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Feeding Birds FAQs
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Unusual Birds Gallery
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Cornell Lab of Ornithology feeders
Ontario (winter only)
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Planting gardens and landscaping your yard is one of the best ways to help birds as they seek out food sources, nesting habitat, protection, and more. Not only do plants provide food such as seeds, fruit, nectar, and sap, but they also provide habitat for insects, which are essential for birds and their young. Birds use trees and shrubs for cover and protection from predators, and use plant fibers for nesting material and nesting habitat. The quality of a habitat can greatly affect nesting success of birds. Because habitat loss is the leading cause of population declines in many bird species, planting native vegetation in your community is one of the best ways you can help improve the environment and create “mini refugia” for our feathered friends.
Landscaping for birds doesn’t have to involve buying plants and maintaining a garden. There are several things you can do with the habitat you already have to make it more bird friendly – and they all involve less work. Leaving a designated area of your lawn unmowed is a great way to cultivate wildflowers and grass seeds, which birds and pollinators will love. Letting flowers go to seed and leaving leaves unraked in a portion of your yard will provide seeds for birds through the winter and attract insects, which will also attract birds. Having a “messy” yard (or at least messy areas) is excellent for birds!
Native vegetation provides an easy, dependable food supply for birds. While native plants are a great source of fruits and seeds for birds, they also provide important habitat for native insects. Native milkweeds, for example, can host caterpillar eggs and, later, caterpillar food. These caterpillars can become food that birds depend on to feed their young. Non-native plants can be harmful in that native insects may not have adapted to eating or inhabiting them, making non-native plants unsuitable hosts for insects that birds rely on (See recent research about insects and non-native plants). With no natural deterrents or predators, some non-native plants can become invasive, choking out native plants, and can be difficult to remove. It is important to garden with native plants due to the interspecific relations they share with local insect and bird populations.
If you are ready to start or expand your garden, a great way to begin is by determining the dimensions of your garden space, observing the amount of sunlight your site gets during the day, deciding what size plants you would like to have e.g., narrow vs. wide or short vs. tall, and deciding how much maintenance you are able to provide for your garden. Next, you will want to decide what plants to get. Thinking about categories of plants can help you decide what to get: do you want to get bird friendly trees, vines, shrubs or flowers, for example? Another way to think about plants is to think about what they offer to birds. Grasses and forbs offer seeds, flowers offer nectar, some plants have fruit in summer (e.g. serviceberry, mulberry), some in autumn (e.g. dogwood) and some in winter (e.g. crabapple and winterberry). And some plants produce nuts or seeds that offer food in winter, such as oaks, hickories, and conifers.
It is helpful when planning your garden to find a local nursery and speak with the horticulturists on staff. They will be able to help you identify plants that could be appropriate for your garden. This is especially important when choosing native plants for your area. Making a list of your garden’s requirements (maximum mature size, type of soil present, available daily sunlight, etc.) helps the horticulturist to decide what plants would be likely to grow well.
Local, state, or provincial agricultural or environmental agencies are another great source of information. These agencies typically have an abundance of knowledge about local plants, how to grow them, diseases, pests, etc. and how to manage these challenges. You might also check to see if there is a local native plant society nearby. These folks are usually well-versed in topics like local soil types, plants that do well in your area, abundance of local native plant species, and invasive species known to grow in the area.
What is the best place to find plants for your new garden? There are lots of suitable options available in many locations, from local and online nurseries to farmers markets and specialty plant sales. One great option is getting cuttings or “split” plants from friends who also have gardens. Sharing plants is a great way to spread the joy of gardening without breaking the budget!
Local nurseries usually have a variety of plants to choose from that are known to grow well in your area, and staff there can provide you with knowledge about cultivation. Online nurseries can increase your options but will require more research to assess the viability of the plant species in your area.
Farmers markets can be another worthy source of bird-friendly plants, if you have one nearby. Plant vendors at these markets are commonly local, smaller growers who want to share their knowledge and native plant crops with members of the surrounding community.
Botanic gardens and universities occasionally have specialty plant sales that are headed by the institution itself, local Master Gardener volunteers, or even student groups. The main purpose of this type of sale is education and fundraising, but uncommon plants can sometimes be found here. Additionally, these events normally draw local plant enthusiasts, making them a great way to meet other like-minded gardeners.
Resource: Birds Canada Gardening
Wild Strawberry – Fragaria virginiana (Native to most of the US and Canada) – This is a container-friendly perennial having a prostrate (short) growth habit and is available in many nurseries. F. virginiana bears tasty edible fruit in summer that attracts a variety of wildlife from birds and mammals to butterflies and native bees. Wild Strawberry is particularly valuable as a host plant to certain species of moths when in the larval stage.
Black-eyed Susan – Rudbeckia hirta (Native to most of the US and Canada) – This is a 1-2 ft. annual or short-lived perennial (depending on location) that is easy to grow and much enjoyed by wildlife. The nectar feeds bees, butterflies, and other insects. The seeds are relished by birds from summer to fall while the plant itself is habitat for emerging moths. Black-eyed Susan seed (whether alone or in a wildflower assortment) is widely available at greenhouses and nurseries during the growing season.
Tulip Tree – Liriodendron tulipifera (Native in the eastern US and Ontario) – This plant is a deciduous tree that is fast-growing and can reach heights of 150 ft. or taller. It is a great choice for gardeners who have more area to work with, as it is quite pest and disease free while providing much habitat for birds to shelter or nest. Tulip tree produces lovely flowers in the spring and interesting golden tulip-shaped foliage in autumn. The flowers are a favorite source of nectar to bees and hummingbirds, as well as butterflies. Additionally, the Tuliptree Silkmoth (Callosamia angulifera) uses this tree exclusively as habitat for its caterpillars to develop and mature.
Butterfly Milkweed – Asclepias tuberosa (Native in most of the US and Canada) – This perennial grows to 1-2 ft. and is a very showy addition to any bird-friendly garden. The orange/yellow/red (depending on location) flowers are very attractive to butterflies and hummingbirds, in addition to a variety of other insect species. These plants are not appetizing to deer, another bonus for gardeners. Butterfly milkweed, among other species of milkweed, is available at neighborhood garden centers or greenhouses and is best cultivated when added to other similar sized perennials. This plant is also a wonderful source of food for different types of bees present in the immediate and local environment.
By installing a few features, you can make your yard more natural and bird friendly than a polished, professionally-landscaped and trimmed yard.
Check out our Landscaping for Birds page and Cornell’s Bird Academy Course, Growing Wild: Gardening for Birds and Nature for more ways to make your yard bird-friendly.