Gardeners routinely select trees and shrubs for their showy blossoms, fall color, or attractive form. You can also invite an abundance of birds to your garden by choosing plantings that provide shelter, food, and nesting sites for them. The birds will reward you by adding song, color, and flight to your landscape.
After flowering, plants create seeds and fruits. Migrating and overwintering birds depend upon these food sources for survival and to build up reserves for making their long migratory flights, so seeds and fruits should be allowed to stay on the plants. Providing a well-planned landscape offering shelter and a steady and varied supply of food will ensure regular visits from native and migratory birds throughout the growing season and into winter.
The following descriptions of North American birds include their favorite food sources. For more about birds and plants specific to your area, consult a regional bird book and nearby garden center or wildlife agency. Measurements listed are from beak to tail.
Cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum). This 6-1/2- to 8-inch bird, found across North America, has a waxy sheen and a pointed crest of head feathers. It eats a wide variety of berries and is a joy to watch feeding or tending young.
Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). The northern cardinal is one of the most popular North American birds. Its overall bright red color and crested head feathers, which raise when the bird is alert or excited, readily identify the male. Female cardinals also have crests, but their coloring is more subdued. This mainly eastern bird measures 7-1/2 inches. Food sources include insects, seeds (especially sunflower), and fruit.
Finch. Their bills are generally short and wide, just right for cracking seeds. This large group includes crossbills, finches, and grosbeaks. The 5-inch goldfinch is widespread; the 5-1/2-inch purple finch is common throughout eastern, central, and Pacific states. Goldfinches enjoy eating the seeds of many meadow flowers including daisy, dandelion, and thistle.
Blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata). This aggressive feeder, found east of the Rocky Mountains, often wins when competing for food with other birds. The bird measures 11 inches. Jays in the West include the Steller's jay (C. stelleri), which is common in coastal forests and mountains into the Rockies. Jays love to eat sunflower seeds at a feeder or from the plant. Their familiar screech can be heard throughout the year.
Warbler. There are more than 50 species of warblers, most of which are colored with some yellow. They are generally smaller than sparrows and have thin pointed bills. Berries are their main winter food source.
Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos). Also called the northern mockingbird, this 9- to 11-inch bird ranges primarily in the midcontinent. It composes its song in mimicry of other birds. It is strongly territorial throughout the summer months and eats insects, seeds, and fruits.
Chickadee (Parus). This bird sings its name, "Chickadee-dee-dee," as it flits about tree branches. Chickadees nest in excavated softwood, often using birch trees. The black-capped chickadee (P. atricapillus), measures 4-1/2 inches. Six species of chickadee are found in various regions of North America; besides the black-capped, they are boreal, Carolina, chestnut-backed, Mexican, and mountain. These birds feed on insects, seeds, and fruit.
Tufted titmouse (Parus bicolor). Like the cardinal, it sports a pointed head crest. This cute bird is a pleasure to see at a feeder, at a berried plant, or hanging upside down to feed on insects found under leaves. The male and female sport similar colors and measure 6 inches. The tufted titmouse is found in the eastern half of North America.
Woodpecker. These birds peck wood in search of wood-boring insects; they also enjoy ripe berries. In an interesting adaptation for clinging to branches, the birds' stiff tail feathers act as additional support when they stand vertically on branches, two toes forward, two back. Downy woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens) enjoy bright red viburnum berries. They measure 6 to 7 inches and are found throughout North America.
Eastern or rufous-sided towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus). This 7- to 8-inch bird, which resembles the more familiar robin, is found throughout the eastern United States; the western rufous-sided towhee has white spots on its back and shoulders. The brown towhee (P. fuscus), common in the West, is found on hillsides, in scrubby or wooded areas, and in coastal gardens. In winter these birds enjoy acorns and berries.
Bluebird (Sialia). Western (S. mexicana) and eastern bluebirds (S. sialis) make their nests in the soft wood of decaying trees. Both are 7 inches long. The western bluebird is found west of the Rockies. The eastern bluebird is becoming reestablished after a period of decline. Bluebirds will settle in nest boxes provided by gardeners and also enjoy a local birdbath. To survive the winter, they depend on food sources such as berries, spiders, and insects.
Swallow. These acrobatic flyers benefit us by eating flying insects considered pests by some. Their narrow, pointed wings allow them to swoop and dive. Before fall migration, swallows gorge themselves on insects and bayberries. Tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) are 5- to 6-inches long. They are found throughout North America and re the only swallow to overwinter in the southern states. Other swallows include barn swallows, cliff swallows, and purple martins.
Sparrow. Many species of sparrows are found in North America, and most enjoy a habitat of brush, thickets, and open woodlands. The white-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) is found primarily east of the Rockies. This bird measures 6 to 7 inches. Food sources include berries, seeds, spiders, and insects.
A Short List of Trees and Shrubs That Attract Birds
When birds feed on the seeds or berries of plants, they spread them later in their droppings. This seed dispersal often leads to the propagation of new plants. Therefore, it is a good idea to use native plants instead of introduced ones to attract birds. Natives are well adapted to local soil types and climates, and don't require special winter protection or soil amendments to thrive. Also, many native plants are being stressed or extinguished by invasive or introduced species such as bittersweet vine (Celastrus scandens), Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia), and English ivy (Hedera helix).
Birch (Betula). Seeds of several native species feed siskins and redpolls. Shed bark is used for nesting material. Trees produce conelike fruit in fall.
Evergreens. Cedar (Cedrus), juniper (Juniperus), spruce (Picea), pine (Pinus), hemlock (Tsuga). The thick branches of native evergreens provide birds with necessary winter shelter from the elements and year-round protection from predators. Game birds and waxwings eat the berries of cedars and junipers. Chickadees, crossbills, goldfinches, nuthatches, siskins, and woodpeckers pick the winged seeds out of pine and spruce cones.
Common hackberry (Celtis occidentalis). This tree, native to the eastern states, is also called sugarberry because of its purplish fruit. It attracts game birds, finches, thrushes, and woodpeckers. Western hackberry (C. reticulata) has tiny red or brown berries, and desert hackberry (C. pallida) is useful as a honey source or bird food.
Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida). This eastern native tree grows in shade or sun, and produces red berries that attract game birds and many songbirds. Its western counterpart is Pacific or western dogwood (C. nuttallii).
American beech (Fagus grandifolia). The nuts of these large and long-lived native trees are food for blackbirds, chickadees, jays, and tufted titmice.
American holly (Ilex opaca). Holly is associated with the holiday season because of its vibrant red berries against pointed dark green leaves. The bounty of berries will sustain a variety of birds including cedar waxwings, finches, mockingbirds, thrushes, and woodpeckers. Many other species of holly grow as shrubs. Note that most holly plants are male or female, and both are required for the female to bear fruit.
Crabapple (Malus). This tree is popular with landscapers, who favor its beautiful flowers, and birds, such as cedar waxwings, finches, and mockingbirds, which enjoy the fruits well into winter.
Tupelo (Nyssa). These native gums love damp woods. Black and sour gum (N. sylvatica) and cotton gum (N. aquatica), found in southern regions, are magnificent large trees. Sour gum also grows in the West. The dark blue fruits are tasty to game birds, mockingbirds, thrushes, and waxwings. One of the last trees to produce foliage in spring, the tupelo is the first to turn blazing red in late summer.
Cherry (Prunus). Pin cherry (P. pensylvanica), black cherry (P. serotina), and chokecherry (P. virginiana) are some of the best trees for attracting birds. Cedar waxwings, crows, finches, flycatchers, grosbeaks, grouse, jays, mockingbirds, pheasants, thrushes, vireos, and woodpeckers feed on their fruits.
Oak (Quercus). Acorns are a winter staple not only for squirrels and chipmunks but also for many bird species. Crows, ducks, flickers, grouse, jays, nuthatches, pheasants, quail, titmice, towhees, turkeys, and woodpeckers enjoy feeding on acorns.
American mountain ash (Sorbus americana). Grouse, thrushes, waxwings, and woodpeckers enjoy the clusters of scarlet fall berries, which remain on the tree all winter if not eaten.
Serviceberry (Amelanchier). These hardy shrubs or small trees -- also called shadbush, shadblow, or saskatoon -- are seen as understory in sparse woods or at woodland edges. The early show of white blooms adds to the landscape well before their dark berries benefit birds.
Holly (Ilex). Some are evergreen, such as inkberry (I. glabra), and some are deciduous, such as winterberry (I. verticillata). Female plants produce berries that sustain birds including cedar waxwings, finches, mockingbirds, thrushes, and woodpeckers.
Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica). This hardy native shrub is commonly found in sandy soil along coastal areas. Female plants produce an abundance of hard, waxy berries that attract bluebirds, crows, game birds, meadowlarks, myrtle warblers, tree swallows, and woodpeckers.
Rose (Rosa). Rose hips are a winter food source for game birds and songbirds, to whom they are available when preferred foods are covered with snow.
Yew (Taxus canadensis). This common plant is adaptable both for trimmed hedges and natural spreading. Its dense evergreen growth offers security for birds. Game birds, mockingbirds, robins, and sparrows enjoy the juicy, sticky red fruits.
Blueberry (Vaccinium). Highbush (V. corymbosum) and lowbush blueberry (V. angustifolium) are widespread native species whose berries feed game birds, jays, orioles, sparrows, tanagers, thrushes, towhees, waxwings, and woodpeckers. Mammals such as deer will eat the woody shoots in midwinter when other foods are scarce.
Viburnum (Viburnum). Several species of these deciduous or evergreen shrubs are attractive to gardeners and birds alike. Gardeners enjoy the plants' form, foliage, and blooms, while birds enjoy their berries. The fruits are red, blue, or black and are quickly consumed in late summer and early fall by finches, game birds, mockingbirds, thrushes, waxwings, and woodpeckers.
Author and artist Amy Bartlett Wright lives in Rhode Island.
Photography by Suzanne DeJohn/National Gardening Association
Article published on June 23, 2008.