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Planting Habitat for Songbirds: The Right Mix of Native & Old World Plants

By David Salman, Chief Horticulturalist

The songbirds of North America need our help. There are many factors taking a toll on their populations, and we need to get serious about gardening to improve our environment. Fortuntaly, your garden can play an important role in helping our feathered friends! Follow the planting tips below for a garden that is both beautiful and beneficial. 

Factors such as climate disruption, loss of habitat, and fewer insects to feed on (due to extensive agricultural, commercial and residential herbicide and pesticide use) are starting to take a significant toll on bird populations across the country. With this article, you’ll be able to look at your garden and see what's already perfect, and what needs improvement from the birds' perspective! Here are tips for where your garden can make a difference: 

  1. Native Plants: The Essential Link in the Food Chain for Birds
  2. Plant Fruits & Seeds For Bird Food
  3. Water & Shelter: Basics for Songbird Care
  4. Bird Feeders
  5. Tips For Gardening To Attracting Birds

Native Plants: The Essential Link in the Food Chain for Birds

Important recent research by Doug Tallamy, author and professor in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware, has illuminated the importance of Native plants in our continent’s food chain. His research shows that:

  • Native insect populations, including those of the Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) are dependent on Native plants as food sources.
  • Insects are a mainstay food for birds. Specifically, caterpillars of moths and butterflies are an essential food for nesting songbirds to raise their chicks.
  • The foliage of non-native plants is mostly indigestible to native insects and won’t support native insect populations. Without sufficient populations of Native trees, shrubs and forbs (non-grass annual and perennial plants), caterpillars populations disappear.
  • Nesting birds need plenty of native plants in their habitat to provide enough food to survive and raise their young. 

The Right Mix of Native Plants & Old World Plants

To support robust insect populations, and especially those of moths and butterflies, we need to make a concerted effort to plant Natives, and/or replace Old World plants with Native plants. I recommend a 70-30% or 80-20% ratio of Native species to Old World species in our gardens and landscapes. (When we say Old World plants, we are referring to plants that are Native to Europe, Asia, or Africa.)

Please don’t jump to the conclusion that Old World plants are undesirable -- they’re not. Old World plants can provide important sources of food and habitat for birds, such seeds and fruit,  shelter, nesting sites, and protection from cold weather. The key is to make sure that there are plenty of Native plants in your garden as well. 

Goldfinch With Sunflower

Plant Fruits & Seeds For Bird Food

When planting a garden to encourage visiting birds, choose trees, shrubs and vines whose fruit comes into maturity at different times of the year. As much as possible, it’s important to pick Native species from a given genus. (For example, you’ll find both Old World and Native members of the genus Sorbus and Prunus.) Below is a short list of fruiting ornamentals for temperate climates.

One of the best ways to augment that seed is to plant trees, shrubs, and perennials that provide a variety of winter meals, either through fruit or seed. 

Planting For Fruit

  • Early Summer Fruit: Chokecherries (Prunus), and Manzanita (Arctostaphylos) .
  • Midsummer Fruit: Chokeberries (Aronia), and Currants (Ribes), Blackberries, Elderberries (Sambucus), Buffaloberries (Shepherdia), and Mulberries (Morus).
  • Fall Fruit: Native Lonicera (Honeysuckle), Viburnums, Mahonias, Serviceberries (Amelancheir), Parthenocissus (Virginia Creeper), and Vitis (Grapes).
  • Winter Fruit: shrubs such as Native Barberries (Berberis fendleri), Sumacs (Rhus), Mahonias, and Viburnums, and trees with persistent fruit* like modern Crabapple hybrids (Malus), Hawthornes (Crataegus), Mountain Ash (Sorbus), female Juniperus (Juniper) and provide an abundance of winter fruits and berries for birds when they need it most. 

*Persistent fruit is a term used to describe fruit that holds on to stems long after it matures. While sometimes initially unpalatable to birds, through winter's freezes and thaws, this fruit becomes an accessible food. Many modern crabapple cultivars are noteworthy for their colorful and valuable persistent apples unlike many older cultivars like ‘Hopa’ that drop their apples in the fall.

One of the benefits of planting a lot of fruiting trees and shrubs is that they also have an abundance of beautiful flowers during the spring season. These nectar-rich flowers (both Native and Old World species) are of tremendous value to honeybees and hummingbirds. And they are a delight to us gardeners who enjoy the colorful, fragrant floral displays.

Planting For Seeds

Birds also depend on the seeds produced by a variety of perennials in the garden for food. Here we can use both Native and Old World species to provide nutritious seeds in temperate climates.

Seed-Producing Perennials: plant Native AstersBerlandiera (Chocolate Flower), Circium (Native thistles), Dalea (Prairie Clover), Echinops (Globe Thistle), , Engelmannia (Engelmann daisy), Eriogonum (Sulfur buckwheat), Eryngium yuccafolium (Rattlesnake Master), Gaillardia (Blanket Flower)Helianthus (Sunflower)Heliopsis (False Sunflower), Hymenoxys (Sundancer Daisy), Blazing Star (Liatris), Rudbeckia (Black Eyed Susan) and Ratibida (Prairie coneflower) are among the best. 

Ornamental Grasses and Sedges: such as Andropogon (Big Bluestem), Carex (Sedges), Muhlenbergia (Muhly Grass), Schizachyrium scoparium (Little Bluestem), Sorghastrum nutans (Indian Grass), Sporobolus (Dropseed)

Don’t be in a hurry to cut herbaceous perennials and ornamental grasses to the ground during fall garden clean-up! Leave seed heads standing – these are essential for feeding birds in your winter garden. And standing dead stems provide protection for adult insects and their egg masses which help beneficial like praying mantis, Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) and many others to overwinter and reproduce the following year.

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Water & Shelter: Basics for Songbird Care

In addition to food, songbirds need to have two other essential elements for habitat creation in your garden and landscape: water and shelter.

Year-Round Water Sources

Dependable water sources are essential for songbirds. This is especially true in dry western climates. Water attracts birds more readily than anything else, and is needed for drinking and bathing. There are many ways to introduce water elements into your garden that are both practical and aesthetically pleasing. Birdbaths are available in every shape and size, from ceramic saucers to naturally eroded river rocks. 

In the wintertime, an immersion heater is essential to prevent constant freezing—the primary goal of your artificial water supply is reliability when all other sources are frozen. Finally, most birds actually prefer a trickling water source, especially hummingbirds. So a dripping fountain is ideal, and won’t lose as much water to evaporation as a fountain that sprays water into the air.


Shelter for Nesting and Predator Protection

Shelter is the other important element in the landscape that birds require.  Shelter provides nesting sites and protection from the weather and predators. In the summertime, birds need shelter from the sun. In the wintertime and early spring, they need protection from the wind, rain and cold. Shrubs for shelter should have dense branching and lots of leaves. Remember that deciduous trees might be great protection in the summertime, but evergreens offer year round protection from sun, elements, and predators. Stout needled conifers like the numerous Picea (spruce) series (including Colorado Blue Spruce), Austrian Pine and Bosnian Pine offer excellent refuge from cats or raptors.

Shrubs and Trees: Year round, song birds need protection from above, from predatory birds such as hawks, and below, from house cats. Thorny shrubs and trees are preferred for nesting and predator protection as are evergreens such as stout needled conifers like Spruce, Pines, Cyprus and Cedars offer excellent refuge from cats or raptors.

Vines for Nesting and Shelter: Birds also love vines on the sides of houses for the same reason. Planting Native Lonicera (Honeysuckle), Parthenocissus (Virginia Creeper), Campsis (Trumpet Vine) and Clematis help you take advantage of the vertical space in your garden and provide camouflage for small songbirds.

Snags: Where safe and practical, standing dead trees (snags) are invaluable nesting sites for cavity nesting birds species, and provide a bird banquet of insects that feed on decaying wood.

Nesting: The last reason to provide adequate shelter in your garden is the most pleasant—nesting. Trees and shrubs for nesting should have branches that can support a nest, a condition created by a dense branching structure. You can also encourage nesting by contributing to a bird's supply of nesting materials—supply straw, pieces of string, horse or dog hair, twigs, and cotton by filling a net bag (like those used for produce) and hanging it from a tree.

In addition to providing the right plants for nesting, a supply of nesting materials, such as straw, pieces of string, horse or dog hair, twigs, and cotton will encourage songbirds to make your yard a home. Fill a net bag (like those used for produce) and hang it from a tree.

Bird Feeder and Rudbeckia

Bird Feeders

Winter is a good time to supplement bird diets, because the shortened days cut down on the time birds have to find enough food to get them safely through the long winter nights. The general suggestion is to use all-black sunflower seed and millet or thistle, which takes care of pretty much all birds who are either permanent residents or who might migrate to your area in the winter time.

  • Different birds like to feed at different heights, and the best way to determine proper feeder location for your yard is through trial and error. Remember, however, that birds don't like frequent dramatic changes in feeder position. 
  • If you do have a cat problem, be sure to concentrate any bird feeders far enough away from sturdy tree branches that might support and conceal a predatory cat. Few cats are able to catch birds out in the open.
  • One suggestion is to put feeders in two or more separate locations. That way you can take advantage of environmental variations in your garden (clearings, low shrubs or dense trees) and it will mitigate the unruly behavior that is often seen at bird feeders—it will not be possible for one enterprising (greedy) individual to commandeer all the food supplies.
  • Another factor to consider when placing bird feeders is weather. In harsher weather conditions, birds prefer more sheltered locations. Wind can be unpleasant for both the birds and you (as you'll spend a lot of time sweeping up seed cast by buffeted feeders).
  • A word of caution: once you start providing seed for birds, you'll need to continue throughout the cold season. It will be difficult to convince birds to return to your feeders if they often run dry, and there's always the chance that some birds will stop looking to natural food sources if they get used to feeder life.


Tips For Gardening To Attracting Birds

  • For starters, simply by creating densely concentrated plantings you are providing an oasis for birds—the contrast between your garden and the surrounding landscape is undoubtedly striking.
  • The work you put into making your garden healthy (soil amendments, regular watering and fertilizer) raises the health of your plants and, by extension, the quality of life for a variety of bird species.
  • In sparsely vegetated parts of the country, even a garden of few plants looks like a good place for a bird to call home. And birds aren't picky about garden styles the way we humans are—whether your personal aesthetic espouses wildflower chaos, regimented perennial borders or something in between, chances are good that the birds will come flocking to your garden.

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