Answer: Birds need water, food, cover, and nest sites. Provide these four needs, and they'll come to your garden. Plants can provide three of their four requirements.
First, plan for different levels of vegetation. You'll need canopy trees, understory trees, shrubs, and ground covers. The more different levels you have, the more different species of birds will come to your garden.
Good canopy trees here in south-east Texas include Loblolly pine - loved by the Carolina chickadee and the brown-headed nuthatch, American elm - favored by woodpeckers, cardinals, yellow-rumped warblers among others, and the live oak, important to jays, brown thrashers, and tufted titmice, just to name a few.
Common understory trees visited by birds are the hackberry, which produces shelter in coastal areas for migrants and berries that are among the best bird foods; yaupon holly (all hollies are tops in providing food, cover, and nesting sites); and probably the most important fruiting plant for migrants, the red mulberry. Just don't plant one near your walk or driveway, because the fruit drop is messy. But as for birds, I have seen indigo buntings by the dozens feasting on mulberries, and there are few more beautiful birds than the indigo bunting.
Other good understory trees are southern wax myrtle (excellent bird habitat and fall fruits); rough-leaf dogwood (easier to grow than flowering dogwood here) and parsley hawthorn, another native whose fruits are prized by birds.
Below the understory, birds appreciate shrubs to improve food supplies and nesting places. American beauty bush, pyracanthas, and leatherleaf viburnum fit the bill. Bottlebrush, a sun-loving shrub, will have the hummingbirds battling over it. But hummers, remember, are only migrants in this area of Texas.
Another way to vary the vegetation level is with vines, and there are many that attract birds. Carolina yellow jessamine, coral honeysuckle, and Virginia creeper are all loved by birds.
Even robins, who forage for earthworms from your lawn, prefer more natural areas. Sparrows, tohees, and wrens want to scratch for insects in fallen leaves. So if you want birds, create leaf-litter under shrubs and trees. In some areas of your yard, plant alternatives to grass that will provide food for birds. Let some dewberry vines ramble across the ground. About 30 species of birds love the berries. In your flowerbeds, don't forget the sunflowers. You'll bring in the American goldfinch and other finches.
Add a birdbath or source of running water, and you've got a perfect bird habitat. Now, sit on your deck and enjoy the birds.
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