flight zone

Look to local habitats for the design tips and plant lists that will make your garden a haven for birds


illlustrations by BROOKE SCHNABEL

Gardens don’t exist in vacuums. We share them with birds, butterflies, and a host of other creatures that enrich the outdoor experience. Flowers make a visual impression, but it is bird song and dancing wings that create ambiance. Most gardeners recognize their local birds and anticipate their arrival and mourn their departure as much as they do the first hellebore and last aster.

Birds have basic needs for survival—food, water, a safe place to live, and a place to nest. With thoughtful design and planting, your garden can satisfy these requirements for many species. Small gardens may not have sufficient area for nesting, but they can offer food and shelter. Larger properties accommodate more needs and therefore can support more species.


Every region has a unique flora and fauna. The local landscape and plant species determine which birds use a particular area. Some sites are used for feeding, others for nesting. During migration many birds are flexible in their choices of habitat and food, but when it is time to nest they narrow their preferences. For example, bay-breasted warblers feed in oaks and a variety of conifers when migrating, but they prefer to nest in spruce and fir, following outbreaks of spruce budworms to ensure there is ample food for their young.

There are no substitutes for large tracts of intact habitat. The forest, prairie, or savanna surrounding your garden has a major influence on its habitat value and carrying capacity (the number of individuals an environment can support without negative effects). The dominant cover type, whether woody or herbaceous plants, is called the matrix. In the Mid-Atlantic, where I garden, the matrix is the eastern deciduous forest with a diversity of tree species. Matrix vegetation determines which birds can nest. Matrix cover usually has both edge and interior, so it supports both generalist species, which nest along the edge, and specialist species, which need interior areas. Sites with different cover and species composition than the matrix are called patches. They are usually openings in the forest, often with grasses and ornamental plants that are both native and nonnative. Gardens can be considered patches. Patches can be diverse, but size restricts their carrying capacity. Though only a limited number of edge species, like robins and catbirds, nest in them, multiple species use patches for feeding—so your garden is valuable habitat, whatever its size and composition.


A bird-friendly garden does not have to be a wild garden. Birds respond to structure and cover, not style. They readily nest in trimmed or free-form hedges, and are oblivious to straight versus curved lines. Birds hone in on patches of diverse cover and use the available resources to the extent possible. The more exuberant and mixed the plantings, the more niches the garden provides.

The best strategy for making your garden a bird haven is to increase its complexity. Use the local matrix as your guide. If you are surrounded by woodland, bring the natural structure of the woodland into your garden. Plan and plant all the layers, from the canopy and understory through the shrub and ground layers. Native species are the best choice, but noninvasive exotics also provide valuable shelter and food. If your house is in a field, increase the complexity by adding a hedgerow. In the prairie, trees and shrubs provide essential nesting and feeding areas, and they will enhance your home garden too.

Integrate vertical and horizontal landscape structure. Instead of planting a shade tree in the middle of the yard and shrubs around the foundation, combine the planting areas into one large bed. Better yet, carve out your lawn and terrace areas, and plant the remainder of your property, lot line to lot line. Plant a group of trees, instead of a single tree, to provide a dense, full canopy. It is okay for the crowns to touch—they do in nature. Underplant canopy trees with smaller flowering trees, then add shrubs to bridge the gap to the ground. Use wildflowers and perennials for seasonal food (nectar and seeds). Select a variety of species. Some migratory birds prefer oaks, while others prefer conifers. Cardinals and mockingbirds like dense crowns, while robins and vireos like more open situations. Diversity in plants translates directly into diversity in birds.


Choose trees, shrubs, and perennials that provide food as well as cover. Migrant as well as resident birds will benefit. Fleshy fruits of hackberry, serviceberry, and viburnums ripen at different times of the year, extending the availability of food. Seeds of coneflowers and liatris are savored by chickadees, sparrows, and finches. Fruit is not enough to feed all birds, however. Many are insectivorous. All young birds need protein to grow, and the best source of protein for nestlings is insects. Abundant flowers throughout the season will draw insects with their nectar. Birds eat both beneficial insects and garden pests. To have ample insects to meet the nutritional needs of the greatest number of species, gardeners have to learn to live and let live. Spray programs not only kill target and nontarget insects, they may kill birds. Limit pesticide use to organic products and apply them in strict accordance with label directions.

Water is an essential addition to your bird garden. Birds are attracted to the sound of water, from a trickle to a waterfall, so let your budget and creativity dictate the size and style of feature you add. A shallow bowl, changed daily, will meet the drinking and bathing needs of many species. In larger ponds, carve a wide space no more than one or two inches deep where birds can safely approach the edge.

Many gardeners use feeding stations to attract birds. Supplemental feeding is beneficial to nearly 100 different species, especially in winter when resources are scarce. Feeding also provides great opportunities for bird watching at close range. Offer a variety of seeds year-round and nectar during the spring and summer months, but remember that bird feeders can increase instances of window collisions, predation, and disease, so place them with care.

Birds nest in a variety of situations, from depressions in gravel parking lots to cozy cavities inside trees. It is difficult to bank on natural cavities, especially in a young garden; to easily boost the habitat value of your garden, add nesting boxes. Put up a variety of sizes if possible. Chickadees and titmice use small boxes, bluebirds take medium-sized, and screech owls need a roomy box. Don’t place boxes too close together, because all birds vigorously defend their territory.

When young are in the nest, keep pets inside. If possible, keep cats indoors all the time. They kill vast numbers of birds. Warblers, thrushes, and whip-poor-wills, among others, nest on the ground, making both adults and young easy prey. Make your garden a safe haven for birds; in a world of shrinking habitats, you will be rewarded for the efforts you make.

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