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Top 10 Plants for Birds
by Sharon Sorenson - posted 03/22/19

Attracting birds to your garden calls for more than feeders and feed. Of the 167 birds on my “spotted in my yard” list, only 29 came to feeders. Native habitat attracted the rest.

In short, birds are irrevocably tied to the vegetation around them. They rely on plants for food – including seeds, buds, berries, nectar, sap, and fruit. They rely on plants for shelter against the elements – such as rain, snow, sleet, hail, sun, wind, and dark of night. They rely on plants for shelter against predation while nesting and roosting. And they rely on plants for nest sites and nest-building materials – utilizing twigs, grasses, rootlets, mosses, and lichens.

Plants determine which birds live where.

So, plant it and they will come, right? Not exactly.

Some plants, especially introduced species, offer birds nothing but perches. Having co-evolved with native plants, birds may starve while introduced plant species go unnoticed and unrecognized.

More important, only native plants host native bugs. Those 29 birds that came to my feeders were seed eaters. Many birds, however, eat few or even no seeds. Instead, they eat bugs. In the winter, when bugs go dormant, the bug-eating birds either migrate south or switch to berries. Even more significantly, 96 percent of songbirds feed their babies insects.

In short, to feed the birds, we must first feed the insects. And native plants host the bugs.

So plants on this “Top 10 List” meet birds’ food, shelter, and nesting needs. They include vegetation from high canopies to low hiding areas – trees (deciduous and coniferous), shrubs, vines, perennials, and grasses. Together, they meet birds’ varying foraging and nesting habits, from high canopy to ground level. 

This “Top 10 List” also provides the botanical diversity necessary to promote bird diversity.

From the gardener’s point of view, perhaps the most important feature about this list is that these native plants fit suitably into landscaping.

 

Here’s why these 10 plants are best for birds:

For food, native oaks (Quercus spp.) host the highest number of insects of any other native tree. Native black cherry (Prunus spp.) or willow (Salix spp.) species tie for the number-two spot. Spring migrants like gnatcatchers and phoebes survive on early insects, while chickadees, wrens, and titmice feed their babies bugs.

Plants affording both winter shelter and winter food rank high. Native hollies (Ilex spp.), evergreen or deciduous, fill that bill, sheltering and feeding throngs of robins, mockingbirds, bluebirds, waxwings, and woodpeckers. You’ll need male and female hollies to produce berries, and the rock-hard berries must go through multiple freeze-thaw cycles before they become soft enough for winter feeding.

Bright white early spring native dogwood blossoms attract insects for spring migrants like parulas and yellow-throated warblers. Autumn’s nutritious berries, however, feed fall migrants like grosbeaks, catbirds, and migrant thrushes as well as year-round residents like flickers, woodpeckers, and robins.

Because birds need shelter year-round, native evergreens offer birds special winter benefits. Add nutritious berries and cones for dining, and birds find exquisite habitat in native Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana). Summer shelter and nesting sites boost the dense red cedar’s ranking.

Native Viburnum spp. serve birds well, too. Semi-evergreen varieties offer shelter; blossoms attract summer insects for birds feeding their young, and berries on some provide fall and winter food. Blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) berries are gone at my house by August.

Wildflowers such as Rudbeckia spp., Echinacea spp., and Ratibida spp. species, all of which are coneflowers prized for seed production, attract droves of goldfinches and sparrows. Watch out for cultivars, however, as they are often sterile. Sterile plants hold zero nutrition for birds.

The best native vine for birds is trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens). Early blossoms feed hummingbirds while its dense vine invites nesters – in my yard, brown thrashers. Native crossvine (Bignonia capreolata) works well, too.

Most gardeners enjoy tall-grass accents. Native switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), with abundant seeds, feeds fall and winter visitors like dark-eyed juncos and white-throated and white-crowned sparrows.

Late fall goldenrod (Solidago spp.) blossoms attract insects for fall migrants; seeds feed winter birds. Choose well-behaved varieties for small gardens. In my little patch of goldenrod, 17 bird species foraged in one afternoon.

Add native red mulberry (Morus rubra) to feed spring migrants, but avoid Asian invasive white mulberry (Morus alba).

Before planting your bird-friendly landscape, check your plants’ native status online at USDA Plant Database (plants.usda.gov). Birds will reward you by cleaning up the bugs.

 

This article appeared in a previous issue of State-by-State Gardening.
Photo courtesy of Sharon and Charles Sorenson.

 


Sharon Sorenson, author of Birds in the Yard Month by Month: What’s There and Why and How to Attract Those That Aren’t and bi-weekly “For the Birds” columnist, gardens for the birds and lectures about birds and their habitats. Visit birdsintheyard.com and facebook.com/SharonSorensonBirdLady.