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House with native plants and animalsGoing Native: Urban Landscaping for Wildlife with Native Plants
Home > How to Go Native > Step Three - Design a Native Plant Landscape > Design to Meet Wildlife Needs > Attracting Songbirds

Attracting Songbirds

Kentucky Warbler
Kentucky warblers and other brightly colored birds return in the spring.

A properly designed landscape, even if located in an urban area, will attract dozens of species of brightly colored songbirds.  In the spring and summer, the joyous songs of these birds can brighten any day.

Vertical Plant Structure
Vertical structure provides the layering important to birds.

 

 

 

 

Short and Tall Plants – Plant low-growing perennials and shrubs under taller shrubs and trees. This helps to provide the vegetation layering important to birds.  Different birds eat and nest on the ground or in the shrub, mid-story, or canopy layers of your landscape.

 

Year-Round Wild Foods – Including a diversity of native plants can provide many of the foods that songbirds need:

Fruiting Plants – Include early- and late-fruiting plant species.  Take note that only the female of some plant species (e.g. American holly, wax myrtle, and eastern redcedar) produces fruit.  In this case, make sure that male plants are present on your property or nearby for pollination.

Goldfinch on Coneflower
An American goldfinch eats seeds from an old coneflower bloom

Winter Seed – Include plants, especially native grasses and perennial wildflowers, which provide seeds for birds in the fall and winter.  Leave seed heads at the end of the growing season to provide an additional source of winter food for birds. A fallow garden left to grow on its own will provide abundant seed-producing plants, but it should be mowed or tilled at least once every three years.  Experiment with the frequency and season that you disturb the vegetation.  Avoid mowing all vegetation in the fall because this removes winter cover; instead mow only a half or third of the vegetation in any given year or wait until March to mow or till.

Bird Feeders
Feeders concentrate bird activity for easy viewing.

Bird Feeders to Supplement Wild Foods – Bird feeders supplement the natural foods in your landscape and concentrate bird activity for easy viewing. Feeders are used most frequently during the winter, when natural foods are in shortest supply.  All feeders should be placed within 10-15 feet of shrubby vegetation, especially evergreen plants.  This allows smaller birds to quickly escape from predators like Cooper’s hawks into nearby cover.  However, feeders placed within shrubbery are easily accessible to stalking cats, and feeders placed under overhanging limbs are accessible to squirrels.  Feeders should be placed either less than 3 feet or more than 30 feet from windows; research has shown that feeders located between 3 and 30 feet from windows can cause excessive window strikes by birds.  Feeders should be cleaned every 2 to 3 weeks to prevent disease transmission.

Northern Cardinal
Northern cardinals favor black oil sunflower seeds.

• Black oil sunflower seeds are the best all-around seed type for feeders.  Black oil sunflower seeds should be presented in hopper or platform feeders.  Cardinals, chickadees, grosbeaks, and buntings eat sunflower seeds.

• Thistle seeds can be used in tube feeders or in mesh bags.  Thistle attracts American goldfinches, house finches, pine siskins, and purple finches.

• White millet should be spread on the ground beneath shrubs, in piles of brush, or under above ground feeders.  Juncos, mourning doves, and sparrows eat millet.

Nuthatch at Suet
Brown-headed nuthatches frequently visit suet feeders.

• Suet, whether store-bought or homemade, is enjoyed by an incredible variety of birds, including bluebirds, catbirds, kinglets, nuthatches, pine warblers, woodpeckers, wrens, and yellow-rumped warblers. To make suet at home, mix raisins, chopped apples, leftover birdseed, oatmeal, peanut hearts, cracked corn or peanut butter with animal fat, vegetable shortening, or lard.

• Sliced oranges or apples, placed flesh side up on tree limbs or wooden boards, may attract orioles or tanagers.

Birdbath or Water Garden – Although water isn’t a limiting component of bird habitat in most of the Southeast, it may be scarce in some areas during periods of drought.  Birds normally obtain the water they need from their food, temporary pools, dew on plants or the ground, or permanent water sources.  If natural sources of water are not available in your yard or on a nearby property, a birdbath or artificial pond can provide an adequate water source and a focal area for watching birds.

• Birdbaths should be 2 to 3 inches deep and made of a rough surface to ensure good footing.  The basin should be 2 to 3 feet in diameter with a lip or edge for perching.

• Moving water is attractive to birds, and inexpensive pumps can be placed in backyard ponds to provide the sound of running water that attracts birds and other wildlife.

• It is important to clean your birdbath weekly and keep it full of fresh, cool water.  A birdbath can be cleaned with soap or chlorine bleach as long as it is rinsed thoroughly with water.

Red-Headed Woodpecker
Red-headed woodpeckers nest in cavities in dead trees.

Nest Sites – Most birds build their nests in the foliage of native plants, but standing dead trees, termed snags, are important nesting sites for cavity-nesting birds like woodpeckers and bluebirds and should be protected when possible. Because dead trees often are considered unsightly or liability risks, nest boxes frequently are used in place of natural cavities.  Nest boxes provide nesting sites for a variety of bird species, including bluebirds, chickadees, great crested flycatchers, screech owls, titmice, and wrens.

• Nest boxes should be built following recommended dimensions for box height, box width, entrance hole diameter, and placement height. Nest box dimensions recommended for cavity-nesting birds.

• A well-designed nest box is made of sturdy lumber like pine, cedar, or cypress, has a metal entrance hole guard to prevent expansion by woodpeckers or squirrels, and does not have a perch.  Perches increase box use by exotic birds like European starlings and house sparrows and may limit use by native birds.

• All boxes need ventilation and drainage.

(Bluebird Nestbox
A baffle protects bluebird nestlings from predators.

• To prevent easy access by snakes and other nest predators, place nest boxes on a wooden or metal post away from overhanging tree limbs.  A predator guard, or baffle, can be placed below a nest box to further limit nest predation.

• Most birds are territorial during the breeding season, so place nest boxes and feeders at least 100 feet apart to prevent territory overlap.

• Nest boxes should be cleaned in February before the new nesting season begins.  Use only nest boxes that can be routinely monitored and cleaned.


Dense vegetation provides protection from red-tailed hawks and other predators.

Winter Cover – Dense vegetation provides birds with places to escape from harsh weather and predators, such as hawks and house cats. Cover can become scarce during the winter, especially in areas dominated by deciduous plants.

• It is important to provide evergreen trees and shrubs, including native pines, American holly, yaupon, wax myrtle, and eastern redcedar, in your backyard habitat.  Also, evergreen vegetation provides nighttime roosting habitat for birds, especially during harsh winter weather.

• Loosely stack dead limbs, pruned limbs, and other debris into a pile.  These brush piles provide cover for birds year round, but are especially attractive to sparrows and juncos during the winter.  Brush piles located near bird feeders generally are hotspots for bird activity.

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