Garden & Landscape Tips

Gardening and bird watching naturally go hand in glove: the fall migration season is an ideal time to spot unusual birds, and a pretty garden full of sparkling berries, handsome seed heads, and bright blooms will attract a lively crowd of colorful winged visitors. It’s time to plant spring-flowering bulbs, perennials, and trees and shrubs — and to keep your eyes peeled and your field guide handy.

Lush garden with layers of plants
Birds are attracted to the same things people like: full, lush gardens, with layers of plants: trees, shrubs, and flowers.
© Marty Ross

Crabapples, hollies, viburnums, magnolias, and many other trees and shrubs known for their abundant berries are all great choices for a bird-friendly garden. Bird feeders also attract birds, of course, but carefully-chosen plants bring even more birds to any garden, says David Mizejewski, a National Wildlife Federation naturalist. “The reality is, only a few species of birds will visit a feeder – the ones on the bold side,” he says. “The best way to help the birds is to really focus on the plantings, then supplement with a feeder.”

Berries are an especially important food for migrating birds. Native dogwoods (Cornus spp) of all kinds (flowering dogwood, red-osier dogwood, pagoda dogwood, and others) “are really great bird plants,” Mizejewski says. Dogwood berries are high in fat and yield a lot of energy for the fall migration of robins in particular— which seem to arrive in flocks when dogwood berries turn red. Winterberry hollies (Ilex verticillata), which lose their leaves in late fall, show off their flashy fruits on bare branches; the berries often last well into the winter.

Sassafras, sumac (Rhus spp.), serviceberry (Amelanchier), and hawthorn (Crataegus) all produce fruit; they also provide shelter and nesting sites, and, of course, they add color and character to your garden. Evergreen trees and shrubs make particularly good shelter, and give a garden structure and depth through the seasons.

Bright red sweetbay magnolia fruit
The shiny, bright-red seeds of sweetbay magnolia (M. virginiana) are a favorite food of eastern kingbirds, mockingbirds, robins, and other birds. The bright berries attract birds, and sparkle in the garden.
© Marty Ross

When you’re looking for trees, shrubs, and flowers for a bird garden, try to think like a bird: the finches, bluebirds, chickadees, and nuthatches in your garden are looking for bugs, seeds, and berries. They are attracted to gardens with plants of lots of different sizes and textures. They need tree limbs and twigs — high and low — to perch on, leaf litter to scatter and turn over, and lots of nooks and niches to explore.

Flowerbeds and shrub borders should be full and lush, not spotty. Groves, hedges, and mixed shrub borders are attractive to birds. Wide-open lawns attract few birds. In a garden full of annual and perennial flowers, there will be lots of seeds for the birds. For example coneflowers, with their bristly seed-heads, provide a perch and a meal for goldfinches and chickadees;songbirds eat the seeds of goldenrods, which have long sprays of bright yellow flowers in late summer and fall. Black-eyed Susans, sunflowers, and many of the other "daisies" attract many birds and provide nourishment for migrating birds. Instead of cutting down perennials after the flowers fade, leave them in the garden through the winter. You can cut them back with hedge shears in late winter or early spring.

In his own back yard in Virginia, Mizejewski has a tube feeder for black-oil sunflower seeds, a hummingbird feeder that he leaves up through early fall, and a suet feeder in the wintertime. Songbird seed mixes (Lyric Supreme Mix® is one bird food mix with many seed blends for different birds) are especially welcome to the birds in fall and winter. Birdseed blends that use only hulled seeds and nuts are popular with gardeners because they do not leave a scattering of hulls on decks and patios.

Just being in the garden every day, if only for a few minutes, is Mizejewski’s favorite way to connect with nature and to experience bird life up close. “I focus on my plants as a way to feed all the wildlife,” he says. “That’s the way nature does it.”

Hang up a bird feeder, too, and local population of birds will come right to your windows.

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