Here’s How to Landscape for Backyard Birds
Attract winged visitors to your yard and enjoy the sweet chirps of nature.
Like people, birds need food, water and shelter to survive. Incorporating the right plants to meet those needs into your home landscape will attract these winged visitors to your yard.
Why should you want birds to visit?
There are several reasons: They help with pest control in the garden, eating bugs and worms that can damage your plants.
They eat seeds, including weed seeds that would otherwise germinate and pop up in your garden. Large birds, such as owls and hawks, eat rodents and help control their population.
And birds are beautiful to watch and hear.
Jody Walthall, co-owner of Native Nurseries and a recognized authority in landscaping to attract birds, said the most important thing to remember is to use native plants.
“Native plants will attract native insects, which are the best bird food,” he said. “Human beings tend to think of berries as bird food, and they are for adults, but no mother bird has ever fed her babies berries.”
That doesn’t mean you have to rip out all your non-natives and start from scratch, but it does mean you need to add natives if you don’t have them, and add more if you already have them. Different trees and shrubs attract different insects, and birds have their favorite “flavors” of insects.
For example, catbirds and cardinals enjoy the insects that Bluestem Palmetto attracts.
The insects on wax myrtles and native hollies — including American holly, Yaupon holly and Dahoon holly — attract yellow-rumped warblers and ruby-crowned kinglets. These migratory birds will spend the winter with you if you make them comfortable, then head back north for nesting.
Wild azaleas, which are native to our area, are a favorite of hummingbirds, and native varieties of blueberries provide habitat for insects and berries for birds and humans alike. Walthall recommends Elliotts or Highbush blueberries.
Both Walthall and Mark Tancig, the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences’ Leon County horticulture extension agent, said planting in layers is important to create habitats and food sources for a variety of birds.
“Different bird species utilize different heights, and we need to create niche habitats for them,” Tancig said. “Brown thrashers and wrens tend to stay low; chickadees and cardinals like the medium height; owl and hawks like to go high.”
A diversity of plantings will attract a greater diversity of insects, which in turn attracts a greater diversity of birds.
Diverse plantings also provide diversity in nesting materials.
Walthall referenced Douglas Tallemy’s book, Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife With Native Plants, when talking about the vast quantities of insects big shade trees provide. “Oaks harbor 534 different species of insects for the whole country,” he said.
Among the smaller trees Walthall recommends are dogwoods, Grancy Greybeards, also known as fringe trees, and sassafras. Each produces berries in addition to attracting insects.
There are some shrubs that should be avoided, even though they do produce berries.
Coral ardisia was once a common landscape plant, valued for shiny leaves and red berries, but it is not native and has become invasive here.
Eleagnus pungens, commonly known as silverthorn, is both non-native and invasive, too. If you’re in doubt about a plant, check solutionsforyourlife.ufl.edu/natural-resources/sustainability-invasive-species/.
Just as invasive non-natives should be avoided, so should the use of pesticides and herbicides in areas where you want birds to feed.
Be sure to provide water for drinking and bathing, both at ground level and in raised containers such as birdbaths. Remember that different birds are more comfortable at different heights.
What about bird feeders?
“Birds that live out of town survive just fine without them,” Walthall said. “They are strictly for our enjoyment.”