From a Cedar Waxwing surrounded by a smorgasbord of vibrant red berries to a Northern Mockingbird perched atop a cattail in the morning light, the stunning photographs featured here show everyday scenes of avian life with one important factor in common: native plants. In capturing these moments, the talented photographers behind each shot underscore the vital relationship between native plants and the birds they support.
Since 2019, the Plants for Birds category has become a core part of the Audubon Photography Awards. Judges evaluate submissions for crisp images of birds interacting with native plants in natural ways, whether through foraging, perching, or nesting. Although the photos in this gallery didn't receive any official accolades (be sure to peruse the 2023 winners and Top 100), the incredible array of birds and native plants on display were once again too good to not share with our readers.
With photos submitted from across North America, the impressive gallery below reminds us of an important truth: Birds need native plants—and the plants need birds, too. Native plants offer nesting and roosting sites, as well as the necessary nutrients for birds to survive and raise young. And birds provide important services for native plants, such as pollination and seed dispersal. You can help birds thrive by planting native species in whatever plot of land is readily available, whether a small potting container or large meadow of flowers. Ready to get started? Learn what native plants grow best in your area using Audubon’s native plant finder, which also notes what types of birds benefit from each plant. Then get to planting, and if you're so inclined, photographing!
Rufous Hummingbird on Twinberry Honeysuckle (above)
Photographed mid-flight with wings extended directly behind its body, a Rufous Hummingbird dips its bill into the lobed yellow flower of twinberry honeysuckle, a shrub native to the western United States. Photographer John Troth’s frequent visits to a local park in Washington enabled such a clear image of the interaction: He carefully noted the hummingbird’s preference for the honeysuckle and its pattern of sipping nectar from the flower. Powdery yellow pollen dusts the tip of the bill, matching the shimmery yellow-green plumage on the bird’s throat and head. The overall pale reddish-brown coloration and missing ruddy throat plumage, called a gorget, help identify this individual as a female or immature bird.
Cedar Waxwing on Common Winterberry
A popular item in wreathes and holiday décor, the crimson red berries of common winterberry also provide important nutrients for small mammals and birds, including Eastern Bluebirds, American Robins, and Cedar Waxwings. Photographer Mary New captured this tawny Cedar Waxwing amid a fiery smorgasbord of berries at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge in Massachusetts on a surprisingly balmy December day. The morning sun illuminates the fruits, highlighting a single berry engulfed in the masked bird's bill. Cedar Waxwings rely on fruits in the winter, sometimes ending up intoxicated or even dying from consuming overripe, fermented berries. A native shrub in the holly family, winterberry grows readily in the eastern United States—just make sure to grow at least two plants, one male and one female, to produce berries for your winter birds.
Cape May Warbler on American Black Currant
During the excitement of spring migration at Ohio's famous Magee Marsh, this Cape May Warbler posed just long enough for photographer Gregory Seitz to snap its photo an hour before sunset. Awash with hues of yellow and green, Seitz’s image captures an acrobatic Cape May Warbler hanging upside down, braced to extract nectar from pale-yellow American black currant flowers. Unique among warblers, Cape Mays have a curled, semitubular tongue that allows them to drink nectar. However, they switch to an insect diet when breeding in Canada and the northernmost parts of the continental United States, primarily feasting on spruce budworms on the outer branches and tops of trees.
Pileated Woodpecker on Slippery Elm
Boasting a vibrant red crest and sharp white-and-black face striping, a Pileated Woodpecker emerges from a tree opening. Though the male does most of the excavation work, the female—identified here by a missing red cheek stripe—will assist their mate. Pileated pairs rarely nest in the same cavity twice, preferring fresh holes in large dead or dying pine, hemlock, or, as featured here, slippery elm trees. Photographer Scott Dere observed and photographed the pair chiseling out this cavity over several days at a wildlife preserve in Florida, crisply capturing the wood flecks tossed from the new cavity.
Hawai‘i ‘Amakihi on Pūkiawe Bush
Though the yellow-green Hawai‘i ‘Amakihi is clearly the focus of the photo, the magenta berries of the native Pūkiawe bush add a colorful pop to this image. The petite honeycreeper uses its curved bill to pry open the pink berry, which can vary from white to pink and red hues while feeding native birds like the ‘Amakihi and Nēnē (Hawaiian Goose). ‘Amakihi were considered a single species until 1995, when genetic studies split the Hawai‘i (and Maui), O‘ahu, and Kaua‘i populations into separate species. Found at lower elevations, ‘Amakihi are generalists, consuming nectar, insects, and berries. They’ve shown some resistance to avian malaria, and overall their populations remain more stable than other Hawaiian honeycreepers.
Purple Gallinule on Bent Alligator Flag
An iridescent Purple Gallinule stretches its neck upward, reaching with its bill to pull down the droopy flower heads of bent alligator flag, a plant native to swampy areas in Florida. The bright yellow legs and vibrant red and yellow bill contrast sharply with the green, lance-shaped leaves of bent alligator flag that can grow nearly three feet long. Often observed stepping between lily pads with their long toes splayed wide for balance, Purple Gallinules also use those toes for climbing and grasping stems, like in this shot by photographer Alyce Bender. Gallinules consume a wide range of food items, including leafy plant material, spiders, mollusks, and fish.
Red-winged Blackbird on Spatterdock
Photographer Claire Beiser beautifully captured this Red-winged Blackbird standing on the oval leaf of a spatterdock, or yellow pond lily, with the mirror image of the glossy black bird and its dashing red epaulettes reflected below. Tiny ripples encircle the lily pad—the only indication that the bird recently landed on the floating leaf, which can often exceed a foot in diameter. Beiser observed several blackbirds jumping between pads, using their bills to lift the edge and glean tiny aquatic insects from the underside. Though native and a popular ornamental because of their large yellow flowers, spatterdock can choke out other native vegetation in some regions, requiring careful management.
Ruby-throated Hummingbird on Black and Blue Salvia
With its wings outstretched in a rapid gray blur, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird's iridescent green back grabs your attention at first. But follow the direction of the hummingbird’s gaze, and you will notice that it appears perfectly poised to dislodge a bee—as photographer Daniel Berks astutely observed—from its target: the cobalt blue flower of black and blue salvia. A member of the mint family, identifiable by its square stems, salvia grow flowers in tall, showy spikes that attract bees and other pollinators. While sipping nectar from lobed flowers like salvia, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds hover by beating their wings up to an astounding 50 times per second.
Northern Mockingbird on Broadleaf Cattail
Early morning sunlight bathes a lone Northern Mockingbird, emphasizing the warm browns in its plumage and the dark stripe extending from the bird’s eye to the base of its bill. The mockingbird stands out against the cloudless blue sky, perched atop the curled, dying blade of a broadleaf cattail. Often found in dense clumps in freshwater or brackish ponds or marshes, broadleaf or common cattail can grow to 10 feet tall, providing a sturdy roost for birds like this mocker to scan for predators or food opportunities.
Yellow-rumped Warbler on Eastern Red Cedar
Perched among the green leaves and blue-gray berries of an eastern red cedar, a Yellow-rumped Warbler grips one of the pale berries in its bill. Photographer Ed Norman documented this winter scene at the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey. Though the bird's namesake rump is hidden, the buttercup-yellow side patch and faint streaking in the crown pop against the cedar. Eastern red cedar is highly salt-tolerant, growing along most of the eastern coast of the United States. This tree species is also resilient to deer damage, marking it an excellent candidate for suburban yards with high densities of deer.