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):

  1. MiSchelle says:

    As soon as I saw your headline that song popped into my head and I’ll be hearing it all day. Love that song!

    I have been toying with the idea of planting winterberry on my property for years, and I think it’s time I did it. I have so little space I hate to give up the real estate to the required male pollinator but those bright red berries are so alluring – to the birds and to me especially. The sacrifices we must sometimes make…

  2. Amy says:

    Awesome post! I am all about providing a landscape for our feathered friends. We get quite the diversity here, and it fills me with joy to ID the different species at our feeders, both seed feeders and natural feeders. Thank you for these additional ideas. I need to incorporate more natural food sources in the garden. We have the butterflies and hummers covered, but the regular birds need more options.

  3. Julia says:

    Hi, I’m a relatively new gardener so this question may seem elementary, but what’s the name of the groundcover in that first picture of the pond? I’ve seen it around and love the bright green color and would like to add it to our backyard. Thanks!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Julia. There are various low-growing Sedum, or stonecrop, that will do the job. Try this recent post for a slideshow of some that I like. That is ‘Golden Teardrop.’ And no question is elementary, really…to learn to garden you have to have curiosity (and a strong back, and patience, and no love of nice manicured nails). Ask away. :)

  4. Kathy says:

    Great suggestions and I have planted many of the shrubs and trees you recommend, however, a few feral cats have found my garden. I feel sorry for them and worry about the birds. Don’t know what to do.

  5. Terra says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for all of these tips and for doing so much for our songbirds. Did you plant those 60 species that they like, it sounds like you did.
    My garden is a haven too, and I have 2 pretty skunks living in my yard in our blackberry bramble patch, right in our city garden.
    Attracting birds, especially by planting what is good for them and providing water is ALL GOOD.
    Way to go, and when I read a list like this I always get an idea or two for more I can do.

  6. Fred from Loudonville, NY says:

    A few more plants to add to the list…..Here at Whimsey Hill House, the birds LOVE the protection of the Miscanthus grasses. The birds don’t pay to much attention to the grasses in the spring, and summer, BUT when the deciduous trees have dropped their leaves, the grasses are their favorite hiding places. The dense growth of the grasses must cut the wind, and act as a place to roost. The bird feeders are by the grasses, and the birds, all through out the winter days, dart back and forth from the grasses to the feeders, their easy source of food. Another place birds loves is the protective space that the globe arborvite provides. If the birds are not in the grasses, they are darting in mass into those dense bushes. Mine are about seven feet tall, and wide, and get a trimming every two, or three years to keep them perfectly sphere shape. The upright, and spreading yew are also place for birds to hide. The one plant from the list that I don’t care for is the Virginia Creeper. I see it in Albany covering buildings, and it is like a weed. I have seen that INVASIVE plant in garden centers, here and in the Berkshires for anywhere from $30 to $40., and wondered, who in their right mind would want to plant that quick growing-take over your property vine??? My neighbors have land that is not cleared, and it climbs up trees. Every year, I find it trying to grow in my garden, and up my board fence. MiSchelle, like you, I have thought about planting some winterberry (ilex), but got past that crave. Windy Hill Nursery in Great Barrington, Ma has a beautiful planting of it, out by the road, along Rt7. In December it is a WONDERFUL sight to see, especially if there is snow. They always offer the most tempting winterberry plants, for sale, by their front door, as you walk in. Some have small berries, while others have LARGER fruits. Besides the classic red color, they have also sell winterberrys that have pumpkin, and salmon colored berries. The plants, that they sell are up there in price. The problem with the winterberry, for me, is that in the summer they are a minor looking bush (forgetable) and by mid January, the berries are all gone. I picked the cardinal candy and winthrop virburnum, instead, (because I wanted the red fruit as winter interest). In a past post, I said I was not happy with their performance. They were just planted two years ago, so maybe with time they will perform as I would like.

    1. Margaret says:

      @Kathy: Both here and where I used to live there is a nearby charitable organization dedicated to humane practices w/stray cats (getting them caught and spayed especially) so I would look up such a place and ask their advice.

      @Terra: I didn’t focus on specific birds (I didn’t know so much about either plants or birds 20-plus years ago) but knew I wanted birds, so I used the general ideas above. Even with that general approach, it worked. :)

      @Fred: Virginia creeper is one of the top native wildlife plants there is, hands-down, so it’s something I encourage along a fence or roadside and such. I’m glad to have it. Poison ivy is another leading plant for wildlife (including birds) and though I remove seedlings in the garden beds I do not try to eliminate it anywhere else (such as at the woodland edges). Those two plants (among others) are really valuable to the ecosystem so I try to not exert too strong a hand at the fringes here against such treasures.

      Hi, Charity, all the way from Rome! Unfortunately, most of the guys in my life are short and green and tend to leap out of grasp when you try to hug them. :)

      Welcome, Randy, and thank you for the kind words. Always glad to meet other organic gardeners here. See you again soon.

  7. John says:

    Thanks for another wonderfully educational post. I keep trying to diversify our woods and you’ve given me more to add (esp. the Winterberry and Spicebush). Just as a minor correction though, I think it should be Chokeberry for the Aronias although the ChokeCherry (Prunus virginiana) is also a bird attractor. Also you don’t mention the Red Mulberry (Morus rubra) which outshines all the trees on my property as a bird magnet (http://macgardens.org/?p=865). I used to think of it as a weed tree (the birds do the planting), but it’s now one of my more highly valued trees. For about two months of the year I start each morning underneath the tree next to the garden watching for new birds…

  8. Judy says:

    Love the blog, Margaret. I’ve been wanting to plant some elderberries as the road crews have sprayed all the wild ones and I’m yearning to make my Mom’s elderberry/crabapple jelly. I searched you website but can’t find any mention of where and how you plant them. Any tips?

  9. dave brogren says:

    I use an airstone with air hose and small pump to keep the water open in my koi pond. I wonder which uses more electricity? On the coldest days we still must boil water and keep the hole open. I am thinking with your method that step could be avoided…lol…

  10. Margaret says:

    @John: Thank you, thank you. My built-in common-name translator stinks. I hardly ever used them when I am thinking or talking about plants, so its a struggle for me to conjure the common names. Yes, of course, you are correct, and I fixed it for posterity. :) I don’t grow mulberry here, but it’s a goodie, too. Neither do I have choke-cherry, but my areas is loaded with wild cherry trees that you are again correct, the birds love. Thanks on all counts.

    @Judy: My elderberries (from the link above inthe story where it says “I grow these”) are super-easy, even grow in part shade, and ask nothing. I cut them down every other year at least, since they grow so fast and otherwise get quite large, but you needn’t do that. No tricks to growing them; just order plants with the big fruiting heads like the ones at that link.

    @Dave: The bubbler wouldn’t work here after November-ish, so I use the floater. You can get different wattage depending on your climate zone and volume of water in your pool…and there are many brands and shapes etc. They range from $30 to $60 and up and it’s sort of an experiment, but even here in Zone 5 I have gotten MANY years of service from the cheap Allied Precision one, which is very well-made. The 1500 watts may be overkill and a waste of energy…even the 1000 may be if your pool is small, which would mean trying another brand that comes in 750 or even less. Look somewhere like Lilypons for a start; they have good customer service so you can call and ask for help with choosing for your conditions.

  11. catjane says:

    Thanks for the reminder about “Project FeederWatch.” I know you mentioned it last year, and it seemed like a good idea . . . but, I never signed up. This time I did it right away. I watch the birds anyway, so why not put the activity to good use. I like the sound of “citizen scientist”!

  12. Lana Potter says:

    i am going to plant the winterberry hollies. the only variety i am able to get from the nursery is winter red. my question: how far apart? and pattern of planting? i didn’t want to just “line them up”. i am thinking i have space for at least twelve, spacing them eight feet apart. the nursery man said i could even go to just six feet. i want it to look “woodsy” thank you. ps: love your kitchen.

    1. Margaret says:

      @Lana: ‘Winter Red’ gets big. My oldest plants (15+years, maybe more) are easily 10 by 10 feet. They are as you suggest 6 to 8 feet apart, and have grown into one another so that it’s more of a mass than one shrub at a time that you see. I staggered the planting so that they are not precisely in a line, so you are correct there, too. ‘Winter Red’ was my first winterberry, and because I loved it so much I now have every imaginable kind. Watch out…addictive! (And thanks re: the funny kitchen.)

  13. Barb says:

    I have just finished reading “Alex and Me,” by Dr. Irene Pepperberg – a true story about a research scientist and her parrot, Alex. It explores how parrots think and communicate, leading to an increased understanding of our feathered friends and linguistics in general. Excellent reviews and a thoroughly engaging lovely story. I recommend it highly.

    1. Margaret says:

      @Barb: I heard her on NPR “Fresh Air” not long ago. Totally fascinating, and also such a tender tale. Thanks for the reminder.

  14. Augusta Kaiser says:


    I have a small New York City terrace “backyard”, facing south and east on
    the 8th floor of a highrise. Often, there has been a birdfeeder or two out there.This winter, my enthusiasm got the better of me, and feeling more sympathetic than usual, to my feathered friends in this artic, Northpole weather pattern – extreme,I took to hauling pounds of wildbird seed out there. At first, placing it in the one rickety feeder hanging from the trellised ceiling, sharing its space alongside the few, two to three footlong icicles.From there, thinking it not enough, I filled up recycled ceramic bowls, interspersing them among the various evergreens. At this moment on this icy, horrific day, not only do I now have my share of a number of city Finches, Doves, occasional beautiful red Cardinals, and yes some pesky pigeons taking up residence, but also at least six Robins. The Robins I might add didn’t go after the bird food, (I thought they only ate worms), but was particularily attracted to the bittersweet branches I intertwined on the railing grates before Christmas.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Augusta, caretaker of an urban bird refuge! :) Yes, robins (who are thrushes) love fruit in the offseason (fall and winter), and rely on it. They come here for winterberry holly, and then crabapples, as long as the supply lasts. Nice to meet you!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Jeanette. I love Feederwatch and Cornell in general, and am a regular. Thanks for your comment, and see you soon again.

  15. Hi Margaret,

    I’m glad to see that you included the two chokeberry species (Aronia arbutifolia and A. melanocarpa) in your list of top bird-attracting plants in your garden. I am sure you know that the native range of A. melanocarpa includes New York.

    In my opinion, chokeberry is a poor descriptive common name for A. melanocarpa. Taste testes that I have conducted indicate that most people like to eat the fleshly picked berries raw. The common name that I prefer is aronia or black aronia berry.

    In the Midwest, birds usually do not eat the berries until late winter. Birds eat the berries when most other more palatable food is depleted. I you want to harvest some or all of the berries for your own use, it is still a good idea to pick them as soon as they turn dark purple. That way you won’t tempt the birds to take more than their share.

    If you want to learn more about aronia, please go to my blog Aronia in America http://aroniainamerica.blogspot.com/ or visit my website http://www.hortconsulting.com/

    Dr. Eldon Everhart

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Dr. Everhart, and thanks for all the information on these wonderful shrubs. I have never tasted one (I have sampled Amelanchier fruit and Kousa dogwood!) but now you have me curious. Hope to see you again soon.

  16. Theresa says:

    Great article! We live surrounded by woods, and have several bird feeders out. I need some advice, how can I get rid of these pesky squirrels? We can’t use some of these new devices that put out high pitch sounds, because of our dogs. Any suggestions would be most appreciative! Thanks!

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Theresa. No solutions to offer on the squirrels, I’m afraid (or chipmunks, who drive me even crazier). Other than trapping (which requires a licensed handler in many areas) I have not read about any lasting effect from repellents, sound devices, etc. I would not feed the birds in spring through fall — only from late fall through the end of winter. That will help, and the birds are not going to mind (though you may miss the view).

  17. Florence Wiley says:

    I have a suggestion for Theresa to make her birdseed less tasty to squirrels. (At a previous property we had really nasty squirrels who would chew on the gutters even the outdoor furniture! I have teeth marks in my wrought iron chairs!) Mix some ground cayenne (red pepper) in with the seeds (but not when it is windy!) The squirrels will get the message but the birds are not bothered by the red pepper. Now if I could just get the squirrels to stop planting black walnuts in my raised garden beds….

    1. Margaret says:

      Thank you, Florence — and welcome. I have teeth marks in many metal things here, too. Amazing. Infuriating. See you soon again?

  18. Rita Majkut says:

    I love your blog. Thanks so much for putting it together!
    I have a lot of birds in the garden and two bird baths.
    One of my bird baths is made from some sort of heavy black plastic material which gets very hot. I was thinking of filling the bottom with blue aquarium gravel to cool it down so the water won’t evaporate as quickly in the hot southern California sun.
    Do you think this is safe for the birds? Fish can swim in it and plants can live in it, so I think it should be okay. But I’d appreciate a second opinion.

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Rita. I think aquarium gravel might be ok…but I have no proof of that. I think the safest color would be natural/un-dyed, of course. It really is hard to keep a birdbath going this time of year — I have two deep water gardens (not huge, but deep) and even they need topping up.

  19. Donna West says:

    Water is really essential here. During the summer the birds LOVE my favorite sunflowers. Right now they are eating the rest of the unharvested grape raisins. I usually need to supplement with seed. I have a hanging feeder because being a city dweller means I have pigeons. I do everything I can to keep them away from our neighborhood! Shoo!

  20. Maria McCune says:

    I know in the past you’ve had bear visitors. I am moving to an area with 900 tagged bear. I’ve been told no compost, no bird feeders, two things I cannot live without. Any bear tips? I would love to see you post as much info as you can give on being a gardener and bird lover and living in bear country. Thanks!

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