Gardening for Birds

Birds can be found everywhere – parks, lakes, forests, cities, even your own backyard; however, birds are finding our homes less and less appealing.

The typical lawn is made up of mowed grass and non-native ornamentals, a landscape that provides no food or shelter for our birds. The pesticides used to control pests can harm ground-feeding birds and destroy an important food source – insects.

Migrating birds travel hundreds or thousands of miles and rely on stopover habitats along their route to rest and refuel. Many crucial stopover habitats have been destroyed by logging, agriculture, and sprawling suburbs. As human development spreads and bird habitat shrinks, many migrating birds will rely on your gardens to find food and shelter.

To create a garden for birds, it is important to include sources of food, water, and shelter. Try to include layers – ground cover, low plants, shrubs, and trees. The greater diversity of food and layers in your garden, the greater diversity of birds that will visit!

Birds eat a variety of foods depending on the species and the season. Insects, especially caterpillars, are very important for many birds while raising chicks. Native plants, such as white oak and willow, tend to host a wider variety of insects than non-native plants. They also require less pesticide. Native plants that have been growing in our area for hundreds of years are very familiar with Pennsylvania’s climate, soil, and pests. Where non-native plants may need extra water, fertilizer, or pesticides, native plants will flourish without the extra help. Native plants save you time and money – and save the insects for the birds.

Fruit and berries provide energy that foraging and migrating birds need. While the adult birds desperately search for caterpillars for their chicks, they can stop for a quick blueberry snack. Our native blueberry is a great summertime berry for you and the birds. In the fall, spicebush berries are available just in time for the start of the migration south. The male and female flowers appear on separate spicebush plants, so be sure to plant several. Winterberry can be a life-saving meal on a bitter night in winter. Be conscious that any chemicals sprayed on the fruit will be ingested by birds and could cause harm. While you shop for plants, keep in mind that native plants tend to require fewer chemicals.

We cannot forget nectar for our hummingbirds! These tiny birds have a long beak and tongue to forage for nectar inside of trumpet-shaped flowers. Hummingbirds are attracted to the color red, but they will eat from any colored flower. With a long migration across the Gulf of Mexico, the ruby-throated hummingbird must gorge itself on nectar to make the journey. Support your tired hummingbirds by adding columbine, jewelweed, and cardinal flower to your garden. Spread out the flowers across your garden to allow multiple bird territories to arise. Seeds and nuts are an important source of protein and fat that provides lasting energy, especially in winter. Beech, hickory, and oak trees produce ample autumn nuts that blue jays will horde. Consider not deadheading your purple coneflower and black-eyed Susan. The flower petals will fall, but the cone will mature into seeds that your finches will love.

Birds also need water for drinking and bathing and shelter to hide from predators. Birdbaths should be about one inch deep or less with a gradual slope into the water. Some birds like the mourning dove let their droppings fall into the bath, so change the water regularly. An inexpensive birdbath heater can keep your birds enjoying your bath all year round. Evergreens like the eastern red cedar provide year-round shelter. Gourds from your garden can also be converted into a bird shelter by cutting a hole for the bird to crawl through.

As you plan your garden this year, keep the birds in mind. Choose native plants that provide insects, fruit, nectar, and seeds. Water and shelter are important for birds as well. The birds, tired and weary from their travels, will find your garden simply irresistible.


This educational blog is a series of informative articles from the Penn State Master Gardeners volunteers plus news concerning the group and their activities. For more information, click here.