Planting for the Birds

Welcome birds into your garden by growing a variety of plants to meet their needs.

Credit: Patrick Wall

Feeding the birds certainly has its rewards, and most of the time, the rewards are immediate: put out the seed, and the birds will come. Providing natural food for the birds in your garden, however, is a bit more of a challenge. The plants that birds depend on to sustain them do not grow overnight, and so we have to engage in a little forethought when it comes to planning our gardens.

If your garden is healthy, it will already draw birds, but you can make it even more attractive to them by planting for their needs. Plants that attract birds can be placed loosely into two groups: those that provide shelter, and those that provide food.

Birds are not particularly fussy about which shrubs they perch in or build their nests in. The important thing when you are considering your plantings is to allow for a variety of shrubbery. Deciduous shrubs and trees provide cover for part of the year, while coniferous species will also provide shelter from the elements in the cold months. Some connectivity between plantings will allow birds to avoid the open areas that expose them to attack by predators; there is nothing better for housing birds than a tangled hedgerow.

When choosing plants that will provide food for birds, there are many more considerations. Some birds are primarily seed-eaters, while others are frugivorous (fruit-eating). Hummingbirds need plant nectar to provide energy for their high-speed wings. Birds need to eat all year round, so try to include a variety of plants that will offer food for the birds throughout the growing season.

The birds we attract to our gardens today have evolved over thousands of years in native plant communities, so it should not be surprising that native plants dominate the list of species attractive to birds. Native plant enthusiasts have calculated that one native plant species may support as many as 50 species of vertebrate and invertebrate animals. Introduced garden plants, removed from their own native ecosystems, may support only half a dozen. Fortunately, many of our native plants are fine choices for the garden, as well as the birds.

Several dogwoods (Cornus sp.), for example, produce an abundance of fruit attractive to many species of birds. These dogwoods range in size from the shade-loving ground cover, bunchberry (C. canadensis), to the tree that is British Columbia’s provincial emblem (the Pacific dogwood, C. nuttallii). The fruit of Pacific madrone (Arbutus menziesii) is popular with birds, as are the berries of both native and English hawthorns (Crataegus sp.). Red elder (Sambucus racemosa) has very showy blossoms, and bright-red clusters of berries that are a favourite of birds. The much-overlooked ocean spray (Holodiscus discolor) is lovely against a dark background, and its delicate seed-heads are popular with Bushtits. Other good choices for birds are serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia) and almost any of the honeysuckles (Lonicera sp.).

Many horticultural varieties from the same families as our native plants are also attractive to birds. As well, some exotic garden favourites are also popular with our North American birds.

The vibrant berries of cotoneaster and pyracantha species will attract flocks of American Robins and Cedar Waxwings late in the year, particularly when a touch of frost has softened the berries a little. Mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia) seems so at home in the garden that it could be a native. This tree, with its familiar vermilion berries, is not native, but it is a welcome addition for the food it provides for robins and waxwings, and the occasional migrating Townsend’s Solitaire.

Rufous Hummingbirds, which are among the earliest-returning migrants, are drawn to the earliest-blooming plants, especially red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) and salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) and its relatives (Rubus sp.). Later in the year, the fruits of these plants appeal to other species. From the list of non-native garden plants, in my experience the all-time favourite with hummingbirds is hardy fuchsia (Fuchsia magellanica). They also forage happily on both native and non-native species of larkspur (Delphinium) and columbine (Aquilegia). Hummers are known to be attracted to the tubular flowers of these plants, but they don’t care as much for the more showy double-flowered varieties. Butterfly bush (Buddleja) and beautybush (Kolkwitzia) are used by hummers, and also attract butterflies.

Seed-eating birds seem to love almost anything in the sunflower and aster families. Sunflowers (Helianthus sp.) of many kinds are favourites of finches, as are the coneflowers Echinacea and Rudbeckia, tickseed (Coreopsis) and the annual Cosmos.

Ornamental grasses also provide a good crop of seeds for finches and sparrows. Tall species are good for some birds, but ground-dwelling birds prefer the shorter bunchgrasses, which work well in a rockery setting or in a xeriscape garden.

I should emphasize here that none of these seed-producing plants is any good to the birds unless you leave the seed-heads on!

Lastly, keep in mind that there can be a downside to using plants that are attractive to birds. Birds that consume the berries of some popular garden plants also become agents for the dispersal of their seeds. (The fruit goes in one end, and the seed comes out the other, usually in a different location.) In fact, several garden introductions have become serious invasive pests in natural areas, and their spread has been greatly assisted by birds. Three of the worst are English ivy (Hedera helix), laurel-leaved daphne (Daphne laureola) and holly (Ilex aquifolium), and I urge you to avoid using these plants in your garden.

Your thoughtful planning will pay off as early as next spring, and will continue to reward you for years after that, through the diversity of birds that will make your garden their home.

The following plants are hardy up to the zone number indicated.

The fruit of these plants attracts an assortment of birds:
• cotoneaster spp. (Cotoneaster) – zone 2 • dogwood spp.(Cornus) – zone 2 • firethorn spp. (Pyracantha) – zone 5 • hawthorn spp. (Crataegus) – zone 3 • Pacific madrone (Arbutus menziesii) – zone 7 • red elder (Sambuca racemosa) – zone 3 • red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) – zone 6 • serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia) – zone 2

American Robins, Cedar Waxwings and Townsend’s Solitaire are attracted to:
• mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia) – zone 5

Nectar of these plant species attracts hummingbirds:
• beautybush (Kolkwitzia) – zone 5 • butterfly bush (Buddleja) – zone 6 • columbine (Aquilegia) – zone 3 • hardy fuchsia (Fuchsia magellanica) – zone 7 • honeysuckle (Lonicera sp.) – zone 4 • larkspur (Delphinium) – zone 3

To attract Bushtits:
• Seeds of ocean spray (Holodiscus discolor) – zone 6

Seeds of these plant species attract a variety of finches:
• coneflower (Echinacea and Rudbeckia) – zone 3 • Cosmos – hardy annual • sunflower (Helianthus sp.) – annual • tickseed (Coreopsis) – zone 4

Do your observations in your own garden reveal other plants that attract and nourish birds? We’d love to hear from you on this.

Bruce Whittington is an active birder with a special interest in gardening for wildlife. He is president of the Victoria Natural History Society, and executive director of Habitat Acquisition Trust.