Every fall quaking aspen groves light up in yellows and oranges, beckoning tourists, mountain goats, and various birds. The thin leaves of this species tremble with the slightest wind, lending to both its common and scientific (Populus tremuloides) names. Photo: Michael S. Lewis/National Geographic Creative

Plants for Birds

Native Trees With Incredible Fall Foliage—and the Birds That Love Them

These stunners make the world better for people and wildlife alike.

Autumn simply can’t be beat. It’s tiny-donut season, pretend-you’re-a-lumberjack season, hawkwatch season, baseball postseason, and, of course, leaf-peeping season. Now that the foliage is finally turning, we get to indulge in fiery-topped trees and landscapes for the next several weeks.

But trees provide more than just eye candy: Native species especially help foster entire ecosystems by sheltering and feeding wildlife. Oaks, for example, can host hundreds of types of caterpillars in spring and summer, which are crucial to nesting birds’ diets. Then, come autumn, oak leaves carpet lawns, streets, and forest floors, offering cushy foraging grounds for animals and fertilizer for next year’s plants. The trees also drop their tasty acorns, beloved by fowl, jays, chickadees, and Acorn Woodpeckers.

The fact is, the splendors of fall just wouldn’t be the same without native trees. Here are some stunners to appreciate, both for their generosity and darn good looks. And when you're done, be sure to check out our native plants database to find the best trees and shrubs for birds in your area. 

Quaking Aspen

An autumnal favorite out West, these lanky trees (shown in the top photo) grow in tight-knit stands, maximizing the goldness of their leaves. The gilded groves are a welcome oasis for elk, beavers, and porcupines, which munch on the bark, twigs, and understory, as well as breeding and insect-eating birds. Plus, the trees are evolutionary wonders: They can clone themselves by sprouting saplings through their roots, photosynthesize in winter, and survive extreme temperatures ranging from -78°F to 103°F.

Instagram-worthy spots: Cibola National Forest in New Mexico, Pando (Trembling Giant) in Utah, Aspen Mountain in Wyoming 

Birds that love them: Dusky Grouse, Pine Siskin, Western Wood-Pewee, Sandhill Crane, Black-headed Grosbeak

Sources: National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service

Sugar Maple 

American Goldfinch lounging in a sugar maple. Photo: Putneypics/Flickr CC (BY-NC 2.0)

This is the tree behind the sweetness of maple syrup, but it has a wider array of benefits for people, including lumber and scrap wood for musical instruments and bowling pins. Its range covers most of the eastern United States and Canada, making it a common urban and suburban species. And because of its dominant presence in forests, the species harbors numerous insects (native and invasive), squirrels, and cavity-nesting birds.

Instagram-worthy spots: Most anywhere in Vermont and Quebec, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan, Tioga State Forest in Pennsylvania

Birds that love them: Eastern Screech-Owl, Northern Flicker, Black-capped Chickadee, European Starling, American Goldfinch

Sources: U.S. Forest Service; National Audubon Society

Black Gum

With some of the brightest leaves in the forest, black gum is a seasonal favorite. Photo: Katja Schulz/Flickr CC (BY 2.0)

Also known as black tupelo or sourgum, the species occupies a broad stretch of land east of the Mississippi River, as well as parts of Ontario and Mexico. The tree produces tiny white flowers and bluish-purple berries, which attract bees, deer, and a number of birds. Every fall its leaves turn into a kaleidoscope of red, orange, yellow, and even purple—a feature that many gardeners like for their own landscaping. Some varieties can withstand wildfires; others are adapted to swampy conditions.

Instagram-worthy spots: Catskill Mountains in New York, Fox State Forest in New Hampshire, Ferry Beach State Park in Maine

Birds that love them: Brown Thrasher, Wild Turkey, Wood Duck, Pileated Woodpecker, Baltimore Oriole

Sources: U.S. Forest Service, Trees of Pennsylvania

American Beech 

American beech (front right) in full autumnal display. Photo: Raymond Gehman/National Geographic Creative

Broad, tall, and long-lived, beeches are the matriarchs of North American forests. They’re a staple hardwood species, found along the Appalachians and the Great Lakes, that slowly take over the canopy as they age. They’re also machines when it comes to producing seeds: An acre of old-growth trees can yield more than 1,400 pounds of beechnuts in a fruiting season. The nuts, in turn, are converted to oils, occasionally coffee, and bird food.

Instagram-worthy spots: Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia, Hutcheson Memorial Forest in New Jersey (restricted to public), Morton Arboretum in Illinois

Birds that love them: White-breasted Nuthatch, Worm-eating Warbler, Blue Jay, Purple Finch, Passenger Pigeon (a long time ago)

Sources: U.S. Forest Service, Woody Plant Seed Manual, Illinois WildlflowersAudubon magazine

Mapleleaf Viburnum 

Mapleleaf viburnum ranges from burgundy to pale yellow in fall. Photo: Matt Jones/NatureServe/Flickr CC (BY-NC 2.0)

Okay, this one’s a bit of a cheat because it’s a shrub and not a true tree. But it grows well among midwestern and eastern trees, thriving in shady, moist soils under beeches and maples. Because of its tendency to grow in dense patches, it’s a magnet for animals looking to nest or take cover. Additionally, its fruit clusters draw moose, mice, and skunks, and its regal purple leaves make it a favorite among homeowners in fall.

Instagram-worthy spots: Beardsley State Park in Connecticut, Apalachicola National Forest in Florida, Arlington House Woodlands in Virginia

Birds that love them: Ring-necked Pheasant, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Cedar Waxwing, American Robin, Gray Catbird

Sources: U.S. Forest Service, USDA

Oregon White Oak 

Oregon white oaks mixed in with a pine stand. Photo: Danita Delimont/Alamy

Members of this species can live up to 500 years, which makes it even more ancient than the American Beech. It's one of many oaks native to the western half of the country, growing across valleys from Central California to Vancouver Island. The trees establish themselves after wildfires, and are great at persisting during drought and frost. They also have some of the biggest acorns in North America: more than an inch across at max, with November being the prime harvesting month.

Instagram-worthy spots: Cascade Mountain Range in the Pacific Northwest, Redwood National Park in California, Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in Oregon and California

Birds that love them: Lewis’s Woodpecker, Steller’s Jays, Band-tailed Pigeon, Western Tanager, Chipping Sparrow

Sources: Oregon State University, Birds of North America, U.S. Forest Service

Shagbark Hickory 

Shagbark hickory leaves just starting their autumnal transition to gold. Photo: Katja Schulz/Flickr CC (BY 2.0)

These nutty trees populate most eastern U.S. regions, save for sections near the Gulf Coast and Mississippi Delta. Their seeds are perhaps their biggest selling point to wildlife: The walnut-like kernels are an important fat and protein source for everything from black bears and foxes to waterfowl and game birds. The species is slow-growing—and slow-burning, too, which makes it an efficient source of fuel. But best of all, it lives up to its name, with a textured, uncombed skin that’s tougher than it looks.

Instagram-worthy spots: Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri, Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio, Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway in Illinois

Birds that love them: Mallard, Northern Bobwhite, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Common Crow, Brown Creeper

Sources: U.S. Forest Service, Illinois Wildflowers

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You can help! Native plants provide the food and shelter birds need now and in the future. To learn more about why native plants are important, visit our Plants for Birds page. And to find the best bird-friendly plants in your area, simply type your zipcode into our native plants database

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