Even when the economy is good, the best way to feed wildlife is the same way that nature does: with native plants. Plants provide seeds, berries, nuts and nectar for songbirds, butterflies and hummingbirds. Natives also support insects, which are important wildlife in and of themselves, but are also a key food source for birds.
One of the best things about attracting birds with plants instead of feeders is that plants do all the work for you. If you choose the right plants, they’ll keep feeding visitors for years or even decades. Trees and shrubs that attract birds are long-lived and produce more bounty the older and larger they get, as do perennial wildflowers. Spend money on them once, and you’ve got a steady food source.
Look for plant species that spread and offer multiple habitat elements, and you’ll get even more benefits. For example, oak trees attract birds by producing acorns that are eaten by countless birds, from jays to wild turkeys to woodpeckers (not to mention squirrels, deer and even black bears). And they’re also host plants for the caterpillars of more than 400 species of butterflies and moths.
Blackberries, blueberries, huckleberries, elderberries and many other shrubs provide nectar for pollinators, along with nutritious fruits. They also offer cover and nesting places, and many are butterfly host plants.
Want to get good plants for little or no money? Join a garden club or native plant society. Many of these groups offer free plant swaps among members and discounts at plant sales and garden centers.
Growing plants from seed is another way to get more bang for your buck. For a couple of dollars each, you can get seed packets for a variety of native perennial wildflowers and end up with dozens of outstanding plants that attract birds for your garden. You can also collect acorns, beechnuts, maple seeds or hickory nuts and use them to plant your own food-producing forest.
But perhaps the most economical way of feeding the wildlife with plants is to simply let part of your yard go wild. Stop mowing either the whole thing or certain sections, and see what plants pop up on their own. All you need to do is weed out invasive exotic plants, and you’ll have a free wildlife buffet in no time.
More Cheap Plants to Attract Birds
Beyond food, wildlife need water, cover and a place to raise their young—and there really are inexpensive ways to provide all of these.
Gather branches or rocks from your property and use them to make brush or rock piles. These can quickly become wildlife hotels, housing everything from birds and butterflies to chipmunks and foxes.
When it comes to offering places to raise young, your mature trees and shrubs will attract birds by serving as nesting places for both birds and mammals. If you’re growing plants from seeds, make sure to include some that are host plants for butterfly caterpillars.
Plant milkweed for monarchs and common herbs like dill and parsley for swallowtails. Don’t buy expensive nesting boxes for birds. Instead, save scrap lumber and build your own using free plans you can find online or in library books.
And why spend money on expensive fertilizers when you can use fallen leaves, garden clippings and kitchen scraps to make an all-natural, nutrient-rich compost for garden beds that will attract birds to your backyard?
Finally, forget pricey chemical pesticides, which are toxic to you and to wildlife and can pollute the soil and water. Instead, pick pests off by hand, or make your own natural pest-control solutions with inexpensive soaps and kitchen ingredients.