Grow Native for Birds

October 25th, 2022 by georgann

If you are serious about enhancing your property for birds, think, plan and plant bird-friendly native vegetation.

The most important step in creating a habitat that is attractive to birds is to choose functional, native vegetation that has a diversity of structure and composition.

Structure refers to the physical layering of vegetation in the habitat.  Birds forage and nest in all layers including canopy, understory, shrub and ground level.  The more structural complexity you can offer, the more birds and other wildlife will be attracted to feed, nest and raise their young.  Select plantings with various heights to fill in gaps in the vertical layers from ground to treetops.  The horizontal density of the landscape is also important.  Most birds prefer closed canopies with good understory for protection from predators. 

Composition involves the varieties of plants that offer food, shelter and nesting to birds.  Choose plants using a bird’s eye, ensuring that each tree, shrub or wildflower offers a diversity of hard and soft fruit and seeds, along with a diversity of flowers, leaves (evergreen and deciduous) and textures of stems and trunks.  Native plants are essential in providing the insects that birds rely on.  

A good ground cover provides shelter and moist soil with invertebrates that are eaten by many species of birds and fed to their young.  Try dedicating at least part of your landscape to natural leaf litter which will provide a moist habitat for earthworms, larvae and other decomposers that birds eat.

The best beneficial vegetation is also functional and seasonal.  Look for a variety of flowers and seeds that are available at all times of the year.  Canopy flowers of tulip poplars, for example, attract pollinating insects and, therefore, warblers, flycatchers and vireos during spring migration.  The dead seeds of coneflowers provide food for finches, sparrows, chickadees, cardinals and titmice during the winter.  The fruits of dogwoods, blackgums, mulberries and viburnums are extremely important to migratory birds in fall.

And don’t forget the vines of poison ivy and Virginia creeper.  Nearly every fruit-eating bird eats their berries.

Ground Covers                     Verbena, galax, alumroot, foamflower, periwinkle, Oconee bells,  

Short evergreen ground covers offer protection from predators and the elements.  Brown Thrashers, Eastern Towhees, Winter Wrens, Hermit Thrushes, Song and White-throated Sparrows all search for food while hidden close to the ground.

Vines                                     Poison ivy, wild grapes, cross vine, coral honeysuckle, trumpet creeper, Virginia creeper, passion vine, American wisteria

The fruits of these vines will attract Yellow-rumped Warblers, Worm-eating Warblers, American Robins, Northern Mockingbirds, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Wrens, Brown Thrashers,and Gray Catbirds.  Honeysuckle, trumpet vine, and crossvine will also attract Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.

Low Plants               Ferns (Christmas, Cinnamon, Lady and Shield) offer soft felt-like materials on their stems for hummingbirds to line their nests.

Perennials (Riveroats, beebalm, cardinal flower, pokeweed, columbine, jewelweed, Solomon’s seal, black-eyed Susan, Coreopsis sp., milkweeds, ironweed, Joe-pye-weed, phlox, penstomens, blazing star, goldenrod, salvia, Virginia bluebells, firepink, Lobelia sp. )  

The flowers of many of these herbaceous plants will attract hummingbirds.  In the fall, fruits and seeds will provide food for Northern Cardinals, House Finches, Indigo Buntings, Chipping Sparrows, Song Sparrows, Eastern Towhees, White-throated Sparrows, American Goldfinches, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Northern Mockingbirds, Brown Thrashers, Gray Catbirds, and American Robins.

Thickets and grasses                  Blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, doghobble, fetterbush, broomsedge,

American Robins, Carolina Wrens, Indigo Buntings, Song and Chipping Sparrows, Northern Mockingbirds, Brown Thrashers, Wood Thrushes, Cedar Waxwings and Gray Catbirds along with tanagers and orioles love the nesting tangles, berries and shelter at various times of the year.

Small Shrubs                                 Beautyberry, viburnum, wax myrtle, elderberry, sumac, winterberry, arrowwood, sweetshrub, St. John’s wort, buttonbush, Devil’s Walkingstick, gallberry

Mix your small shrubs so they will provide fruits at various times of the year.  Scarlet and Summer Tanagers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Indigo Buntings, Gray Catbirds, Gray-cheeked Thrushes, Wood Thrushes, White-eyed and Red-eyed Vireos eat these fruits to build up fat reserves prior to migration.  American Robins, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Cedar Waxwings, and Chipping Sparrows rely on these plants for food and shelter to make it through the winter. 

Small Trees                         Birches, flowering dogwood, serviceberry, black cherry, native azaleas, Yaupon holly, redbud, persimmon, red mulberry, red cedar, willow, ash, sassafras

The understory level of your yard is important for fruit and seeds and for many birds that nest 10 – 15 feet from the ground.  The summer fruit from these trees will be fed to the nestlings of Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Northern Mockingbirds, Brown Thrashers, Blue Jays, Gray Catbirds, Wood Thrushes, Red-eyed Vireos, American Robins, Northern Cardinals, Eastern Towhees.  The leftover fruit will be attractive during the fall months to Swainson’s and Gray-cheeked Thrushes, Veeries, and Scarlet and Summer Tanagers. In the winter Cedar Waxwings and Hermit Thrushes visit the cedars.

Canopy Trees                     Oaks, hickories, blackgum, sweetgum, hackberry, tulip poplars, maples, willows, pines, magnolia, sycamore, cedar, sourwood, basswood

Towering over all the lower vegetation, are the crown jewels of a yard and forest–the canopy trees.  Hardwoods and pines, dead or alive, provide suitable foraging and nesting habitat for dozens of bird species including Red-headed Woodpeckers, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Brown-headed and White-breasted Nuthatches, Wood Thrushes, Summer Tanagers, Cape May, Worm-eating and Pine Warblers, American Goldfinches, Brown Thrashers, Gray Catbirds, and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks.

Even one flowering plant in the spring and one fruiting tree or shrub in the fall can attract dozens of birds to your property.  Remember, the less manicured you keep your yard and garden, the more wildlife you will attract.  Before you know it, you will have reduced your lawn enough to sell your lawn mower and created a low-maintenance, low-pesticide wildlife habitat.  Lose a foot of lawn; gain a species of bird.

Birding Adventures, Inc.

Georgann Schmalz


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