Jul 5, 2017 | Featured Web Article

Natural Bird Feeding: What Do Birds Want?

A male northern cardinal perches in an apple tree.

How would you like to feed birds in the very best way possible—in a way that is all natural, environmentally sustainable, inexpensive, and easy to do? Is that something you might be interested in? If so, get out the garden gloves and the garden trowel and leave the bird feeders and seed alone for a minute. The very best way to feed birds is to offer them the kinds of foods they would find and consume in nature and that starts with offering bird-friendly plants.

If you haven't already guessed it, the bird-friendly plants are those that birds use for food, shelter, or nesting. The most successful bird-attracting backyards are the ones that feature a well-rounded selection of bird-friendly plants in addition to feeders, birdbaths, and nest boxes. In most cases, it will be the plants that will first catch the attention of a passing bird.

Bird-friendly Plants Overview

Nearly all plantlife has something to offer to birds and wildlife. But some plants are more bird-friendly than others, meaning they meet the essential needs of birds on a variety of levels. Here are some general groupings into which we can lump bird-friendly plants. Please note that it's always best to use native plant species in your bird gardening. Check the plant species name with a reliable resource before you add it to your garden.

Amaranthus flowers, photo by Hardyplants/Wikimedia.


Annuals are plants that have a one-year life cycle. They sprout from seed, produce flowers, ripen their seeds, and then die. This cycle normally runs from spring through fall—essentially one growing season.

Bird-friendly annuals include amaranthus, coreopsis, and sunflowers.

A female ruby-throated hummingbird sips at coneflower. Photo by Jacqueline Hirst.


Perennials are plants that live for more than two years. They bloom and grow for a season, then die back. The following growing season, they reemerge from their root stock, rather than regerminating from seed as annual plants do.

Bird-friendly perennials include asters, black-eyed Susans, goldenrods, coneflowers, and grasses such as little bluestem.

Viburnum fruit. Photo by Anastasiya Mam/Wikimedia


Shrubs are a very general category of broad-leaved plants that have small, tightly grouped branches and thick foliage. They are basically short, leafy trees. Shrubs are excellent sources of shelter and nesting sites, as well as foraging sites, for birds.

Shrubs that are very attractive to birds include: sumacs, elderberries, viburnums, and boxwoods.

An eastern bluebird picks berries from a backyard holly bush. Photo by Frances Burton.

Small Trees

Small trees are differentiated from shrubs by their form and growth pattern. Shrubs have multiple branches growing up from the soil. Small trees tend to have a single trunk, which then divides into branches and then foliage at some height above the soil. While they may not offer the shelter that thickly vegetated shrubs do, small trees are excellent sources of food for foraging birds.

Bird-friendly small trees include hollies, serviceberry, and dogwoods.

A cedar waxwing visits a flowering tree. Photo Autumn.

Fruiting Trees and Shrubs

Fruits produced by plants come in a variety of forms. There's the stereotypical fruit, such as apple or a cherry—colorful, edible flesh surrounding a seed or seeds. But did you know that the samaras (seeds that look like helicopter rotors) of maple trees, the acorns of oaks, and the walnut are also considered fruits? It's true. I don't want to get too deep into proper application of botanical terminology. Let's just say that the most bird-friendly trees and shrubs are the ones that not only provide some sort of shelter and protected site for nesting but also offer the birds something to eat in the way of fruits, nuts, sap, tender buds, or the insects and other prey items that may live on or in them.

Bird-friendly fruiting trees and shrubs include blueberries, cherries, crabapples, hawthorns, mountain ashes, spicebush, sassafras, and black gum.

These groupings and the species listed under each are a small fraction of the bird-friendly plant options available to you. North America is a huge continent with a range of ecoregions and growing zones. The best bird-friendly plants for your region, climate, soil, and bird habitat plans will be very different from those of your friend who lives on the opposite side of the continent. For this reason, it's important that you get expert advice specific to your region in order to enjoy maximum bird-attracting success.

About Bill Thompson, III

Bill Thompson III is the editor of Bird Watcher's Digest by day. He's also a keen birder, the author of many books, a dad, a field trip leader, an ecotourism consultant, a guitar player, and blogger.

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  • Fascinating, how insightful both the humans and cheep cheeps are... Thanks for sharing.
    by Kimber timbers, Fri, 27 Apr 2018
  • #18 in the Gallery is misidentified as a Tree Sparrow, instead of Tree Swallow.
    by Ron, Mon, 23 Apr 2018
  • yep i do the microwave too....they don't break down in our compost so the birds get them!
    by ecumam2, Wed, 18 Apr 2018
  • As you probably know, sunflower seed hulls have a bio-chemical in them, (allelopathic), which keeps any other seeds from sprouting, in the same area. I have used this fact, to a purpose. With a large build up, each year (& yes, it is a bare spot!), I rake up the "bounty" & spread them on areas of bulbs & perennials to keep the annual weeds down. It's also helpful near blue squill bulbs, which drop seeds through the fence that divides a perennial garden, from the lawn , where they are welcome to naturalize. The garden can be over run with them, so sunflower hulls can keep the sprouting down.
    by Plntlady, Tue, 17 Apr 2018
  • I do this in a small garden, near our road, where winter road sand can build up & bury the small, low-growing plants that live there. In spring I just pick up the burlap & shake it back onto the road, before the road crew comes by with the street sweeper, in spring.
    by Plntlady, Tue, 17 Apr 2018