Columns, In the Garden

Designing a Bird-friendly Garden

photo by Bonnie Kirn Donahue
To attract birds to the garden, plant black-eyed Susans and purple coneflowers and leave the seed heads of these plants up through fall and winter, so birds can snack on their tasty seeds.

by Bonnie Kirn Donahue, Extension Master Gardener, University of Vermont

NORTHFIELD – One of the great joys and challenges of gardening is seeing creatures inhabit and eat from our gardens. However, in some cases, animals and insects are unwelcome visitors.

Woodchucks, deer and cabbage worms can be relentless and frustrating to manage. Protecting a summer berry crop from hungry birds can make you question whether it is worth all of the work to defend it in the first place.

However, attracting birds to your garden can be incredibly satisfying.

Why attract birds to your garden?

Birds are fascinating to watch. They offer hours of entertainment and connect us to the natural world. They also need food to feed their babies and store up for long migrations. Growing native plants that provide nourishment and shelter for birds also can bring a great deal of joy and purpose to your garden.

To grow a bird-friendly garden or landscape, you don’t need a ton of space. Enough space for a shrub or two could be just enough to start. Shrubs that grow berries tend to need sun, so select an area that gets at least six hours of sun a day.

photo by Gianfranco/Pixabay
In the colder months, when food may be scarce, black-capped chickadees and other seed-eaters will seek out seed heads as a food source.

Pick native shrubs that produce berries or seeds or even attract caterpillars and other insects that birds will be drawn to for food. Shrubs with attractive berries include red twig dogwood (Cornus sericea), black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa), nannyberry (Viburnum lentago), common elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) and highbush cranberry (Viburnum trilobum).

Many of these native shrubs tend to naturalize, so plant them in an area where you don’t mind them spreading a bit. Some prefer moist soils, so be sure to look into the characteristics of each to match it with your site conditions.

Red oak (Quercus rubra), white oak (Quercus alba) and swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor) host countless caterpillars and insects as well as grow nutritious acorns. Although these species grow slowly, they offer exceptional long-term ecosystem services.

Birds also need shelter. Native evergreen trees including white spruce (Picea glauca) and white pine (Pinus strobus) can provide protection from predators. Deciduous trees such as oaks (Quercus spp.), walnut (Juglans nigra), cherry (Prunus serotina) or willows (Salix spp.) offer shelter and food sources.

Interested in attracting or supporting a particular bird species in your landscape?

Use the Bird Guide from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology ( to learn more about their habitat and food preferences. Ask your local nursery about the native plants that they offer that would be suitable for your site.

Shrubs can be expensive to plant. A more affordable way to include them in your landscape is to plant them in small containers or as bare-root. Bare-root means that the young shrubs come without soil and must be kept moist and planted right away.

Although it will take time for a small shrub to grow, it is worth the wait to see birds and insects enjoy them.

If you are looking for quicker results, try perennial and annual plants that grow seeds that attract birds. Sunflowers (Helianthus spp.), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.) and purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) all have tasty seeds.

The trick is to leave the seed heads of these plants up through the fall and winter. This is the time of year that birds will visit these plants. The plants can be cut back in the spring once the soil dries out.

Birds also need water. Consider offering a simple water source like a bird bath or shallow dish of water in your garden. Replace the water frequently.

Spring is a great time to plan for a bird-friendly garden. The birds will thank you year-round.

[Bonnie Kirn Donahue is a UVM Extension Master Gardener and landscape architect from central Vermont.]

Comments are closed.