Shannon Pable is a certified arborist, an award winning garden designer, and owner of Shannon's Garden Gallery (, specializing in garden design, illustration, and plant identification for natural areas. She is a member for the Georgia Native Plant Society

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Bringing Home the Birds
by Shannon Pable       #Birds   #Shrubs   #Trees   #Wildlife

How can any bird resist the beautiful and tasty berries of possumhaw (Ilex decidua)?


Soon, the palette of the landscape will be transforming from subtle browns and tans and exploding into splashes of hot pink, white, yellow and purple. The sweet-smelling crabapple blossoms will shower papery petals in a gentle breeze, blanketing the landscape. The rustling chatter and singing of wildlife will fill the once still air. Soon, spring will be here!
Here is what I typically see in early spring: I peer out my bedroom window to watch the dance of the robins in the crabapple trees. Pecking a few of the faded fruits remaining from winter, Mr. Robin urgently searches for a home to impress Mrs. Robin. This is a busy time for the migratory birds arriving back home after a long flight. Some species of birds fly thousands of miles from Central America, Mexico or South America to arrive at their final destination. In the Southeast, our American robin (Turdus migratorius) is with us all year long. In a matter of days, male robins scope out their territory and then the females arrive and choose the male with the best nesting spot. They then build a nest, incubate eggs, and raise their young. Robins have two (sometimes three) broods before winter arrives.

You might ask yourself, “What influences Mr. and Mrs. Robin to select their prime nesting spot?” They are looking for the same things that we do to survive: food, water, shelter, and a place to raise young. Birds will often return to the same location year after year if all of these are present. So let’s discuss what you can do in your garden to bring home the birds.

Their diets vary greatly, depending on the species of bird. In the case of my friend, the robin, his or her diet consists of a mixture of fruits, berries, earthworms and insects such as beetle grubs, caterpillars and grasshoppers. Another frequent visitor to my garden is the Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus), which does not migrate. He’s also here all year round. The Carolina wren is a ground forager whose diet consists mainly of caterpillars, moths, beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, spiders, wasps and flies. I’m sure you can already see the wonderful benefits of attracting birds to your garden!


Plants to Appease Birds

There are so many native plants you can place in your landscape that provide fruit, berries and seeds that our native birds need. From my own observations in my backyard, the crabapple trees, smooth sumac, yaupon holly, American beautyberry, chokeberry, elderberry, blackberry and blueberry are very popular among the fruit and berry-eating birds. And like it or not, poison ivy berries are a favorite. I make sure this vine stays far away from my walkways.

For the seedeaters, I see lots of activity on my swamp sunflower, black-eyed Susan, purple coneflower and goldenrod. Cardinal flower, bee balm, salvia (pineapple, anise and autumn sage), crossvine, coral honeysuckle and jewelweed are big attractors for nectar-loving birds such as hummers.

But in addition to our bird-friendly plants, it’s always a pleasure to supplement feed our feathered friends at our feeders. I especially make sure the feeders are full during late winter and early spring since the natural food supplies are diminishing and the new migrants are arriving. There are so many feeders available, some bird-specific, that it can be overwhelming.

My favorites are the standard cylindrical tube on a pole complete with the squirrel baffle, thistle feeder, suet and nectar feeder. The cylindrical feeder attracts an array of birds from titmouse to woodpeckers. The seeds that are tossed out by the fussy eaters are eaten by the ground foragers (such as mourning doves). I usually make my own seed mixture of black oil sunflower, hulled sunflower, safflower and sometimes peanuts. I stay away from corn and millet – two foods that appear to attract more rats than birds. The thistle feeder is specific to goldfinches. And, of course, the nectar feeder is for our sweet little hummingbirds. This is filled with one part sugar to four parts water and is refilled every few days.


Food and Shelter for Feathered Friends

Food and water are essential to your habitat. A simple birdbath that is 12 inches wide and 2 to 3 inches deep works perfectly. Also, water drips and fountains are appealing to birds because of the rippling affect on the water surface. A water garden or pond is also inviting. Just be sure to have a very gentle slope (one-half to four inches) so that it is accessible to the birds. The placement of your water feature will also determine which birds it will attract. In open areas, bolder species such as robins, jays and chickadees will visit. Place your water source near evergreen shrubs to attract the more timid species such as warblers.

For stagnant water, such as birdbaths, be sure to change the water every few days. Not only to keep it clean for our visiting birds, but also to prevent mosquitoes. Mosquito dunks or bits (Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt) are also helpful if added to the water. Bt is a naturally occurring soil bacterium, which is lethal to mosquito larvae but harmless to mammals and birds.

The next essential element, which encompasses your entire habitat, is shelter. To create a desirable shelter, we must concentrate on vegetation structure and layering. “Many migrants are attracted to thickets, dense masses of fruiting shrubs, vines, briers and brambles. Native trees and shrubs are best because they are genetically programmed to leaf out, bloom and fruit at precisely the right time for the migrants with which they’ve co-evolved.” According to Janet Marinelli, director of publishing at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, it is also essential to have brush and log piles and a small open area or meadow. This is where being a good steward comes into play. Be as organic and pesticide-free as possible. If your garden is diverse, consists of plants native to your area, and you practice good maintenance habits, this should come naturally. If you must reach for the bottle of pesticide, please read the label carefully.


A Brood-friendly Environment

For the final element, we must provide places for the birds to raise their young. By providing a good shelter, you’ve probably already created good nesting places. Good nesting places are evergreen trees and shrubs, snags, trees with cavities, brush piles and artificial nesting sites (such as nesting boxes). I often have robins and wrens nesting in plants on my front porch. Another important aspect of a nesting site is safety. Birds want to feel secure from predators. One of the biggest predators in my habitat is the free-roaming domestic cat. So if you own a cat, please be mindful of this. A bell around the neck does not work when it comes to baby birds. Please, try to keep your kitty inside, especially in spring.

This sounds like a lot of work, but with time and patience, it can be accomplished. If you are successful, the rewards are endless. The ultimate gift in return is to discover a nest with five bright blue eggs, see them hatch, and watch the brood grow and take their first flight.

Shannon Pable is co-owner of Eco-Terra Landscape Consultants ( specializing in native plant landscape designs as well as plant identification for natural areas. She is also a board member for the Georgia Native Plant Society (

Southern crabapple



(partial list)


Large Canopy Trees

Common Name

Botanical Name


American beech

Fagus grandifolia

Nut, shelter

Eastern red cedar

Juniperus virginiana

Fruit, shelter



Nuts and nut scraps

Persimmon, common

Diospyros virginiana



Oxydendrum arboreum


Sweet gum

Liquidambar styraciflua


Tulip tree

Liriodendron tulipifera

Seed, nectar

River birch

Betula nigra


Winged elm

Ulmus alata





Common Name

Botanical Name


American beautyberry

Callicarpa americana


American hop hornbeam

Ostrya virginiana



Sambucus canadensis





Osage orange

Maclura pomifera


Rose, swamp

Rosa palustris


Southern crabapple

Malus angustifolia



Lindera benzoin


Wild plum

Prunus americana





Common Name

Botanical Name


Aster, Short’s

Symphyotrichum shortii

Nectar, seed

Aster, aromatic

Symphyotrichum oblongifolius

Nectar, seed

Black-eyed Susan



Cardinal flower

Lobelia cardinalis



Bignonia capreolata

Nectar, shelter

Fire pink

Silene virginica

Nectar, seed

Mosses, lichens

various species

Nesting materials

Muscadine, wild grape

Vitis rotundifolia



Phytolacca americana


Purple coneflower




Oenothera tetragona


Swamp (Texas star) hibiscus

Hibiscus coccineus






American Bird Conservancy                                      

Your Florida Backyard

National Audubon Society


A version of this article appeared in print in Georgia Gardening Vol II, Issue III. Photography by Shannon Pable.

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Posted: 01/26/11   RSS | Print


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Spencer - 03/10/2016

Palette should be the third word.  Pallet is the oak thing forklifts pick up.

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