If you’re like many nature lovers, you probably saw the recent reports about the decline of bird populations. According to a study published in the journal Science, the number of birds in the United States and Canada fell by 29 percent since 1970. That translates to 2.9 billion fewer birds now than 50 years ago.
The study links habitat loss and the wide use of pesticides with much of the decline, which affects nearly all bird species. However, a bit of good news: raptor populations grew by 200 percent, thanks to conservation efforts and the ban of DDT, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Birds play a vital role in our ecosystem—they control pests, pollinate plants, spread seeds, and regenerate forests. As gardeners, how can we slow the decline and support renewed growth in bird populations?
Create a bird-friendly garden, of course!
It’s easy to add elements to your landscape that benefit birds. With just a bit of knowledge and effort, your garden can become an avian haven!
Include Varied Food Sources
Different bird species eat different food. American robins, for instance, dine primarily on insects and fruit, while granivore goldfinches eat seeds from dandelions, grass, and flowers like echinacea, black-eyed Susans, and sunflowers. From nectivorous hummingbirds to mucivorous woodpeckers—who find sustenance from sap—to frugivorous orioles that prefer fruit, feeding birds is a bit more involved that simply hanging a feeder filled with sunflower seeds.
Instead, create a garden smorgasbord for your feathered friends. Much like offering dinner options to a vegan friend or gluten intolerant family member, the birds in your garden appreciate varied, appropriate food choices, too.
One of the easiest ways to feed a wide variety of birds involves adding perennials to your landscape. Not only do perennial flowers feed insects and larva beloved by many birds, but many plants also serve as nectar-rich sources for hummingbirds. Additionally, seed-loving bird species will enjoy the dried flower heads of many perennials, with smaller species clinging to the plants to pluck the seeds, while larger, ground-eaters hunt for fallen seeds in garden beds.
To create a bloom buffet for the birds, consider adding the following perennials to your garden:
With beautiful blooms that beckon both birds and butterflies, coneflowers offer a feast: nectar-loving birds and insects adore the pretty flowers, while the seed heads provide great snacks for birds like blue jays, cardinals, and goldfinches. Don’t prune the plant in fall—leave the seed heads and enjoy watching the birds flock to them. For a compact variety ideal for front borders, try Echinacea purpurea ‘Mistral’.
Bachelor’s Buttons (Centaurea)
The seeds, nectar, pollen, sap, and foliage of bachelor’s buttons (also known as cornflowers) nourish birds, bees, and butterflies. Look for the royal-blue flowers and silvery foliage of Amethyst Dream.
Nectar-rich blooms appeal to hummingbirds and butterflies, while the seeds provide food for sparrows, chickadees, finches, and other seed-eating birds. For a terrific drought-tolerant plant with long-blooming appeal, try ‘Limerock Dream’.
Coral Bells (Heuchera)
While coral bells feature gorgeous foliage, the delicate blooms appeal to nectar-seeking hummingbirds. An outstanding option for partially shady areas, the two-toned, dark- and light-pink flowers of ‘Raspberry Ice’ will brighten garden beds and beckon hummingbirds.
A hummingbird favorite! For a shorter, more compact variety perfect for borders or smaller spaces, add ‘Papaya Popsicle’. The large, red and orange bi-color flowers will add a splash of color to your garden and provide a great nectar source for hummingbirds.
Lupine (Lupinus polyphyllus)
If you’re short on space but want to attract and feed birds, consider adding ‘Manhattan Lights’ lupine to a container. Beloved by hummingbirds, this gorgeous two-toned beauty works well in container gardens.
For a long-blooming splash of color in the garden—followed by seed heads that feed birds such as nuthatches, sparrows, and chickadees—add black-eyed Susan to your beds. Flowers appear in midsummer and bloom through fall. With masses of showy, medium yellow flowers and foliage that turns mahogany in autumn, try ‘Viette’s Little Suzy’.
Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum)
Not only is switch grass a food source for many birds, with wild turkey, mourning doves, and Canada geese enjoying the seeds, the grass is also used as nesting material for many species. For a gorgeous garden show, add ‘Cheyenne Sky’. The blue-green leaf blades turn wine-red in summer.
Wildflowers also offer a feast for many bird species. Nectar-loving birds are drawn to their beautiful blooms, while many insects and caterpillar species can be found on wildflowers—vital protein for birds. Consider planting goldenrod, milkweed, and sunflowers to add to your garden offerings.
Along with tasty treats to tempt birds to your garden, add a water feature to keep them hydrated, too. A water source can be as simple as a running sprinkler, an elevated, inexpensive birdbath, or a fabulous focal point, like a fountain or pond.
Whatever water feature you select, make sure to avoid chemicals leaching into it. Regularly clean birdbaths to prevent the spread of disease among bird populations, as well as to prevent the water from turning into a mosquito breeding ground. While you may want to provide insects as a food source for birds, no gardener enjoys a mosquito-filled yard.
Provide Shelter and Nesting Sites
Put down your rake and relax! Birds prefer a less than pristine garden. In fact, they’ll adore you if you pile brush for their protection, leave the leaves as a habitat for their favorite insects to overwinter, and ignore the dead tree, as long as it’s not a hazard to your home. In fact, more than 80 species of birds rely on dead trees, called snags, for nesting, storing food, hunting, roosting, or resting, according to the National Audubon Society. A dead tree may seem an eyesore to you—but to a woodpecker, for instance, it’s a feast of soft wood filled with insects!
Along with dead trees, living trees and shrubs offer perfect protection and habitats for birds. Consider adding trees and shrubs that also produce fruits and nuts, like hollies, oaks, serviceberries, crabapples, and dogwoods. Not only will the trees and shrubs provide shelter for the birds, they’ll produce avian-friendly snacks, too.
Avoid Pesticides and Rodenticides
If you hope to help the bird population grow and thrive, avoid pesticides. According to the National Audubon Society, 96 percent of land birds rely on insects to feed their chicks. By adding plants to attract birds to your garden, you’re also inviting insects and their larva—which will become food sources for many birds. Using pesticides negates the positive benefits—and actually harms birds.
Likewise, avoid poison for outdoor rodent control. By poisoning mice, voles, or rats, owls and other bird species that prey on rodents may become unintended poisoning victims.
Record and Enjoy!
As feathered visitors flock to your bird-friendly garden, watch and record which species you see. Take photos and share them on social media to encourage other gardeners to create bird-friendly habitats. Play citizen-scientist and participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) each February. The GBBC engages nature lovers of all ages in counting birds to create a “real-time snapshot” of bird populations. Participants are encouraged to count the types and numbers of birds they see in a 15-minute window—or longer, if they prefer—and report the sightings. No experience is necessary—novices to experienced birders can participate, because every report helps track bird populations.
Best of all, sit in your bird-friendly garden on a spring morning and enjoy the songs of your visitors. With your help in creating bird-friendly habitats, hopefully we’ll help bird populations recover—and avoid a silent spring.
For more gardening inspiration, be sure to join Rozanne’s Inner Circle!