the National Audubon’s Great Backyard Bird Count and Hummingbirds at Home (www.audubon.org/citizenscience).

Have fun!




My favorite bird-friendly plants for seeds, fruit and nectar:


Seeds:  Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans), switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), wild asters (Symphyotrichum spp.), purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), sunflowers (Helianthus spp.), goldenrod (Solidago spp.), lyreleaf sage (Salvia lyrata), evening primrose (Oenothera biennis), standing cypress (Ipomopsis rubra, Zone 6 and up only), tickseed (Coreopsis spp.), sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua), pine (Pinus spp.)

Fruit:  partridgeberry (Mitchella repens), American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), strawberry bush (Euonymus americanus), Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), grape (Vitis spp.), dogwood (Cornus spp.), grancy greybeard (Chionanthus virginicus), possumhaw (Ilex decidua), rusty blackhaw (Viburnum rufidulum), waxberry (Morella cerifera, Zone 7 only), elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), winged sumac (Rhus copallinum), smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica), serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea), red mulberry (Morus rubra), blackgum (Nyssa sylvatica), black cherry (Prunus serotina), hackberry (Celtis laevigata)

Nectar: standing cypress, bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), red bee balm (Monarda didyma), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), crossvine (Bignonia capreolata), coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), native azaleas (Rhododendron spp.), scarlet buckeye (Aesculus pavia), tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera)


A version of this article appeared in an October 2013 edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Bob Farley.



Posted: 10/25/16   RSS | Print


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