Animal Writes
12 April 2000 Issue
Plants For Wild Birds

Seven types of plants are important for bird habitat:


Conifers are evergreen trees and shrubs that include pines, spruces, firs, arborvitae, junipers, cedars, and yews. These plants are important as escape cover, winter shelter, and summer nesting sites. Some also provide sap, buds, and seeds.

Grasses and Legumes

Grasses and legumes can provide cover for ground nesting birds -- especially if the area is not mowed during the nesting season. Some grasses and legumes provide seeds as well. Native prairie grasses are becoming increasingly popular for landscaping purposes.

Nectar-Producing Plants

Nectar-producing plants are very popular for attracting hummingbirds and orioles. Flowers with tubular red corollas are especially attractive to hummingbirds. Other trees, shrubs, vines and flowers can also provide nectar for hummingbirds.

Summer-Fruiting Plants

This category includes plants that produce fruits or berries from May through August. Among birds that can be attracted in the summer are brown thrashers, catbirds, robins, thrushes, waxwings, woodpeckers, orioles, cardinals, towhees, and grosbeaks. Examples of summer-fruiting plants are various species of cherry, chokecherry, honeysuckle, raspberry, serviceberry, blackberry, blueberry, grape, mulberry, plum, and elderberry.

Fall-Fruiting Plants

This landscape component includes shrubs and vines whose fruits are ripe in the fall. These foods are important both for migratory birds which build up fat reserves prior to migration and as a food source for non-migratory species that need to enter the winter season in good physical condition. Fall-fruiting plants include dogwoods, mountain ash, winter-berries, cottoneasters, and buffalo-berries.

Winter-Fruiting Plants

Winter-fruiting plants are those whose fruits remain attached to the plants long after they first become ripe in the fall. Many are not palatable until they have frozen and thawed numerous times. Examples are glossy black chokecherry, Siberian and "red splendor" crabapple, snowberry, bittersweet, sumacs, American highbush cranberry, eastern and European wahoo, Virginia creeper, and Chinaberry.

Nut and Acorn Plants

These include oaks, hickories, buckeyes, chestnuts, butternuts, walnuts, and hazels. The meats of broken nuts and acorns are eaten by a variety of birds. These plants also provide good nesting habitat.


Think of this project as "landscaping for birds." Your goal will be to plant an assortment of trees, shrubs, and flowers that will attract birds. If you plan carefully it can be inexpensive and fun for the whole family. The best way to get started is to follow these guidelines:

Set Your Priorities

Decide what types of birds you wish to attract, then build your plan around the needs of those species. Talk to friends and neighbors to find out what kinds of birds frequent your area. Attend a local bird club meeting and talk to local birdwatchers about how they have attracted birds to their yards.

Use Native Plants When Possible

Check with the botany department of a nearby college or university or with your Natural Heritage Program for lists of trees, shrubs, and wildflowers native to your area. Use this list as a starting point for your landscape plan. These plants are naturally adapted to the climate of your area and are a good long-term investment. Many native plants are beautiful for landscaping purposes and are excellent for birds. If you include non-native plant species in your plan, be sure they are not considered "invasive pests" by plant experts.

Draw a Map of Your Property

Draw a map of your property to scale using graph paper. Identify buildings, sidewalks, powerlines, buried cables, fences, septic tank fields, trees, shrubs, and patios. Consider how your plan relates to your neighbor's property (will the tree you plant shade out the neighbor's vegetable garden?) Identify and map sunny or shady sites, low or wet sites, sandy sites, and native plants that will be left in place. Also identify special views that you wish to enhance -- areas for pets, benches, picnics, storage, playing, sledding, vegetable gardens, and paths.

Get Your Soil Tested

Get your soil tested by your local garden center, university, or soil conservation service. Find out what kinds of soil you have, and then find out if your soils have nutrient or organic deficiencies that can be corrected by fertilization or addition of compost. The soils you have will help determine the plants which can be included in your landscaping plan.

Review the Seven Plant Habitat Components

Review the seven plant components that were described previously. Which components are already present? Which ones are missing? Remember that you are trying to provide food and cover through all four seasons. Develop a list of plants that you think will provide the missing habitat components.

Confer With Resource Experts

Review this plant list with landscaping resource experts who can match your ideas with your soil types, soil drainage, and the plants available through state or private nurseries. People at the nearby arboretum may be able to help with your selections. At an arboretum you can also see what many plants look like.

Develop Your Planting Plan

Sketch on your map the plants you wish to add. Trees should be drawn to a scale that represents three-fourths of their mature width and shrubs at their full mature width. This will help you calculate how many trees and shrubs you need. There is a tendency to include so many trees that eventually your yard will be mostly shaded. Be sure to leave open sunny sites where flowers and shrubs can thrive. Decide how much money you can spend and the time span of your project. Don't try to do too much at once. Perhaps you should try a five year development plan.

Implement Your Plan

Finally, go to it! Begin your plantings and be sure to include your family so they can all feel they are helping wildlife. Document your plantings on paper and by photographs. Try taking pictures of your yard from the same spots every year to document the growth of your plants.

Maintain Your Plan

Keep your new trees, shrubs, and flowers adequately watered, and keep your planting areas weed-free by use of landscaping film and wood chips or shredded bark mulch. This avoids the use of herbicides for weed control. If problems develop with your plants, consult a local nursery or garden center.

And Finally...

Most of all, take the time to enjoy the wildlife that will eventually respond to your efforts at landscaping for birds.

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