Most of us gardeners have put up a bird feeder or two, hoping to attract a few winged beauties to our backyard. We love watching birds through the window as they flock to the feeder or play and frolic in the bird bath. Bird feeders may be fun for us, but they aren't always the best thing for the birds. Predators also enjoy watching songbirds feed, although not for the same reasons that we do! Birdfeeders that are placed in front of a window or in the middle of the yard provide an inviting target for predators like hawks and yes, (I hate to say it) the neighborhood cats. (They will also attract animals intent on helping themselves to bird food in feeders or spilled on the ground, like squirrels, skunks, raccoons, even bears.)
How can we feed birds and protect them at the same time? To build a truly bird-friendly garden, consider planting a multilevel habitat where birds can feel safe and sheltered. This means creating a space with multiple layers of trees and shrubs as well as annual and perennial plantings. When birds feed on plants rather than at feeders, you not only lessen the likelihood that predators will catch them in the act, but you also eliminate the danger of attracting bears into the garden (not all wildlife is welcome in the back yard!). Bears aren't dangerous to birds, but they sure can make a mess of a bird feeder. And another bonus: a diverse plant population will attract a diverse insect population and insects are an important part of the avian diet.
Let's start big and work down. The canopy is composed of mature trees where birds feed and nest. Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) is a favorite nesting place for robins, blue jays, and mourning doves. It's a beautiful background tree that provides shelter in all seasons. Another excellent canopy tree is the white oak (Quercus alba). Jays, wild turkeys, and grouse feed on acorns and use the trees as nesting sites.
The understory is composed of smaller trees and shrubs and offers food, nesting sites, and general cover. The fruits of serviceberry (Amelanchier sp.) are large and juicy and appeal to cedar waxwings, Baltimore orioles, and grosbeaks. The thorny branches of hawthorns (Crataegus sp.) offer protection for nesting, and winter birds like cardinals and chickadees appreciate the persistent fruit. Juniper (Juniperus sp.) is a triple treat. Both groundcover and upright varieties have persistent fruit, provide cover for nesting, and year-round shelter from predators. Other small trees and large shrubs to consider are crabapples (Malus sp.), dogwoods (Cornus sp.), staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) and the eastern and central North American native blackhaw (Viburnum prunifolium). If you have a trellis or two, plant them with a vine that produces fruit , such as grape (Vitus sp.) or Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus virginiana).
Plants at ground level are also important. Low shrubs, perennials, annuals, and groundcovers all provide protective cover. Many birds make their nests at ground level, including juncos, bobolinks, and meadowlarks, and they need camouflage! The foliage of coneflowers (Echinacea) and black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia spp.) is dense enough to hide ground-feeding birds from predators, and the seeds in the dried flower heads make a tasty meal. False indigo (Baptisia spp.) produces seedpods that attract birds, and upright sedums, like 'Autumn Joy' have seed heads that chickadees and finches will flock to in winter.
Which brings me to the subject of winterizing the garden. Some people like to cut everything back in fall, preparing the garden for a clean start in spring. But consider leaving a few plants in place, not only for visual interest, but to offer food and shelter for the birds. Ornamental grasses can be left standing; their dense growth habit offers shelter from predators and their ornamental seeds heads provide food. Globe thistle (Echinops ritro) has prickly leaves that offer protection and a head full of tasty seeds.
Generally, birds eat fruits and seeds (in addition to insects) but hummingbirds prefer to feed on nectar. They are attracted to tubular flowers, especially red or orange ones like those of trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans), red yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora), columbine (Aquilegia sp.), and bee balm (Monarda sp.).
The best plant choices for a bird-friendly garden will do double duty, providing both shelter and food. Remember this the next time you go to the garden center, and you'll create both a welcoming bird habitat and a layered, natural garden that's inviting for humans, too!
Ellen Zachos is the owner of Acme Plant Stuff (www.acmeplant.com), a garden design, installation, and maintenance company in NYC specializing in rooftop gardens and indoor plants. She is the author of numerous magazine articles and six books and also blogs at www.downanddirtygardening.com. Ellen is a Harvard graduate and an instructor at the New York Botanical Garden; she lectures at garden shows and events across the country.