How to Bring Birds to Your Backyard Garden
- Provide food through plantings of natives; seed, fruit, or nectar producing plants or by providing the right types of feeders during each season.
- Integrate water sources into landscapes with bird baths, water drips, or small ponds.
- Create places to provide shelter to raise young, to escape predators, or stay warm in dense shrubs, grasses, wildflowers, or nest boxes.
- Structure landscaping to create a layered-effect using native trees, shrubs, grasses, and flowers: tall trees along the perimeter, descending to shorter trees, shrubs, and then to grasses and flowers.
- Mow Less! Shrink the amount of turfgrass in your yard and create less work for yourself and more food sources for birds (and butterflies!)
While using bird feeders to attract birds is great (and helps fatten them up for winter and migration), a more helpful and sustainable method of attracting and helping birds is to give them an environment they can thrive in.
That means making your yard work with nature instead of against it with lots of places to shelter (trees, dead wood, nesting boxes, etc), plenty of food (from native trees, shrubs, and flowers — and from the insects that live off of those plants), and providing water sources through bird baths or other sources.
If you also want to use bird feeders (which are great!), check out page 8 of the Iowa state bird guide.
Why Mowing Less Is Important for Birds
Mow Less, Landscape More
Lawns are great and useful, but many people have much more yard than they need, and they waste countless hours mowing and fertilizing the lawns to keep them just perfect. To best help birds (and save yourself time), decide how much useable lawn you actually need, and convert the rest to beautiful and interesting landscaping that is attractive to birds. Native flowers, shrubs, and trees provide food and shelter for birds, while a lawn provides nothing.
The National Wildlife Federation has a succinct two page guide to why lawn reduction is so important (and easy!), and some steps on how to get started. The Iowa State bird guide also shows several examples of how this can be done.
In General: Work with Nature, Don’t Fight It
The yard design on the left is probably what many of our yards look like. A lot of lawn and a few trees. This sort of yard design requires a lot of work on our part, and is very unnatural and unsupportive for birds, butterflies, and all sorts of beautiful and beneficial wildlife.
The design on the right, while requiring more work up front to build, requires less maintenance and is far more attractive and useful to birds. It’s an example of working with nature to create useable spaces for us humans and for wildlife like birds, instead of fighting nature to create something stale and lifeless like a huge, barren yard.
Finally, invite and encourage your neighbors! Each yard that embraces nature and provides habitat for native birds supports bird populations, and makes birds more likely to visit your house.
Resources for Tracking Down the Best Plants for Birds
If you’re in the Midwest, you can track down all sorts of great resources at my website, IowaNativePlants.com. If you’re not, you might be able to pick up a copy of a Native Plant Primer for your region:
- Midwest Native Plant Primer
- Southeast Native Plant Primer
- Northeast Native Plant Primer (Publishing next year)
If you prefer digital resources, you can check out the Audobon Native Plants search tool, which lets you browse native trees, shrubs, grasses, and flowers by your zip code, complete with great photos!
Best Midwest Native Flowers and Grasses for Birds
For the fellow midwesterners out there, you can use the list below to get you started. A full list would be difficult to navigate, but below are a few great and beautiful options that I particularly like.
- Blazing star (Liatris spp.)
- Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
- Coreopsis (Coreopsis spp.)
- Orange jewelweed (Impatiens capensis)
- Purple coneflower (Echinacea spp.)
- Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)
- Wood lily (Lilium philadelphicum)
- Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)
- Indiangrass (Sorgastrum nutans)
- Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis)
- Side-oats gramma (Bouteloua curtipedula)
- Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)Best Midwest Trees for Birds
Many native Midwestern hardwoods provide great cover, housing, and breeding grounds for birds, including oaks, hickories, locust, tulip trees, persimmon, chestnut, hackberry, and cherry. Some trees are less helpful for birds, including ash, maples, and elm. Avoid planting too many of these three species if planting for birds is your primary goal.
Some specific recommended species for birds in Iowa include:
- Pawpaw Asimina triloba- Small tree, food for wildlife, attracts zebra swallowtail butterfly
- Pecan Carya illinoinensis- large tree, wildlife food
- American Chestnut Castanea dentata- large tree, seeds collected in Illinois
- Sugar hackberry (Celtis laevigata- large tree, fruit for birds
- Persimmon Diospyros virginiana- medium sized tree, fruit for birds
- Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera- large tree, pollinated by bees
- Swamp White Oak Quercus bicolor- large tree, acorns for wildlife
- Overcup Oak Querycus lyrata- large tree, wildlife
- Dward Chestnut Oak Quercus prinoides- sweet edible nuts, birds, and mammals
- American Basswood Tilia americana- flowers attract bees and other pollinators