Barbara W. Ellis: 10 Tips for Attracting Birds to Your Landscape

ellis_chesapeakeWe welcome to the blog today a guest post by Barbara W. Ellis, author of, Chesapeake Gardening and Landscaping: The Essential Green Guide. What if, one step at a time, we could make our gardens and landscapes more eco-friendly? Ellis’s colorful, comprehensive guide shows homeowners, gardeners, garden designers, and landscapers how to do just that for the large and beautiful Chesapeake Bay watershed region. This area includes Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, Washington, D.C., and part of West Virginia (translating to portions of USDA Zones 6, 7, and 8). Here, mid-Atlantic gardeners, from beginners to advanced, will find the essential tools for taking steps to make their gardens part of the solution through long-term planning and planting.

In a previous post, Ellis describes some simple ways gardeners can transform landscapes into eco-friendly environments. In today’s post, Ellis shares a variety of tips on how to develop your own bird-friendly garden or yard. Check out her blog, Eastern Shore Gardener, for more gardening information. 


Feeders are just one option for attracting birds to your yard. The way landscape plantings are arranged, the plants you grow, and the gardening techniques you use all play roles in encouraging birds to make a home in your backyard.

Use the ten tips below to welcome a wider variety of birds to your landscape. You will find more information on attracting birds and other wildlife, including lists of recommended native plants, and plants that attract hummingbirds, in Chesapeake Gardening and Landscaping: The Essential Green Guide.

1. Offer the basics.

Like all creatures, birds need food—primarily insects, seeds, and berries—as well as access to water, cover, and nesting sites to survive and raise families. To attract more birds to your landscape, focus on providing all of these elements.

2. Group your plants.

This is a design choice that creates both cover and nesting sites. Instead of planting solitary trees surrounded by lawn, plant groups of trees underplanted with shrubs, ground covers, and other plants to create island beds or shrub borders.

Shrub borders underplanted with perennials and ground covers add texture, color, interest, and wildlife habitat to any landscape.

3. Cultivate native plants.

Scientists have found that native plants support many more insects than non-native plants do. This may seem like a bad thing, but it isn’t. Insects are a vital food source for a great many birds, especially when they are raising young. If you can do one thing to support backyard birds, plant a native oak tree (Quercus spp.) because of the many native insects these trees support. Insect-eaters include wrens, bluebirds, phoebes, chickadees, titmice, and many warblers.

4. Grow berries.

In summer, a wide variety of birds include berries as part of a diet that also includes insects and other foods. Berry-bearing shrubs such as viburnums (Viburnum spp.) and trees such as flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) produce fruit that attracts a wide variety of species. Plants that hold their berries into fall and winter are vital for birds fueling up for migration and for overwintering species. Consider planting hollies (Ilex spp.), red cedars (Juniperus virginiana), and bayberries (Morella spp., formerly Myrica spp.) to provide food for these species.

5. Raise plants for flowers and seeds.

Sparrows, goldfinches, and many other species will feast on seedheads of popular perennials such as coneflowers (Echinacea spp. and Rudbeckia spp.), sunflowers (Helianthus spp.), and many more. Instead of clipping off blooms as soon as they fade, leave some to produce seeds for birds.

A zebra swallowtail and meadow fritillary visit native butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), also a vital species for monarch butterflies. Seeds that yield more plants and feed birds follow the flowers.
A zebra swallowtail and meadow fritillary visit native butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), also a vital species for monarch butterflies. Seeds that yield more plants and feed birds follow the flowers.

6. Leave leaf litter.

The leaves that cover the ground in a forest shelter a great many insects, insect eggs, seeds, and other edibles relished by birds and other wildlife. Instead of raking leaves to the curb for disposal, use them to mulch the garden and wild areas. Towhees and many sparrows commonly scratch in leaf litter looking for food.

7. Provide winter cover.

In winter, native evergreen trees provide important protection from the elements for birds. Plant native evergreens such as white pine (Pinus strobus), American holly (Ilex opaca), southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), and red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) to create areas of winter cover.

Evergreens such as red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) shelter birds from winter weather and provide seeds for sustenance.
Evergreens such as red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) shelter birds from winter weather and provide seeds for sustenance.

8. Think before you spray.

Insects are the primary food parents feed baby birds. This alone is reason enough to reduce the use of pesticides—and to celebrate the presence of insects in our gardens. The vast majority of species you see are either benign or beneficial and do not need to be controlled. If insects are threatening a crop or favorite plant, identify the culprit and ask at a local nursery or garden center for an environmentally safe control.

9. Offer safe water.

Birds prefer shallow water, ideally from 1 to 2 inches deep. Birdbaths are a fine source, provided they are scrubbed out daily so the water remains clean. Birds also will visit shallow water in a pond or other water feature. Keep cats indoors to protect the local bird population. Make sure to keep water sources clear of plantings to prevent cats or other predators from hiding and ambushing bathing birds.

10. Adopt rough edges.

All manner of wild areas attract birds, and leaving wild patches as they are benefits local wildlife. Avoid clearing away brush unnecessarily simply to create more smooth space to mow. Allow some areas of lawn to grow up and set seed, or replace a large section with a wildflower meadow. Encourage native undergrowth under clump of trees. Even waiting until spring to cut back perennials provides places for overwintering birds to forage for seeds and insect eggs.

Former managing editor of gardening books at Rodale Press and publications director at the American Horticultural Society, Barbara W. Ellis is the author of Covering Ground: Unexpected Ideas for Landscaping with Colorful, Low-Maintenance Ground Covers, among other books. Her book Chesapeake Gardening and Landscaping: The Essential Green Guide is now available. Read her previous post, “6 Tips for Creating an Eco-Friendly Landscape.”