Yellow Warbler in a native willow tree. Photo: Keith Williams/Flickr CC (BY-NC 2.0)

Native Plants

A Guide to Luring Warblers, Tanagers, Orioles, and Grosbeaks to Your Yard

A birder's run-in with unexpected warblers taught him how migratory songbirds use native trees and plants.

One Saturday morning in 1983, when I was a bird-crazy teenager living in the suburbs of southeastern Pennsylvania, I made a life-changing discovery. That May morning, an unfamiliar three-part trill outside my window jerked me awake. My heart racing, I threw on some clothes, grabbed my binoculars, and bounded outside. There, atop a tall black tupelo tree, I spotted my first-ever Tennessee Warbler.

This unexpected sighting, right in our yard, astonished me. I listened hard; what else was out there? I ventured into the woods behind our house, and ended up trespassing—just a bit—onto a neighbor’s property. This off-limits section of forest always seemed like a secret woodland shrine to me, with its towering oaks and quiet, leaf-strewn floor. As I peered into the canopy, I spotted a number of tiny songbirds flitting about, way up there in the sunshine. Luckily, a few species dropped lower. I spotted my first Bay-breasted Warbler that day, along with another thrilling first: a singing, eye-level Prothonotary Warbler.

Decades later, I now realize that I had been fortunate enough to encounter a "fallout." It's a phenomenon that occurs when weather patterns stop worn-out migrating songbirds in their tracks, and they descend en masse. Living in New York City, I've learned to keep my early May calendar as clear as possible, allowing for a mad race to Central Park if I hear such a miracle has occurred. From guiding bird walks in the park, I’ve also learned to count on oaks—the same trees that grew in my neighbor’s forest—to find warblers, vireos, grosbeaks, tanagers, and orioles during spring migration. Why? It's simple: Oaks are full of bugs, and those bugs make up the majority of most songbirds’ diets in spring and summer.

In addition to oaks, there are many other plant species that provide migrating birds with insects and other critical resources, both in spring and fall. Here’s a quick rundown of native plants you can grow to attract—or, if you don’t have the space, use to find—some of your favorite migrants. Use our native plants database to identify the best plants for your area.

Warblers and Vireos

Red-eyed Vireo in burr oak. Photo: Putneypics/Flickr CC (BY-NC 2.0)

Oaks are big attractors of spring-migrating warblers, as well as cryptic vireos and many other songbirds. According to the pivotal work of entomologist Douglas Tallamy, oak trees host more than 550 species of butterfly and moth caterpillars—essential fodder for both migrating and nesting birds. The bugs don’t stop there. Oaks host hundreds of other arthropod species that birds love, including ants, bees, beetles, aphids, sawflies, and leafhoppers.

Other tree species are important insect hosts, too: Willows, poplars, and birches are songbird favorites. Spruces host the spruce budworm, a treat that might bring coveted Cape May Warblers flocking.

A related tree tip: If you have woods, leave the trees where they fall. Termites overwinter in fallen wood and debris, and on a warm spring day, a termite "hatch-out" may provide close-up views of warblers as they gorge themselves on the freshly hatched critters.

Orioles

Hooded Oriole in ocotillo. Photo: Virginia Short/Audubon Photography Awards

When it comes to orioles, cottonwoods are king, followed closely by willows, sycamores, and maples. These tree species provide not only the insects that orioles seek, but also the long branches the species prefer for weaving their nests, should you be so lucky to have orioles stay and breed.

Orioles enjoy a diverse diet: They also love nectar, particularly from sturdy flowers they can perch on. In the West, Hooded or Bullock’s Orioles may visit agave and ocotillo, while in the East, Baltimore and Orchard Orioles feed from trumpet creeper or coral honeysuckle vines. And all orioles adore fruit—particularly dark, ripe fruit. Mulberries and grapes are bonafide favorites.

Finally, if you plant milkweed, an oriole pair may use fibers from the stems and seed pods of this important monarch butterfly host plant to weave their nest. 

<<Don't Forget! Get your yard ready for spring migrants by growing native plants. Just type your zipcode into our handy database to discover which native plants in your area will attract certain types of birds.>>

Tanagers

Western Tanager in Douglas fir. Photo: Timothy Lenahan/Audubon Photography Awards

During spring and summer, tanagers are insect specialists. They're experts at harvesting bugs from leaves, branches, and trunks, and are particularly adept at catching bees in mid-air. Cherry and plum trees not only host over 450 caterpillar species for these bug lovers, but they also provide rich fruit, which tanagers increasingly rely on as summer turns to fall.

Western Tanagers also frequent evergreen trees such as Douglas fir and pines, which they prefer for nesting habitat. While eastern Scarlet and Summer Tanagers prefer large mixed woodlands for breeding, like their western cousins, they will often stop in smaller parks and gardens during migration to fuel up. Serviceberries are another favorite; the shrub's sweet fruit attracts all tanager species. 

Grosbeaks

Evening Grosbeak in sugar maple. Photo: Putneypics/Flickr CC (BY-NC 2.0)

Eastern and Midwestern birders are familiar with the chink! call of the Rose-breasted Grosbeak, a striking species that's often heard but rarely seen as it forages for insects at the very tip top of an oak or beech tree. Both the Rose-breasted and closely related Black-headed Grosbeak consume great quantities of insects in spring and fall, and add fruit to their diets as the year goes on. Elderberries, blackberries, and crabapples are all favorites.

If you live in areas where Evening or Pine Grosbeaks might visit, these birds feast on much of the same fare while also feeding on the seeds and/or leaf buds of oaks, maples, box-elders, and elms. All grosbeaks also seek out the seeds of sunflowers and other garden plants. 

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