Attracting Birds with Ornamental Plants

Source(s): Randy Drinkard

Birds can be an important aspect of our backyard environment. In many cases, the quality of our environment is perceived to be directly related to the population of birds. The bird population in your yard or neighborhood park can be increased with the proper selection and arrangement of ornamental trees and shrubs. The selection of food-producing plants can ensure the presence of birds year-round.


To attract and maintain a bird population, a habitat should provide (1) food, (2) cover, (3) nesting areas, and (4) water. Ornamental trees and shrubs can supply the necessary cover (shelter) and nesting areas. Many ornamental plants can satisfy more than one habitat requirement. For instance, multi-stem plants that form a dense canopy will satisfy the needs for nesting and also provide cover.

The food source for birds should be supplied, as much as possible, by the trees and shrubs in the yard. To maximize the natural food source, select plants to ensure an available food source year-round. The use of trees and shrubs native to your locale will help ensure that appropriate fruits and berries are available for the local bird population. If the landscape does not supply food during certain periods, you can supplement with commercial mixes of bird seed. This will help keep birds in the vicinity of your yard. Some birds eat a wide variety of seeds while others prefer one or two types. The seeds that appeal to the majority of birds are sunflower, proso millet, and peanut kernels.

Birds require a place of cover or shelter if they are to become long-term residents. They require protection from inclement weather (sun, heat, wind, and rain) and natural predators. This is why the multi-stem plants that form a dense canopy are preferred by birds. The dense canopy also provides an ideal environment for nesting. Since birds require shelter year-round, the yard should have a mix of deciduous and evergreen plants. Evergreen plants include broadleaf evergreens, such as holly, and conifers, such as red cedar. Several references suggest that at least 25% of the trees and shrubs should be evergreen.

A source of fresh water is also necessary to maintain your bird population. The water source should be shallow (no more than 2″-3″ deep) and replaced on a regular basis. Running water, such as a shallow fountain, is the ideal water source. The water source should be elevated or in the middle of an open area to minimize predation by cats and other animals. An elevated bird bath or fountain is ideal.

A recommended list of trees and shrubs to enhance the bird population follows. Attributes that must be considered before selecting the trees/shrubs for your yard include, (1) the habitat element provided, (2) fruiting season, (3) deciduous (loses leaves in winter) or evergreen, and (4) size of mature tree (to fit with available space).

Trees and Shrubs for Attracting Birds
Southeastern Trees & ShrubsProvides:Fruiting SeasonDeciduous or EvergreenSize (sm, med, lg)
BeechXFall, winterDM
Black cherryXXSummerDM
Black gumXXSummerDL
DogwoodXXFall, winterDM
HollyXXWinter, springEM
Japanese yewXXSummer, fallEM
MulberryXSpring, SummerDL
NandinaXXFall, winterES
PinesXSpring, summer, fallEL
PyracanthaXXFall, winterES
Red cedarXXFall, winterEM
Red mapleXSpringDL
River birchXSummer, fallDM
SumacXFall, winterDM
Sweet gumXSummer, fallDL
Wax myrtleXXSummer, fallEM

To make your yard more suitable for birds, conduct an inventory of trees/shrubs in your landscape and develop a table similar to that in this article. From this list, a) determine the mix of evergreen and deciduous trees, b) look at the time of fruiting and identify season(s) without food supply, and c) ensure that adequate cover and nesting habitat is provided. The following are two examples of possible situations in your yard and how to use the chart:

  • You have very few evergreen trees/shrubs (hence minimal shelter in the winter) but also have only small areas for additional plants. Select plants that are classified as evergreen (E) and are small sized at maturity. These plants (red cedar, nandina, viburnum, pyracantha, Japanese yew, holly, and wax myrtle) are relatively small trees.
  • You need a food source for the spring but have limited yard area available. An excellent solution is to plant hawthorn, especially mayhaws. They are a small multi-stem shrub that bear fruit in the spring and attract a wide variety of birds.

In most instances, you will find that the addition of a few carefully selected plants can increase the bird population in your yard.

Resource(s): Landscape Plants for Georgia

Center Publication Number: 163

Richie Braman

Richie Braman

Chasing red dots on the floor at the Center for Urban Agriculture
Richie Braman

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