Attracting Birds With Birdscaping

A few clever gardening tricks will have you attracting birds like never before.

Try your hand at birdscaping, and you’ll quickly learn that landscaping is for the birds — literally! Planting with birds in mind pays off fast, attracting birds in greater numbers with more variety and longer visits from your feathered friends. It’s easy, too. All it takes is looking at your yard from a bird’s point of view.

You’ll have greater success at attracting your favorites when you realize two things – finding food and not getting eaten – are the two biggest issues for birds. Sure, you can just put out a tempting spread at the feeders, and birds will come. But to get them to linger, and maybe grace your place with a nest come spring, you’ll need to make them feel safe, both while they’re eating and while they’re moving about the yard. This is the backbone of birdscaping.

Attracting BirdsSteve and Dave Maslowski
Steve and Dave Maslowski Including berry-producing shrubs in your garden helps to attract birds like blue grosbeaks.

“The more plants, the better” is my motto. A yard that’s chock-full of different trees, shrubs, grasses and vines, plus the usual flower beds, is what brings in the birds. One that’s mostly lawn won’t get many customers at all. You might think food is the best for attracting birds to your yard, and you’re right. Food is exactly what they’re after on all those plants, including insects in incredible numbers and any tempting berries or fruit. But surprisingly, seed probably comes last when it comes to attracting birds.

You can learn a lot about planning for birds just by watching them in their natural surroundings. Observe them in your yard, and you’ll see that very few of them spend time out in the open. Most birds move from one clump of plants to another. They alight in trees, gather in bushes or scoot through the garden looking for food. The sheltering branches or stems protect them from the hungry eyes of hawks, prowling cats and any of the other critters that are only too happy to dine on a dove, sparrow or chickadee.

So think like a wary bird and set up stepping-stones of shrubs, trees, grasses and flower beds. Go horizontal with corridors of plants so birds can move easily about your yard. A hedge of mixed berry bushes is irresistible to bluebirds, thrashers, catbirds and other friends. Groups of shrubs with just a hop, skip and jump between them are also great.

But think vertically, too, because birds move up and down as well as sideways. You can shoehorn in a surprising amount of cover by layering small trees, shrubs, ferns and ground covers near big trees, and by adding an arbor or trellises for vines and roses. Thinking like a bird instantly reveals the benefit of including ornamental grasses, roses and other shrubs, as well as small trees, to your flower beds. Your backyard will soon look like an oasis, especially from the air.

Attracting Birds
Steve and Dave Maslowski Nesting birds need shelter, but many won’t use nestboxes. Plant trees and shrubs for natural cover.

While most gardeners strive for neatness, birds like messy surroundings, so birdscaping focuses on finding a happy medium—a natural look that will coax birds into lingering and possibly even nesting. Let perennials, shrubs and other plants knit together, instead of keeping bare space around every plant. Allow the dead leaves to lie beneath shrubs and hedges as an insect-rich mulch for gray catbirds, thrashers, wrens and other friends to investigate.

Hold off on cutting back flower beds until spring so goldfinches, titmice, doves, quail and other birds can shelter in them when searching for seeds and insects in winter. Instead of getting out the clippers every few months, learn to love the natural look of a free-form hedge. Birds will appreciate it. And you’ll appreciate the birds bringing life to your yard, every season of the year.

Save Money While Attracting Birds

  • Dig suckers from lilacs, forsythia, weigela, serviceberry, shrub roses and other multiple-stemmed plants and transplant them to new homes.
  • Trees and shrubs cost less at garden centers than nurseries. Selection is limited, and plants may not be as nicely shaped or as big, but the savings may get you three or four plants instead of just one.
  • Look for free or cheap plants on or Early birds get the worm.
  • Scour the bulletin boards at supermarkets and other places, and post your own notice for “Free Plants Wanted.”
  • Bare-root shrubs are a bargain. Look for bramble fruits, forsythia, hedge plants, and roses in bags rather than pots.
  • Shop end-of-season sales to save a bundle.
  • Scout the “sad sack” section of your nursery and garden center for damaged but salvageable plants at cut-rate prices.
  • Treasure every bird-planted tree seedling you find in your yard; transplant while still small.

Sally Roth
Sally Roth is an award-winning author of more than 20 popular books about gardening, nature, and birds, including the best-selling Backyard Bird Feeder's Bible. Roth is also a contributing editor for Birds & Blooms magazine. She and her husband share their home in the high Rockies with a variety of animals.