Jeff Rugg, MLA, ASLA is a horticulture educator and garden writer. With degrees in science, zoology, horticulture and landscape architecture, he uses his many interests to help and train others. He has managed garden centers in Texas and Illinois and owned a water garden and wild bird nature store that sold pond equipment, koi, goldfish and water garden plants.

Rugg is a nationally syndicated garden writer with articles and photographs appearing in numerous magazines and newspapers across the United States.

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Welcome the Birds
by Jeff Rugg       #Birds   #Wildlife

Goldfinches are seed eaters that are native to prairies and the edge of the woodlands. They are commonly found in open areas. They are attracted to sunflower seeds and nyjer seeds in feeders. In the landscape, they eat the seeds and fruits of many plants, including coneflowers.

Have you ever wondered why you see more birds in local forest preserves than in your yard? Why some birds are seen in the suburbs but not in the city? Have you ever tried to attract hummingbirds or orioles by putting out special bird feeders, only to have them ignored? What can you do to attract more birds to your yard?

Bird books, such as field guides that help you identify birds, will usually have maps that cover the distribution of birds across the country, but these maps do not cover the birds’ specific habitats. Every bird prefers habitats unique to its needs. We don’t expect to see woodpeckers hopping along the shoreline of Lake Michigan or a loon walking through tall prairie grass. Sometimes birds need different habitats for nesting, feeding or migrating. Red-tailed hawks, for example, nest in tall trees but often feed on rodents they find in grasslands.

Baltimore orioles prefer open woodlands or the edge of the forest where a nest can be built hanging on the end of a tree branch over a clearing. They can be attracted to feeders featuring grape jelly or oranges cut in half.

Birds in the Chicagoland area congregate in natural areas with a diversity of plants and access to water. Smaller birds have smaller territories. A downy woodpecker is the size of a sparrow and may require a winter territory only a few acres in size. A red-headed woodpecker is the size of a robin and may roam over several hundred acres. The pileated woodpecker is the size of a crow, and it needs a territory of about ten square miles. A small bird like a house finch may be in your yard several times in one day while a bluejay may come only once a week. Even though hummingbirds nest a block away from my house, they don’t come to my flowers or feeders.

Your garden is a habitat that connects with surrounding landscapes. The more diverse the landscapes, the better each one becomes at attracting birds. You don’t have to do everything in your yard if you have help from neighboring properties.

The urban environment is very demanding on both plants and animals. Typically comprised of smaller trees, few shrubs and even fewer flowers, the urban habitat attracts fewer bird species and fewer birds in total. Suburban and urban residential areas generally have better soil, more water, many more plants and therefore more bird species. Natural areas are not interrupted by pavement and buildings, so more birds can claim the turf.

An important component of every habitat is age. A newly planted 6-foot-tall oak tree provides less food and shelter than one that is a 60 feet high. After a new subdivision is built, the landscape is immature and more open, so it can provide habitat for animals that prefer grasslands with a few shrubs. Bird feeders in new subdivisions often attract finches and other open field birds. More mature landscapes with large shade trees are more likely to get woodland birds such as nuthatches and woodpeckers. 

Of course, we know that different birds have different dietary preferences. They may eat seeds, berries, insects, fish, mammals and even other birds. By planting a diversity of flowers, shrubs and trees, you will provide a diversity of seeds and berries. A diverse plant mix will attract more beneficial insects. 

Plants can also provide shelter, which all animals need year-round for protection from the elements and predators. In mating seasons, shelter is needed to successfully raise young. Evergreen shrubs and trees protect birds from winter winds and snow. Shade trees provide nest sites and food. Dense shrubs, evergreens and plants with thorns provide safe places to build homes to raise young. A diverse mix of plant types increases the number of bird species that can use your landscape at some point to meet their daily or seasonal needs.

Some birds nest in cavities created by woodpeckers. Natural cavities are in short supply in most managed landscapes because dead and rotting trees are cut down as a safety precaution. Adding birdhouses to an immature landscape will probably only attract invasive house sparrows, but if there is enough open space nearby, it may attract bluebirds or tree swallows. Adding birdhouses to mature landscapes can attract wrens, chickadees, and several other species.

The most important thing you can do to attract more birds to your yard is to add water. A birdbath can work, but larger water bodies with flowing water are even better. Birds and other animals need water all year, even when it is very cold. Not just to drink, but to bathe in. I have seen birds taking a bath in my pond when the air temperature was in the single digits. Not every bird will eat seeds from a feeder, nest in a birdhouse or use the shelter of an evergreen, but every bird needs water, every day.

My 50-year-old, normal-sized suburban landscape has a wide variety of plants. In mid-April, I counted 41 species of plants in bloom, but that doesn’t account for the diversity of birds in my yard. I have photos of more than 40 species of birds using the backyard pond out of the more than 70 species that I have seen in the yard.

If you provide food, water and shelter for birds, you will get more birds in your yard, but there is no guarantee that you will get the exact species you want, and when they do come, you may not be home to see them. On the other hand, you won’t get many birds if you don’t have much of a landscape to attract them. Read up on the birds you want and see if it is feasible to try attracting them. Woodpeckers will be slow to come to a landscape without trees, for instance. Cedar waxwings prefer to eat berries, so adding a variety of shrubs or fruit trees that have berries at different times of the year will help attract them. With a little research and a few plant additions, you may well be able to make your garden far more interesting in the future.

Downy woodpeckers are commonly found in wooded areas and mature landscapes. They eat insects but can be attracted to suet feeders. In this picture peanut butter and suet have been mixed together and spread on the bottom of a tree branch. Woodpeckers, nuthatches and chickadees can hang down to eat it, but pest birds such as starlings have a harder time.

Large Deciduous Trees that Attract Birds (over 30 feet tall)

The Morton Arboretum website includes a comprehensive chart that lists 60 woody plants that attract birds. The  chart is organized according to size (large deciduous trees, small deciduous ornamental trees, evergreens, large deciduous shrubs, intermediate deciduous shrubs and low-growing  deciduous shrubs). The chart names birds that are attracted  to each plant and also gives helpful information about  the source of the appeal (seeds, nesting site, shelter,  fruit, etc.).

To read about more plants that attract birds, go to the Plant Advice section at, and use the drop-down menu to search for plants that attract birds.

Botanical/Common Name

Birds Attracted Plant Appeal

Acer species

Grosbeak, pine siskin, cardinal, nuthatch,  chickadee, brown creeper, warbler, wren and many others Seeds that ripen in fall, often persisting into winter; buds; sap; insects on foliage; nesting site
Betula nigra*
(River Birch)
35 + species, including songbirds, junco, jay,  chickadee, waxwing and finches Seeds; flower buds; insects on foliage
Celtis occidentalis*
(Common Hackberry)
48 + species, including robin, woodpecker and brown thrasher Fruits ripen in late summer,  often persisting through winter;  nesting site; shelter
Larix decidua
(European Larch)
Nuthatch, finch, chickadee, grosbeak and crossbill Cones; shelter; nesting site
Prunus serotina*
(Wild Black Cherry)
84+ species, including grosbeak, robin and waxwing Fruits ripen in August-September.
Prunus virginiana*
49+ species, including jay, oriole, grosbeak, woodpecker and cardinal Fruits; flower buds
Quercus sp.*
60+ species, including brown thrasher, bluejay, nuthatch, woodpecker and titmouse Acorns; insects; shelter; nesting site
Taxodium distichum*
(Bald Cypress)
Waterfowl Seeds; shelter
Tilia americana*
(American Linden)
Songbirds, bluejay Seeds; shelter
Ulmus sp.
Songbirds Flowers; seeds; shelter

*Native to the Midwest

From State- by-State Gardening September/October 2012. Photography by Jeff Rugg.


Posted: 11/14/12   RSS | Print


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