Design a Yard That Will Invite Birds

Follow these tips to attract birds to your garden.
Chipping Sparrow

Chipping Sparrow

By: Lindsay Bond Totten

Planting for wildlife is not synonymous with sacrifice. But there are a few things you may have to give up to pursue a garden in which birds also find sanctuary: meticulous weeding, excessive spraying, and, perhaps, some of your lawn.

Expansive, pristine lawns, neatly edged beds and clipped hedges may broadcast good stewardship to suburban neighbors, but birds find such gardens too sterile for their taste. Without perches to rest and hide, without water to drink and bathe, and without berries and seeds to eat, a landscape may be lovely to look at, but it's inhospitable to birds.

Of all the amenities gardeners can provide, food is the most appreciated. Bird feeders can supplement, but they can't take the place of natural food sources for some songbirds.

"Seed-eaters will take food from a bird feeder even if natural seed plants are available; they don't demonstrate a strong preference for one over the other," says Dr. Scott Shalaway, ornithologist and author of Building a Backyard Bird Habitat (2000, Stackpole Books). "But if a gardener wants berry-eating birds, such as waxwings, bluebirds, cardinals, catbirds and brown thrashers, he has to plant bushes with fruit.

Even shy birds, such as woodpeckers, can sometimes be coaxed from surrounding trees to feast on a juicy crop of berries growing in a landscape, Shalaway says.

Planting shrubs and trees to attract songbirds can be a win-win proposition. Gardeners benefit from the display of beautiful berries; songbirds drop by for the food, delighting their hosts with their visits.

Of course, serious "birders" like Shalaway may find beauty in plants that most gardeners wouldn't grow, such as pokeweed. But plenty of shrubs are as pretty to look at as they are attractive to birds.

The viburnum clan embraces a host of useful shrubs and small trees. The doublefile group, Viburnum plicatum tomentosum, is among the first shrubs of the season to produce handsome red berries. If this species has a fault, it would be that the berries are too attractive to birds. Fruits are gone almost the instant they ripen in July.

The berries on both American cranberrybush viburnum (V. trilobum) and European cranberrybush viburnum (V. opulus) last longer, shriveling to dark red "raisins" before the birds snatch them in late winter.

The heaviest, most beautiful fruitset is displayed by the tea viburnum (V. setigerum). Though lanky in habit, gardeners will appreciate the extraordinary burst of color from the large, showy clusters of scarlet berries in early fall. Disguise bare stems with handsome shrubs like cotoneaster or firethorn. Both offer berry eaters additional menu choices.

Serviceberry, also called juneberry (Amelanchier spp.), is the epitome of both beauty and function for gardeners concerned with the welfare of their feathered friends. Gauzy white blooms appear very early in spring, followed by a substantial crop of nutritious - and tasty - dark red berries. No worries about falling fruits staining the sidewalk below - birds will make a beeline for the trees as the berries ripen.

Shalaway points out that the serviceberry's timing is especially good for fruit-eating birds, which welcome the first ripe fruits of the season and greedily gobble them up.

American dogwood, hawthorn, mountain ash and crabapple are other flowering trees that provide both landscape beauty and bird habitat.

To increase its appeal to a wide variety of birds, gardeners should select a crabapple with small fruits, 1/4 inch to 3/8 inch in diameter. Sargent's crabapple, Japanese flowering crabapple and yellow-fruited hybrid called 'Golden Raindrops' are all disease-resistant varieties with spectacular spring blooms and small fruits.

Damp areas of the garden create a special environment for both birds and plants. Moisture-loving shrubs like inkberry, winterberry, chokeberry and bayberry spread a smorgasbord for hungry birds. With a trickle of water or shallow birdbath nearby, a spot that presented a landscape challenge becomes a songbird spa.

When birds compete for fruit, gardeners may have to protect their crop if they're to get any for themselves. Ask someone who cultivates blueberries. Without netting the bushes as the berries ripen, the birds will strip blueberry branches clean.

Fortunately, not all fruits are equally appealing, or gardeners would never get to enjoy the winter splendor of hollies. Shalaway describes holly berries as "survival food." They're not very palatable to songbirds, so holly fruits and other survival foods are ignored until favored species are gone. This works out well for gardeners, who get to see early flocks of robins take advantage of the holly's bounty. By March, I'm happy to share.

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