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Gardening For Birds

Birds need food, water, shelter, and a place to nest. The following is adapted from a far-sighted article published in the Bulletin of the Missouri Botanical Garden in 1995 by Barbara Addelson of Science Outreach. Its basic elements are adaptable to any garden, free of charge:


Yellow-Throated Vireo, by John James Audubon, watercolor, accession number 1863.17.119
© Collection of The New-York Historical Society

Planting for wildlife doesn't mean you can't have a beautiful garden. Many of the plants that will be attractive to birds will also add beauty to your landscape. When planting for birds you should plant a mix of flowers, shrubs and trees to supply birds with the food, cover and nesting sites they need. You should also be sure to include a water source in your garden. This can be as simple as a bird bath or an elaborate as a dramatic water feature. If you do include a pond in your garden you need to be sure that birds have a shallow access- or point for drinking or bathing.

Birds depend on a variety of foods. Cardinals, sparrows and finches are mostly seedeaters. Robins and mocking birds eat insects and berries. Warblers, vireos and flycatchers eat insects, while hummingbirds mostly sip nectar. Below are some plants especially suited to the St. Louis area [Zones 5-6].

(Consult your garden center, landscapists, or garden clubs for advice on choosing plants suited to your area. View map to determine growing hardiness zone.)


American Goldfinch (male) in redbud tree. Photograph © Matt Miles, P.O.Box 73, Rogersvile, MO 65742.

For the seedeaters you might consider trees such as the tulip poplar, Liriodendron tulipifera, or a member of the birch family, Betula spp., Which provide seeds well into the winter. There are also many flowers, both annuals and perennials, that you can plant as a source of food for the seedeaters. These include sunflowers, Coreopsis, cosmos, gloriosa daisies, columbines, black-eyed Susans, purple coneflowers and the asters. Frequently gardeners will remove spent flowers to promote further blooming, but you may want to allow a few plants to go to seed for the birds. There are also a number of handsome ornamental grasses that provide seeds.


Small trees and shrubs such as the flowering and grey dogwood, Cornus florida and C. Racemosa, produce berries that are avidly sought by fruit-eating birds. The former produces red fruit, the latter white. Another wonderful fruit-bearing tree is the washington hawthorn, Crataegus phaenopyrum, whose attractive red berries are available throughout thewinter. This species of hawthorn is fairly resistant to cedar-hawthorn rust, and their dense, thorny branches provide good shelter and nesting for a variety of birds. Some berry-producing shrubs to consider are Cotoneaster, Cotoneaster spp., coralberry, Symphoicarpos orbiculatus, Bayberry, Myrica pensylvanica, firethorn, Pyracantha spp., and the large, spectacularly flowered elderberry, Sambucus canadensis. Several members of the holly family, Ilex spp., also bear fruit that birds eat. Remember when selecting hollies that historically only the female tree will produce berries and must be cross-pollinated by male plants, so you will need to plant at least one of each. (Modern hybrids have been developed that are self-pollinating. Be sure you know what you're getting.)


Photograph © Matt Miles. (Greeting cards may be ordered from Matt Miles Photography, P.O.Box 73, Rogersvile, MO 65742.)

Birds such as brown thrashers, thrushes and sparrows scratch among the dead leaves on the ground looking for insects to eat. leaving some of the leaf litter beneath your bushes and trees will give them an ideal place to feed as well as enriching the soil with the decomposing leaves.


Making up for its small size by its brilliance is the ruby- throated hummingbird, the only species of hummingbird occurring regularly east of the Rockies. Hummingbirds often find their food in red, tubular flowers. In the spring, as they return north, they visit the flowers of the red buckeye, Aesculus pavia, a small Tree with thin tubular flowers that bloom in April and May, and the lovely Columbines, Aquilegia canadensis, which last into the early summer. In summer hummingbirds regularly feed at the dramatic cardinal flower, Lobelia cardinalis, a native species that takes well to a sunny spot in the garden. They also frequent the purple flowered butterfly bush, Buddleia davidii, and the morning glory vines, Ipomoea spp. A beautiful late summer humingbird plant, which flowers until frost, is the pineapple Sage, Salvia elegans.

You might also want to try the Mexican sunflower, Tithonia rotundifolia, an annual, which is attractive to butterflies as well as hummingbirds. Additional flowers to consider include the pale and spotted touch-me-nots, Impatiens pallida and I.capensis, which grow well from collected seeds in shady areas, and the trumpet honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens, which blooms from early May to frost.


Another consideration when planning a garden for the birds is providing cover. Birds need both safe nesting sites in the summer and protection from the elements in the winter. Evergreens offer solutions for both these needs. Chinese junipers, Juniperus, chinensis, are a good choice for this area. Unlike our native red cedars, J. virginiana, Chinese junipers are resistant to both cedar-apple and cedar-hawthorn rust. Not only do they offer good nesting sites and winter cover, they also provide food for the birds. Other Conifers including white pine, Pinus strobis, and blue spruce, Picea glauca, offer good protection as well.

A brush pile is another important feature, which offers protection to ground feeding birds and other animals. If you have the room in your yard, a well-made brush pile provides sanctuary from both the weather and predators. A good brush pile will have tunnels throughout so the birds have several entrances and exits and can move about easily within the brush.

As people have continued to develop this country we have dramatically altered the landscape. Natural habitats have been replaced by homes with sterile lawns; highways and shopping strips of asphalt and concrete, leaving many species of animals without the things they need for survival. By gardening for the birds we are helping to compensate for this displacement and in the process are adding to the appeal in our own backyards.

Missouri Botanical Garden Bulletin
March/April 1995, Volume LXXXIII, Number 2, Adapted.
Courtesy The Missouri Botanical Garden.

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