How to Attract Birds to a Garden

There are very few of us who do not enjoy the sight and sounds of birds in the garden. Even in the gray of winter, our feathered friends bring you joy and happiness as they flirt playfully about the feeder bringing color and excitement to our lives.

Like all wildlife, birds need reasons to be attracted to our property. Stocking a winter feeder or providing a few birdhouses or a birdbath is a good start. By adding a few basic requirements in the form of landscape plantings, we can attract and keep birds of many species close to our homes.

As you know, some species of birds, especially the more colorful ones, migrate to warmer comates during the winter. Many of these species such as hummingbirds, Baltimore orioles, scarlet tanagers, robins, vireos, etc. have the remarkable ability to return to the same locality, i.e. our yard, year after year to raise new families as long as satisfactory and predictable cover, food sources and nesting sights are provided. Much of the time this is in the natural form of plant material.

In keeping with this, here are a few recommendations to provide a natural and satisfying landscape for both our feathered friends and us.

Understand What Birds Require

It is important to remember that different species of birds prefer different environments or, to use the vernacular, occupy different niches in nature. While one species may be more suited to living on or close to the ground another has adapted to life high in treetops. It is therefore important to know the type bird you wish to attract and develop your birdscape appropriately. While some species are more forgiving and adapt to most landscapes, others, frequently the more colorful species, need very specific habitats to live, forage and breed successfully.

Plant to Suit Yourself and the Birds

It is important to plant your new bird garden in a style that suits you and your existing landscape. For instance a wild or loose fitting landscape added to attract birds may not fit well with an otherwise formal or well trimmed existing landscape. With the vast amounts of cultivated plant material available today, there is assuredly one that will suit both you and the birds you wish to attract.

Don’t Think You Have to Provide Everything!

It may be impossible to provide everything a bird species requires on your property. For instance it is unlikely orioles will visit your garden if tall trees for nesting are not available in the area. But more likely than not, if you have ever sighted a Baltimore oriole on your property this requirement is provided in close enough proximity so that the orioles can be enticed to your property by some other requirement, such as a consistent food source.

Plant Shelters for Birds

One of the basic requirements of all creatures is protection from predators and from weather, for themselves and their young. Birds are no exception to the rule. While some species are more adaptable to wide range of protective covers, all species have preferences, and some may be very specific. Ground-frequenting birds like quail and sparrows may prefer the low cover of ornamental grasses and cotoneaster, while orioles and cardinals prefer the protective heights of thorny quinces and hawthorns, or upright junipers. Learn the habitat preferred by the birds you want to attract before you plant.

In a recent poll, most bird species preferred household landscapes without cats by an overwhelming margin. We’re only kidding of course, but you don’t have to be a birdbrain to realize even the best-planned birdscape will not attract birds if the family cat decides to lounge there. Cats and birds have just never learned to play well together.

Food Needs of Birds in Your Garden

During the winter months it is common to offer a feeder full of seed to our feathered friends. Loaded with oils and carbohydrates “wild bird seed” (especially sunflower seed) provides the high energy that birds need to survive the cold. However, their dietary requirements change markedly as the weather warms and thoughts of raising a family enter their minds. Depending on the species, warmer season food requirements may take the form of nectar, insects, fruits, berries and other succulent plant parts. These provide the higher protein and essential nutrients needed to breed and raise young. Food sources in the form of plant material will vary depending on the species of bird being attracted.

Try to Provide Nesting Sites

You may already be familiar with the various nesting site preferences of birds. Some prefer cavities and adapt well to birdhouses, while others prefer nesting on the ground, in communities, or in the branches of trees at various heights. Study the birds you want to attract to determine what might best be provided for nesting sites. Don’t overlook the fact that birds use a lot of plant material in building their nests wherever they are found. Providing plant material used in nest building can only help to entice more birds to your property.

Leaf Litter Attracts Birds

Remember how you cursed all those leaves that fell on your lawn last fall? Well curse no more! Those *&%^() leaves on the ground are affectionately called leaf litter and are extremely valuable to ground feeding birds. You see, the leaves are used as hiding places for insects in the fall, winter and spring. Often you will see sparrows, titmice or other ground feeders “playfully” turning over leaves in search of a succulent snack. Is this a good enough excuse to not rake the leaves? That’s an individual decision to be sure. But consider providing a portion of your landscape where the leaves remain undisturbed until late spring for this purpose.

Want Garden Birds? Consider Providing Water

A source for clean drinking water is essential for birds of all species. There may be a natural source near your property or you may decide to provide in the form of a birdbath, or even better, a water garden.

Birds Love Dust Baths

After feeding, feather maintenance occupies much of a bird’s time. Although not fully understood, dust bathing is a favorite pastime for many bird species. Provide an area not less than 3 square feet and approximately 6” deep with an equal mixture of sand, loam and sifted wood ash. Dust baths can be edged with brick, stone or wood to increase their appearance.  Hint: Horseshoe pits make great dust baths. The sand in dust bath mixes is a wonderful source of grit needed for digestion of food in birds.

Sources of Information for Bird Gardening

Books and Pamphlets
•The Bird Garden. S.W. Kress from the National Audubon Society. Dorling Kindersley. New York. 1995. A few discount copies are available at
•Landscaping for Birds. Audubon Society of Rhode Island. 12 Sanderson Rd. Smithfield, RI 021917-2600 (401) 949-5454

General Plant Guide to Attracting Birds in the Northeast

Bird Species  What to Plant
Purple finches  Cotoneaster, Ornamental grasses
 Cedar Waxwing  Cotoneaster, Pyracantha, Mountain Ash, Junipers
 Robins  Flowering Dogwood, Crabapples, healthy and unhealthy lawns
 Eastern Phoebe  Serviceberry, Sumacs
 Downy Woodpecker  Serviceberry, Dogwood, Mountain Ash, Virginia Creeper
 Ruby-throated Hummingbird  Trumpet vine, Weigela, Columbine, Bee Balm, Quince, most flowering plants producing red or orange flowers
Indigo Bunting Unruly lawns, Dandelions, Goldenrod, Thistle
Nuthatch Pine, Spruce and Fir trees
Chickadee Winterberry, Serviceberry, Viburnums, Bayberry, Junipers
Pileated Woodpecker Serviceberry, Elderberry
Rose-breasted Grosbeak Cherry, Dogwood, Virginia creeper, Elderberry, Mulberry
Sparrow Ornamental grasses, Roses, Junipers
Scarlet Tanager Pines, Serviceberry, Elderberry, Maples, Elms, Oaks
Junco Grasses, Conifers, Cosmos, Zinnia
Red-winged Blackbird Marsh grasses, open pastureland
Gold Finch Thistles, Grasses, Echinacea, Rudbeckia
Northern Flicker Elderberry, Blueberry, Dogwoods
Grackle Oaks, Grasses, poorly maintained lawns
Baltimore Oriole Quince, Serviceberry, Maples, Elms, Oaks
Cardinal Winterberry, Roses, Dogwood, Junipers
Mockingbird Bayberry, Serviceberry, Elderberry, Sumac, Dogwood
Titmouse Oaks, Serviceberry, Elderberry, Bayberry
Bluebird Dogwood, Virginia creeper, Holly, Juniper, Sumac, Serviceberry
Wren Bayberry