Tag Archives: hummingbirds

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.

Layout

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.  

Houses

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:

5 Birds Native to the Eastern U.S. To Attract to Your Garden


It’s hard not to love the birds that visit our yards and gardens. We love them for their beauty, their cheerful melodies, and because they’re a joy to watch. Many birds can also help you have a more productive garden. These are five of the many species native to the eastern U.S. that play important ecological roles in the garden.

Eastern Bluebirds

These stunning little beauties (seen above) are workhorses in the garden! They are heavy feeders, especially during the nesting season. Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) eat a variety of insects that would otherwise be feeding on your plants. They can be found throughout much of the Eastern U.S. year-round in woodlands, farmlands, and orchards.

Populations of Eastern Bluebirds have seen severe declines primarily due to competition with House Sparrows and Starlings for nesting sites. To attract them to your garden and give them a helping hand, you can create or purchase Blue-bird specific nest boxes. These nest boxes should have an entrance hole 1.5 inches in diameter. This size is large enough for the Eastern Bluebird but too small for many other species. 

You can also make your garden more attractive to them by adding a birdbath or other clean water source. Additionally, you can stock feeders with mealworms and plant sumac or elderberry, providing some of their favorite meals. 

Hear the Eastern Bluebird here.

House Wren (Troglodytes aedon)

House Wrens

Odds are you’ve seen a House Wren. They earned their name from their tendency to nest around human homes or in backyard birdhouses. While they lack the Bluebird’s vibrant colors, their cheerful personality and beautiful, bubbling song makes them just as fun to have around. 

During the spring and summer, you can find House Wrens throughout most of the eastern United States. They can be found year-round in parts of South Carolina and farther south. They feed on a wide range of insects, including moths, caterpillars, beetles, flies, and other troublesome pests!

As cavity nesters, House Wrens will use a variety of human-made birdhouses. You can upcycle old watering cans or scrap wood into suitable wren houses. You can also help them feel more comfortable in your garden and yard by planting dense shrubs or leaving some thick natural areas for them to use as shelter. If you have woodlands, leaving standing dead trees also helps make more natural cavities available for them and other birds.

You can hear the House Wren here

Eastern Phobebe (Sayornis phoebe)

Eastern Phoebes

You may already be able to recognize these birds by the call they’re named for, which sounds like “fee-be.” They also have the adorable habit of bobbing their tails when perched. Like the House Wren, they spend at least the spring and summer in most of the eastern United States and may also be seen year-round in the Southeast. They are some of the earliest birds to move north each spring. They’re common in woodlands, farmlands, and suburbs and are often spotted nesting under bridges and in eaves and rafters.

Phoebes are members of the family of birds known as the “flycatchers.” They catch most of their meals out of midair, feeding on flies, wasps, beetles, and other insects. They will also hover to grab bugs off foliage or drop to the ground to quickly grab an insect.

Eastern Phoebes are in decline in much of their summer range. You can help preserve this species and invite them to your garden by building appropriate nest boxes. You can find plans here. Be sure to get boxes up early! They also eat berries, so planting a few sumacs or elderberries can help attract them.

You can hear the Eastern Phoebe here.

Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus)

Chickadees

Three different species of Chickadee call the eastern United States home. The Boreal Chickadee (Poecile hudsonicus) is only found in northern New England and into Canada though it has occasionally been spotted farther south. The Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) is found in the mountains of West Virginia and farther north, while the Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) is found in southern Pennsylvania down to the middle of Florida. 

All of these species are omnivorous and will feed on insects throughout the year. Having them around can help keep pest populations low. They’ll hunt insects in your garden during the summer and find them in bark and dead plant material in the winter.

Thankfully chickadees are easy to attract to your yard. They’ll visit clean birdbaths and other water sources. Planting berry bushes like elderberries and seed crops like sunflowers are great ways to provide food for them. They’ll also readily visit feeders and particularly enjoy sunflower seeds, suet, and peanut butter. You can also help provide chickadees with protection from wind, rain, and snow by planting evergreen shrubs and other dense plants.  

Hear the Boreal Chickadee, Black-capped Chickadee, or the Carolina Chickadee by clicking their name.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris)

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Of course, I couldn’t leave the Ruby-throated Hummingbird off this list. They’re stunning, will help pollinate your plants, and eat various small soft-bodied insects, including gnats, aphids, fruit flies, and tiny spiders. The Ruby-throated Hummingbird can be found throughout the eastern United States during the summer and year-round in parts of Florida. They’re commonly seen in gardens and woodland edges.

You can attract these hummingbirds by putting up feeders or planting tubular or trumpet-shaped flowers. If you decide to use a feeder, you should use appropriate food (no red dye!) and clean the feeder often. You can find great information about feeding hummingbirds in this Audubon Society article. Great flowers to plant for these birds include cardinal flowers, sunflowers, bee balm, echinacea (coneflower), Jewelweed, Milkweed, and Fuchsia. You can also add flowering trees such as Flowering Dogwood or Crabapples to your yard.  

You can hear the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird here.

Tips for All Birds

One of the best things you can for any bird species is to stop using pesticides in your garden. Pesticides can make birds sick when they consume insects that have come into contact with these chemicals. 

You can also leave a few wild areas. Sometimes the “untidy” areas of your yard or woodland are the best for sheltering and feeding small birds. Keep this in mind when you have the urge to clear brush, dead trees, and dead plant material.

Lastly, you should plant native species. Native flowers, trees, and other plants help provide habitat and food for a wide variety of native birds.

Planting for Hummingbirds

In the past we’ve discussed the basics of pollinator gardens, planting for Black Swallowtail Butterflies, and 5 butterflies common to the Mid-Atlantic and how to support them. We’ve also covered 10 beneficial birds and how to attract them. However, a Facebook follower recently pointed out we haven’t done a post about hummingbirds! So without further adieu, here’s what you should know about planting for hummingbirds.

Hummingbird Species

If you live in the Eastern U.S., the hummingbirds you see are likely to be Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. Occasionally, Black-chinned Hummingbirds and Rufous Hummingbirds are seen during the winter, primarily in the Deep South.

A great resource for bird lovers is The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Macaulay Library. You can find photos, videos, and audio recordings of birds from all over.

Habitat and Diet

Hummingbirds spend a lot of their time in open woodlands but they’re easily tempted into yards and gardens with flowers and feeders. You can make your garden and yard more appealing by avoiding large, open areas. Birds prefer to have shelter in the form of clusters of trees, shrubs, or even vines on harbors. They also prefer a varied garden. Opt for plants in a variety of heights. Hummingbirds migrate to Mexico and South America each winter.

Hummingbirds are pollinators and are known for their habit of eating nectar and sap. They may also help keep pests down in your garden too. Hummingbirds are omnivores and sometimes feed on small insects and spiders. They need to eat about twice their body weight per day due to their high metabolism which helps them sustain their rapid wing beats. Check out this bird feeder that spins squirrels to avoid them from stealing their food.

Keeping your lawn and garden free of chemicals like insecticides helps keep hummingbirds and other important wildlife healthy.

Flowers

Hummingbirds tend to have a preference for long, tubular flowers that hold a lot of nectar. They also rely heavily on sight to find flowers so those that are brightly colored are excellent choices. It should be noted that though they love the color red you shouldn’t buy or make red “hummingbird food.” Red dyes and food coloring are harmful to hummingbirds.

Here are a few great choices:

They’ll also visit flowering shrubs, vines, and trees like Honeysuckle, Cardinal Vine, Rhododendron, and Butterfly Bush.

Having flowers available in the fall can be especially helpful as hummingbirds prepare to migrate. They sometimes double their weight in preparation for their long flight south! Take a look at blooming times and opt for long-blooming varieties or experiment with multiple successions of annuals.