Landscaping ... For the Birds
Backyard birdwatching is addictive. Most folks start with a feeder or two and quickly find themselves engrossed with the resident sparrows, finches, and woodpeckers that eagerly accept the offerings. Only after they're hooked on backyard birdwatching do most people think about creating a garden attractive to birds--one that provides food naturally, as well as water, shelter, and nesting places. Although attracting birds to feeders brings hours of birdwatching pleasure, a welcoming landscape is the single best way to encourage the widest variety of birds to visit and reside in your yard year-round.
Even in small spaces, you can lure birds with just a single tree, some fruit-bearing shrubs, flowers, a birdbath, and a bird feeder. The bird-luring principles below apply whether you are gardening on a grand scale or in an urban pocket, improving an existing landscape for birds, or starting a birdscape from scratch.
Bird Gardening Basics
Variety is not only the spice of life, but also the key to creating a successful backyard bird haven. By growing a diversity of plants that fruit at different times of the year, birds find a continuous food supply. Layered foliage provides good cover, while a mix of plant shapes, sizes, and foliage textures attracts a wider range of birds.
Design multileveled plantings: underplant tall canopy trees with shorter more shade-tolerant trees, such as flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) and serviceberry (Amelanchier). Plant lower-growing, berry-laden shrubs, such as winterberry (Ilex verticillata) and chokeberry (Aronia), as a bridge from the trees to ground covers.
Very few birds are attracted to mowed lawn, so keep yours small. Break up broad expanses of lawn with island plantings of trees with shrubs and ground covers planted below. Or replace turf with fruiting ground covers, such as low-growing forms of bearberry (Arctostaphylos), huckleberry (Gaylussacia), and cotoneaster or with native grasses and wildflowers that provide birds seed and some cover from predators.
A consistent supply of fresh water for birds to drink from and bathe in is an essential ingredient of any successful bird garden. Providing water throughout the year increases the number and variety of birds drawn to your landscape. Even birds rarely tempted by feeders, such as warblers and vireos, may be lured to the garden by water.
The simplest way to offer water is to set out a birdbath. One with a gradual incline to a depth of no more than 2 to 3 inches at the deepest point is best for birds. The surface should be slightly textured to provide sure footing. In cold, northern regions, birds have difficulty finding unfrozen water in winter. Keep your birdbath thawed by using either a heated type or an immersion water heater designed for outdoor use -- these are available from bird-supply stores.
Consider bird safety when locating the birdbath. Although some birds prefer baths at ground level, a pedestal birdbath provides some protection from cats. For added protection from cats, locate the bath out in the open, at least 10 feet from escape cover such as a hedge or shrubs.
Songbirds require plant cover to protect them from predators and to shelter them at night and from harsh weather. Particularly in northern regions, evergreens such as hemlocks, pines, spruces, and junipers provide essential protection, as well as seed crops and nesting sites.
In milder climates, broad-leafed evergreen shrubs and vines may be used to provide year-round cover. Cluster shrubs of different species together, and when possible, plant fruiting types, such as an evergreen holly (Ilex), that provide both food and shelter.
A windbreak planted along the edge of your property can help to protect birds from the elements. The ideal windbreak is several plants deep, starting with tall evergreens and deciduous trees at the back, midsized trees in the middle, and low shrubs along the front edge.
For a more natural appearance, weave the plants together rather than planting in straight rows.
A bird garden at its best has rough edges, plants going to seed, brush piles here and there, and even a dead tree left standing for birds to perch on and nest in. If you're a compulsive weeder and maintain a highly manicured lawn with clipped foundation plantings arranged in tidy rows, then bird gardening will require loosening up on the pruners and mower.
Of course, it is possible to have a neat, well-maintained garden and still attract birds, but a compromise is in order. Keep your manicured lawn, for example, but reduce the size. Edge it with shrubs to provide leaf litter where brown thrashers, towhees, and white-throated and fox sparrows can scratch for insects.
Even a small patch of bare earth may attract more birds than mowed lawn. Quail and wrens are among the birds that dust themselves off to maintain their feathers. A dust bath need be no more than 3 feet square and 6 inches deep. For a tidy appearance, edge it with brick or stone. Perhaps you can find an out-of-sight spot for a small, wild area where flowers, grasses, and weeds are allowed to go to seed for the birds. When replacing shrubs that require regular pruning, replant with ones that are relatively care-free, perhaps thorny wild roses that birds, such as northern cardinals and brown thrashers, seek out for nesting and refuge.
Plants native to your region will be relished by wild birds since they provide food and shelter the birds are accustomed to. In many instances, birds benefit the vegetation too by distributing seeds for future generations.
There's no shortage of beautiful natives appropriate for naturalistic bird gardens. While you needn't plant exclusively natives, why not consider planting at least a few? Most of the recommended plants are North American natives.
To find plants that will thrive in your garden, look for those that have developed naturally in your climate. Visit native plant nurseries and local botanical gardens and arboreta to learn which ones best fit your site.
For much of the year, most birds feed primarily on insects -- everything from caterpillars to mosquitoes, aphids, and mites. The plants you grow are an important source of insects for birds, and the birds help keep insects in check. By eliminating pesticides, you will increase the garden's bird appeal.
Adding birdfeeders and nesting boxes to your bird garden makes it more abundantly welcoming and, therefore, more pleasurable for you, the birdwatcher.
Stores sell many types of feeders and nesting boxes, and some are much more useful than others. Do your homework before buying. Consult the reference books listed below and visit bird-supply stores for information.
Finally, keep a pair of binoculars close at hand. You won't want to miss the avian drama unfolding outside your window.
Plants Birds Love
Below are the plants birds love most. USDA Hardiness Zones indicate cold hardiness. Use the zones as a guide, and then check with local nurseries to learn which plants perform best in your area.
Annuals. Choose annuals with abundant seeds, especially those in the sunflower family, to lure songbirds such as goldfinches and house finches. Let the flowers stay on the plants to set seeds.
Among the bird-feeding annuals that flourish throughout the country in summer gardens are ageratum, amaranth (Amaranthus), China aster (Callistephus chinensis), basket flower (Centaurea americana), bachelor's-button (Centaurea cyanus), calendula, celosia, coreopsis, cosmos, sunflower (Helianthus annus), sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima), marigold (Tagetes erecta), Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia), and zinnia.
Perennials. When selecting showy perennials, consider their seed production and their appeal to hummingbirds for nectar. Some perennials good for birdseed are columbine (Aquilegia), zones 3-10; coreopsis (Coreopsis), zones 3-10; purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), zones 3-10; California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), zones 8-10; and goldenrod (Solidago virgaurea), zones 3-10. These are hummingbird favorites: columbine, zones 3-10; red-hot poker (Kniphofia uvaria), zones 5-10; cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), zones 2-9; bee balm (Monarda didyma), zones 4-10; penstemon (Penstemon), zones 3-10, depending on species; orange coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgida), zones 3-10; and salvia (Salvia), zones 5-10, depending on species.
Skyline Trees (taller than 50 feet). In a large backyard, you may be fortunate to have space for a skyline tree. These provide a canopy of food and shelter: American sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua), zone 6; black tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica), zone 5; black cherry (Prunus serotina), zones 4-8; and white oak (Quercus alba), zone 5.
Large Trees (25 to 50 feet tall). Plant these large trees for cover and fruit: common hackberry (Celtis occidentalis), zones 2-9; cockspur hawthorn (Crataegus crus-galli), zone 5; common persimmon (Diospyros virginiana), zone 5; red mulberry (Morus rubra), zone 6; sassafras (Sassafras albidum), zones 5-8; American mountain ash (Sorbus americana), zones 3-8; and coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia), attractive for acorns, zone 9.
Small Trees and Large Shrubs (up to 25 feet tall). For bird-attracting fruit, plant the following: serviceberry (Amelanchier), zone 3, depending on species; hawthorn (Crataegus), zone 5; desert olive (Forestiera neomexicana), zone 7; dogwood (Cornus), zone 2, depending on species; toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), zone 8; holly (Ilex); juniper; sargent crabapple (Malus sargentii), zones 4-8; American plum (Prunus americana), zone 6; American elderberry (Sambucas canadensis), zones 4-9; Sitka moutain ash (Sorbus sitchensis), zone 5; and viburnum (Viburnum), zone 2, depending on species.
Small Shrubs (up to 10 feet tall). Small shrubs are useful in multilevel plantings as a transition from ground covers to trees. These provide both food and cover: Inkberry (Ilex glabra), zones 5-9; fruit-bearing junipers (Juniperus), zone 3, depending on species; northern bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica), zone 2; common chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), zones 3-8; currant and gooseberry (Ribes), zone 2, depending on species; wild rose (Rosa virginiana), zones 4-9; and coralberry (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus), zones 3-9.
Hedges. Hedges furnish both food and protective cover, including nesting places. Birds prefer informal, unclipped hedges with fruit. Choose plants that form attractive shapes naturally so you won't have to prune frequently. When you do prune, wait until after the fruit has been eaten.
Check the shrub list, above, for plants to use in hedges. A mix of several types of shrubs in a hedgerow is more effective than using one type of plant for the entire hedge.
Needle-Leafed Evergreens. Large con provide year-round cover, buffering winter cold and summer heat. They also provide seed and create nesting places. Some of the best are arborvitae (Thuja), hemlocks (Tsuga), firs (Abies), spruces (Picea), and pines (Pinus). Berry-producing junipers (Juniperus) also attract, feed, and shelter birds.
Vines. Clusters of tangled vines provide hiding and nesting places for birds. Depending on the variety, they also provide nectar, fruits, seeds, and insects. Two hummingbird favorites are trumpet vine (Campsis radicans), hardy to zone 5, and trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), hardy to zone 4. Vines attractive for fruit include supplejack (Berchemia scandens), zone 6; Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), zone 4; and grape (Vitis), zone 3, depending on species.
Ground Covers. Low ground covers enliven the floor of the bird garden while providing bird food and cover. Choose from these low-growers (less than 12 inches high): bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), zones 2-8; wild strawberry (Fragaria), zone 5; wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens), zone 4; and cowberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea), zones 2-6.
Brambles. This is a large genus (Rubus) of usually thorny shrubs, including raspberries and blackberries. Many native brambles are popular fruit crops, and their prickly, dense growth provides protection and nesting places for a variety of birds including indigo buntings, cardinals, yellow warblers, towhees, and sparrows.
Other Habitat Features
Dead Trees. Retain a standing dead tree if it's not in danger of falling. Snags, as they are called, provide nesting cavities for birds such as woodpeckers.
Ponds. In addition to providing water for birds, a small garden pond is excellent habitat for aquatic plants and other wildlife, including frogs and turtles. Locate the pond about 5 to 15 feet from protective cover.
Brush Piles. Birds and other wildlife will seek cover, food, and sometimes nesting places in a brush pile. Instead of hauling off your tree trimmings, create a brush pile (mixed with rocks and stones) in an out-of-sight corner of your property.
Meadows. A meadow of annual and perennial wildflowers, low-growing shrubs, and native grasses is a certain bird lure.
Some native grasses birds eagerly seek out for food and cover are bluestem (Andropogon), zones 4-10, depending on species; buffalo grass (Buchloe dactyloides), zones 3-9; northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), zones 5-9; switch grass (Panicum virgatum), zones 5-9; and Indian grass (Sorgastrum nutans), zones 4-9.
Birdfeeders & Baths. If you have space for just a few, place them in view from a window so you can enjoy the visitors. Locate them near trees or shrubs for cover.
The books listed below offer practical information on backyard birds and how to attract them.
An Illustrated Guide to Attracting Birds by the editors of Sunset Books and Sunset Magazine, 1990 (Sunset Publishing Corporation, Menlo Park CA 94025; $8). Includes bird identification, landscaping techniques, and plant lists as well as information on feeders, houses, and baths.
The Bird Garden by Stephen W. Kress, 1995 (Dorling Kindersley, New York, NY 10016; $25). Includes bird identification, landscaping techniques, and plant lists as well as information on feeders, houses, and baths.
Birdscaping Your Garden by George Adams, 1998 (Rodale Press, Inc., Emmaus, PA 18098; $30). Includes bird identification, landscaping techniques, and plant lists.
Gardening for Wildlife by Craig Tufts and Peter Loewer, 1995 (Rodale Press, Inc., Emmaus, PA 18908; $30). Provides information on creating habitat for birds and other wildlife.
Lynn Ocone is a freelance writer who gardens for birds in her Vermont backyard.
Photography by Steve Maslowski/USFWS