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Helpful Gardeners: Support Migratory Birds

Autumn is a busy time for gardeners as we sow fall crops and finish the summer’s harvesting and preserving. It’s also a critical time for migratory birds. Many of these birds have spent their summers helping our gardens thrive. They’re the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds that pollinate our flowers, the Goldfinches that feed on weed seeds, and the Eastern Bluebirds flitting through the beds, snatching up pests. This fall, there are a few simple steps you can take to help support migratory species and ensure their population returns next season.

Common Migratory Birds in the Eastern United States

Bird migration varies over species. There are short-distance migrants that move to nearby areas with more food availability, often between low and high-elevation regions. In many places in the eastern United States, American Robins are short-distance migrants.

Medium-distance migrants will often fly south in the fall, just as far as they have to avoid extreme weather and food shortages. Often, these migrations are just a few hundred miles. The Eastern Towhee is a common medium-distance migrant. Those in the Northeast often fly to Virginia or a bit farther south in the winter. Individuals in the Southeast may not migrate at all. 

Long-distance migrants usually move to breeding grounds in the United States and Canada in the spring and return to wintering grounds in South and Central America in the fall. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are an excellent example of this migration. Most individuals leave North America in the fall and winter from Mexico to Costa Rica or Panama. 

Here are a few of the species you may spot moving through the Eastern United States in spring and fall:

  • Chipping Sparrows
  • Eastern Bluebirds
  • Eastern Towhees
  • Evening Grosbeaks
  • Field Sparrows
  • Goldfinches
  • Hermit Thrushes
  • House Finches
  • Indigo Buntings
  • Purple Finches
  • Ruby-crowned Kinglets
  • Ruby-throated Hummingbirds
  • Scarlet Tanager
  • Song Sparrows
  • Yellow-rumped Warblers
Female Ruby-throated Hummingbird visits a Red Cypress Vine flower
Female Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeding on Red Cypress Vine flower

How Can You Help Migratory Birds?

Migratory birds are struggling. In today’s rapidly changing world, these excellent garden helpers struggle to adapt and cope with climate change, habitat loss, pesticide use, light pollution, and collisions with vehicles, buildings, and other human-made structures.

While we can’t fix all of these issues, you can take a few simple steps to lend migratory birds a helping wing.

Go Lights Out for Birds

Light pollution doesn’t just affect stargazers and moths; it’s a severe threat to migratory birds. Bright light sources often disorient these birds, which typically migrate at night. Disoriented birds may hit buildings or waste energy and become exhausted and more susceptible to predation. 

Turn off exterior and decorative lighting. For essential outdoor lighting, switch to motion sensor lights or down-shield lighting to eliminate glare and upward-pointing light.

Turn off interior lighting at night, especially in higher-story buildings. Pull curtains at night to cover windows in areas where lighting is necessary or use task lighting. 

You can also get others involved by working to start an Audubon Lights Out Chapter in a  city near you.

Make Daytime Windows Safe

Many people have heard or seen a bird hit a window. They see the reflection in the glass and perceive it as a habitat they can fly into. Use glass paint, strings, screen, or film to break up these reflections and make them easier for birds to spot. Encouraging local businesses to create window murals can save birds from this fate.

Keep Feeders and Bird Baths Clean

Bird feeders can be especially helpful for migrating species like the Riby-throated Hummingbird that need all the energy they can get for a long journey. That said, it’s essential to keep them clean and sanitary. Especially during migration, hundreds of birds may visit a single feeder, which can spread disease if not kept clean. The same goes for bird baths. Dirty bird baths can spread diseases, contain harmful algae, or become breeding grounds for disease-carrying mosquitoes. 

Hold Off on Garden Clean-Up

Birds will probably enjoy your garden and yard better if you don’t keep it perfectly tidy. Leaving standing dead plants a little longer allows resting places for migratory birds to hide and search for insects as they journey south. This also applies to standing dead trees in forested areas on larger properties.

Indigo Bunting perched on Tansy Ragwort (migratory birds)
Indigo Bunting perched on Tansy Ragwort

Plan a Migratory Bird-Friendly Garden

As you plan for next year, think about birds as you plan your garden. Flowers like sunflowers, Black-eyed Susans, and echinacea provide great food for pollinators and seed-eating birds. Species like mulberries, chokecherries, elderberries, and serviceberries are also great options for feeding the birds without a feeder. Whenever you can, native plants are an excellent choice.

Varying the height and texture of plants in your garden can also make it more attractive to many small bird species, which will find places to hide and nest in dense shrubs and places to perch on taller trees and plants. 

Support Bird-Friendly Legislation

Legislators have the power to influence changes on a larger scale. Encourage local or state legislators to support legislation like the Federal Safe Buildings Act or other legislation focusing on sound farming practices. These issues can make a huge difference in protecting migratory bird species.

Avoid Using Pesticides and Other Chemicals

The most commonly used class of pesticides in the United States are called neonicotinoids or “neonics.” These systematic pesticides are fatal to insects and the birds that consume them. Other commonly used products like weed-killers 4-D and glyphosate (used in Roundup) can also harm birds and other wildlife.

Purchase Shade-Grown Coffee and Local, Organic Food When Possible

This step may be out of reach for many on tight budgets as food prices continue to rise. However, if it’s available to you, buying locally grown, organic food ensures you’re not supporting destructive farming practices like heavy pesticide applications and slash-and-burn agriculture. Shade-grown coffee leaves trees intact, providing critical habitat for birds that winter in South and Central America. 

Chipping Sparrow on a branch holding a twig (migratory birds)
Chipping Sparrow

Keep Your Cat Inside and Encourage Spay/Neuter Programs

It’s estimated that cats kill 2.6 billion birds in the United States and Canada each year. Keeping your cat indoors or building a “catio” can protect your cat from predators and save migratory birds. Spaying and Neutering are also critical for cats. It’s estimated that 110 million feral cats are now in the United States and Canada. These cats lead short, harsh lives and are thought to cause about 2/3 of the cat’ bird kills in the United States.

We may not be able to fix the world, but we can take small steps to improve it. Picking a few simple tasks off this list can lessen the stress on migratory birds this fall and help preserve them for generations to come. 

Planning a Bird-Friendly Garden

When we think of nature’s helpers in the garden, we often immediately think of bees and butterflies. We tend to overlook birds, but they’re just as helpful to have around. Songbirds like Cardinals, Bluebirds, and Chickadees feed on various garden pests, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds pollinate flowers, and larger birds like Barn Owls and Kestrels feed on voles, mice, and other rodents that can damage your garden. 

Sadly, many bird species are declining. They’re facing the effects of climate change, habitat loss, and pollution. Providing a bird-friendly garden can help your garden be more productive while giving these incredible creatures a helping hand. Here’s how you can plan a bird-friendly garden for next year.


You might think that birds wouldn’t care about the layout of a garden, but they do! To start with, you generally want to avoid large open expanses. Songbirds are more likely to visit your garden if you add elements of height and cover. These could be shrubs and fruit trees as well as taller patches of annuals and perennials like sunflowers, Joe-Pye Weed, delphiniums, and hollyhocks. 

The exception to this is openings beneath large trees. These can be great spots for owls and hawks to hunt. They’ll perch in trees on the edges of clearings waiting to swoop down on unsuspecting prey. 

Think about creating a bird-friendly garden with patches of different layers. The tallest layer would be mature trees, followed by shorter trees and shrubs and vining plants like grapes or native Trumpet Honeysuckle on large trellises. Next are herbaceous plants like many of the annual vegetable crops, herbs, and flowers we grow, and last is the bottom layer of mulch like straw hay, wood chips, or decaying leaves. These layers provide habitat for perching, nesting, hunting and foraging, and cover from predators. 

Selecting Plants

The best thing you can do when adding plants for a bird-friendly garden is to select as many native species as possible. These are the plants that birds and their prey are well-adapted to using. They’re also generally low-maintenance and tolerant of local conditions.

If you can add trees to your property, they can help birds and other wildlife. Some great options include native hickories and beeches, which provide protein-rich food for birds like Blue Jays and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. Native cherries and dogwood are also excellent choices because they produce berries that are favorites for many songbirds. Just be sure to research what will do well in your area. A local field guide to native trees or chatting with your county extension agency can be helpful.

Patches of dense, twiggy shrubs, small trees, or hedges are great places for songbirds to seek cover and nest. Native options like Eastern Red Cedar, Southern Arrowwood, and willows work well. Those that do double duty by providing fruit for you and the birds are also great options. Consider raspberries, elderberries, or mulberries.

Herbaceous plants provide seeds for birds, nectar for hummingbirds, and habitat for insects that birds feed on. Great native choices include rudbeckia, echinacea, bergamot, butterfly weed, goldenrod, and coreopsis. You can also help birds by allowing any bolting lettuces to go to seed. Their little seeds are a favorite of species like Goldfinches. Take a look at plants bloom times and plan a garden with something blooming all season.

Other Additions for a Bird-Friendly Garden

Water Features

Birds are also attracted to water sources. Providing a spot in your garden where they can drink, and bath can make your garden much more attractive. Birdbaths are a decent option, but moving water can be more enticing. Consider a birdbath with a bubbler or a fountain. It’s critical to keep this water clean. You may also want to add a partially submerged stone to allow bees and other insects to get water without drowning.  


While they’re unnecessary for all bird species, birdhouses can help attract cavity nesters. Don’t just grab the first birdhouse you see, though. It’s best if you start by considering what species of bird you’d like to attract. Specific species have specific nesting requirements. Houses may need to be a certain size, a certain distance apart, or hung at a particular height. 

Bluebirds are an excellent choice because they’re helpful in the garden and have lost nesting habitat to invasive starlings. You can make or purchase bluebird houses with a hole that’s 1 1/2 inches in diameter to allow bluebirds in but exclude larger starlings. If you struggle with rodents, you may want to add a larger house with a 5-inch diameter entrance to attract barn owls. 

What to Avoid

  • Don’t use pesticides in your garden. These chemicals harm species like birds, toads, and predatory insects that naturally keep pests in check. Using them can make pest pressure worse over time. Even organic, low-impact products should be used sparingly. 
  • Leave the leaves! Dead organic matter like leaves and small twigs is great for your plants and birds. They provide habitats for worms, pupae, and insects that are essential food sources for baby birds. 
  • Keep natural areas. While not all gardeners have the space, if you have some natural areas let them remain untouched. Leave standing dead trees which make excellent nesting sites. Resist the urge to clean up fallen trees, limbs, and brush. These provide habitat for birds and insects and eventually rot down, adding organic matter back to the soil. 
  • Don’t clean up all your dead plants. We discussed this more extensively in our post, Wildlife-Friendly Garden: Fall Clean-Up, but leaving some dead plant material through the winter is important. Many flowers like echinacea and sunflowers hold seeds for birds, and the stalks may be home to overwintering insects that birds will feed on during the winter. When all the annuals have died back, these standing dead plants provide perches.

More Articles

Check out a couple of our other bird articles: