Attracting & Feeding Songbirds

Prepared by J. Drew Lanham, Assistant Professor of Forest Resources, Clemson University. (New 10/99.)

HGIC 1700

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A Primer in Backyard Songbird Conservation

Birding has become one of the most popular pastimes in North America. Annually, thousands of Americans travel thousands of miles in search of rare and elusive species that may inhabit the frosty fringes of the tundra in Alaska or the steamy environs of the tropics in Costa Rica. While these trips often yield exotic species in what most of us think of as wilderness, these experiences are too few and far between for most of us who must have our daily dose of birds. Our backyards offer the opportunity to observe a wide array of birds. These opportunities can be maximized if efforts are taken to provide what birds need to survive.

Along with increases in the popularity of birding have come revelations that many species of songbirds are declining or at risk of declining because of the loss and/or degradation of habitat due to fragmentation. The process of fragmentation results in outright loss of suitable breeding habitat and increases in rates of nest predation and brood parasitism. Providing a backyard wilderness for songbirds will not only provide increased opportunities for birding, it serves the larger purpose of providing a safe haven for birds in an ever-widening sea of development and unsuitable habitat.

Birds and other wildlife need three essential components to survive. These essentials are food, water and cover. All of these may be provided for quite simply in a backyard setting. Contrary to what many people think, a large "Ponderosa"-type spread is not required to provide a backyard wilderness. Undoubtedly, landscaping for birds can be as difficult and complex an undertaking as one wishes it to be. However, with a few native plantings and the addition of a water source and cover, you may soon find yourself answering the "call of the wild" at your own back door.

Many homeowners can attest to the large amounts of time and money that are invested in bird feeders and birdseed. An estimated 60 million people feed birds and spend close to one billion dollars on bird feed and associated products each year. However, much effort and money can be saved if backyard birders invest the time and money up front to provide the food, cover and water in a naturalized setting.

As with any endeavor, the first step toward success is planning. Backyard wildlife enthusiasts should determine what valuable wildlife habitat they already have on their property. More than likely, most people have already improved their own backyard sanctuary unwittingly with plantings of valuable food trees such as dogwoods and black cherry. Once the current situation has been assessed, then it is time to determine what species you wish to attract and sketch a plan of what you want your backyard wilderness to look like.

Variety truly is the "spice of life" when it comes to creating backyard habitats for songbirds. The technical term used to describe the optimum condition of multiple layers of diverse vegetation types is "habitat heterogeneity." Simply put, the more varied your landscape is in terms of the types of plantings and layers of vegetation (such as large canopy trees, smaller mid-story trees, shrubs, vines, open ground or lawn), the better your chances of attracting a diverse array of species.

The best species to use in wildlife landscaping and plantings are those that are best suited to your particular site. Native species tend to be better adapted to local conditions and usually require less attention than "needy exotics." Studying the vegetation in local forests and fields coupled with a visit or call to local plant nurseries or your county Extension office will provide you with valuable information about what grows best in your particular situation.

Food & Cover

Trees: This will be the penthouse of your backyard sanctuary. Try to plant a variety of canopy tree species in your backyard. While space will probably be a concern for most homeowners, proper planning should also take into consideration tree size at maturity and other concerns such as the provision of shade, litter accumulation and root interference. Some hardwood species that are recommended for our region include oaks, hickories, maples, wild cherry, tulip poplars, sweetgum, sycamore and elm. All of these species provide cover for nesting canopy birds such as red-eyed vireos (Vireo olivaceous), summer tanagers (Piranga rubra), scarlet tanagers (P. olivacea), Baltimore orioles (Ictera galbula), orchard orioles (Ictera spurius), and a variety of warblers and other species. Many hardwood species also provide important foods (acorns, nuts and fruits) for birds.

Pines also make good additions to the landscape since many species will grow anywhere. Their cones provide important food resources for a number of species and they also provide important cover year-round. Besides, how do you expect to attract pine warblers (Dendroica pinus) or brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla) to your sanctuary without them? In South Carolina the loblolly is the most common and probably easiest to grow. White, shortleaf and Virginia pines do well in the Piedmont and mountains while longleaf pine, an important component of pine-wiregrass ecosystems, does well in sandy Coastal Plain soils. Red cedar is also a valuable tree species because it provides excellent cover and fruits from female specimens.

Snags, or standing dead trees, are also an important component of most natural systems. They provide foraging and/or nesting sites for cavity-nesting woodpeckers, bluebirds, nuthatches, chickadees, titmice and great-crested flycatchers (Myiarchus crinitus). Moreover, cavities and loose bark will also provide roost sites for bats. Where safety and feasibility allow, dead and dying trees should be left standing to complement your sanctuary.

Mid-story/Understory Trees: A few stories down from the penthouse lies the understory. Species such as dogwood, sourwood, blackgum, holly, sparkleberry, persimmon, mulberry and redbud provide some of the most abundant stores of fruits and berries to be found in the forest. This layer is where many species like wood thrushes (Hylocichla mustelina), Swainson’s thrushes (Catharus ustulatus) and rose-breasted grosbeaks (Pheucticus ludovicianus) will go to refuel during fall migration as they head to warmer climes south of the border.

Shrubs/Vines: These are the efficiency apartments in your backyard sanctuary. Shrubs will provide many species with nesting and escape cover, and food. Good shrubs to include in your landscape include viburnums, blueberries (Vacciniums) and hollies (Ilex). Not only will species like northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), gray catbirds (Dumatella carolinensis) and brown thrashers (Toxostoma rufum) nest there, these and many other shrub varieties will provide fruits as added benefits.

Vines such as coral honeysuckle, trumpet vine, Virginia creeper and yellow jessamine (South Carolina state flower) can provide a thicket in which many birds love to nest and forage. Of course many of these species are also attractive to ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris). Blackberries (Rubus) are some of the best plantings to have in your backyard. They provide food, nesting cover and loitering habitats for the Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) that will inevitably find your backyard wilderness irresistible.

Open Ground/Lawns: This is the basement of your yard. Open ground and grass lawns are common components of suburbia. Unfortunately, they provide relatively little for songbirds. It is true that American robins (Turdus migratorius) and a few other species such as eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) require open habitats in suburban landscapes. But unless you are planning to farm the back forty for hay, why not give yourself a break time- and money-wise by reducing the size of your lawn? Let your wilderness of canopy trees, understory trees, shrubs and vines encroach upon your lawn. This will create a naturalized look that is both pleasing to the eye and ecologically functional. And you will have more time to invest in watching birds instead of mowing, feeding and watering the lawn.

Water

More so than food, water is often the limiting factor in determining what you see or do not see in your backyard wilderness. Providing water can be as simple as filling an inverted trash can lid with water and putting it at ground level, or as complex as multiple-tiered cascading waterfalls with a lily pool. Most homeowners, with a modest investment of money, sweat equity and a Saturday afternoon can create a functional "wetland" by installing a preformed plastic pool in their backyards. Besides providing a pleasing view they provide habitats for a number of amphibians, reptiles and other fauna, thus complementing your backyard wilderness. The addition of goldfish or mosquito fish and some native aquatic snails in your pool will help keep mosquitoes and algae in check.

Supplement

Maintaining a variety of feeders and birdhouses in your new wilderness is appropriate. However, now you will likely find even more species using your backyard than ever.

Planting Suggestions

The following table is from Backyard Wildlife Management (John Cely, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, Wildlife Diversity Section). It provides a few suggestions for food and cover plantings that may help make your backyard wilderness a success.

Wildlife Planting Guide
  Coastal Piedmont Mountain1  
1C = Coast; P = Piedmont; M = Mountains
Large Trees - Deciduous
Hickory (Carya species) * * * Favorite squirrel food; slow-growing except rich sites
Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) * * * Fast-growing; fallen seed balls may be nuisance
Yellow poplar, tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) * * * Fast-growing in fertile soil; food plant for tiger swallowtail caterpillars
Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) * *   Fast-growing even on poor soils; fallen seed balls may be a nuisance
White oak (Quercus alba)   * * Rich soil; slow-growing
Southern red oak (Q. falcata) * *   Moderate soil fertility
Chestnut oak (Q. prinus)   * * Moderate soil fertility
Swamp chestnut oak (Q. michauxii) *     Moderate soil fertility
Laurel oak (Q. laurifolia) * *   Moderate soil fertility; semi-evergreen
Water oak (Q .nigra) * *   Moderate soil fertility
Black oak (Q. velutina) * *   Moderate soil fertility
Willow oak (Q. phellos) * *   Moderate soil fertility
Red mulberry (Morus rubra) * * * Outstanding berry tree for birds; fertile soils
Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) * * * Tolerates a variety of conditions; does best in full sunlight; only female trees bear fruit
Mimosa (Albizia julibrissin) * * * Excellent hummingbird and butterfly tree but susceptible to blight
Hackberry, sugarberry (Celtis species) * *   Fast-growing under a variety of conditions; good berry tree for robins and other songbirds
River birch (Betula nigra) * *   Fast-growing; moderate fertility; larval host for polyphemus moth (native silk moth)
Wild cherry, black cherry (Prunus serotina) * * * Tolerates a variety of conditions; does best in full sunlight; host for tiger swallowtail caterpillar
Red maple (Acer rubrum) * * *  
Black gum (Nyssa sylvatica) * * * Only females produce fruits; will grow under a variety of conditions
Large Trees - Evergreen
Loblolly pine (Pinus taeda) * *   Fast growth; tolerates a variety of sites
Shortleaf pine (P. echinata)   * *  
Longleaf pine (P. palustris) *     Does well in deep sandy soils
White pine (P. strobus)     *  
Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) * *   Best in fertile soils
Live oak (Quercus virginiana) *     Outstanding shade tree; does well in sandy soils
Red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) * * * Full sun; slow growth; female plants produce berries; is a host plant for apple blight
American holly (Ilex opaca) * * * Does well under a variety of conditions; only females produce berries
Small Trees & Shrubs - Deciduous
Dogwood (Cornus florida) * * * Does best in partial shade; excellent berry plant
Serviceberry (Amelanchier arbora)   * * Excellent berry plant; best in fertile soils
Blackhaw (Viburnum prunifolium) * * * Best in fertile soils; other berry-producing viburnums good as well
Rusty blackhaw (V. rufidulum) * * * Best in fertile soils
Chinquapin (Castanea species) * * * Well-drained soil; excellent nut-producer and flowers good for butterflies
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) * * * Does best in full sunlight; only female plants produce fruits; host for spicebush swallowtail butterfly caterpillars
Hawthorn (Crataegus species) * * * Abundant fruit producer; full sunlight; don’t plant near cedar trees
Crabapple (Malus species) * * * Similar characteristics as hawthorn; don’t plant near cedars
Chickasaw plum (Prunus angustifolia) * *   Makes a good cover thicket and nest site; full sunlight; flowers good for early spring butterflies
Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) * * * Best in full sunlight; good volunteer plant
Beautyberry (French mulberry)
(Callicarpa americana)
* * * Good volunteer berry plant
Deciduous holly (Ilex decidua) * *   Female plants are excellent berry producers; needs moist or rich soil
Small Trees & Shrubs - Evergreen
Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) * *   Good cover (hedgerow) and food value; only female plants have berries
Wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera) * *   Good cover (hedgerow) and food value
Cherry laurel (Prunus caroliniana) *     Good cover and hedgerow; larger birds will eat the fruit
Sweetbay (Magnolia virginiana) *     Moist or rich soil; host for palamedes and spicebush swallowtail butterfly
Redbay (Persea borbonia) *     Host for palamedes swallowtail butterfly
Vines
Trumpet vine (Campsis radicans) * * * Hummingbird flower; best in full sunlight; can be invasive
Crossvine (Anisostichus capreolata) * * * An early spring hummingbird flower
Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) * * * Fruits in the late summer and early fall; one of the most desirable bird foods; can be invasive
Coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) * * * A native honeysuckle that does not get out of hand like Japanese honeysuckle; good hummingbird flower

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