Birdscaping for Nesting Birds

Add a few bird-friendly plants to your backyard to attract nesting birds.

Put up a feeder, pour in some seed and you’ll attract birds. Yes, it really is that simple. Food is the first step to winning the hearts of birds, and keeping a feeder makes you feel good, too.

But a feeder is just the beginning. To really bring in the birds—more birds, of more species—you need to make nesting birds feel at home in your yard. And the way to do that is with plants.

“Birdscaping,” as some people call it, is a lot simpler than it sounds. All it takes are some common sense and a few lessons from the very best gardener of all, Mother Nature.

Keep Predators Off of Nests

All birds are sitting ducks when it comes to predators. A stalking cat may rush the robin on the lawn. A hungry hawk may drop from the sky at any moment. Vulnerable nestlings, eggs or even parent birds on the nest may be the target of a prowling raccoon or slithering snake.

Only a few birds, including robins and blackbirds, spend a lot of time out in the open. Most of our friends stay under cover as much as they can to boost their chances of survival.

Here’s where nature’s lessons come in handy. Just imitate natural wild areas, and you’ve got it made. You could just let your whole backyard go wild; birds would heartily approve. But most of us like to keep some sense of order, so try these tricks to keep both you and your birds happy:

  • Plant shrubs in groups of three or more, to build larger areas of cover.
  • Spread a thick layer of mulch beneath and between shrubs. Instantly, you’ve made an inviting foraging area for towhees, robins, native sparrows and juncos.
  • Add a hedge along a boundary or your privacy fence. Include thorny shrubs, such as barberry, roses or flowering quince, to provide tempting nesting places for brown thrashers, gray catbirds, cardinals and others.
  • Plant evergreen shrubs and trees such as holly, rhododendron, and spruce to offer shelter from the weather in all seasons.
  • Vary the height of your flower beds and boost their bird appeal by planting small trees—flowering crab, dogwood, redbud—right in the beds.

Blooming Bird Feeders

Talk about multitasking—the plants in our yards do it all. They supply vital protective cover, shelter birds in bad weather and serve as nesting places.

And that’s not all. Many plants also serve up enough natural food—seeds, fruit, berries and especially bugs—to keep birds coming back day after day.

Insects are the natural food our feathered friends rely on year-round. A big banquet of them will draw in birds of all kinds, just as feeders do.

To boost your bugs—yep, more insects is a good thing, if you want birds—add spring-flowering trees to your yard. Crabapples and other fruit trees bloom at migration time. That makes them an inviting pit stop for traveling wood warblers, vireos, gnatcatchers, tanagers, orioles and other birds that recognize the opportunity for a feast.

Caterpillars are another can’t-miss menu item. They’re at their peak during nesting season, just in time to stuff down a bunch of gaping beaks. No need to research good plants for caterpillars—just go native. Many native trees, shrubs and other plants serve as hosts for egg-laying butterflies or moths, as well as nurturing a plethora of other insects.

Of course, you’ll want to avoid pesticides as much as possible in your bird paradise. Just think of those pesky bugs as bird food, and be patient until the troops arrive. Chickadees, wrens and vireos will help you out with aphids. Cardinals and rose-breasted grosbeaks snap up potato beetles. And starlings are your best friends when it comes to Japanese beetles: They’re searching for grubs when they waddle about, stabbing the ground.

Fruits and Berries to Feed Birds

Ask any bird lover what plants are best for birds, and the answer is likely to be berry bushes.

Birds somehow know when the fruit crop is ready, and it’s quite a thrill when our favorite songbirds—bluebirds, rose-breasted grosbeaks, waxwings and more—start winging their way in from miles around.

Still, it takes only a week or so until the birds have gobbled every berry. The show is over until the next fruit or berry in your yard starts to ripen.

I wouldn’t be without berry bushes or fruit trees in my yard. But I look beyond the harvest, and so do the birds. Any fruit or berry we plant is going to be home to bugs. Even if they escape our notice, birds will find them. Plus, like any plant we find a place for, berry bushes will add to the available cover, and maybe even cradle a nest come spring.

Sally Roth
Sally Roth gardens in desertlike conditions in the High Rockies but she can't resist plants with colorful foliage, like coleus.