i know what birds like: 11 backyard-habitat tips

Ralph Shay crabappleI KNOW WHAT BIRDS LIKE. Boys, perhaps not so much (tee, hee), but birds—well, there I’ve got the knack. As many as 60 species that I can identify visit me each year here in the garden, which was originally planted for attracting them and seems to have succeeded.

Spring, and also fall, are perfect times to add some bird-friendly plantings, since many are woody plants, and also to provide for the most important thing off all: water. Big surprise–it’s all about keeping them fed, watered and sheltered in every season. Here are the essentials:


1. water needed 12 months a year

Water is required 12 months a year, preferably moving water; curious birds cannot resist a drip or spillway, such as the little waterfalls in each of my two small garden pools. Even when those are shut down due to deep-freeze of December through March, I keep part of each pond unfrozen with a floating heater originally designed for keeping stock tanks open for farm animals, like a hotplate that floats. Smaller models are available for birdbaths.

Even a seasonal water garden, in a trough or other big vessel, will help–but year-round is even better.

field above backyard, november

2. reduce mown lawn

Less mown lawn means more botanical complexity, which fosters more birdfood in the form of insects and seeds. I leave a section above my house unmown each year, but here’s something even better to create where you eliminate a swath of grass:

shrub borders

3. edge habitat is where the action is

Edge habitat, the place where field meets woods, for instance, is where the action is for many birds: a place to hide, and for some species even to nest, an often food-rich jumble of shrubbery and vines. Think hedgerow; I use a lot of winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) as a backbone of all such islands here; the island on the far right in the above photo, and in the right foreground in the one below) is mostly winterberry and viburnum. Add this transitional zone somewhere in your garden, perhaps along the road or another boundary, or create an island shrub border of bird-friendly plants (ideas below). Mix it up (thorns, evergreen, vines, fruit, seedheads, nectar-rich flowers) to make a multi-season destination.

Fall in the far shrub borders4. make room for a brushpile

A brushpile in some out-of-the-way corner is another great hiding place, especially in harshest weather, though perhaps impractical for the small garden (making the brushy “edge habitat,” above, even more important).

concolor-fir copy5. include evergreen cover

Evergreen cover is an aesthetic and wildlife-friendly element of any garden, providing shelter from weather, nesting sites, plus seed-rich cones or other fruits, such as those of the Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana), for which the beautiful Cedar waxwing that feasts on it is named. Spruce (Picea species) and firs (Abies, such as the blue A. concolor, above) also seem to get a lot of bird action here in particular; desirable species of all foods will vary by region and bird populations.

6. install and maintain nest boxes

Nest boxes are a great addition to the garden, especially where there are no big old trees, since cavity-nesting species like Eastern bluebirds or tree swallows won’t build a next on a shelf (like flycatchers will) or in a brushy thicket (like some sparrows). Think about whether you have all three kinds of nesting places to attract a diversity of birds looking for a place to raise a family. Here’s some nestbox guidance.

7. no chemicals, please

A chemical-free environment is essential; birds (like frogs and snakes, among others) are canaries in a coal mine (sorry) for toxic elements, and their favorite foods are even more vulnerable. Don’t taint the habitat you create; get off the lawncare regimen (advice how to do that) and see a vast increase in worms and other soil life, the favorite food of robins and flickers, among others.

Bugs are birdfood; most birds are at least partly insectivorous, so obsessive anti-bug campaigns impact the quality of your habitat. Use least-toxic methods like your hose-end sprayer, hand-picking, row covers, or soaps and oils to thwart the ones you must, but not chemical insecticides. Ditto with lethal herbicides and fungicides, of course.

8. keep feeders clean

Clean feeders, if you offer seed: Thoroughly clean and sterilize your feeders regularly with a dilute bleach solution (1:10 bleach to water) or just hot, soapy water to prevent disease. Even a 12-month birdfeeder (many people feed only in winter) is no substitute for food-rich habitat; in a successful wildlife garden, birds will come year-round even when there are no feeders, though feeders will bring them closer to the house, where you can see them (as will that Number 1 item up top, water).


9. a diversity of flowers, fruits, seeds

The right diversity of living foods: Plan the landscape for a combination of seeds (such as from grasses, Composite or daisy-like flowers, fruiting plants, and conifers); fruits for each season, including not just the sugary, watery ones of summer, but some high-lipid ones that hang on as hollies do into into winter.

Large numbers of native plants, even in a garden like mine that includes many non-natives like the Kousa dogwood and its fruit (above), prove highly appealing; go heavy on them. Nectar-loving hummingbirds will appreciate trumpet vine (Campsis radicans), honeysuckles (Lonicera species), and flowering sages (Salvia species), among others, and many annual vines, too. And remember: Most everyone wants insects for supper, so discriminate in your bug-killing, please.

My garden’s top bird-attracting woody plants from a food standpoint (by no means a complete list, and varies widely by region):

trees and shrubs

  • Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis, also great for jelly and jam; I grow these);
  • Blueberry and raspberry (Vaccinium and Rubus species; plant extra for birds);
  • Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia and A. melanocarpa);
  • Dogwoods (especially Cornus florida; C. mas, also some twig species, C. alternifolia and C. kousa);
  • Oaks (for their acorns, attractive to some woodpeckers, jays and grouse);
  • Spicebush (Lindera benzoin, for fruit);
  • Viburnum species (couldn’t garden without these);
  • Crabapple (Malus varieties, such as ‘Ralph Shay,’ top photo);
  • Apple and Pear (orioles like the blossoms; many birds peck at the fruit and its seeds, even when mummified in winter);
  • Sumac (Rhus typhina ‘Laciniata,’ the cutleaf staghorn, and others for their fruit);
  • Hollies (Ilex verticillata, or winterberry, and others);
  • Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana, for fruits and shelter);
  • Spruces (Picea species, for seed-rich cones, shelter, nesting);
  • Firs (Abies concolor and A. koreana; cones, shelter, nesting);
  • Shadbush (Amelanchier, summer fruit);
  • Spikenard (Aralia spinosa, and A. cordata and racemosa, for fall fruit).


  • Honeysuckles (Lonicera sempervirens and others);
  • Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia; long-lasting fruit; not showy, but eaten by vast number of birds);
  • Grape (I let wild vines remain at the woodland edge here, or cultivate an arbor).

10. watch the wildlife!

They like to be watched: Join Project Feederwatch, to support and help in Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s program and learn more about your local birds as a bonus. OK, so maybe birds don’t actually care if we watch them, but aware people make better companions and custodians for songbirds.

let me out jack11. keep cats indoors

No marauding cats is what birds like most of all. In the residential environment, cats are a top cause of death for songbirds (with fatal crashes into windows the top killer; more on preventing window strikes by birds).

Estimates for the number of songbirds killed annually by feral and domestic cats range from a few hundred million to one billion. Keep your cat in during the daytime in particular, and especially during nesting season. Let them watch the Bird TV Network through a window or a glass door instead. It was Jack the Demon Cat’s favorite channel (when he was not asleep, which was most of the time). The birds much preferred winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata, below) to Jack.



And in case you didn’t know what boys like, either, or what the headline alludes to, here’s the answer (thanks to The Waitresses’ vintage hit):

September 15, 2009


  1. Anne Allbeury Hock says

    OK all you wonderful bird lovers and gardeners. What do I do about the pesky squirrels (Velcro and pals) who sit in the bird feeders and eat all the food.
    One even can get into the dome covered feeder and sits there and grins at me.I have tried vaseline on the poles, A super energetic Portuguese Water Dog who
    will chase them for me, but back they come. One pest even washes in the bird fountain and then grooms his tail. I love reading all these posts! We should someday have a huge gardener festival and reunion! Happy New Year, dear Margaret!

    • Jessica says

      I have heard that you can put chili peppers in with the birdseed to dissuade squirrels from ravaging bird feeders, since only mammals react to capsaicin and the birds won’t be able to taste the spice. Has anyone heard of (or tried) this?

    • Robin B says

      Plant nut trees. My neighbors have pin oak and black walnut trees. The squirrels only visit to bury and retrieve their stash and never bother my feeders.

      • margaret says

        Thanks, Robin B. Every spring I find zillions of acorn caches in the garden. Those wacky squirrels!

  2. suzanne j zoubeck says

    GREAT POST! Didn’t catch it on the first go round and so happy to read it now. I just loved The Waitresses…Christmas Wrapping gets me misty every year!

  3. says

    Thanks for a fabulous and comprehensive article on attracting birds. I’ve kept the birds front and center in my garden plan and I especially love the long list of attractive(to the birds) shrubs and trees. My biggest problem in the past few months is a stray cat who stalks my birds and has left more than a few piles of feathers to let me know he is occasionally successful. It breaks my heart. I wonder if you could suggest an effective deterrent. I’ve tried hot pepper and I hose him when I get the chance but he always returns. So happy to see the reference to Cornell. I love their website!

  4. says

    Thank you, Margaret, for all the great ideas for bird attracting plants. Since our home is a National Wildlife Habit, we are always looking for more ideas in attracting birds to our gardens. And thank you to your readers for their marvelous suggestions too….

  5. jamie says

    Hi Margaret — Thoughts on a warm winter day: I wanted to get some more of your experience re grass and mowing. I have tried leaving sections of my yard unmowed — and the “woods” and wild rose move in…What is your strategy for keeping long grass more meadow like than reverting to woods like…??Jamie

  6. ELIZABETH says

    I plan on joining our coop community group to advocate for bird-friendly landscaping on the “campus” of our development on the Upper West Side of NYC. The original landscaping was quite good and is maturing spectacularly but sensitive improvements could be made for our feathered friends. I am bookmarking this to refer to. Thank you.

  7. Lisa says

    Loved your writing! How do you deal with crabapples and juniper virginiana together and threat of apple-cedar rust? I would like to add the juniper but am worried it will affect the crabapples.

  8. allison menendez says

    putting a small bell necklace on my kitty works to help the birds know
    when she is around…..
    Can’t keep her in during the day so this works…..she stays in during the night time

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