Landscaping for the Birds

Imagine looking through your window to your backyard and realizing the birds have chosen your yard as their home. In this article, I want to give you an idea of landscaping that has worked well to attract a wide variety of birds to our backyard. The correct selection of flowers, shrubs and trees will provide the elements for attracting birds.  The three elements necessary to make your yard a great habitat are food, a place to nest and shelter from the weather.

If you want to attract hummingbirds, you must have flowers in your yard. A hummingbird feeder near a colorful flower bed is certain to attract more hummingbirds than just a feeder alone. In the east, favorite flowers for attracting hummingbirds are bee balm, cardinal flower, scarlet sage, and trumpet vine.   In the west great flowers for the hummingbirds are Arizona Yellow Bell, fairy duster, yucca, many of the aloes and of course many of the sages.  Try to choose a variety of plants that bloom during the different seasons.  Start with the spring bloomers, mix in some summer bloomers and finish with the fall bloomers.

Moving beyond hummingbird flowers, Purple Coneflower is a perennial frequented by butterflies, which later produces seeds loved by Goldfinches and other seed-eaters. Many of the sunflower-like annuals, such as cosmos and daisies, also have this same seed attraction. Being a gardener that loves birds will allow you to let those flowers go to seed especially at the end of the season. Say goodbye to deadheading. Watching a Goldfinch pluck seed from a spent flower is beauty itself.

Crabapples, particularly those with small fruits about 3/8" in diameter, is a favorite tree for both providing shade in a garden and attracting birds. Cedar Waxwings will eat some blossoms in April, then in May the trees provide excellent nest sites for Robins, and Cardinals. In fall, a good fruit crop, as occurs most years, will provide food for Waxwings, Mockingbirds, Robins and even Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers.

If you have several crabapples, some fruit will usually be left even into late winter to help birds feed in midwinter. American Dogwood is another good small native for food and nest sites. Red-eyed vireos love the red dogwood berries during their fall migration.

In the southwest some great plants would be brittlebush, prickly pear, red barberry, red bird of paradise, sunflower, cholla,  and Arizona grape.  Some great trees would be the palo verde, mesquite, desert hackberry, pomegranate and acacia.  All of these will not only provide food, but also nesting sites.  I have a cactus wren that builds a nest in a cane cholla each year.  That nest will never be bothered by predators.

Some great evergreens are Red Cedar and American Holly. Both are natives that provide food as well as shelter. Cedars have small green fruits eaten by Yellow-rumped warblers, while hollies have berries loved by waxwings and robins.  Junipers and  Arizona cypress are popular with the birds not only for the berries, but also nesting sites.

Groves of evergreens are usually best for maximum shelter from cold in the winter and for shade in the summer.  They also provide protection from predators.

Tall trees, are the last step to creating your bird habitat.  Of course not all habitats have the tall trees that I am about to mention.  Here in the desert, this type of tree is not something that is necessary.  Our habitat does not have native tall trees, so the birds won't expect that type of tree.  In the east, Tulip Poplars are excellent for foraging insect-eating warblers and vireos, and then in fall, they have a seed crop loved by finches including Evening Grosbeaks. Hickories are a good tree for migrating warblers in the fall, as are the tassels of White Oaks in the spring. When designing a bird garden, one important principle is to create an edge effect similar to the woodland edge. Look for nature to give you the clues you need to choose the plants for your yard.

Begin with low flowers, behind them set shrubs, then add small trees, and finally, if you have them, tall trees. This creates the most diverse habitat in the most compact space.

Now just add water for the birds (the fourth element of a great birding garden) and the flocks will flock to your yard.