How to Make a Bird-Friendly Sanctuary

Create a native plant garden for birds at your place of worship.

Your place of worship is a sanctuary for all who enter, including our beloved birds. This week, Pope Francis is urging Catholics—and all humans—to realize the gravity of climate change and take steps to address it. Even individuals can take action, in the form of making sure gardens and sanctuaries are bird-friendly. Use the steps below to create and maintain a bird-friendly habitat that brings colorful birds, sweet melodies, and vibrant colors and nature’s gifts close to us.

Like us, birds need food, water, and shelter in every season and stage of life. You can transform the outdoor space at your place of worship into a bird sanctuary that also saves resources such as water and combats climate change (native plants sequester carbon). The secret to success lies in choosing locally native plants, which brim with nutritious insects, berries, nectar and seed to give birds vital food and refuge.

1. Select a site that’s practical to convert into a garden and allows room to expand. And 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.


  • Light—Do you have full sun? Partial sun? Shade?
  • Soil—Is it rocky, loamy, sandy, clay, or gravel? Does it drain well?
  • Unique features—Is your site flat or hilly? Windy? Near water? What’s the elevation?

2. Plan for a variety of shapes, sizes, and kinds of plants to give vertical structure to your garden.

  • Cluster the same plant species together.
  • Design for color palettes and seasonal blooms.
  • Add habitat features like hollowed boulders that catch rainwater for birds to drink and bathe in.

Check out more Audubon tips on how to make your space bird friendly here.

3. 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.

Check out native plant societies in your area.

4. 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 only as needed when young plants are adapting to their new habitat.

5. Steward your native plant garden with tender loving care.

  • Pull up noxious and invasive weeds.
  • Enhance your garden area with brush piles that hide birds and shelter other wildlife too.
  • Leave dead trees and branches that nourish life.

Check out more tips from the native plant master Doug Tallamy in Bringing Nature Home.

6. Focus on native plants that support the highest variety and quantity of bird food.

  • Red tubular flowers such as columbine, jewelweed, and bee balm serve up nectar for hummingbirds.
  • Native sunflowers, asters, and coneflowers produce seeds for songbirds.
  • Bushes with berries ripen at different times, so include seasonal variety: dogwood and spicebush for songbirds flying south; cedar and holly trees to sustain birds through cold winter days and nights.

Check out a few suggestions for native plants here—but remember to find out what’s local in your area.

Remember, what is good for birds is also good for people. Here’s the possible impact of your native plant garden:

532: Varieties of butterflies and moths supported by native oak trees. Vs. 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 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 C02 and other greenhouse gases driving climate change.