Birds are nature’s messengers, and they're broadcasting loud and clear: They are already experiencing the devastating impacts of climate change, and this danger will only grow over time.
One of the best ways to help birds thrive is to make sure your yard is bird-friendly. By following the steps below, you can create a patch of habitat that attracts colorful birds, sweet melodies, and vibrant colors. If you don’t have a yard, you can still help birds by creating a native plant container garden on your patio or balcony.
The secret to success lies in choosing locally native plants, which brim with nutritious insects, berries, nectar, and seeds to give birds vital food and refuge.
1. Choosing Native Plants
Choose native plants that are adapted to your particular growing conditions, such as the amount of sunlight or shade, the type of soil, and the amount of precipitation the site receives. Search our native plants database for listings of the best bird- and wildlife-friendly plants for your area, as well as a list of native plant nurseries and other resources near you.
Focus on native plants that support the highest variety and quantity of bird food.
- Native trees such as oaks, willows, birches, and maples, and native herbaceous plants such as goldenrod, milkweed, and asters host numerous caterpillar species that are a vital source of protein for birds, especially during the breeding season.
- Red tubular flowers such as native columbine, penstemon, and honeysuckle serve up nectar for hummingbirds.
- Native sunflowers, asters, and coneflowers produce seeds for songbirds.
- Berries ripen at different times, so include seasonal variety: serviceberry and cherry for birds during the breeding season and summer; dogwood and spicebush for songbirds flying south; cedar and holly trees to sustain birds through cold winter days and nights.
- Search our native plants database for listings of the best bird- and wildlife-friendly plants for your area, as well as a list of native plant nurseries and other resources near you. (You can also check out a few suggestions for native plants native to North America—but remember to find out what’s native to your particular area.)
Plan for a variety of shapes, sizes, and kinds of plants to give vertical structure to your garden and add cover for our feathered friends.
- Cluster the same plant species together in groups or masses.
- Things about height: Place taller plants towards the back of your borders, with lower-growing species at the edges of paths or lawn.
- Leave some room: Pay attention to each species' stated dimensions when full grown, so plants aren't too crowded together.
- Design for color palettes and continuous blooming throughout the gardening season.
- Add habitat features like hollowed boulders that catch rainwater for birds to drink and bathe in.
3. Preparing your garden
Prepare your garden well to save headaches later. If your site currently has turf grass or invasive plants, you will need to remove these, and you may want to enrich your soil by adding organic compost. An easy method is to lay down newspaper at least six sheets deep, with plenty of overlap; wet it down; cover it with 4 to 6 inches of mulch; and let it sit until you are ready to plant. Use deep edging—putting some sort of barrier (steel or plastic edging) that goes into the ground to separate the native plant area from the lawn area—to keep out lawn grass.
Plant in spring or fall and on cooler days. Follow planting instructions carefully and get tips on mulching around plants from the plant nursery or gardening center. Water as needed while young plants are becoming established and adapting to their new habitat.
5. Caring for Your Garden
Steward your native plant garden with tender loving care.
- Remove non-native and invasive weeds.
- Don't rake: Let fallen leaves and woody debris serve as a natural mulch; this will reduce unwanted weed growth, keep your plants' roots cool and moist, and provide areas for birds to forage for ground-dwelling insects.
- Enhance your garden area with brush piles that provide shelter for birds and other wildlife.
- Leave the seeds: Don't "dead-head" all of your flowering plants after they bloom, as those seedheads can be an important source of food during the fall and winter.
- In forested areas, leave dead trees and branches. Standing trees may provide homes for woodpeckers, chickadees, and other cavity-nesting species--while fallen trunks and branches support the entire forest food web.
Check out more tips from the native plant master Doug Tallamy in Bringing Nature Home.
Remember, what's good for birds is also good for people. Here are some possible impacts of your native plant garden:
532: Varieties of butterflies and moths supported by native oak trees, as compared to only 5 butterfly and moth species supported by non-native ginkgo trees.
96: Percentage of land birds that rely on insects to feed chicks.
1,200: Number of crops that depend on pollinators to grow.
40 million: Acres of lawn in the U.S. currently.
80 million: Pounds of pesticides applied to lawns in the U.S. annually. Native plants, on the other hand, support a balance of predator and prey and thrive without pesticides.
800 million: Gallons of gas used annually by lawn mowers. This produces significant amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases driving climate change.