Why garden for birds?

Habitat loss is one of the most significant reasons for population declines in birds. Although urban gardens cannot replace natural habitats, they can provide needed food and resting spots for many migratory species and offer safe nest sites for others. Gardening with wildlife in mind will make a difference. And not only to birds, for a bird-friendly garden will be inviting to butterflies, bees, and other creatures.

With their thickets, hedgerows, vine-covered fences, shade trees, and a flourishing mix of wildflowers and grasses, gardens for birds are definitely winners with people too! Big or small, your garden can be a place of hidden corners, shady nooks, sunny open glades, a small pond or bird bath or two, some nest boxes, a bird feeder, and a rustic bench on which to sit and watch the birds enjoying the bounty you have provided.

Getting started

  • Map your garden and decide where to locate flowerbeds, thickets, bird feeders, etc.
  • Determine soil and light conditions and choose plants accordingly.
  • Use native plants as much as possible.
  • Get two for one and choose shrubs and trees that provide both food and nest sites.
  • Vary the height of your plants – mix various-sized trees and shrubs, vines, and flowers to create layers. Different birds feed and nest at different heights.
  • Plant in groups of uneven numbers, three, five, seven, etc., rather than in straight lines.
  • Plant densely. This provides safer, warmer shelter and nesting sites.
  • Use groundcovers in place of lawn; consider vines for this purpose in parts of the garden.
  • Embrace untidiness! Nature is disorderly – emulate! Don’t deadhead until spring; mulch well with leaves, stack fallen and cut branches to create a brush pile.

Thickets, edges, and more

Use both seed- and berry-producing shrubs and trees when planting the following.

  • Hedgerows planted with a mixture of shrubs provide food, shelter, and nest sites. If your garden is big enough, intersperse shrubs with a few trees.
  • Thickets are groups of densely planted shrubs and/or small trees.
  • Edges, where two types of habitat meet, are very attractive to birds. You can emulate this “edge effect” in your garden by alternating thickets and hedgerows with open areas.
  • Layers offer “vertical diversity”. They can be created by allowing vines to climb up into trees, planting shrubs around the trees, and flowers in front of the shrubs.

Make sure your garden in safe

  • Don’t use chemicals.
  • Keep cats inside or control them when outside.
  • Locate feeders and baths near shelter but not near enough for cats to hide and attack.
  • Help prevent birds from hitting windows by hanging ribbons, CDs, or mobiles (on the outside), or by using one of the many other means of deterring window kills. (See, for example, Preventing window strikes)

What do birds need?

Like us, birds and other wildlife need food, shelter, water and a safe place to bring up their young. Whether your garden is big or small, the following ideas are low-cost, easy to implement, and will make it a sanctuary for birds and other small creatures.


  • Plant a variety of native seed- and berry-producing plants.
  • Choose species that produce food at different times of the year. Don’t forget to plant nectar sources for hummingbirds.
  • Plant grasses such as Panic Grass (Panicum virgatum) in masses and let go to seed.
  • Gather some dead logs and make a log pile in a corner of your garden, or leave a standing dead tree (snag) if it is safe. Birds will appreciate the insects found in them.
  • Many birds eat insects. Plant flowers attractive to insects, such as Sweet Cicely (Osmorhiza claytonii) and you will add more diversity to your garden. You may lose a few plants to insects but if your garden is flourishing a small loss won’t matter, and the birds will thank you!
  • Supplement the natural food source with bird feeders. You may choose to feed all year or only in the winter. Provide a variety of seed, suet, and fruit.
  • During summer maintain a hummingbird feeder (make sure you clean it frequently and well). House finches and other birds also enjoy sipping at this “nectar”.

Cedar Waxwing; photo D. Gordon E. Robertson

Brush pile


  • Birds need safe shelter, whether from predators or inclement weather.
  • In addition to food, hedgerows and thickets provide great cover and nesting sites.
  • Conifers such as cedar offer warmth, hiding places and nest sites.
  • Instant shelter is created by making a brush pile. Gather pruned or fallen branches from your own trees or ask a neighbour for theirs, and layer them to a height of about a metre. Situate in a corner, against a fence or by a hedge.
  • Thick tangles of vines trained over a fence or brush pile or allowed to climb the side of a house also offer cover and roost sites for birds; as a bonus, many provide food as well.
  • Snags attract woodpeckers who, while probing for insects, create cavities that are used for roosting and nests by many bird species. Snags offer warm, insulated winter cover.
  • If snags are not practical, provide roosting boxes. These are similar to nest boxes but are airtight and contain two or three perches inside to accommodate several or more birds (many bird species huddle together in the coldest weather).
  • Nest boxes left up all winter will offer some respite from the cold.

Nest sites

  • Finding a safe place to nest can be tough. Birds may nest in inappropriate places for lack of anything better but success is precarious.
  • Snags offer natural sites for cavity nesting birds such as chickadees, wrens, tree swallows, and woodpeckers.
  • Bird boxes are an alternative if snags are not available. Different species require different size boxes and entrance holes. Make sure they are well constructed and well-ventilated, and never use a perch under the entrance hole, as this makes it easier for predators, such as jays, to grab eggs or young birds.
  • Consider putting up nesting platforms for robins and eastern phoebes.
  • Locate your bird houses in safe places, not easily accessible to predators.
  • Provide nesting material for birds. Use dog hair, short lengths of wool and thread, bits of fabric, lint from the dryer, and feathers. Stuff these into an empty wire suet holder and hang from a branch.

Tree Swallow nest box in Old Field; photo D. Gordon E. Robertson

Pond with water circulation system; photo Christine Hanrahan


  • Water, particularly moving water, is a definite attraction for birds.
  • Place a large clay saucer on a tree stump or on the ground near shrubbery, a safe distance from hiding predators.
  • Whether you use a clay saucer or ready-made bird bath, look for one with a rough surface and shallow bowl.
  • Make a small pond by digging a shallow sloping hole in the ground, about 60 cm in diameter, line with heavy plastic extended 30 cm from the pond edge and anchored with flat rocks. This is a fine temporary measure.
  • Place a flat rock in the middle of the bath or pond to serve as a perch.
  • Baths must be big enough to allow a bird to bathe as well as to drink.
  • Slow dripping water acts as a magnet for birds – here are two ideas:
    • Punch a few tiny holes in a bucket, fill with water and suspend over the pond or bath.
    • Prop a garden hose on the rim of the bird bath and turn it on just enough to allow a very slight dribble of water to escape.
  • Clean bird baths frequently and replace water every couple of days.

Plants for birds

This list includes only a few of the many available plants. Check out the resources listed below, talk to your local nursery or visit the Fletcher Wildlife Garden and its web site. Notes for each plant are a guide only. Some plants will grow in less than ideal conditions, but fruit and seeds may be limited. Information after each plant indicates average height (not given for herbaceous plants), light, and soil requirements.

Light: Sh = shade, Su = su
Soil: W = wet, M = moist, D = dry

Fruit-bearing shrubs and trees

  • Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) to 22 m [Su-Sh, D,M]
  • Chokecherry (P. virginiana) 2-3 m [Su-part Sh, M,D]
  • Common or Canadian Elder (Sambucus canadensis) to 3 m [Su, M,D]
  • Downy Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea) to 12 m [Su-Sh, D,M]
  • Flowering raspberry (Rubus odoratus) 1-2 m [Su-Sh, M]
  • Hawthorns (Crataegus spp.) to 12 m [Su, D,M]
  • Pagoda Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) to 12 m [Sh, M,D]
  • Red-berried Elder (Sambucus pubens) to 4 m [Sh, D]
  • Red Osier Dogwood (C. stolonifera) 1-3 m [Sh, M]
  • Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) to 6 m [Su-Sh, M,D] (spreads quickly, keep in check by pruning)
  • Pin Cherry (P. pensylvanica) to 12 m [Su, D,M]

Staghorn Sumac; photo D. Gordon E. Robertson

Wild Grape; photo Christine Hanrahan


  • Bittersweet (Celastrus scandens) [Su-part Sh]. Need both male and female plants for fruit.
  • Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus vitacea and P. quinquefolia) [Sh-Su, 5 m +]
  • Wild Grape (Vitis riparia) [prefers sun, 5 m +]

Seed and nut-bearing shrubs and trees

  • Birch, Paper (Betula papyrifera) to 25 m [Su, M,D]
  • Eastern White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis) to 15 m [Sh-Su, M,D]
  • Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta) 3-4 m [Sh-su, M,D]
  • Red Maple (Acer rubrum) to 25 m [Su-part Sh, M]
  • Sugar Maple (A. saccharum) to 35 m [Sh-Su, M]
  • Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana) to 20 m [Su, D,M]
  • White Pine (P. strobus) to 30 m [Su, D]

Eastern White Cedar; photo D. Gordon E. Robertson

Phlox; photo Christine Hanrahan

Herbaceous plants (unless noted, the following provide seeds for birds)

  • Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) [Su,Sh, D] Nectar
  • Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) [Su, D] Nectar
  • Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) [Su, D,M]
  • Common Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis) [Su, D]
  • Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium) [Su, D,M] Nectar
  • Gray-headed Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) [Su, D]
  • Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) [Su-Sh, M] Nectar
  • New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) [Su, D,M]
  • Panic Grass (Panicum sp.) [Su, D]
  • Phlox (Phlox spp.) [Su, M] Nectar
  • Sunflowers (Helianthus spp.) [Su, D]
  • Wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) [Su, D]


  • Backyard Habitat for Canada’s Wildlife. 1996. Canadian Wildlife Federation.
  • Martin, Alexander, et al. 1951. American Wildlife & Plants, A Guide to Wildlife Food Habits. Dover Reprints.
  • Needham, Bobbe. 1995. Beastly Abodes: Homes for Birds, Bats, Butterflies and Other Backyard Wildlife. Sterling Publishing Co.
  • Soper, James and M. Heimburger. 1982. Shrubs of Ontario. Royal Ontario Museum
  • Terres, John K. 1994. Songbirds in Your Garden. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
  • Vriends, Matthew. 1990. Feeding and Sheltering Backyard Birds. Barron’s.
  • Local sources of native plants. Fletcher Wildlife Garden, Ottawa.
  • Native Plant Resource Guide. Society for Ecological Restoration, Ontario Chapter, Toronto. For more information, see www.serontario.org/publications.htm
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This page was revised 31 March 2018
This article was sponsored by the Ottawa Wildlife Festival, the Canadian Museum of Nature, and the Fletcher Wildlife Garden.
Text: Christine Hanrahan
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